By Michael Swanger
A line of music fans, many donning cowboy attire, stretches out the door in front of an unassuming building on Main Street in Anita. It’s Friday night, which can only mean one thing … it’s showtime.
One by one, fans plop down $7 at the ticket counter for general admission seats. Inside the former movie theater, they’ll munch on 50-cent popcorn, swill $1 glass bottles of Mexican Coca-Cola (made with the original recipe) and listen to local and national-touring musicians perform timeless songs by the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Bill Monroe.
For a few hours, all is right with the world.
At the Oak Tree Opry in Anita, the sun never sets on old time country, bluegrass and folk music. It’s a refuge for real, rural, acoustic, live music where like-minded fans — mostly of retirement age who bring their children and grandchildren — congregate weekly from planting season to harvest time to enjoy music that is largely ignored by the mainstream.
On this night, a nearly sold-out crowd (capacity is 150) settles in to hear local singers and pickers like Marge Lund, David Green, Bill Hendren and Francis Hahn, a former songwriter for the House of Cash in Nashville, Tenn., accompany one another onstage during a casual opening set. Their performances are refreshingly organic and harken back to a time when people played music for the pure enjoyment of it in their homes and yards, not to make a buck, or to have a career.
Upstairs, Jacob Austin, a 25-year-old mandolin player and singer, and namesake of the family trio from Anderson, Texas, that will headline the evening’s show with their own brand of traditional country, bluegrass and gospel music, sits in a folding chair in the Opry’s balcony to observe the crowd and local talent. It is the Jacob Austin Band’s debut performance at the Opry, though they are no strangers to its owners, or similar stages and audiences. For 10 years, they have been touring rural America, playing one-nighters and festivals in towns and venues that most people might least suspect host live music.
Minutes later, Austin, who cut his teeth playing at bluegrass and country music festival jams alongside his parents, David and Liz, leans back in his chair as a smile widens on his face.
“This place feels like home,” he said.
His father, David, nods his head with approval.
“The big reason why we wanted to play here is because we believe in what Bob and Sheila (Everhart) are doing to keep traditional country music alive,” David Austin said. “The fans here are aficionados of the genre and you can’t fool them. If you’re not country, like the pop-country on radio today, they can see right through you. To play for them you need to play it from the heart.”
Nurturing the music
Bob Everhart has devoted his life to the preservation, education and advancement of old time music that reaches back in time to the pioneer days. Over the years, he has done painstaking research to study it; shed blood, sweat and tears playing and promoting it; and developed a succinct, logical theory that explains how various forms of ethnic, regional music shaped the Iowa sound more than a century and continues to do so today.
Everhart, with help from his wife, Sheila, owns and operates the Oak Tree Opry in Anita and the Pioneer Music Museum located across the street that houses America’s Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame and America’s Old Time Fiddler’s Hall of Fame, both of which are packed with rare instruments and music memorabilia. Between hosting tours at the museum and weekly concerts at the Opry, the couple organizes the National Old Time Country, Bluegrass and Folk Music Festival and Pioneer Exposition of Arts & Crafts and Agricultural Lifestyle and Rural Living Convention held in LeMars each year during the last week of August that features more than 600 performers. Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the festival, which has featured country music artists like Jim Ed Brown, Charlie McCoy, Michael Martin Murphy, Lynn Anderson, Mickey Gilley and Patti Page.
If that isn’t enough to keep them busy, the Everharts also tour the country and overseas, traveling with their daughter, Bobbie Lhea; write and record original music that ranges from bluegrass and country, to ragtime and western swing, for their own label, Prairie Music Records; maintain the nonprofit National Traditional Country Music Association that Everhart formed in 1975 and the Rural Roots Music Commission; and perform at special events as part of the Traveling Museum of Music sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution.
“It’s not easy sometimes, wearing so many hats,” Everhart said. “If we were making tons of money, other people would do this, too. We rely on the help of volunteers and the sincerity and honesty of people who play this music from their heart. That’s why we do this; to give performers a place to play and to bring people together.”