For over 20 years, lovers of old-fashioned country music have found their way to the small community of Pilgrim, Texas to listen to one of south-central’s oldest country opry. Founded in 2000 by Sandra Wolff and her brother Bill McGinty, the Pilgrim Opry has evolved into one of the top community attractions while at the same time featuring some of the top performers in Texas.
On Saturday night, Feb. 8, the Pilgrim Opry started the 2020 year off with a rousing performance by the members of the Pilgrim New Heirs Band—a takeoff on the name of the original band that started performing 20 years ago, the Pilgrim Heirs Band.
“I think this may be the oldest continuous opry in all of south Texas,” said Johnny Hoffpauir, the owner of Johnny’s Cajun Café and a fiddler in the band. “We worked hard on making sure the first show in February was solid, as we want to get more people involved in attending and participating.”
On Sunday, the band featured 82-year-old Robert Remschel on steel guitar, John Holden on bass, his son Jacob Holden on drums, 81-year-old Wendell O’Neal on lead guitar, Kenny Flowers on rhythm guitar, Johnny on fiddle, Harry Brisco on another fiddle and a couple of guest appearances throughout the night. A crowd of about 100 people joined the musical celebration and home-made beef stew meal that was available beforehand. They were entertained by two hours of old-time country music, featuring music from such legends as Bob Wills, Hank Williams Sr., Earnest Tubbs, Ricky Skaggs, Buck Owens and Porter Wagoner to name a few.
But none of this wouldn’t have happened if it happened for the McGinty family and their cousins.
“I was one of the founders of the Pilgrim Opry back in around 2000,’’ Sandra Wolff said. “The whole thing evolved out of the annual McGinty family reunion. We would come into the community center and set up shop and have a marvelous time. The place was in very rugged condition back then, but it was OK for our purposes.
“I come from a family that loves playing music, and we sit around and sing,” she said before laughingly adding, “well those that could sing did and everyone else listened.”
According to Wolff, the idea started with having a catered meal, followed by two hours or more of old-time country opry. The concept was to make the opry part of the community fabric and hopefully raise enough money to fix up the Pilgrim Community Center.
“It was in rough shape back then,” Wolff said. “The tables were like 100-years old, the bathrooms were outdated, and even the places to play were old and falling apart. We had to do something, and the Pilgrim Opry is what we eventually created.”
Wolff said she and her relatives and local ladies did all the cooking, most of the time at her house. They sometimes conned the men into helping — especially when cooking brisket — but for the most part, the women cooked everything by hand and then had to bring the food and cooking implements to the center. Wolff said she did that every other Saturday every year for 10 or 11 years before finally bowing out of doing the cooking in 2010 or 2011. She said her sister Barbara Quinney and cousins Connie Miller and Irlene Miller enjoyed cooking for the opry, but they always had help from neighbors and friends.
“It was something we looked forward to,” Wolff said. “It was something we could give back to the community. Community centers are important to the social well-being of an area, and we wanted the opry to become an important social event where our neighbors could mingle and visit, enjoy a good meal, and listen to some great music.”
Wolff said her cousins Harold, James and Bryan Irvin were important figures in forming the band. A lot of time was spent at her cousin Bobby Matocha’s house practicing and working on the opry.
Wolff tried to recall all of the original members of the Pilgrim Heirs Band.
“Bill McGinty was on fiddle, Robert Remschel was on steel guitar (he has played for over 50 years!), Jack Finch was on bass fiddle, Bobby and Larry O’Neal were there, and maybe their cousin Wendell—I’m just not 100 percent sure,” Wolff said. “But we had some great musicians play here, including Arnold Parker, Bobby Flores, Dotsie Weber and John Wayne Schulz.
“Heck, John was only 13 when he first played here, but he became popular and was one of the final singers on the television show American Idol.”
Wolff also pointed out all the money raised from the opry is used to fix and maintain the building.
“We put all of it back into the community center after our expenses are paid,” Wolff said. “We have improved the bathrooms, re-did the kitchen, bought new tables and chairs, built a barbecue house and even added an outdoor bathroom.’’
Twenty years of progress — the Pilgrim Opry keeps marching and playing on.