Justin Lightfoot warms up backstage before his turn to perform at the Celeste Opry. The folksy, family-oriented country music revue is staged once a month in the small town north of Greenville, Texas. Photograph by Randy Eli Grothe.
A Night at the Opry
The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
October 18, 2003
The Celeste Opry features old-fashioned jamborees with country-fried fun for the whole family.
Pull off the road on the second Saturday of every month, and cars and pickups fill almost every diagonal parking space in downtown Celeste.
Outside a building on the north side of U.S. Highway 69, a younger man opens a door for three silver-haired ladies shuffling along the pavement. Older men with cowboy hats and gimme caps sit on two benches on either side of the door, shooting the breeze. A hand-painted cloth banner out front explains the hubbub:
Another smaller, hand-scrawled sign delivers the details: Tonight’s Guest Greg Mealer, Julie Beard Lightfoot, Anna Taylor, Justin Lighfoot, Susie Taylor THE OPRY HOUSE COUNTRYMUSIC SHOW
Over the course of an hour, close to100 people file inside the weathered building between a custom leather store and another saddle shop.
The Celeste Opry is about to begin.
The pilgrims come from Leonard, Greenville, Wylie and other nearby communities. They are a predominantly senior citizen audience. Some are family, fans or friends of one of the featured guests. Most are connected to the Opry House band, led by Tim Gilliam, 53, a stocky gentleman in navy blue T-shirt and jeans. He sings, plays guitar, directs, produces, helps sell popcorn and more or less makes the Celeste Opry happen.
Family-style entertainment in a lean, wholesome atmosphere is the meat-and-potatoes of any opry, and he Celeste Opry is no different.
Some bigger oprys – such as the Grapevine Opry, the Texarkana Opry, and Johnnie High’s Country Music Revue in Arlington – are weekly events and feature a mix of established professional entertainers and polished, up-and-coming talent. Most, though, are similar to Celeste’s – small-town affairs run on a shoestring to showcase local talent with a song in their heart and a musical itch to scratch.
Susie Taylor belts out a song at the Celeste Opry, accompanied by background vocalist Billie Gilliam (right). Susie is a regular on the Texas opry house circuit. Photograph by Randy Eli Grothe.
The opry tradition harkens back to vaudeville shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Oprys were a country music variation on the theme and grew in prominence thanks to several that were broadcast on radio. The most famous, the Grand Ole Opry, can still be heard Saturday nights over WSM-AM (630), a 50,000-watt clear channel station in Nashville that reaches most of the East and Midwest.
But even without radio, the opry concept has persisted and, over the past 20 years, enjoyed something of a renaissance. More than 60 oprys are staged across Texas on a weekly or monthly basis.
A family affair
The Celeste Opry’s roots go back to 82-year-old R.C. Gilliam.
“Pop liked to play guitar, but he quit when he went into the service during World War II,” says his son, Tim Gilliam, who lives in Greenville and works at Procter & Gamble Co. in Sherman. “He was intimidated by how well the city boys played. But after he met and married my mother, who’s a singer, he picked it up again.”
The elder Mr. Gilliam and his wife raised their children on the country music pillars of Johnny Cash, Connie Smith and Buck Owens, which led to the Gilliams’ involvement with oprys.
"When I got old enough to perform, I didn’t want to play clubs or bars,” Tim says. “It’s like work, playing those places. If some drunk wants you to play "Your Cheatin’ Heart" 12 times, you’ve got to do it. I wanted to play in a family atmosphere.
“Daddy, me and my brother, we were in a four-piece band,” he says. After performing at different oprys in east and north-central Texas, the Gilliam family decided to put on a country-oriented talent show in the community center in nearby Kingston.
Billed as the Kingston Kountry Music Revue, the monthly variety show debuted in 1983. Father, mother, two sons and a girlfriend destined to marry into the family all pitched in.
“I mowed the yard,” recalls Tim’s wife, Missy. Three years later, Tim moved the show to Celeste, where he says he “made an opry” out of a vacant building that once housed a drugstore and had most recently been a retail outlet for a towel and linen factory. The landlady has kept rent affordable because she’s glad to see the building used.
The format is straightforward. A revolving cast of singers, including several guest vocalists, does one or two songs each over the course of each set, before and after intermission, backed by the Opry House band. Mr. Gilliam describes it as “a set-down-and-listen show, no dancing,” before making a larger point. “It’s an opportunity for everybody to do something on a Saturday night.”
R.C. Gilliam takes tickets in the booth up front. Tim’s brother, Ryon, 37, a banker who lives in Cash, also plays guitar and sings in the house band. So does Tim’s son, Joe Ben, 17, who’s been coming to the Opry “since before he was born,” say his father and mother. Tim’s mother, Billie Gilliam, 75, sings backup vocals as well as taking a few turns as lead vocalist every opry. Missy Gilliam, 43, Tim’s wife and Joe Ben’s mom, runs the “world famous” concession stand behind the stage.
