An Old Hillbilly Show Celebrates 20 years
OLATHE – At a junction where a bend in the road aligns with railroad tracks leading toward Olathe's quiet downtown sits a small farm where the old country sounds of Charlie Poole, Woody Guthrie, the Carter Family and Hank Williams ring out beneath the wind and willow trees.
A small, one-of-a-kind, “word-of-mouth” music festival, locally known as the Olathe Grand Old Opry, takes place here every year. The festival three simple rules: Old country and bluegrass songs only; do not touch the sound system; do not scare the peacocks.
It's the Opry's 20th year and while organizer Nolan McCauley, 79, cannot afford to hire large acts like other regional festivals celebrating their milestone anniversaries.
Instead, those attended last weekend were guaranteed "all the sweet corn they can eat."
A few dozen people showed up Saturday, mostly musicians from around the region braving summer storms to perform rare old-time songs long ago.
"Music,” McCauley said. “I live for this.I can get about 200 or so people out here during a weekend.”
McCauley was in the U.S. Air Force in 1949 when he first saw Hank Williams perform in California.
"I just fell for it,” said McCauley, who today owns 2,600 Hank William recordings. “I am a collector," he said proudly.
Make that collector and impresario - every year, in July or August, McCauley hosts musicians "from Montana to Texas" – mostly unknown pickers looking for good company and a stage to perform on.
Artists and fans alike camp out on the farm's pastures, or in the woods, coming together to celebrate simple tunes and “living in harmony,” with "picking and potluck.
"I furnish the sweet corn," McCauley said speaking from his two-story music room which doubles as a country music museum.
If you’re looking for real country, look no further than the Olathe Grand Old Opry. On one side of the property, bluegrass performers sit and jam in the large lawn under shade trees; across from them, country singers rehearse and perform, using the small sound system on McCauley's stage, built on top of a old cotton trailer that came from El Paso. "I have country people and bluegrass people. The bluegrass people kinda go over there and play; they don't have power,” McCauley explained. “The country people have the stage with electricity.".
Through simple storied rhymes of lost sweethearts or sipping summer sweet tea under sycamore trees, the musicians who attend are mostly older, with a combined musical libraries reflecting hundreds of years of American music.
"It's just kinda spontaneous. People who don't know each other will know the same songs and everyone becomes friends," McCauley said.
Hesperus resident Lee Steerman travels with his library in a pair of aluminum tins. Each song, some dating back nearly 80 years, is handwritten on recipe cards, with simple lyrics and choruses listed on both sides. Some of the songs are just a few sentences long.
"This is just a real nice place, good people,” Steerman said. “Everyone here knows the music."
Grand Junction resident Paul Scott has been coming to Olathe for the past few years, bringing both his mandolin and 18-fret Martin guitar to jam bluegrass.
"Where else can you get this kind of a lawn to camp in?” he asked. “The trees are what's really good, it’s really peaceful here.”
McCauley said in years past he would have dozens of campers all over his property. As of Saturday afternoon, maybe seven to eight campers had arrived for the three-day festival.
"Gasoline," he said. "People just don't have the means to come.
But along with the tractor rides and ice cream for kids and families, McCauley said his festival has managed to maintain its small size.
"I don't really keep it that way; this is as big as it's grown to. I don't want drugs or alcohol, I don't want rough people, I want wholesome,” he said. “Country. People come here for the music, not to get out-of-control.”
Dove Creek resident Mary Atkins is one of them. "I've been listening to these songs my entire life,” said Atkins, who with her son, Andy, has held the Beanpickers Music Festival in a bean field near Dove Creek. (This year, it’s scheduled for Aug. 31-Sept. 2 at Watkins Bean Field, 20039 Country Road 4, Dove Creek Co, 81324. For more information contact Andy Watkins at 970/882-4104.)
At about 4:30 last Saturday afternoon, McCauley and his “Outhouse Playboys” were late to come onstage (he was gathering sweet corn for Betty Jean, his wife of 52 years, to start cooking). Corn-picking finished, he and his dobro joined a group of musicians to start picking out some Hank Williams tunes, like they do every summer.
"I'm going to keep doing this until I'm physically unable, and it's obvious I'm in good health presently," McCauley said.
View a new photo blog by William Woody at Tumblr.com/blog/williamwoody for outtakes and other work from around the Montrose area.