For nearly 20 years folks looking for good music and good food have gravitated towards Sparta, a small town in Chickasaw County in north-central Mississippi. In the early 1990s, a small group of men met in an abandoned house to play music. Now known as the Sparta Opry, with a nod towards country music variety show the Grand Ole Opry, it has become a weekly session of music, food, and friendship that regularly brings in crowds of several hundred people. The popularity of the Opry is better understood knowing that the town of Sparta has a population in the neighborhood of 150.
The origins of the Sparta Opry are humble according to organizer Joe Eaton, “Two or three guys got together, picking and singing, and we had a chitlin supper—and it grew from that.” Now an established non-profit organization, the Opry regularly draws crowds from across North Mississippi and West Alabama with special visitors from around the country and the world not uncommon.
Each Friday evening, with only one exception during its entire existence, due to an ice storm, the Opry has taken place. The music, mostly country and bluegrass with assorted gospel tunes, begins promptly at 6:00 in the evening and continues until 9:00. On the third Saturday of each month, there is a gospel showcase performance that brings different groups from all over North Mississippi. The Opry never charges an admission fee for its regular events. All musicians and volunteers donate their time and efforts out of a love for traditional music and the Opry itself. Between Friday night shows, the Saturday gospel performances, and other private events, the Opry building hosts over 100 performances a year.
When asked about the music of the Opry, long-time volunteer Kenneth Ricks commented that “You hear a lot of Hank Williams’ songs—a lot of them—all the way up to Merle Haggard, George Jones, Johnny Cash–that the sort of thing.” Most groups also include at least one gospel number in their set. Each show begins with sets by the Drifters and the Back Porch Pickers, the Opry’s two house bands. Shows are rounded out by sets from other rotating groups–usually, five or six groups perform each week. Ricks went on to add, “You just don’t ever know who’s going to show up.”
Many of the musicians appearing at the Sparta Opry, like Tom Booth, are veterans of the Mississippi bluegrass circuit. Born in Mathiston, Mississippi, Booth began playing the organ at age five before moving on to several other instruments including guitar, mandolin, and drums. After hearing of the Sparta Opry, Booth became a regular visitor, bringing his instrument and sitting in with the groups, eventually becoming the bass player of the Back Porch Pickers.
Billy Alford, another member of the Pickers, who has played the Opry since the beginning, is a family musician. “I’ve been playing my whole life. My father played, and I guess we inherited it from him. There was four boys and we all played something. We’d just sit there on the porch in the summertime, after (my father) had come in from the fields, and we’d play sometimes until nine or ten at night. Now I’ve got a daughter and she plays with me. She inherited it from me, I guess.”
For a music-based event, a great deal of attention is paid to the buffet supper that is served at the Opry. The show has its own kitchen and a full spread of catfish, chicken, biscuits, and side dishes is available each week. Attendees begin arriving a couple of hours before the show starts to line up for dinner.
In addition to the regular performances, the Opry hosts a number of special shows to benefit needy residents of the area. Kenneth Ricks notes that “We have older people in the community that we fill up their (propane) gas tanks for them every year. We try and help anybody we can if there is a need.” The benefits have raised up to $25,000 and are an important part of the show’s mission.
To Sparta and the surrounding area, the Opry means something more than just music and food. When asked what the organization means to the community, musician Tom Booth replied, “It’s a good place for anybody to come. It’s a family-oriented place where you bring your kids, your whole family. It’s a good place to have a good time, visit with each other, have good fellowship and good food.” Kenneth Ricks added, “After a hard week, people know they can come here and relax. Nobody has to punch a time clock. I tell everybody if you come here once you’ll come back. I guarantee it.”
Other Sources of Information:
“A Night at the Opry,” by Reita Jackson. In Mississippi Magazine, January/February 2007, pp. 102-05.