By Jim Derry, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
The overflow crowd was upbeat Saturday night as Sunpie Barnes evoked a chuckle while he explained the reason he was a few minutes tardy for the third of four sets at the Abita Springs Opry. "Y'all feeling all right? Y'all look good, but I left my glasses in the car. In fact, that's why I was late. I ran over a possum right round the corner, and it is close to Thanksgiving, so you know ..."
He then fired up his accordion, and his band began to play Zydeco music.
Six times per year -– three times in the spring and three in the fall -– residents from all over the north shore and the metro area travel to the 109-year-old Abita Springs Town Hall to hear traditional music that has been playing across southern Louisiana for nearly a century. On Saturday, the Opry held the last event of its 10th anniversary season with 2 1/2 hours of bluegrass, jazz, gospel, and yes, Zydeco.
Barnes, Cori Walters and her New Orleans Dixieland Jazz Band, the Zion Harmonizers and the Pot Luck String Band strummed and sang to the jam-packed audience of more than 400 with a handful more who couldn't fit inside the wooden building watching and listening on television outside in 48-degree weather.
Bob Baker of Lacombe has been attending the Opry on a fairly regular basis for about five years, and said the music makes him feel as if he has gone back to a time long ago. Even though he is a native Tacoma, Wash., and his wife, Elsa, is from Cuba, he feels as if Louisiana music is something that needs to be kept alive.
"We love this. We especially love New Orleans jazz," he said. "We just feel at home, and the people respect the show. They don't cut up, and really, it's almost like a religion. This might be a dying thing. I was just thinking as that trumpet player was playing, 'Are there going to be enough people to keep this tradition going?' I sure hope so."
One didn't need to poll the musicians to know their experience added up to several centuries. One gospel musician, Joseph Warrick, has been a part of the Zion Harmonizers for 55 of the group's 73 years of existence. He has traveled with them to countries "I'd never have been able to see otherwise," such as Italy, Switzerland, France and Germany.
"The adrenaline rush keeps me going," said Warrick, 72. "Once the show starts, it just happens. All of the preparations, the practice, it's all worth it. It just comes together. It's a camaraderie. It's a beautiful experience."
Bryan Gowland, who has served as the show's producer, chairman of the board of directors and emcee for all of its 10 years, said the Abita Springs Opry might be the "most well-known show on the north shore, and we've been playing to sold-out crowds for years now." He said there's a waiting list for groups to play the event, and it's always a fun time.
"There's just a great vibe to this," he said. "I grew up in New Orleans, and I grew up listening to all this great music. Being with the Opry has put me in touch with music I wasn't too familiar with, and this has been a great growing experience for me. ...
"We have such a beautiful culture, and this is such an important part of it. We have to keep this alive."
The 11th year of the Abita Springs Opry will open March 16. For more information on how to get season or individual tickets or to see past shows, go to www.abitaopry.org.