Virginia’s Lil’ Ole Opry

Mathews County’s Donk’s Theater. 

Photography by Cade Martin

If you happen through rural Mathews County on a Saturday night, you might spot a crowd filing into a World War II-era theater known as Donk’s. It’s the home of Virginia’s Lil’ Ole Opry—a down-home country music show the Smith family has been putting on for 34 years. What the show lacks in production values it makes up for with its charming tradition and earnest affection for its singers and fans alike.

     It is 7:00 p.m. in Mathews County, and in the gloaming there is the classic tableau of modest, rural American life: Two boys hurry to finish a wax job on a Chevrolet; a knot of middle-aged women stand in a convenience store parking lot, smoking cigarettes and chatting about spouses, jobs and health insurance; an unseen dog barks steadily at something (or nothing). Mathews is a peninsula, up against the Piankatank River on the north side of the county, the Mobjack Bay to the west and the flat, vast Chesapeake Bay to the east. On nearby Gwynn Island, tumbledown homes sit on million-dollar lots overlooking the Chesapeake. There is not a lot to do here, outside of church and hanging with friends and family, which is why the country music show scheduled to start in one hour in a World War II-era movie house alongside Route 198—white cinder blocks with a red and blue marquee—has got folks a little revved up on Saturday night.

     Before a crowd of 300 or so begins to filter into the theater, paying $12 for an adult ticket, there are last-minute preparations by performers and the volunteer staff alike. Raymond Meeks, age 18, rehearses his rendition of John Denver’s spirited “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” Tonight’s show is a John Denver tribute night, and Meeks will be the first to sing. The kid has some pipes. Carolyn Smith, the wife of the show’s emcee, slides into the quaint little ticket booth in front of the theater, while Judy Johnson and Cindy Meeks stock up the small, throwback concession stand: price for a bag of popcorn, $2.00. In a parking lot behind the theater, several young women—some dressed plainly in jeans and blouses, others in vampy black dresses and heels—are twitching their hips and doing their best high-pitched imitations of Martina McBride, LeAnne Rimes and Carrie Underwood. They’re among the 13 contestants (ranging in age from 9 to 49) who will compete in a talent competition that will be the music show’s second act. Betsy Ripley, who coordinates the talent contest, leans on the hood of a car as she hollers out contestant names, assigning each a performance number. “Lily Andrews, Port Haywood?”

     “She’s not here yet,” responds a voice—“she’s having her hair done.”

Ripley reminds the contestants to have fun onstage, and adds, somewhat sternly, “Don’t forget that you are here to entertain an audience.” Meanwhile, veteran crooner P.J. Owens, 75, stands outside a side door looking fully ready to yodel, though he’ll be one of the evening’s last acts. He sports a Stetson hat, string tie and boots, his 1950 Gibson guitar strapped over his shoulder. “Normally, I do Hank Williams songs,” says Owens, “but the woman before me is singing ‘Cheatin’ Heart,’ so I’ll sing two Carl Smith tunes instead.”

     A half-hour later, the curtain is pulled back by hand, and avuncular, 71-year-old Jimmy Smith ambles out onstage. Wearing his old Uncle Jimmy ball cap and overalls brightened by shiny red and blue sequins, Smith, known as the Rhinestone Plowboy, greets the audience with a Minnie Pearl-like “Howdeeee.” He tells a few Vaudeville-style jokes, the veteran house band Shades of Country cranks up a twangy beat (“They could follow a train wreck, and sometimes do,” quips one performer)—and thus begins another incarnation of a delightfully down-home country music show called Virginia’s Lil’ Ole Opry. It has been playing Donk’s Theater continuously for nearly 35 years. Smith, who is the show’s emcee, created the Lil’ Ole Opry with a few members of his extended family in 1975—and they’ve been running it with chicken wire, duct tape and lots of friends and goodwill ever since. Every other Saturday night, from February to December, the Donk’s crew produces nearly three hours of traditional, family-style entertainment that, while short on production gloss, is long on devotion to country music and simple values. Don’t expect any Grammy-winning performances; as Ripley points out, this show “is a labor of love and a community service.”

     It is an apt description. The Lil’ Ole Opry is devoid of pretension and best enjoyed, as one person who’s seen more than one Donk’s show told me, by those who leave their cynicism at the door. Indeed, when I greeted Jimmy Smith and his 35-year-old daughter, Lynda, earlier in the day, they’d just returned from a promotional appearance. They and two musicians had spent four hours at a rest area on Interstate 64, near New Kent, singing songs and handing out Donk’s brochures. “We were singing in the bathroom,” quipped Smith. At Donk’s, there is no backstage area to speak of, and only now is the closet-sized “dressing room” getting some sheetrock and better lighting—an improvement over the curtain that used to hide concrete walls. The stage backdrop, then and now, was a farming scene painted on a cloth spread on the floor of the local fire station. There is no mistaking the fact that the theater’s seats are original. The Spartan conditions are all part of the show’s charm—as are some Lil’ Ole Opry customs. Before the show, for example, Smith introduces audience members who are attending the show for the first time, and he urges the locals to meet and greet them at “halftime”—his word for intermission.