Making an opry
The venue has been a work in progress since it opened. Black curtains have just been added to cover the music stands on the raised stage. A patchwork of colored carpet remnants is affixed to the walls to muffle the sound.
Strings of red, white and blue runner lights enhance the backdrop. A small balcony provides a second vantage point for watching the show. A simple colored disco ball hangs in front of the sound booth to add effects now and then.
The band, whose pay is all the hot dogs they can eat after the show, supports three to five guest vocalists per show, often rehearsing with them before show time.
“We’ve never turned away anyone for being bad,” Tim Gilliam says. “The only reservation I have is if you’ve never sung in front of a live band, you need to come in for an audition. Singing with a band is not like singing along to the radio or singing with karaoke.”
Success is relative. One wall in the backstage concession area is covered with 8-by-10 black and white glossy photos of young female singers, including Stephanie Starr, Misty Sereff, Meagan Counts, many of them poured from the same blond, toothy and precious mold of beauty pageant contestants.
The images testify to the career arc of a chunky, perky North Texas preteen named LeAnn Rimes, who launched her career 13 years ago at Johnnie High’s Country Music Revue, blazing a trail others have chased ever since.
“Debbie Money, she’s in Nashville,” Tim says, pointing to the likeness of one of the Celeste Opry’s bigger favorites. “She started out here 12, 15 years ago.”
As much as Tim accentuates the positive, somewhere along the way he can’t help but roll his eyes and mutter something about “stage moms” under his breath. If every job has a necessary evil, it is the mothers of acts such as those who hang on the wall who give Tim his biggest headaches.
Intermission at the Celeste Opry finds patrons mingling outside, visiting and taking smoke breaks. Photograph by Randy Eli Grothe.
Ryon Gilliam namedrops Chisai Childs, founder of the Grapevine Opry, where Ryon received a crisp $50 bill – his first professional pay, for a performance almost 30 years ago. “Last I heard she was opening for Shoji Tabuchi in Branson.”
On some nights, Tim Gilliam also does comedy bits, donning a wig to become a character named Meatball, adopting a thick drawl and a stiff swagger to do Johnny Cash, or putting on a mustache and slipping into Spanglish to mimic Freddy Fender. “Once, when the mustache started falling off, the audience went crazy. They really loved that.”
It’s hard not to love an opry, even if you don’t know who Freddy Fender is or don’t like country music.
“You can bring your 6-year-old and there won’t be someone blowing smoke in your face and drunks falling over you,” says Bill Seace, 60, of Irving, testifying while his wife, Pat, sitting next to him, nods. ‘We’ve been to Mount Pleasant, Farmersville, Texarkana, Point. We’ve been coming out here for six, seven years now.”
The Seaces are sitting in the only row of real theater seats in the house, two rows in front of the combo sound and ticket booth, where their son, Kirk Seace, is helping out. Kirk’s wife is the singer Susie Taylor, whom the Seaces follow on the Texas opry house circuit.
The opry runs like clockwork. Joe Ben Gilliam opens with “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On” – a song made popular by Mel McDaniel – before Ryon Gilliam covers Tracy Lawrence.
Brian Sudderth, the house band drummer, sings the George Strait and Alan Jackson collaboration, “Designated Drinker.” Susie Taylor nails Loretta Lynn’s “Blue Kentucky Girl” with sassy aplomb. Dwayne Farrow, a DISD music teacher who also plays guitar in the band, croons the Jack Greene classic “Statue of a Fool,” a dreamy triplet with an Orbison streak of bedroom romanticism that moves Tim to comment, “If I hit that note, I’d have had to go to the doctor.”
“If you hit that note, you’d have lost your bridge,” Ryon Gilliam interjects.
Billie Gilliam, the family matron, pays tribute to Patsy Cline, singing “Back in Baby’s Arms.” The familiar songs are all greeted with aound of applause after the first few chords, confirming the audience’s familiarity and approval of song selection.
“Other oprys are political,” says Greg Mealer, the strapping blondhaired singer who is one of the evening’s special guests. The sweet-natured Mr. Mealer, who trains pit bulls for a living, is a realist. “Out here, they’ll give anyone a chance. There’s no one who’s going to get on a bus next month and be opening for Alan Jackson, but there’s some good music going on.”
“This is the only opry we sign up to come to once a month,” Kirk Seace says as the place clears out, closing another Saturday night at the opry. “Some of the bigger ones, you have to be perfect. Here, not being perfect is part of the fun.”
[Visit the Celeste Opry: P.O. Box 478, Celeste, TX 75423-0478, (903) 454-2926]