BELLFLOWER -- After too many months of too much peace and quiet, a foot-stompin' night at the opry is about to become an option in Bellflower again.

For area country music fans, the silence couldn't be shattered any too soon.

Or so say Marcia and Merle Shelton, owners of the brand new Bellflower Country Opry, debuting at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Bellflower Community Building (actually the old Bellflower Grade School gym).

Last summer's closing of the McLean County Country Opry at the same site led to countless folks inquiring when the music might return.

"People kept approaching us and asking if we knew of anyone who wanted to bring country music back to Bellflower," says Marcia. "Merle and I talked about it, but we knew we didn't want to do it too soon."

And with good reason: there were some mighty big boots waiting to be filled.

The day the music died occurred last summer when McLean County Country Opry founder/performer Rick Roy died in early July, leaving a void no one thought could be filled.

Roy's labor of love had thrived for a dozen years, even as his audience grew older and he was forced to cut back the shows from twice a month to once a month.

Following a standing-room-only memorial tribute to Roy in August, the McLean County Country Opry was no more.

The Sheltons knew the venue as well as anyone: Marcia was one of the house band's singers and Merle ran the sound system. And both knew the only way a new opry could succeed in Roy's wake was to find someone with his charisma and following.

Enter that someone: Eric Gordon, a 24-year veteran of the local country scene and former member of one of its most popular country bands, the Cattle Bandits.

"We got connected with Eric through the Cowboy Church (in Farmer City)," says Marcia. "We knew he was wanting to change directions in his music career, and we also knew that he had an unbelievable following wherever he went."

Gordon, who left the Cattle Bandits last fall, puts it this way: "For more than 23 years, I've been playing in clubs and bars, and I just became burned out. I wanted to do something where children or grandparents could come and see the show, and I wouldn't have to worry about the place where I'm playing."

Gordon's career-changing desires found their perfect fit with the Sheltons' hopes to find an instant audience magnet.

The net result of that collaboration will be unveiled Saturday night and every fourth Saturday night thereafter (along with a few exceptions to the rule, like 2 p.m. Sunday matinees in June and July).

Gordon will lead the band and play co-host, while Marcia and Merle run the business proper. Marcia will also be onstage with Eric and the band, along with her daughter, Amy, and son-in-law, Andy Heckman.

A key member of the opry band is drummer/occasional bass guitarist Derrick Roy, Rick's son and longtime collaborator, as well as leader of his own non-opry band, the Feudin' Hillbillys (who can be sampled at 10 p.m. Friday in downtown Bloomington's country bastion, Six Strings).

"What makes this opry different from other shows in the area," says Marcia, "is that there will be guest musicians instead of guest singers each month."

Via a rotating shift of singers from the area opry circuit, "we'll be giving local musicians a chance to shine." (This weekend's guests are Todd and Juanita Raymond, Susan Williams and Nick Anderson.)

Shelton describes the ambience as a family-friendly "Branson-style show," with enough room in the former gymnasium to handle a throng of 600, a la the attendance at the Rick Roy memorial.

She'd be happy, however, with an average audience of 400, and, the economy withstanding, thinks the time is right for ending Saturday night peace-and-quiet in Bellflower.

"Gas is no longer $4 a gallon," she begins, realizing that a large segment of the audience is driving into Bellflower from other points. "And it really is cheap entertainment. Where else can you go and get it for a $20 ($10 per adult)? People are anxious for us to open back up."


At a glance


What: Bellflower Country Opry grand opening

When: 7 p.m. Saturday, preceded at 4:30 p.m. by Bellflower Lions Club pancake/sausage supper

Where: Bellflower Community Center (former grade school), Bellflower

Tickets: Adults, $10; under 12, free

Information: 309-722-3497

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