     Each Lil’ Ole Opry features about a dozen regular performers who sing mostly country material, with some blues, bluegrass and pop music mixed in. Before this night is over, a varied group of singers, including the talent show contestants, will perform 32 numbers. Donk’s has more theme shows nowadays than in the past, and the group’s Oldies Show in late March packed the house—a 504-seat sellout. Every regular gets a feature performance once a year, evidence of the tangible sense of loyalty between singers and the show organizers, and between the organizers and the audience. P.J. Owens, a retired federal government employee, has been singing at Donk’s since he appeared in the talent contest in 1996. “Anybody who gets on this stage is awfully lucky,” he says.

     Singer Tracy Hill, 40, agrees: “We’re like a big family here,” she says. “We’ve got one of the best bands around, and if you’re a musician [from this area], it’s the place to be.”

     Deanna Mullins, the keyboardist for Shades of Country, has been singing and playing at Donk’s (sometimes with her two sisters) for 38 years—ever since she won a talent contest at age 10. Steve Motley, a blues singer and harmonica player better known as the Man in Black, simply calls Donk’s “unique.” He started playing for the Virginia Opry at age 17. He’s now 52. He lauds the show’s “good lighting, good sound and good house band, … and we’ve got real devout music fans. They sit with their popcorn and just watch the show—no distractions. They just love it, and it gives me just enough music to satisfy myself, without having to go to some beer joint during the week.”

     Like most of the performers, many fans of the Lil’ Ole Opry are Tidewater and Northern Neck residents who’ve been coming to the show for years. “You can see more professional-type entertainment at other places,” acknowledges Tommy Hale, 68, who with his wife and a group of friends from Poquoson has been making a one-hour pilgrimage to Donk’s since 1992, “but for the money you can’t beat it.”

     Gen. Richard Myers, of the United States Air Force (retired) and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff between 2001 and 2005, has seen the Lil’ Ole Opry. Betsy Ripley used to work for Myers when he was at Langley Air Force Base. “I’m a fan of her efforts up there,” the general says. “The Lil’ Ole Opry sticks out in today’s environment, where everything is going at 1,000 miles an hour.”

     The Lil’ Ole Opry was started in an old Mathews County movie house that first opened in 1947. The building was then owned by Wilton and Mary Dunton. Wilton’s nickname was Donk, and their theater came to be known as Donk’s. It had “a large stage, a sloping floor and comfortable seats,” according to a brochure on the show’s history, published by the Smith family. In 1970, the Duntons closed the movie theater, and it sat idle for a few years until Jimmy Smith got the inspiration for putting on a music show modeled on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Smith recalls seeing the Grand Ole Opry for the first time in 1959, while he worked for a subsidiary of General Telephone, his longtime employer. “It was very exciting for me—I’ve always loved country music, all kinds of music.”

     Smith formed a management company called Wickham Enterprises, brought in his sister Harriet Farmer (now deceased, one of his eight sisters) and nieces Joanna Mullis (now Nix) and Betsy Ripley to help. Thereafter, they and the rest of the large Smith family “became a group possessed,” says Smith, “not by the lure of the big time or for a profit, but by the opportunity to take an idea to fulfillment.” Mary Dunton leased the theater to the family for $50 a month, plus a percentage of the door. “She practically gave it to us,” says Joanna Nix, age 67. “She had as much to do with us getting it started as anybody.”

     Virtually everyone in the Smith family pitched in with the effort to stage the first event—cleaning up and refurbishing the theater, booking talent, scheduling rehearsals, selling tickets. Smith became the president and general manager of the operation, a position he still holds. Farmer took care of publicity and promotional work, now handled by her niece Ripley, 61. Nix served as the original talent and production manager. She recently handed those duties to her cousin, Lynda Smith Greve, who spent time in Nashville singing “demo” songs for a publishing house before returning to her roots to get married and start a family. She now manages the Lil’ Ole Opry when she’s not working at the Mathews Land Conservancy. She also sings—and is the show’s most talented performer. Joanna Nix nowadays operates the lights. In the early years, she recalls, “There were 10, 12, 15 people working at the theater when we needed to get things done.” That’s still the case: The family and a few friends spent hours painting the marquee and lobby ceiling before the current season got underway.

     The first Donk’s show, on June 14, 1975, was called the Country Jamboree. It was a sellout. Adult tickets cost $2.00. Sabrina Marie and the Country Sensations, a local band, was the headline act. “It was a good show,” Nix says, “a long show, but a far cry from the smooth-running, fast-moving show we offer now. We had a lot to learn.”

