Country Music U.S.A. final performance Tuesday

Sonny Long

July 7, 2011 at 2:07 a.m.
Updated July 8, 2011 at 2:08 a.m.

Chris Rybak, 2000

Chris Rybak, 2000

YOAKUM - The music does end.

The Yoakum Community Center will fall quiet following Tuesday's final Country Music U.S.A. show after providing entertainment to the area each month since September 1977.

Including road performances, that's more than 425 shows of pickin', fiddlin' and singing.

Jim Witte, who has served as the show's master of ceremonies since its inception and never missed a performance, explained why it was time for the show to come to an end.

Those factors include a dwindling attendance because of the economy and the age of the audience.

"The third thing is, we've had so many shows in nearby towns that have spun off of this show," Witte, 77, said. "We were the original country opry in South Texas."

About 15 country opry-style shows are now within a 100-mile radius of Yoakum.

The Yoakum show had its roots in jam sessions among local musicians including members of Ardie Ray Stevens' family.

Stevens, 74, still plays guitar with the house band, the Country Volunteers, as does Cliff Hartnett, 75.

The first performance, at the Grand Theater in downtown Yoakum, cost 50 cents to attend.

"We've had a great run. It's been a great show," said Hartnett, a rhythm guitarist. "We've done a lot of good for the kids and for the people in the audience. It gives them somewhere to go. It's a good clean show, no drinking, no dancing. I'm going to miss all of it."

That good for the kids includes more than $350,000 in scholarships to Yoakum High School students through the Yoakum Rotary Club, the show's sponsor.

In November 1979 the show moved from downtown to the Yoakum Community Center which seats 1,500.

The 12th annual anniversary show, in September 1989, filled the community center and more than 200 people were turned away.

"It was not uncommon for us to draw 1,000 people on a regular basis," said Hartnett. "One night we did two shows in the old theater because of the crowds."

The show also traveled in the early years, putting on performances in area towns to help raise funds for various charities.

Country Music U.S.A. musicians also performed at the Rotary Zone Institute in Austin in 1982.

A host of visiting performers have graced the stage during the more than 33 years including more than one who has taken their talents to Nashville and most recently John Wayne Schulz of Karnes City, who made the top 40 during the most recent "American Idol" competition.

"John Wayne first played here when he was 8 years old," said Witte. "We've watched him grow up."

Witte said he going to miss the members of the audience the most.

"The crowds are so wonderful. They are family to us. Everyone that comes through that door is family," he said. "We've had a faithful following of about 200 who are here each and every show."

Greeting those family members for many years has been Bill Lopez, current president of the Yoakum Area Chamber of Commerce and the show's advertising manager.

"I'll miss greeting people as they came through that front door. I know just about everyone that comes through there," said Lopez, who also helps many of the nursing home residents who attend get on and off their buses.

"I'm gonna miss that when the second Tuesday rolls around. I love those people," Lopez, 78, added. "It's been a place for our older people to go and relax and have a good time and it doesn't cost them a lot of money."

The shows are also recorded on video that is made available to the local nursing homes for residents who can't make the show.

From 1997 through 2001, Country Music U.S.A. received the American Eagle Award for the "Best Live Show" from the Country Music Organization of America, according to a news release.

"It's something we've done so long, we'll miss it," said Witte. "We wish we could go on but there's a limit to everything.

"It's been a remarkable experience for all of us."



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