When George D. Hay founded the Grand Ole Opry in 1925, he was searching for a vehicle to showcase American music to an entertainment starved world. His endeavor was an overwhelming success and turned singers with regional fame like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff into national superstars.

Through the success of the Opry, Nashville became the Mecca of country music and the building hosting the event —the Ryman Auditorium — became its shrine, earning the reputation as “the mother church of country music.”

Organizers of a local concert series is following the blueprint Hay utilized nearly a century ago and achieving similar results. The best country, gospel and bluegrass performers in the area are on display monthly at the Southern Illinois Opry, hosted by the Herrin Civic Center.

“This is the best thing that has hit the Southern Illinois music scene in a long time,” said singer Juli Ingram, a longtime country music fixture as lead singer for Quarter Moon, radio personality and now co-host of ‘The Spiel’ with Angie Wyatt on the local Fox affiliate. “There is a wide variety of outstanding talent on display each month. Seating is wonderful. There is not a bad seat in the house. And the acoustics are incredible. You cannot find a better place to listen to music.”

The venue is family friendly, including the double bonus of being alcohol and smoke free.

Ingram, who keeps her vocals in shape with frequent guest appearances with Jackson Junction, said the staff for the Opry puts together a quality lineup each month and fan support has steadily improved.

“I’ve been to most of the shows and I love it. The entertainment value is outstanding,” Ingram said. “There was a nice crowd in October and it nearly doubled in November. It wouldn’t surprise me if the thing didn’t start selling out.”

The December lineup is simply loaded with Miranda Joy Willmore, Cassie Andrews & Calico Creek, Gladhearts, the Herrin High School choir and Loose Gravel, featuring banjo plucking Lt. Governor Shelia Simon.

Doors for the next Opry performance will swing open at 6:30 p.m. Saturday. Music starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 and will be available at the door or can be purchased on line at www.eventbrite.com.

In the past year, Willmore has gone from a virtual unknown on the local music scene to its most dominant female country vocalist. The Jefferson County native has nearly tasted victory several times in the Texaco Country Showdown qualifier and in St. Louis auditions for “The Voice,” but could never make a major statement.

Her luck changed in October with a stunning victory in the Southern Starr Oscar Night Showcase at the Marion Civic Center.

“That was a big step for me. I thought I was getting so close to winning other competitions, but came up short. Instead of getting disappointed, I just kept working hard and doing everything I knew to get better. It was a pretty big deal for me to finally break through,” Willmore said.

A popular waitress at Cracker Barrel in Marion during the day, Willmore has worked a second job as a bartender in local clubs for several years. During breaks at those establishments, she often puts her vocal ability on display by sitting in with the band for a couple songs or performing karaoke, which has earned her the title of “The Singing Bartender.”

Willmore said she working one night at N-Kahootz nightclub in Herrin when she heard Hollie Hiller of Benton had left the Mocking Bird Hill group to start her own band. Willmore successfully auditioned for the vacancy in November at the West Frankfort recording studio of bass player David Batts.

She is amazed with the rapid progress of the band.

“We already have four songs recorded and available for download at CDBaby, iTunes and Reverbnation,” Willmore said. “David is a tireless promoter and has developed a long list of good contacts. We’ve got a lot of radio stations listening to us. We’re getting played on a couple local stations and even on stations in New Zealand.”

The four tunes are “Southern Girl,” “I Should’ve Stopped,” “She Thinks She’s Tough” and “Crumblin’ Down.” They are recorded on the independent CMG Nashville label and are receiving positive reviews and inquiries for major labels.

Willmore said there are plans for her to enter the studio and record a duet with her dad on “Louisiana Ladies,” an original tune her dad sang when he had a band in Nashville several years ago.

Black Diamond show reschedule

Bad weather forced the cancellation of the Easton Corbin/Kendell Marvel concert at Black Diamond Harley-Davidson in Marion on Dec. 5. The show has been rescheduled for Dec. 19. Corbin is currently on the charts with the single “All Over the Road.” Tickets are $10.

VINCE HOFFARD can be reached at 618-658-9095 or vincehoffard@ yahoo.com.

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