    Betsy Ripley says the family’s goal when starting the show was “to get country music out of the bars and honky-tonks and back into a family atmosphere where we learned to love it.”

    Certainly, Donk’s has never been much of a moneymaking operation. “We started with a big bang—full houses all through the summer,” says Jimmy Smith. But after the novelty wore off, the crowds thinned and the family spent more than a few years just trying to keep the show afloat. Donk’s started hiring two bands for the Opry, “but,” chuckles Smith, “that didn’t pan out too well.”

     Ripley adds, half seriously, “There were sometimes more people on the Opry staff or on the stage than in the seats. If we were in it for the money, we would have closed the doors a long time ago.”

     These days, the show typically draws between 300 and 400 people for a performance. Children under age 12 are charged $2—a price intentionally set low so that families can bring their kids. The Donk’s audience is mostly older, appreciative and unconcerned with the gaffes that accompany any live performance. Deanna Mullins says that during the first show in March, her cell phone went off on stage seconds before a performer was about to break into song. “The audience cracked up,” she says. “They are so forgiving. We make mistakes all the time, and they love us. The audience is what makes the place so special.” Bluegrass guitarist and performer Ralph Motley, a cousin of Steve Motley, remembers the night, about five years ago, when a snake crawled up into a transformer, killing the electricity. The Opry went on: He played acoustic guitar and sang for the rest of the evening. Jimmy Smith recalls the night a young girl was performing, “singing her heart out,” when an Irish setter hopped up on stage and sat beside her. “Everybody started laughing. There have been so many instances when comical things have happened.”

     The performers are all paid—but only a “pittance,” says Ripley. “We’ve had people say, ‘I don’t want any money for performing.’ But we insist that they at least get gas money. And at the end of the year, if we have some excess money, we pay our band members and other regulars a little bonus to thank them. We’re not talking thousands, but we do what we can.”

     In the late 1970s, Joanna Nix used a Nashville-based agent to bring genuine country music stars to the Lil’ Ole Opry. Faron Young, Barbara Fairchild, Joe Maphis (an expert guitar player from Virginia whose picking can be heard on the theme music to the old Bonanza TV show) and Ernest Tubb and his Texas Troubadours were among the Nashville acts that performed in Mathews.

     Nix says that when Tubb came to the theater, “we were all nervous about it.” The tension became even more pronounced when a major thunderstorm rolled through town not long before the show. “Tubb was with me in the lobby,” recalls Nix, “and our lights started flashing on and off. I said, ‘Uh-oh, I hope we don’t lose our power.’” Tubb, unconcerned, pointed to his tour bus outside the theater and replied, “Don’t you worry, darling: That old thing has a generator that will run three Ferris wheels and a merry-go-round. We’ll have us a show.”

     The biggest star to play Donk’s was Dolly Parton, who sang on October 1, 1976. Even then, Nashville-based agents and groups had heard of the Lil’ Ole Opry—it had a pretty good reputation. Weeks earlier, Parton had had a throat operation, and her agent called Nix to ask whether Wickham would be interested in having her perform. She was getting ready to start a tour and needed a place to get back in voice. “I wouldn’t have dreamed of getting her in those days,” says Nix, but she did: Parton performed at two weekend shows—for $4,000—and gave audience members tours of her bus after the performances.

     “She took everything but expenses and left us with $27,” remembers Smith, “so we made money on it. It was a wonderful time. I got a hug from her, and now I tell people that that was the two biggest things that ever happened to me.”

     Nix says that until Garth Brooks came along, she could afford to hire B-quality Nashville acts for Donk’s for as little as $2,500. But in the early 1980s, Brooks boosted the popularity of country music, and the price for a merely decent act—“not the tops,” says Nix—doubled. The family stopped hiring Nashville performers. Still, Nix is proud of the good rapport she established with the Nashville establishment and recalls the time she and the family went to the Grand Ole Opry and saw Roy Acuff. “They knew all about Virginia’s Lil’ Ole Opry, and we got treated like kings and queens.”

     By all accounts, any conversation about music and Mathews County inevitably leads to the Smith family—who in the postwar years were something like a country and gospel music precursor to the Von Trapp family. The Smiths are said to be one of the oldest families in the county, settling on a king’s land grant parcel in 1653. The family’s musical heritage doesn’t go back that far, but it is widespread. Harriet and Jessie Smith, two of 11 children of L. Seabrook Smith and his wife, were the first to make a name. Performing as the Smith Sisters, they sang country and religious music at various venues (churches, county fairs and festivals) in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They also sang live for local radio shows. “They were famous in this area,” says Nix, who along with Betsy Ripley is a daughter of Jessie Smith. “They entertained all around,” she says. “That’s where we got the bug.”

