Jam with the Ruritans

Published 10:50 pm Saturday, July 19, 2014

Bluegrass jam has spread like Smuckers, and a Suffolk couple has taken it upon themselves to spread the word, promote the concerts, bring in the artists, handle the publicity and much of the rest of the work needed to make it a success.

The busy duo? Jean and Billy Smith who, in 2008, took it upon themselves to create an entertainment calendar covering Suffolk and northeastern North Carolina.

Their first job was to hit the public with reminders that a group from Rocky Hock in North Carolina’s Chowan County was going to be in concert in their home territory and in our town.

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For more than a decade the group has been playing to full houses, raising several thousand dollars so far for the American Cancer Society. Taking its cue from some folks in Nashville, the group calls itself the Rocky Hock Opry.

But the Smiths promote other shows, as well, including shows sponsored by the Ruritan Club, the Lions Club and other civic organizations.

“These musical groups are made up mostly of amateur local talent performing classic and new country, rockabilly, bluegrass and Southern gospel,” Billy Smith said. “Some groups may include professional musicians who have played, toured, and recorded in Nashville.”

“In 2010 the Bethlehem Ruritan Club was approached concerning using their community home as a venue for some of these groups to perform, gain experience, and offer affordable entertainment to music fans,” he explained.

A few weeks later, the Bethlehem Ruritan Jam was born as a community service event with a decision to host and present local musical groups the last Friday evening of each month, except for December, from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.

The first jam was held Oct. 29, 2010 featuring “Luke Willette and Friends.” Since then, there have been 41 jams showcasing more than 15 bands. The next jam is scheduled July 25, featuring the Hard Knox Bluegrass Band from Newport News.

Officially, the musicians are unpaid, but there is a big, old tip jar on the premises, and, Smith said, “the fans are very generous, most of them tipping $10 each.”

That takes care of the musical nourishment. For the other kind, the club sells sandwiches, hot dogs, barbecue, desserts and drinks. And, tickets are sold for a drawing that nets the winner half the proceeds from the sales of the $10 tickets. The other half of that 50-50 covers club expenses.

“This is a community service project,” Smith emphasizes. “The club has other fundraising projects for its many financial contributions to this area.”

“The Jam has proved to be a most successful community service event,” he said, “with audiences made up of jam fans from all over eastern Virginia and northeast North Carolina. Most nights, you have to arrive early for a favorite seating location.

“This also offers you more time to visit neighbors, friends and make new friends,” Smith said. “If you haven’t jammed with the Ruritans, you really should try it.”