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Roots music

Published 10:21pm Tuesday, July 5, 2011

By Amanda VanDerBroek

Tiny town of Lasker preserves old-time country music

For the most part, the one stoplight in Lasker, N.C., stands lonely, swaying in the breeze, reflecting its red, green and yellow colors at the empty crossroads below.

In the small Northampton County, N.C., town, it’s usually as quiet as a church mouse. However, that all changes one evening a week inside the walls of the Lasker Grand Ole Opry down Lasker Golf Course Road, not far from that lonesome stoplight.

To a passerby the opry looks like your typical gray, large storage barn sitting out back of the home of Calvin and Barbara Jean Daughtry. The only clue that the building might be something special is a faded sign out front that reads “Lasker Grand Ole Opry.”

Each Friday, people from all over North Carolina and Virginia pack the opry’s side lawn/parking lot, pay the $7 cover charge and cut loose on the wooden dance floor to the sounds of traditional country music.

“We just pick and grin and have a good time,” Barbara said.

It all began in 1975, when what now houses the opry was just an electrical shop/storage building. Barbara recalled a group of musicians seeking a place to practice their instruments, and it seemed natural for the Daughtrys to open their doors.

Musical talent seems to run deep in the roots of the Daughtry family. Calvin is something of a regional music legend in his own right, having played with Jackie Strickland and the Bluebirds. His musical aspirations took him to various venues around the region, including the Moonlight Room outside Norfolk, Va.

“I played everything up there (on stage) except the piano and drums,” he said. “Before I lost my leg, my favorite to play was the steel guitar.”

Calvin said his sons are also talented in music. And then there is the Daughtrys’ “American Idol” finalist grandson, Chris, who has gone on to find success with his band bearing the family surname. Chris was raised in Lasker until he was 14 years old.

“I guess you could say that he sang his first song (“Achy Breaky Heart”) out here,” Barbara said.

Calvin’s musical connections helped the opry attract a crowd the night it opened. He said he had been playing at 301 Club outside of Emporia, Va., for 16 years when he started building the opry as an electrical shop to support a part-time occupation.

“I told them over there when I left I was going to be playing at my house,” he said.

After a trip to Nashville, Tenn., to perform, Calvin decided to name his dance hall after “the home of American music,” The Grand Ole Opry.

“We had twenty-something the first night we played, and then the crowd kept getting bigger every Friday night,” he said.

Along with the crowd, the opry grew, as well, needing more space. Bathrooms were added along with seating areas and a stage for the musicians.

The Daughtrys make sure there’s no bad behavior with a few simple regulations, including no smoking and no alcohol.

During the 26 years the Lasker Grand Ole Opry has existed, the dance hall has built a large band of followers who come from all around Northeast North Carolina and Tidewater, Va.

Burchell Smith of Colerain, N.C., recalled his first time at the opry several years ago.

“I came with a friend the first time,” he said. “He wanted me to meet a woman down here, and when we left going on back I told him, ‘Red, you have just carried me to Uglyville.’”

Though it wasn’t love at first sight for Smith and the woman he was paired with, it was just the beginning of his love affair with the Lasker Grand Ole Opry.

Now Smith travels from his home in Bertie County, N.C., an hour away, with Clara, his wife of two years, for the music, friends and dancing.

“We’re very friendly with all of them,” he said of the opry crowd. “It’s something like a social. We never have any problem, it’s…”

“It’s a friendly atmosphere,” Clara finished his sentence.

With so many loyal regulars, the crowd at the Lasker Grand Ole Opry tends to be a little more mature than others in the typical social scene.

“We have some age on us, but we enjoy it,” said Charles Burnette of Roanoke Rapids.

Though the opry’s band began as a collection of practicing musicians, a band of regular locals now plays at the facility each Friday. That group includes Mary Griffith of Lake Gaston, N.C., on bass, Gene Scott of Gaston, N.C., on drums, Tommy Knight of Boykins, Va., on lead guitar, Roy Brown Jr. of Faison’s Old Tavern, N.C., on keyboard and John Suiter of Garysburg, N.C., on the steel guitar.

Brown has been playing and writing music since he was 9 and has played with the opry band for more than a decade. For Brown, the opry has allowed him a creative outlet for his music.

“It’s unique to have something like this,” he said. “It’s a nice thing to look forward to it every Friday.”

Music, dancing and friendship are common themes at the Lasker Grand Ole Opry, and that fellowship, the Daughtrys say, is what keeps so many coming back.

Barbara said her son asks if she ever gets tired of working and running the opry.

“I say, ‘Yeah, I get tired,’ but I think of all the people that are waiting for this door to open,” she said. “So the years keep going by and we keep doing it.”

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