     Both sisters recall their mother sitting at the foot of their beds at night when they were toddlers, singing country music instead of reading books. Says Ripley, “Those were the days of Sunshine Sue [Workman] and WRVA’s Old Dominion Barn Dance up in Richmond.” (According to the website, the Old Dominion Barn Dance was “a wildly popular show long before Nashville controlled country music.” From 1946 to 1957, Mary Higdon Workman, whose stage name was Sunshine Sue, sang for the show and hosted its live broadcasts over WRVA from the Lyric Theater in Richmond.)

     Jessie Smith performed Sunshine Sue songs, and daughters Betsy and Joanna grew up singing a lot of the same songs themselves. After the star’s death in 1979, Ripley says, Kings Dominion amusement park in Doswell hired her and Nix to perform a tribute to Sunshine Sue. That was a big deal, and became even more special when they noticed two members of Sunshine Sue’s cast, Yodeling Bennie Kissinger and Fiddlin’ Curley Collins, in the audience that day, crying. “After that,” says Ripley, “they performed with us at Donk’s until they both died. There is a lot of history here.”

     After their marriages in the early 1940s, Harriet and Jessie Smith largely dropped off the local music circuit. But their two youngest siblings, Jimmy and Joice’ Smith, filled the breach, performing both individually and as a duo. By the late 1950s, the Smiths were joined on stage by nieces Nix and Ripley, teens at the time. Calling themselves the Sometimes Four, they performed mostly gospel music in Tidewater and Maryland. Ripley and Nix later became the lead vocalists for Shades of Country—which later morphed into the Donk’s house band—and they still perform occasionally on the show, when the urge strikes.

     By the late 1970s and early 1980s, more and younger Smiths were coming along and learning to perform at early ages—Smith’s children, and those of Nix and Ripley. As teens, the kids all carted home trophies from the then-annual Virginia Folk Music Association championship in Crewe, and all performed at Donk’s. Suffice it to say, there have been a lot of Smiths—spread out over three or four generations—and many if not all of them have been a part of the Lil’ Ole Opry at one time or another. As Nix puts it, “We’re all performers. Nobody ever washed a dish when there wasn’t somebody singing or having a good time with music.”

     Having a good time remains what the Lil’ Ole Opry is all about. Donk’s puts on about 22 shows a year, and according to family members there have been remarkably few disputes. “We all think alike, and our goals are the same,” says Ripley. “We sometimes have spirited conversations about what we’re doing or where we are going, but we get along great. We’re family! You don’t have any choice if you’re family. We raised our children that way, too. Joanna said I had to plan my wedding around the performances at Donk’s. Everybody has had to plan vacations and weddings around our schedule.”

    And what of the future? The founding generation is getting up in age, but the show will go on. The old theater is getting a slow makeover. A lady in Mathews, who does not want to be identified, recently bought Donk’s and has bankrolled some improvements. “She loved the Opry and was concerned that we wouldn’t have a [good] place to perform,” says Ripley. Thanks to her benevolence, the theater just got its first heating and air-conditioning system, and new downspouts have been installed outside. There is a plan to gradually install new seats.

     “It’s been a good run for a long time—we enjoy it so very much,” says Jimmy Smith. “It’s been a big family thing.”

     Joanna Nix hopes and expects that the show will carry on, perhaps “with more attendance and a little more pizzazz.”

     If Lynda Smith Greve has her way, that will happen. She doesn’t plan to change the show much in the coming years, she says, “because it’s not broken.” She would like to start bringing back Nashville acts, because they generate excitement, and aims to keep the show “varied” with respect to the ages of the performers and the styles of country music they perform. “The quality will just keep getting better.”

     She’s particularly excited about the potential of youngsters like Raymond Meeks, whose sister, Kasey, is also a budding singer. Greve laughs when recalling the moment when she told some of the young performers about the John Denver tribute. “Their response was, ‘Who’s John Denver?’ I knew I was old at that point.”

     Actually, by Donk’s standards, Greve is young—and her creativity and talent will drive the Lil’ Ole Opry in the years ahead. She sang two Denver tunes to end the first act—and got a standing ovation from some people.

     Later in the evening, Jessica Zelinsky, from Williamsburg, won the talent contest, playing “Orange Blossom Special” on her fiddle. And P.J. Owens finally made his appearance, singing the Carl Smith tunes “If Teardrops Were Pennies,” and “Dog-Gone It Baby, I’m in Love.” The crowd was rapt and soon afterward drifted out of the little roadside theater and into a quiet, starry Mathews night. The hardworking Shades of Country band stood and stretched—it had been a long night. There’d be no more guitar plucks and finger slides until Thursday, the first rehearsal for the next country music show. •

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