You arrive at the Old Woodbine Schoolhouse about 6 pm. You know it’s an hour before the music starts, but your stomach’s been growling since 4:00, and rumor has it that Miz Katie Cooler has whipped up an extra big batch of her famous banana pudding. Woodbine’s long-standing Mayor, Burford Clark, greets you at the door with a warm handshake. You’re not surprised. You’ve heard of the mayor’s dedication to the preservation of the landmark school building, and know as well that he’s at the Opry more nights than not—rallying the school’s supporters, making friends of strangers, and just being a part of the kind of thing that makes small towns wondrous to those who live in the big cities.
Like the southern siren that it is, the distinct aroma of fried chicken pulls you down the hall to the cafeteria, where before you spreads a cornucopia of scrumptiousness—chicken and dumplings, okra, jambalaya, collard greens, cornbread, peach cobbler, apple pie, chocolate delight cake and the renowned banana pudding you’ve heard so much about. Seven dollars buys you an evening meal you will long remember. A meal cooked up by the local womenfolk whose love for the old schoolhouse inspires good cookin’ and personal vigils to make sure everybody gets their fill. Miz Ivy Mae Sapp presides over the serving (you’ve probably figured out by now that we call all the ladies “Miz” here in the South—married or single, they’re Miz Ivey and Miz Katie—it’s a sign of respect). Miz Ivy dishes out generous helpings of food and great cheer, and when it comes to the cake raffle (mid-evening), she’s out front charming your wallet right out of your pants.
“C’mon y’all, do I hear ten dollah for this wonderful cake? All right, you dig down deep, you heah, and buy this cake! You ain’t never had none better!” It’s easy to see why one of Miz Katie’s banana puddings recently fetched more than a hundred dollars—Miz Katie’s cookin’ and Miz Ivey’s barking—a powerful force to reckon with. How Miz Katie finds time to do all that cookin’ is a mystery. A sassy 81, she still works, preserving the past at the Bryan-Lang Historical Library in Woodbine. But we digress.
Nothing like a full belly to sharpen one’s listening skills. Time to settle back in the school auditorium—perhaps in the same seat that held a squirming 9-year-old nearly a century ago—and let the music take over. The lights dim, and an authentic southern-style jam session begins.
Friday nights are “unplugged,” with rousing bluegrass, gospel and classic country dispelling the need for electric instrumentation. Silver-timbred voices in sweet harmony fill the room. The sorrowful wail of double harmonicas might bring a tear to your eyes on “He Walks with Me.” Al Chapman of St. Marys gets the audience singing along with his warm-molasses rendition of “The Great Speckled Bird.” On the stand-up bass is a Helen Hunt look-alike, pumping out deep echoes in time with six guitars, a ukulele, a banjo, and a harmonica. Little Jessica from Chesapeake, Virginia—not more than four years old—belts out a glorious “You Are My Sunshine.” The house is packed. The energy palpable. The sounds golden. And the memories flooding. The evening ends way too soon. Tomorrow, we must return.
We’ve managed to wait ‘til 6:30 tonight, and arrive in time to witness Mayor Clark making a couple of newcomers feel like they’ve been part of the Opry family for years. This talent of his—“down-homedness” combined with an unwavering generosity of spirit––is a testament to why the people of Woodbine saw fit to keep him as mayor during a legacy that runs all the way from 1973. We eagerly purchase our meal tickets and recognize Miz Katie from the night before. We’re told she hasn’t missed a night since the Opry started in 2001. It was, in fact Miz Katie who, upon hearing that the old schoolhouse would be torn down, wrote the Preservation Committee in Atlanta, taking the first step to saving the circa 1926 building. From there, the City of Woodbine got behind it with the Mayor and City Council seeding a fund by contributing a month’s salary. A committee was formed to “preserve, protect, interpret, and manage” the Historic Woodbine School, and the Opry was birthed and evolved into a twice-weekly fundraising event. Miz Katie attended the school herself in the 1930s, and went on to become the city clerk. She’s quick to point out that all the proceeds of the Opry (admission to the music is free)—the meals, the thrift shop, the raffles—goes to the restoration fund.
Again, we digress. Tonight, the auditorium is overflowing. Music fans of all ages fill the 258 seats nestled between walls festooned with patriotic banners. “God Bless America” and “Proud to be an American” boldly proclaim the 12-inch high red letters.
