Country time

Country time

Wylie Opry brings music back to downtown

By Sonia Duggan

When live music performances disappeared from venues across Texas in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, no one knew how long it would last. 

For the Wylie Opry, a country music showplace located in downtown, the shutdown lasted for 15 months until opry owner LeGrant Gable felt it was safe for his patrons to gather again.

“This is a hugging place,” he said. “I didn’t want to open up until everybody could hug each other.”

Hugs and handshakes were in abundance at the grand reopening of the Wylie Opry Saturday, July 3, as longtime patrons gathered together to listen to music and say hello to old friends.

A record number of attendees, around 175, came from Greenville, Celeste, McKinney, Mesquite, Rowlett, Rockwall, Farmersville, Blue Ridge — along with a few from Wylie — for the reopening of this iconic music showplace.

It’s evident the closure and time away from the entertainment venue and its patrons – with the majority between 75 and 95 years old – was tough on Gable. He retired in March 2020 after 40 years with the Garland Police Department, then the following week he shut down the opry. During the closure, he lost six of his regular customers to COVID-19 and four others to age and health related problems.

To keep his senior patrons informed of the reopening, Gable mailed letters to let everyone know what was happening.

“I sent out about 400 letters to all of the old regulars and people that I knew,” he said. “Some of them hadn’t been here in 10 years.”

In the opening lines of his letter, Gable wrote, “I’ll bet a lot of you never thought this day would come, and a few times I was beginning to think the same thing. I now think we can safely open the opry for live performances.”

The opry owner said he has about three regulars who have attended the shows from the very beginning. One patron, Dot Miles, 96, was the first to call once she got his letter. She told Gable, “Save my seat. I will be there.”

Many of his regulars “have their special seat.” In fact, every person who had reserved seats prior to the pandemic took them back said Gable.

“One man has sat in the same seat for 38 years,” he said. “He’s 95 years old.”

Gable doesn’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring to see who’s coming to the show. He has learned if he doesn’t hear from his “regulars,” he assumes they’re coming and will save their seats. The only time they’ll call, he says, is to let him know they’re not coming.

Not everyone in attendance, however, is a senior citizen. 

One regular patron who lives less than a mile away, David Smith and his wife Cindy of Wylie, said, “It took us 10 years to find it was here.”

Smith said he and Cindy found the opry when his daughter Audra was in the high school choir at Wylie High.

“She wanted to come to the opry and sing,” he said. “We came twice, and we’ve been hooked ever since.”

The opry is known for its down-home family environment. There’s no beer or liquor available for purchase, only snacks, sodas and movie style popcorn. 

It’s also a great place for kids to learn, says Gable, because they can’t go to a club and sing. “Where are they going to learn how to sing with a live band?” he said. 

Most importantly, he likes the fact that music gives kids a purpose.

“I don’t know any kid that ever sang here that ever got involved with the law or in drugs,” he said.

Over the years, the opry has welcomed singers of all ages, some more notable than others. Gable said LeAnn Rimes was about five or six years old when she started singing there. 

“I knew she was gonna be something one of these days if she kept on,” he said. “It takes a lot of work, but she had the talent to do it even at that age.”

Some of the singers become like family not only to Gable and his daughter Misty Robertson, but opry patrons as well. Smith said sometimes a group of them will travel to see their favorite performers. One of them, Tanner Young, got his start at the opry and often performs at Ole Red, the Oklahoma venue owned by country music artist Blake Shelton. 

Robertson is a fan of Oklahoma-based opry performer Bailey Rae who qualified for season 19 of the “The Voice.” “She’s real. She’s got a big heart — as much as she has talent,” Robertson said. “There’s so much more to Bailey than what they showed on the “The Voice.”

On a typical Saturday night, audience members will hear over 20 songs in two sets from guest singers and from members of The Texas Legend Band, the opry’s longtime house band. The band features steel player Earl Briggs, who has played with the band for 29 years. Other band members include Aris Cook on piano, drummer Johnny Rowland, bass player Bob Penhall, guitarist Jimmy Massey and backup vocalist Mary Massey.

Auditions are held each week after the show for anyone who is interested in performing with a live band.

Country music isn’t the only music you’ll hear at the venue. Originally, Friday nights were dedicated to Bluegrass music until it became hard to find bluegrass bands, so Gable said he “went to straight gospels on Friday all the time.” The week following the grand reopening, the opry welcomed audience members back for its first Friday night gospel show of 2021. Unlike Saturday nights, there is no live band, instead they use a soundtrack and guests get the opportunity to hear artists sing 14 songs in each half.

“I have quartets and individual gospel singers, and I have a few national acts just passing through that want to just stop and sing,” he said.

In the beginning

The Wylie Opry was started by George and Clara Riley in 1984 “who wanted to offer a live music show the whole family could enjoy,” states the opry website. The first venue was on Cooper Street near the railroad tracks. After the owners grew tired of the entertainers competing with the noise of the train, it was relocated to 111 North Ballard Avenue where it remains today.

Gable has worked at the opry since the beginning even while working his full-time job. He remembers the Riley’s son, Joey, as a member of the band when he was just 13 years old.

“I told Joey, ‘quit that clowning around — you’re wasting your time. Spend your time on your music,’” Gable said. 

Ironically, Joey went on to become a well-known comedian and performed at a venue in Branson, Missouri for years until his untimely death in 2013.

The Riley’s sold the opry to Gable in 2000 and since then, every weekend he’s hosted shows on Friday and Saturday nights. 

