MAYTOWN — Outside, the December temperature is in the 30s, but inside Carl and Norma's Li'l Opry House, listeners warm themselves with bluegrass music and one another's company.
Located at Ky. 946 and Ky. 1010 near the spot where Morgan, Menifee and Wolfe counties meet, the opry house is a gathering place each Tuesday night for musicians to jam for hours.
The stage patter is casual and lively as the performers move from one song to the next. Fiddler Randy Maloney grins as he addresses Danny Gevedon, who plays stand-up bass.
"It would help if we told the bass player what chord we're playing in," Maloney says.
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"It wouldn't hurt," Gevedon responds.
The performers have varying backgrounds. On mandolin is Winston "Wendy" Miller, who has played with bluegrass greats J.D. Crowe and Larry Sparks. On guitar is Rick Bartley, a former heavy-equipment operator who has recorded CDs on his own and with his brother Shayne. On another guitar is Larry Jenkins, a retired crane operator. And on mandolin and guitar is Dr. Derek Caudill, a veterinarian.
The musical lineup changes as players take a break and others succeed them. Some never take the spotlight, preferring instead to accompany the band from the comfort of seats surrounding the stage. Perhaps 20 people listen from church pews.
"Most of the time that stage is full up there," said Roby Gullett, who drove 40 minutes from Magoffin County to attend a recent performance. As many as 21 musicians have been on stage at one time.
The opry house has been a Maytown staple for 14 years, since Randy Maloney and his parents, Norma and Carl, began the local entertainment venue. The opry building was once a grocery operated by the elder Maloneys, but they moved the business into a larger building across the road.
Inside the opry house, a big American flag covers a large portion of the wall behind the musicians. To the flag's right, from top to bottom, is a Skoal smokeless tobacco sign ("The Chewer's Choice"); a portrait of Christ; and a handmade placard that warns, "Not responsible for accidents."
Red Ryder BB guns hang on one wall, along with an ancient Royal Crown Cola thermometer. Hanging above the stage are tools, lanterns, buckets and kitchen utensils. Norma Maloney said her husband was responsible for the Cracker Barrel-like motif.
"If there's anything at our house that I'm not using right at the time, he says, 'I'll take that down to the jam house,'" she said.
There is no charge for admission to the opry, but a box on a chair solicits donations to pay the utility bill.
In a bid to warm up the crowd before the music starts, Miller tells a couple of jokes. Each falls flat, which makes him an easy target for teasing.
"Wendy is a great musician, but he's going to school to learn how to tell jokes," Randy Maloney tells the audience. Miller and the crowd crack up.
"He told a bunch of 'em here one night and hardly got a laugh out of anybody," Carl Maloney said, chuckling. "Bless his heart."
A few minutes past 7 p.m., the band launches into Boston Boy, a sprightly bluegrass tune that Bill Monroe's Uncle Pendleton Vandiver would play. From there it's one standard after another, from the Carter Family's Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone to Ralph Stanley's Rank Strangers to Me. More than two hours later, they're still picking.
"I have stayed there with a bunch of young people trying to learn until 2 o'clock in the morning," said Randy Maloney, 59, a retired employee of the Woodsbend Youth Development Center in West Liberty. "But generally it's over by 10."
"It's just community fun; that's all it is," Bartley said. "All we get out of it is to laugh and joke with each other. We don't care what skill level you are or anything. Anybody that wants to get up there to play and sing can."
The opry also has served as a training ground for young musicians to learn from those who hope to pass the bluegrass baton to the next generation. "Over the years, we've had several young people come up and get a start there," Randy Maloney said.
In recent weeks, the opry has been an important source of emotional therapy for Carl Maloney, 77, who has been diagnosed with bladder and prostate cancers. He already had fought and survived colon cancer. Carl Maloney acknowledged that singing bass with the musicians "means everything to me."
"I think that's all that God wants me to do right now, is sing gospel songs," he said.
That's clear when Carl and Norma Maloney accompany son Randy and fellow church member Quentin Murphy to sing a rousing version of Bill Gaither's Because He Lives.
Because he lives, I can face tomorrow
Because he lives, all fear is gone
Because I know he holds the future
And life is worth the living
Just because he lives!
But then, in a broader sense, the opry house fellowship has been a healing place for others, too.
Jenkins, the retired crane operator, said playing the guitar was a means to regain use of his hand after a stroke had paralyzed his right side.
Bartley lost his house to a fire in April, but local musicians and guest performer J.D. Crowe held a benefit concert in West Liberty to help him get back on his feet.
The "high lonesome sound" of bluegrass owes much of its authenticity and power to voices steeped in the troubles and heartbreak — as well as the triumphs — of life.
"These songs are about everyday life," Bartley said. "It's a music people understand."
Each Tuesday night, performers and audience come to a mutual understanding at Carl and Norma's Li'l Opry House.