Big Country Sounds from a Small Kansas Town
Nestled in "beautiful, tropical, downtown, Tonganoxie, Kansas," as the locals like to say, visitors will find the sounds of the Grand Ole Opry and the stage lights and excitement of a little "Branson" Missouri at Annie's Country Jubilee. This little, musical powerhouse provides visitors from all over Kansas and outside the state with a taste of country that you might otherwise have to travel quite a distance to enjoy.
It is a cold Saturday evening in spring when I park my car and walk toward Annie's. I approach to find the twinkling lights that welcome visitors and the high arched doorway that reflects the same majestic vocal/instrumental talents that are found there. Upon entering, I find a couple hundred people excited about the evening's performance and eagerly anticipating the time they will spend together. Each weekend you can hear Jim Winters leading the band with his deep and soothing sounds and encouraging the audience to participate in every delightful minute. As emcee, he occasionally, shouts to the audience, "hoot," and in response and right on key, the audience shouts back at him, "hollar!" Ronni Ward fills the auditorium with beautiful tones like none heard before while owner, Annie Dunavin brings a little bit of Patsy Cline to an already entertaining evening. David George plays the lead guitar and is one of the most talented instrumentalists I've heard. Fred Uzzell solos on the steel guitar, while Marvin Bredemeier fiddles his way into your heart. Steve Straub, Ted Ward and Haylie Walters complete the group with talents of their own.
On this particular night I am asked backstage for a pre-show interview and a chance to take photos of band members as they prepare for the night. I enter through a side door that leads into a long hallway with numerous dressing rooms and a “wall of fame” where previous guests have signed their names. After a short tour, owner, Annie Dunavin, graciously sits down to share a lot of memories with me and to discuss some of her future plans for the Opry House.
"I was born in North Missouri and moved to Kansas 22 years ago. I had always known that I could sing, but it became more apparent when performing Karaoke and singing Patsy Cline's, "Crazy," says Annie. Audience members as well as friends were amazed at the quality of her talent as they encouraged her to pursue her singing career.
"My husband, Terry and I traveled around for years; he was my manager and I was singing for audiences mainly in the tri-state area of Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska," says Annie. Five years ago, they discovered and purchased what was then called, Glen's Opry house in Tonganoxie. They were impressed with its potential for growth and made a deal to not only acquire the building but the talents of the band members as well. Annie and Terry had traveled to enough country shows that they knew what audiences and performers wanted. They had all they needed to make a go of it on their own. Today, the Opry House carries with it Annie's name and has most definitely become more than anyone ever imagined. "People from Nashville are now starting to call and leave messages about being on our show. Recently, we've heard from Connie Smith, Johnny Lee and Jack Green." This type of interest is causing an increase in attendance and a demand for more shows and larger spaces. Annie recently added a balcony section, increased the size of the main lobby and added additional restrooms and other amenities.
As I turned the page of my notebook, I prepared to meet with fiddler, Marvin Bredemeier. This delightful 71-year-old entertainer sports a large, black cowboy hat and brings years of talent to the stage. As he entered the room, I have to admit, I was impressed by the humble way he had of sharing his life's accomplishments. "My dad played fiddle and my mom played guitar. She used to lay it on her lap and 'chord.' Growing up in a musical family, I started learning to play when I was eight-years old and have continued to play up until the age I am today." As I prompted Marvin for more information, he described the people he's known and the places he's been while on his professional journey. "I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and played in a lot of country music shows like the Cowtown Jubilee and the Tidwell Jubilee both out of Missouri. I have also played with Little Jimmy Dickens, Homer and Jethro, Bill Carlisle and Kenny Price." Marvin's career has taken him all across the country and to Nashville, Tulsa, and throughout Texas.
In 2007, Kansas selected David George as its 2007 State Flat Pickin' Champion. As this young entertainer entered the room, I was eager to find out how he acquired such skill and how he became a state champion. "I come from a musical family; I've been playing both electric and acoustic guitar since I was 11 years of age, but I've been to watch my dad play at music shows since I was four years old." David also brings a singing talent to the show that has both a sound of its own and an ability to mimic the sounds of other well-known performers, particularly Buck Owens. His says his skill must have come from his mother: "Dad can't sing a lick."
The Annie's Country Jubilee Band provides audiences with sounds of a true American music. And special guests add to the already amazing shows. One particular guest who made an impression this past winter, Cajun fiddler Lewis Darby, hails from Missouri, but brought with him a sound straight out of the Louisiana Bayou. A small man in stature , Darby oftens falls to the floor and fiddles on his back until the audience is filled with teary-eyed laughter. Other weekends feature the tribute bands plaing the music of such artists as Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty and Ray Price.
Annie's sits at 4th and Main in Tonganoxie and is located just off of US Highway 24-40, west of the Kansas Speedway. The show begins each Saturday at 7:30pm and tickets can be purchased either at the door or by reserving them at 913-845-9600. More information can be obtained by visiting their website.