Gable said he’s been in music and law enforcement all his life. Originally from Alabama, he was the police chief of a small town, then later worked for the county sheriff’s department before venturing into the music side of things.

He was a music show promoter before he moved to Texas via Nashville in 1979. After moving, Gable, a single father raising a 5-year-old daughter at the time, said he had a hard time finding a job. He eventually landed a job as a civilian employee and worked in backgrounds and property validations for the Garland Police Department. 

“I enjoyed it down there,” he said of Garland PD. “I just like law enforcement — I always have. I like music. I kind of made the joke that I found out that I couldn’t live without either one of them.”

While Gable doesn’t play any instruments, he says he knows music better than any of the musicians.

“I’m a musician that just never happened,” he jokes. “I just run the sound.”

Robertson said her dad has “always been really, really into music.” But even more now, she said, “I think he does it as much for the people as he does for the music.”

She knows his dedication and commitment to the opry better than anyone. She first started helping her dad out when she was around 12 years old. She eventually left, married and had a child of her own until her dad summoned her help again. Robertson’s been back, videotaping and recording the shows for him every weekend, for about six to seven years.

“I came in to try and help out and now I have a mandatory volunteer position,” she quipped.

A rack in the lobby features CDs of guest artists and Robertson confirmed, “A lot of first timers buy them because it’s a record of the first time they ever sang with a band.”

Much like its famous “grand” cousin in Nashville, opries afford musicians the opportunity to showcase their talent and the talent of guest artists in a family-friendly atmosphere.

Mike Copeland, owner of The Main Street Music Hall in Farmersville until 2018, said he found the idea of owning an opry appealing years ago because it was a place where his band could play for an audience as often as they want, yet not have the distraction of a bar and a dance floor.

“It beats getting out and trying to hustle jobs and move equipment,” he said. “I think for a lot of places, that is how they start.” 

Over the years, Texas has seen a significant decline in country music showplace (opry) venues.

“They are fast gone,” Gable said. “There used to be one in every little nook and corner in Texas.” Copeland agreed, saying, “There’s not many of them left these days. I know COVID knocked out several of them.” 

Aside from COVID, opries battle an aging clientele and a younger generation who are not interested in the type of music that is played. “We do old country and there’s not a whole lot of people who like old country except old folks,” Gable said. “They don’t want to hear new stuff. They got music in their blood.”

Country music post COVID

Gable said he used the shutdown as an opportunity to get his Wylie home and the opry building in shape. 

“I spent a lot of time out there (home) working during the daytime, then I’d come up here at night and do stuff here,” he said. “I stayed busy I promise you.”

Robertson said a lot of the projects they completed were “some you could see and some you can’t – plumbing, fixing seats and stuff you don’t really notice.”

After the interior walls were repaired and freshly painted following the 2016 hailstorm that hit Wylie, Gable confessed he liked the “clean look,” but said his regulars frequently asked “where’s all the pictures.” 

The “pictures” are decades worth of photos, including many of country artist celebrities, that adorned the walls for years until they were taken down to make the needed repairs. 

“There’s history behind all of them,” he said.

Gable dug the pictures out of storage, made new frames and rehung them, along with a sampling of musical instruments, on the walls of the 250-seat auditorium. Behind his building, a concrete slab was poured, and an awning was put up to keep the rain out, fixing a longtime problem.

One week before reopening, Gable could be found working nonstop with help from Robertson, as they went through the whole building, cleaning fans, light bulbs, floors and much more.

After being off for one and a half years, the owner said it was not only a lot of work getting the building in shape, but it takes a lot of work prepping for the show as well. He prints the programs, contacts band members, auditions guest singers if needed, stocks the concessions, prints sheet music for each band member and then runs the sound and lights during the show. 

Though Gable admits he likes to be in control, he does utilize volunteers. He has many (pre-COVID) volunteers who returned, along with a few new ones, to help things run smoothly. Longtime volunteer Karen Hefner of McKinney returned to man the register. Hefner said she originally started frequenting the opry years ago with her mom and aunt, then in 2009 she volunteered to help sell raffle tickets.

The raffle tickets are sold in the first half of the show, and during intermission, usually bringing in about $100. 

“Anything we can get to pay the light bill,” Gable said.

Expenses can run high for the showplace. Because of that, a dedicated group of regular customers formed the Friends of the Wylie Opry (FOWO) as a way to help out years ago. The group meets on the fourth Monday of each month at 7 p.m. for a potluck dinner. FOWO finds ways to fundraise, says Smith, for things such as fixing the air conditioner, or anything else that is needed “in case things run tight.”

“They’re pretty helpful in whatever they do,” Robertson said.

Band members are the biggest weekly expense, and the only ones who are paid. Gable said selling 100 seats covers the band’s cost, so more than that amount is always welcome. One of the biggest challenges to the opry’s reboot, he said, has involved getting all members of the house band back on a consistent basis. Three to four of the original members are back, and “some of the old musicians (Copeland included) from the Farmersville venue come and fill in once in a while.” 

Ticket prices went up for the first time in years due to the 15-month closure, but in reality, it’s still a bargain night out at $12 for adults, $10 for senior citizens, $9 for children ages 6-12 and children under six are free.

Gable said he pondered whether or not to reopen the opry because it hadn’t made any money in a long time, but he’s not ready to turn out the lights anytime soon. 

“We have a good time,” he said. “It’s a big family. We always have a good show. They don’t care who’s in the band, they don’t care who’s singing – they’re here for each other.”

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