Originally created 01/07/97

Pickin' and grinnin'



Lonnie and Easter Hopkins have a pretty good idea of what they will be doing this Saturday night, and any Saturday night in the foreseeable future.

The husband and wife will step out of their living room and into the Hopkins Music Room for an evening of food and music with about 50 good friends or friends-to-be.

Ten years ago Mr. Hopkins, a retired coal miner from Virginia, and his brother Jack, who lives across the street, built the room onto Lonnie's home in rural Blythe.

Almost every Saturday night since then, people have gathered there to listen to and play golden oldies of bluegrass, country and gospel music.

The visitors bring covered dishes such as stuffed celery, ham-and-cheese sandwiches and pound cake, which are set out on tables running along one side of the room. At one end of the room is a slightly elevated stage, and out in front of it are 50 green swivel chairs.

While the bands play, some people sit and eat; others talk casually in the back or outside; some sit and listen. Admission is by invitation only.

The music usually begins around 7 p.m. and goes until about 11. At some point Mr. Hopkins' group, Etterlee Road, will play bluegrass and gospel for about an hour. A couple of other bands will usually play, but those are usually pickup crews pulled from the audience. Musicians hang their guitars and banjos while waiting on deck. The selection includes standards such as A Picture of Me Without You, Love is Like a Flower and Who Will Sing For Me?

While visitors enjoy the music, the real appeal of the Hopkins Music Room is that it gives people who don't fit into the club scene a place to go on Saturday night.

A sign behind the stage reads: ``Positively No Alcohol Allowed. No Profane Language. Thank You.'' That sign has been a constant since the very first show on May 18, 1986. It was up before the walls were paneled or the floor was carpeted. It's now part of a clutter that includes landscape paintings, portraits of Jesus and Elvis Presley and hundreds of Polaroids of music room visitors.

Della Cowart of Augusta has been coming to the Hopkins Music Room regularly, almost since its beginning. The regulars are like an extended family, she said. There are people there she can rely on when she needs help.

Many of the people who come to the music room are older and don't have many options for going out on a Saturday night, either because nightclubs don't cater to their tastes, or they are too loud and expensive.

The Hopkins Music Room is just the opposite. The music being played is what Ms. Cowart and her friends grew up on. Drinking and cursing are prohibited, so the atmosphere is just what she likes. The cost - well, it's free.

``A lot of us are on Social Security, not a big income, so you can't afford a nightlife,'' Ms. Cowart said. ``But you can't buy anything better than this.''

Jerry Redmond, a minister at Keysville Baptist Church and a regular visitor, said the sort of gathering that takes place at the Hopkins Music Room is a throwback to pre-television society, and the sort of thing America needs more of.

``It's kind of like the old days,'' he said. ``What did people used to do? We used to get together.''

Like everyone else there, the Rev. Redmond was invited to the Hopkins Music Room by a friend. The room is not open to the public, and you have to be invited by someone. This ensures that visitors will maintain the atmosphere Mr. Hopkins has created.

``When someone brings a new person out here, you know it's straight up and down,'' Jack Hopkins said.

Musicians at the Hopkins place said that private music rooms in homes are not uncommon around the Southeast, but they did not know of any others in the Augusta area.

The musicians are a mix of skill levels. Etterlee Road can perform out and about at churches and nursing homes. Others can play for friends, but probably not for the public.

But then, the Hopkins Music Room isn't really about finding the next Garth Brooks.

``It's not based on talent,'' said Betty DeClue, who sings with Etterlee Road. ``It's based on Lonnie giving them a turn, and I think that's terrific.''

At each show Mr. Hopkins passes around a log book. Over the years more than 1,000 people have visited from 23 states.

When asked for memories of special nights or unusual things that have happened over the years, people can't come up with much. There's the time they had a surprise birthday party for Easter Hopkins, and the Christmas parties are nice. Once the lights went out for a while, but people kept playing.

What makes the Hopkins Music Room work is not spectacle, but reliability. Those invited know what they are doing on Saturday night. They know what type music they will hear, and what type people they will see.

The steadiness has such appeal, Mr. Hopkins said he doesn't expect to be getting out of town for the weekend any time soon.

``There's so many people expecting to come out to play, it's hard to get away,'' Mr. Hopkins said.