Velvet curtains frame no less than 20 musicians onstage—tuning up, trading light-hearted barbs with the last of the procession to take their seats. Again, the lights are lowered, and it’s showtime!
“Put Your Sweet Lips a Littler Closer to the Phone,” Paul Donahue entreats the audience with a sincerity that would make Jim Reeves proud. Paul, we’re to learn, is an officer with the Camden County Sheriff’s Department. That explains the uniform. And his beautiful voice explains his presence. J. C. Honeycutt, bedecked in Native American turquoise, treats us to a fine sample of Waylon Jennings. J.C. hails from Jacksonville these days, but was raised in North Carolina. Later he’ll tell us his ritual dedication to performing at the Opry is “all about the people.”
“The finest people in the world are in this audience,” he will tell us. “I could get money playing other places, but playing here for free is what I love.”Having just recorded his third CD in Nashville, one doesn’t doubt that J.C. along with all of tonight’s musicians could find paying work at other venues.
Mayor Clark says that tonight’s performers, as other nights, are from “parts all over.” They’ve come to jam—many having never played together before. One would expect a bit of disharmony, at least at the beginning. But, it is as if a singular voice is wafting over the bobbing heads and clapping hands of the audience—a voice as melodic as that from a band tied together by years and years of practice. Tonight the instruments are electrified. And so is the audience. More so, when the comedic “Wildettes” prance down the aisle with J.C.’s “Pistol Packin’ Mama” blasting. These ladies, Sandra Mitchell and Alice Murray, are proud of their “Buffoonery” certificate that hangs in the hall amidst years and years of school memorabilia. They’re “funning” themselves for the cause—bellyfuls of laughter and an historically significant building saved from the demolition ball. The Wildettes perform at nursing homes around the area as well. Warm smiles reward enough for their red-boots, toy-gun antics. Sandra returns later all dressed up in a cow outfit, throwing out Moon Pies and cheeky rhetoric. It’s “udderly” ridiculous and “udderly” fun. And appropriately connected to the bigger spirit at work tonight.
“We are blessed,” Mayor Clark tells us. “This is truly a family experience, and everybody has fun.” As if on cue, our attention turns back to the stage where nine-year-old Elizabeth Staats, of Brunswick, Georgia, has just joined her “Papa” (grandfather) Bob Staats in Johnny Cash’s famous “Ring of Fire.” “Folsom Prison Blues” follows, with Papa Staats bringing it on home in reverent honor of the great “Man in Black.”
The off-stage characters at the Woodbine Opry sometimes steal the show, but will always steal your heart. There’s Wilbur Readdick who lives “up at Mush Bluff.” He’ll tell you about sliding up and down the halls as a second grader at the school when it first opened. You do the math. Wilbur was wounded in World War II, and coming home across the Atlantic a nurse told him he’d be hearing a brand new song that just came out called “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” J.C.’s earlier version of the hit reminded Wilbur, as always, of that poignant time. It’s easy to take up with folks like Wilbur when he uses words like “quituated,” as in “I quituated (from school) and entered the Civilian Conservation Corp.” And, “By the way, I got a mess of oranges about to ripen up. Come on by and get you some next week,” even though he’d only just met us a few minutes before.
There’s the wiley Jim Taylor who comes from Folkston every Saturday night—hair slicked back, spiffy scarf around his neck, and a glint in his eye that has decidedly spelled trouble for the ladies for decades and decades. There’s Committee President Hoydt Drury and his wife, Florence, who cooks for the cause, and plays fiddle and bass banjo. There’s 91-year-old Eudell Gooding, another dedicated committee member. And finally, there’s a whole passel of other committee members working tirelessly toward the restoration of the schoolhouse that most of them attended and at which many of them taught—a schoolhouse that now serves as a community center for the Opry and other civic events including Woodbine’s famous Crawfish Festival held each April.
There are a great many reasons to come to the Woodbine Opry. The food. The music. The fun. The camaraderie. But above all, there is the spirit by which everyone is bound. The spirit of revering a heritage that has woven a rich tapestry through the lives of thousands of seemingly unconnected people,
bringing them together for a noble cause. You are only a stranger once at the Woodbine Opry.
The evening is winding down now, and reluctantly we make our way to the door. With a gentle tip of his red Georgia Bulldawg cap, Mayor Clark says, “Come back real soon.” And we will.
For information about the Woodbine Opry, go to www.woodbineopry.com
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