words & images: Marcus Coker
It’s Saturday night in West Fork, Arkansas, and the doors to the Little O’ Oprey have been open since 5:30pm. Teresa is selling tickets, Andy is serving pie behind the snack bar, and several of the regulars are marking their seats with pillows and blankets. By 7:00, the lights go down and the house band starts hopping. Before long, Jimmy is behind the keyboard singing Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On, and the audience is singing with him. It’s unforgettable, toe-tapping music, music that sweeps through you, music that makes you feel right at home.
For the next three hours, the house band plays traditional country, rock and roll, and gospel, backing up a variety of performers that take turns on stage. Each sings a few songs and then passes the microphone to the next. There are a few bumps along the way because none of it’s rehearsed, but the occasional missed note or forgotten song lyric is part of the charm that makes the entire evening seem like hanging out on your front porch with a group of your most talented friends.
“If we had a polished show like Branson or even Eureka, it wouldn’t be the same,” says Jerry Roller, who’s seventy-five and plays steel guitar. “They’ll close during winter and practice three months, and at a certain point in a song, the steel guitar does a certain lick, and that’s what they have to look forward to. If we had a show like that, and the audience came three or four weeks and saw the exact same show, they’d be gone. But we have a variety — probably sixty or more acts.”
Jerry, who grew up in Fort Smith and started playing the steel guitar when he was fifteen, has been part of the band for twenty-four years. He says, “The Oprey started in 1989 — twenty-five years ago. I came in one night as a spectator and a guy knew me and said, ‘Hey, do you have your guitar with you?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ (This very guitar, by the way.) And he said, ‘Our steel player quit last week. Would you play?’ And I did. And I’ve been here ever since.”
Jerry’s wife, Carlene, is one of the show’s staple singers. Tonight she sings Lord, I Hope This Day is Good by Don Williams, her voice like a warm blanket on a cold night. The mood is almost sad, and Jerry’s guitar seems to cry. But later, when another artist sings Down at the Twist and Shout by Mary Chapin Carpenter, hands are clapping and the five-piece band that includes a guitar, bass guitar, drums, and a keyboard is absolutely soaring.
The band never uses a single sheet of music, and the set up is always the same. The artist comes up on stage, requests a song in a certain key, and the band just starts playing. Jerry says, “If they do a song that’s not one of the real current ones, I’m gonna know it. If I don’t, maybe the keyboard player will know it. And sometimes we bomb out, but we don’t worry if we mess up. Of course, we don’t mess up on purpose.”
Since 1991, the Little O’ Oprey has been a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation. Their mission is to both promote country music and fellowship with the community. “We try to promote young entertainers, but we have performers of all ages,” says Roy Melton, who’s seventy-two and a member and past-president of the board. “We have singers come from Fort Smith, Tahlequah, and Tulsa. One gal even comes from east Texas. To get on the list of singers, we just ask that someone audition or be recommended.”
The Little O’ Oprey takes place in a two-story building that was built in 1886. Over the years, the building has been home to a tavern, a grocery store, a bank, and even a casket maker. Roy says, “There’s a lot of history here. This whole block used to be buildings, but they were all wood. At some point, there was a fire, and this is the only one that was left standing.”
In addition to being a board member, Roy is also the show’s sound technician and emcee. He says, “Everyone pitches in to make things work. The house band gets paid, and the folks that do the tickets and snack table get paid, but no entertainer gets paid. I volunteer to do sound, and we have people volunteer to clean up. When things are slow, that’s kept us in business.”
Back on stage, Tommy Kemp is playing a rose-colored guitar. He joined the band in 2008, and tonight he’s singing The Fireman. It’s a song made famous by George Straight, but was actually written by Tommy’s brother, Wayne Kemp, who was born in Greenwood, Arkansas.
Listen to the folks at the Oprey talk and you’ll learn lots of cool facts. Jerry’s played with Carrie Underwood, Jimmy Ritchie, the keyboard player, has played with Barbara Fairchild. Joe Nichols, who grew up in Rogers and is known for the country hit Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off, actually sang regularly at the Little O’ Oprey when he was in high school.
“There are so many good memories,” says Jeanne Simmons, who’s sixty-four and known as the Queen of the Little O’ Oprey. “I loved the early days because we struggled. Many times there were more people to perform than there were people in the audience. Back then you didn’t have to audition. But the funniest thing was when a bluegrass performer named Bill Mounce started back up on stage for an encore, and his false teeth fell out on stage. Everybody was so tickled that we couldn’t do anything for a few minutes and then Bill said, ‘I always did wonder what my smile looked like, and there it is, right there.’”
Jeanne has been at the Oprey since the very beginning. She says, “I lived out at Winslow on a chicken farm, and I came down to West Fork to get a hamburger. Some people said, ‘They’re gonna start a country music show in that old historical building.’ Well at that time, I was getting a divorce, and the band would play their sad, old timey songs, and I’d sit in the back row and cry. And I came to two or three shows before I decided to sing. I thought, I’m going to do this for me. And it’s saved my life more than once, during a lot of times when I might have folded. But I had the Oprey and the music to look forward to every Saturday, so I kept on going. After twenty-five years, you know that everyone here is your friend.”
And that’s what’s beautiful about the Little O’ Oprey. Not only is it a wonderful showcase of talent, but it’s also a home for the people both on stage and in the audience. Jeanne says, “I think people love the music, and they get the feeling people here are also good-hearted people and really dedicated to the music. And we’re just kind of like a family. We call it the Oprey family.”
The Little O’ Oprey takes place every Saturday at 7pm at 271 S. Campbell in West Fork, Arkansas.
Tickets are $9 for adults, $7 for seniors (55+), $4 for children (4-11), and free for children 3 and under.
For more information, including a calendar of entertainers, visit littleoprey.org or call 479.839.2992.