"There's not a town in this nation that wouldn't like to have this kind of history," Bob Ross said Saturday, Nov. 12, from the George D. Hay Music Theater in Mammoth Spring.
Ross serves as president of the George D. Hay Hall of Fame and Museum Foundation, which formed in 1997 to recognize local talent and honor veteran Grand Ole Opry members.
The foundation is named for George Dewey Hay, who founded the Grand Ole Opry in 1925 after a 1919 visit to Mammoth Spring as a newspaper reporter. While on assignment covering a World War I soldier's funeral, Hay attended an all-night hoedown in a log cabin.
In "A Story of the Grand Old Opry," published in 1945, Hay wrote that he had never seen anyone have as much fun as those "Ozark mountaineers" did playing and singing old-time music until the crack of dawn. Hay called the idea of country music "as simple as sunshine."
Each Labor Day, Mammoth Spring celebrates its shared legacy of country music by hosting "Solemn Old Judge Days" to pay tribute to Hay's memory. The event often includes a reenactment of Hay's visit, the hoedown and Grand Old Opry.
Since it's inception almost 15 years ago, the foundation has held its annual "Music Hall of Fame and Hoedown Awards Show" in September to honor famous and local performers for keeping alive the Opry spirit. Three years ago, the foundation, made up of members from across the country and a local board of eight, bought the theater hall a mile south of Mammoth Spring.
The Mammoth Spring Country Music Association generously sold the building to the foundation for $30,000 on a five-year, no-interest note, Ross said.
Charging just $5 admission for any show, including the annual awards show, the foundation has been able to keep up its $500 per month payments, and now owes just $10,000, foundation treasurer Gail Foster said.
Each Saturday night, the theater features at least one band. The band's cut is 60 percent of the take at the door. Most times, that does not even cover gas money, Foster said.
Still, the theater is booked every Saturday (except Thanksgiving and Christmas weekends) through February 2012.
"We don't do it for the money," J. W. Hurtt said of his band, True Country. "We do it because we love music, every one of us."
Hurtt, of Thayer, along with his wife, Elizabeth, son James Hurtt and his wife, Rebecca, and members Keith Johnson of West Plains, Ron Cowens of Thomas-ville, Steve White of Mammoth Spring and Ron Hutchins of Viola, Ark., form the band.
"True Country" lived up to its name by performing an eclectic blend of songs by artists such as Hank Snow, Johnny Cash, Mickey Gilley, Hank Williams, Reba McIntire, Patsy Cline and Garth Brooks.
Hurtt, the group's lead singer, had White, the band's drummer, stand as he introduced him as a "Mammoth Spring native who banged on pots and pans as a little boy." White's progression from kitchen vessels included a rousing rendition of "Wipe Out."
Another crowd-pleaser was Hutchins' tribute to military veterans with his performance of Merle Haggard's "Working Man Blues."
The band's youngest performer, Dillon Hurtt, 7, of Thayer, also generated much applause for his solo, "Oil and Cabbage Jam," a demonstration of his five months of violin lessons.
To the right of the stage, Hoedown Award Winners smile from behind neat rows of framed photos, recognizing them for adhering to their country roots.
On the other side of the room, photos of internationally-known artists represent many generations of Grand Ole Opry members selected by foundation members. The members vote each January for the musicians, songwriters, singers and performers who they believe embody Hay's vision.
The list includes Merle Haggard, who was honored in 2004 as the "working man's poet," Kitty Wells, in 2002 as "the queen of country music" and Skeeter Davis in 2000, four years before her death.
In 2004, Johnny and June Carter Cash were named to the hall of fame, a year after their deaths in 2003. Other posthumous recipients include Conway Twitty (the best voice a song ever had) in 2003. Twitty died in 1993 and age 59.
Musician Norma Jean signed her photo in 2004 with, "I'm proud to be a part of the George D. Hay Foundation."
The honorees, or their surviving family members, are notified by registered mail of the honor. The recipients (or family) attend the annual awards show in September, which always draws a sold-out crowd, Ross said.
"We've had people leave the Grand Ole Opry (in Nashville, Tenn.) and drive straight here for the awards show," Ross said.
Foster said area residents will not want to miss seeing an array of talented local musicians all year long. The locally-famous Baker Family will be on stage Dec. 10.
The foundation also earns income by selling concessions and renting the building. On Dec. 17-18, a gun show will be held in the theater.
For info on upcoming shows, visit www.georgedhay.com The theater is off of Highway 63 a mile south of Mammoth Spring.