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This story started out as a history of the Okaw Valley Opry, with my timeline beginning around 1962.
Bill Oliver and I had spoken on the telephone several times before an appointment was made to visit him at his Bluff City home to talk in-depth about how it all began.
It was not until our second visit that it came to me – Bill Oliver, with the influence of his wife, Evelyn, was the Okaw Valley Opry.
Billy Oliver’s first stage was at the Center Baptist Church in Wilberton Township, where he sang harmony with his 9-year-old sister, Winona. Little did he know that events in his life would take him backstage to the Ryman Theater in Nashville, Tenn.
It was at Center Baptist Church that he made life-long friendships with Laurel Peyton and Dale Torbeck. Laurel played the guitar and Dale, at age 5, had taught himself how to play the mandolin. Bill remembered that the Hagy boys also performed there.
When Bill was about 12 years old, his parents, Raymond and Fannie Oliver, moved to Bluff City. Living down the road was a little 11-year-old girl, named Mary Evelyn Carter, who would walk by the Oliver home on her way to church at Haley Chapel. Before long, Bill was walking with the same group.
For Bill, it was love at first sight, but it would be another four years before he would reach for her hand as they walked to church.
Evelyn was 17 and Bill was 18 when they married on June 30, 1946. Not long after, he left for the service. As the troop train was pulling out, Bill threw Evelyn a pack of Juicy-Fruit gum, which she caught. Evelyn kept that pack of gum her entire life.
Soon came confirmation that Evelyn was carrying their first child, a daughter they named Billye. Two more would follow, Bobbye and Connie Lea.
Bill’s family was musical, and his brother, Bob Oliver, played guitar and sang. Bob also got his first taste of the stage at Center Church, with his sister and brother.
Bill’s aunt, Inez Rine, used TV stamps to buy him his first guitar, a Kay acoustic. His wife, Evelyn, also owned a guitar she bought from Aldens catalog with money earned from picking berries. Evelyn played guitar and mandolin, as well as piano. Before long, she taught Bill a few chords, and they began to sing duets.
It was Bill’s guitar that 6-year-old Connie Lea was secretly learning to play, while her father was working in his shop. One day, little Connie came to the shop dragging the guitar with her. Bill exploded! The child had express orders not to touch the instrument, and while he was reminding her of this, she was saying, “But Daddy, I can play…I can play.”
While Bill was still fuming, his daughter sat down and began to strum the chords she had learned in secret. She was right – she could play.
Bill, Evelyn and daughters, along with Bill’s family, including Uncle Earl Hunter, enjoyed music. When there was a family get-together, there was music. "Bill & the Golden Strings" was the name of the first band. It was followed by "The Olivers."
In the early 1960s, Bill started to host a music program in the Fredman Brothers building on Gallatin Street (where Bray Title is today). They continued there until about 1965, when Bill moved the show to the old Walter Radcliff Grocery Store building in Bluff City.
In 1969, Bill built the Opry building in Bluff City, on a lot adjacent to his home. From the beginning, they packed 200-250 people every Saturday night to see a well-balanced and entertaining family show. In the late 1980s, Bill closed the Opry for the winter months – December to March.
Bill began to work with Joyce Brown, a booking agent in Nashville, to bring Nashville performers to Vandalia for shows. I still have my ticket stubs for the Norville Dollar Show at Central School. Bill and Evelyn brought Barbara Fairchild to Vandalia, as well as Lonzo & Oscar.
Stringbean and his wife, Estelle, were good friends of the Oliver family, and two weeks before their murders, were sitting with Bill, Evelyn and Connie Lea in a Nashville restaurant, having dinner following a show. Their murders rocked the country music world.
During the years of the Okaw Valley Opry, Bill had the privilege of sitting in with or having his band play backup for many country greats, including Faron Young, Leona Williams (Mrs. Merle Haggard), Carl and Pearl Butler, George Hamilton IV, Kitty Wells, the Kate Sisters, Del Reeves, Carl Phillips, Billy "Crash" Craddock, Jim Ed Brown, Larry Gatlin, Billie Jo Spears, John Wesley Ryles, Linda Cassidy, Dottie West and Hank Snow, to name a few.
Some of my favorite Oliver stories swirl around the youngest of the sisters. When Bill and Evelyn would visit the Ryman, little Connie Lea had free run of the back stage. Here she developed a crush on the janitor. She was 8; he was in his late 20s, and would go on to make a name for himself, although it was an unusual name – Kris Kristofferson.
Another time, Bill lost track of his "wild child" at a Waylon Jennings concert at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. After frantically searching for her, he finally found her sitting on Carl Smith’s lap in a phone booth while Carl braided Connie’s red hair.
Evelyn’s cousin, Bill Jolly, played in the first band of Grand Ole Opry session musician Joe Edwards, and this is why, even to this day, Bill and Joe, who now lives in Nashville, Tenn., are great friends. Joe spent 48 years with the Grand Old Opry. In fact, this past Sunday, May 31, Bill was with Joe in Nashville for a jam session.
The Okaw Valley Opry closed in 1993. During the 30-years of operation, many quality musicians joined the Oliver family (Bill, Evelyn, Bobbye and Connie) on stage. I remember on my visits to the show about the first person I would see was Billye. In my mind, that was part of what made it a family show; the whole family was there.
Bill recorded the shows on cassette tapes, and sold them after the performances. Later, the shows were videotaped, and I have had the privilege of viewing some of these.
For those who did not have the opportunity to attend an Okaw Valley Opry show, I’m sorry you missed it. Bill was the consummate frontman, who drew the audience in. The show was fast-paced, and along with the great music, there was fun and laughter…the makings of good memories.