Mar 24, 2016

Charlie Short and the Long Branch Opry...

The Long Branch Opry stage as seen from the balcony
Starting in the early 1990's, a few of my musician friends started an interesting tradition.  At the initial instigation of my late wife, Margo, we would get together about once per month to share a covered dish supper and play music.  It was just that simple.  The host family would prepare an entree that could feed a few or a lot.  Chili, spaghetti, lasagna, and various casseroles were popular.  The guests would bring dip, salads, side dishes, and desserts.  There was always too much food.

Sometimes we had a half dozen participants and I recall one night feeding over 40 hungry musicians.  The music was eclectic.  People tended to break up into small groups with a common interest.  So in nice weather, we might have four or five groups outside while two or three other groups played or sang inside.  Perhaps a gospel group on the back porch, some traditional ballads in the great room, and bluegrass music in the kitchen.  Outside, there might be a Cajun group, some old-time dancing, and traditional folk music.  The variety of music was part of the appeal.  We never had any complaints.  And this monthly party went on for several years.

Robert Freeman plays the banjo
One year (I can't recall when), Margo informed me that a new librarian had come to work at the UAH library who was allegedly a fairly accomplished fiddle and banjo player.  Robert Freeman turned out to be much more than fairly good.  And he became a regular attendee of our musical soirĂ©es.  Not only could he play every folk and traditional song known to mankind, he also knew the lyrics to every verse of every song.  He was also a great and kind teacher.  In all, he was a gift to our group and much appreciated.  And after a year or two as part of our little group, he informed us one night that he was leaving.  He had accepted a position in the Purdue University library system.  And a few weeks later, Robert and his wonderful fiddle and banjo playing were gone.  His absence was sorely felt.

Not too many weeks after Robert's departure, I read the following ad in the classified section of the Huntsville Times: "Bluegrass fiddler seeks other musicians interested in forming band.  Call 256-xxx-xxxx.  Ask for Charlie"  It was all I needed.  I called the number.  Maybe we could find a replacement for Robert!

I explained to the person on the other end that I wasn't interested in forming a band, but that I did need a fiddler.  I told him about our monthly music parties.  At one point, he asked where we met.  I explained that the party moved from home to home, sometimes in Huntsville or Hazel Green, or Fayetteville, TN.  "That just wouldn't be possible," he allowed.  "I live all the way down in Ruth, Alabama, near Arab.  That'd be just too far to drive."  Then I mentioned that we usually ate around 6:15.  "How'd you say to get to your place?" he responded.  And that's how we got to meet and become friends with Charlie Short.

"Sunday Tradition" at the Opry
Not long after Charlie started attending our parties, he mentioned a theater that he was building to present Bluegrass shows.  As he would tell us, "If you can't fiddle no better'n I can, nobody is going to invite you to their theater.  So you gotta build your own!"  He told how he had bought several acres out in the country, cut down the trees where he planned to put the parking lot, and was building the building out of lumber he had milled himself on the property.  The alleged theater would seat some 6-700 people and include a nice stage, an announcer's booth, and a snack bar.  I admit I wasn't sure that there was any such theater.

Charlie Short playing the fiddle
on stage at the Opry
In October, 1997, while I was on a several-month business assignment to South Texas, I received a phone call from Margo.  The following Saturday, she and her friend, Pam Chismar, were going to the opening show at Charlie's "Long Branch Opry!"  There really was such a place!  And opening night was going to feature Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, a really well-known Gospel Bluegrass act.

Over the next ten years, we spent many happy hours enjoying Charlie Short's great project.  We saw fabulous, well-recognized performing groups, always in a family-friendly environment.  Every show began with a prayer and our national anthem.  Charlie regaled the audience with really corny jokes and stories.  It was like a live Hee-Haw show.  He even had a stuffed rooster named Leghorn that would suddenly appear in the announcer's booth and have conversations with Charlie.  

And Charlie would have conversations with the audience.  One night he introduced me as a minister and asked me to invoke the blessing!  We introduced several of our colleagues to the Opry and they became staunch supporters.  It was a fabulous way to spend a Saturday evening.

"Strings of Bluegrass" at the Opry

Then, suddenly in 2007, Charlie decided to "Retire."  The Opry would go silent.  Another gentleman tried to revive it in 2010, but failed.  But this rare treasure brought a great deal of pleasure to thousands of people while it lasted.  Thanks, Charlie Short.  You lived your dream, and we appreciate your sharing it with us.

The Long Branch Opry

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