Every Friday night, the Wayne Wilson Trucking Company in the Bellevue community (just west of Hattiesburg) turns into a mecca for country and bluegrass music fans. Turn south on 589 from Highway 98 west of Hattiesburg, then, at a blinking light, turn west on old 24, and go a few miles. You’ll see lots of truck trailers, and an enormous parking lot, filled by 7:00 pm on every Friday night with hundreds of cars and pickups. You walk in and can go to the right and find snacks and conversation, and a room full of toys for the performers’ and audience members’ kids. Or wander to the left, and there’s a big room with plenty of seating, a stage, and an unsystematically assembling and regrouping array musicians and singers performing country, bluegrass and gospel music . . . for about three hours, for free.
How did it start? Company owners Wayne and Teresa Wilson had a friend in another town who had attached an auditorium to their business for family reunions and parties. They found that their space was a welcome contribution to community and family life, so the Wilsons followed suit with an auditorium of their own.
During the summer of 2002, John (fiddler/pianist) and Coleman Stuart (guitarist) were part of a small jam session that took place at a local music store every Friday night. When the numbers grew too big for the store, they moved the session to the store owner’s daughter’s house, which had a spacious porch. When fall came and the evening temperature began to drop, plans were made to take a hiatus until spring. Wayne Wilson was present at what was to be the last jam of the season and invited the group to continue at his new auditorium.
Since the move to Wilson’s business, the only Fridays missed by the group have been when Christmas fell on a Friday and during the few weeks of power outage after Hurricane Katrina. At first, the dozen jammers just pulled chairs in a circle and went at it. An audience grew over the months, and soon it seemed like a good idea to have sound equipment . . . and improved sound equipment . . . and a few hundred chairs for the growing audience.
On a typical Friday evening, musicians start gathering well before 7:00 pm. The audience members who have appointed themselves to snack duty fill a back room with cakes and cookies. Musicians get on stage and from about 150 to 300 people fill the auditorium. Lugubrious old country songs, full-speed-ahead bluegrass numbers, wistful gospel songs, and energetic fiddle tunes follow one another in roughly equal numbers. Wayne helps guide who will lead songs, making sure everybody gets a turn who wants one, and he himself lends a nice baritone voice to a number or two.
The weekly jam is fun for the musicians, and a nice place for long-time residents (many older, but some younger, too) and folks moving into the newer developments to get acquainted. There’s an unattended jar near the door where you can drop a little money (attendees insisted on it since utilities, cleaning and the sound equipment aren’t free). But often, the offering will be designated for local residents, such as someone who’s lost their home to a fire, and someone with a serious illness. Wayne or Teresa announce those special assignments from the stage, and the jar fills extra quickly. It’s a fun and wholesome destination. According to John Stuart: “It’s kind of like a wake without a body.”
– Chris Goertzen