Signal Mountain’s renowned Mountain Opry is closing its doors.
News of the closing came late Friday on the facebook page of Mountain Cove Bluegrass group, one of the many performers that have taken the stage at the Opry during the four decades it has operated.
“It is with much regret the Mountain Opry board voted to permanently close,” the terse announcement said. “The funds will be distributed among local charities.”
“Mike Harvey will be heading up a new bluegrass venue after the (coronavirus) pandemic wave is over,” the announcement continued.
“Watch for updates and announcements.”
Mr. Harvey, an anesthetist at Erlanger Hospital, is the father of Mountain Cove founder and banjo player Cody Harvey.
Earlier, Mountain Cove had mounted a last ditch effort to keep the traditional bluegrass venue open.
“We learned this week that the Mountain Opry board is considering closing the Opry permanently,” Mountain Cove’s facebook page explained on Thursday. “We have many fond memories there and (attribute) our start as a band to the Mountain Opry. We strongly oppose this decision!”
Readers were urged to contact board members “ASAP” and urge them not to close the facility.
The opry – which first opened in September 1979 – was the brainchild of Dr. Ray Fox, then-dean of admissions at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Dr. Fox had lived in Memphis and attended its renowned Lucy Opry. He decided to try to start a similar venue on Signal Mountain and feature music indigenous to the area.
For help getting the project off the ground, he turned to Signal Mountain barber J.J. Hillis. Together, they signed a 50-year lease on the Walden's Ridge Civic League Community Building, installed a sound system, spread the word – and began opening their doors for three hours every Friday evening.
The first night, 60 people showed up. Before long crowds were numbering in the hundreds.
A success from the beginning, the opry’s blend of old-timey bluegrass and down-to-earth Appalachian music drew musicians – who were not paid – from across a steadily widening area.
Admission was free, but each week a brown grocery bag was passed through the crowd for contributions. The money was used to pay for the sound system, electricity and other expenses,
Word spread, and a few years later it was being featured in articles in the travel sections of faraway newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times.
“The Walden Mountain Opry doesn’t offer rhinestone cowboys and glitter,” began a UPI story written by Judith Tillman in 1986. “It sparkles without gaudy gimmicks.”
Gradually, over the decades, there were changes. Signal Mountain native Ken Holloway took over operation of the non-profit in 2000; he remains a member of the board.
Fans from across the nation, and beyond, continued to show up. Then, back home, they wrote reviews singing the opry’s praises.
“If you are in Chattanooga, DO NOT MISS THIS,” one visitor from Great Britain wrote on an unofficial Opry facebook page in June 2016.
“We live in the UK, but we first came to the Mountain Opry on Signal Mountain 14 years ago,” she continued. “We have just returned from our third visit and it was our main reason for returning to this area . . . The music is wonderful, the people are wonderful, the sense of community is wonderful and you don’t have to pay a dime unless you want to . . . I only wish we could go every Friday night, but hopefully we will be back someday.”
Mike Harvey, CRNA, a lifetime resident of Signal Mountain, said he and his wife, Yvonne, are forming a new bluegrass music venue.
He said, "I was at the first gathering formed at the Connor Toll House for the now closed Mountain Opry. The award winning band, Mountain Cove Bluegrass Band, made their first performance at the Opry. Many bluegrass bands over the years have made their start there and are continuing their love of bluegrass.
"Jamie Dailey, of the number one bluegrass band, Dailey and Vincent, performed as a teenager at the Mountain Opry. We want to keep this venue going.
"The mission of the newly formed bluegrass venue is to preserve the art of bluegrass. Please watch for updates and announcements soon. For information or questions email Mike Harvey at email@example.com