Formed in 1987 when three local musicians—Joe Lee Huffman, Willie Gene Huffman, and Robert Eaton—got together to play music and share supper, the Sparta Opry has become a community institution. Having offered more than 100 country, bluegrass, blues, and gospel performances some years, all staffed by volunteers, the Opry has become a beloved destination for residents of Chickasaw County and beyond.
That a town with a population of under 200 would become the home of a Mississippi country music institution able to draw attendees of all ages from across the region was far from inevitable. That the volunteers who built and worked to maintain The Sparta Opry made it so is a testament to this community’s commitment to providing both entertainment and camaraderie. The Sparta Opry was born in the summer of 1987 when Robert Eaton invited Joe Lee Huffman and Willie Gene Huffman, who would get together to sing and play country music, to perform in his back yard and share a chittlin’ supper. Local musicians Walter “Buddy” Eaton and Jamie Myers quickly joined in. The supper shows became regular Friday night events, staged in an abandoned welding shed on the Eaton property. The band, which featured a mixture of traditional country, bluegrass and gospel, became known as The Sparta Ramblers. In the decades that followed, only one Friday night show was missed, due to an ice storm. Monthly Saturday gospel music shows were added to the schedule later.
Neighbors brought covered dishes to the show to feed the growing crowds, and soon Opry volunteers were serving soft drinks, hamburgers and ice cream on site. The Huffmans established a “no alcohol” policy to keep the Opry an all-ages, family-friendly operation, and it would be precisely that. Two years later, while raising money to construct the permanent building that became the weekly get-together’s home, the founders incorporated the Sparta Opry. The early board members, including William “Sonny” Scott, J.W. Crowley, James “Red” Callahan, Robert Huffman, Kenny Scott, Joe Lee Doss, George Thompson, Joe Lee Huffman, Jamie Myers, Walter “Buddy” Eaton, Joe Eaton, and Robert Eaton, were all volunteers. Opry funding was based on board member dues, food sales and donations; admission remained free. Work for the operation–whether on the music, the food, or maintenance of the Opry’s home–was entirely voluntary, and donated. Spirited fundraising events to support those in need locally, particularly senior citizens, became regular Opry events.
Two decades on, the Opry featured two house bands, the bluegrass Back Porch Pickers, and the country Drifters. Among the performers regularly featured were co-founder Britton “Spooky” Cole, a Delta blues specialist; Mack Banks, who had recorded rockabilly locally and in Nashville; and Joe Rickman, who had recorded rockabilly and fronted a classic country band. The musical mix proved as enticing to attendees as the mix of neighbors and friends.
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