CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Some of America's best bluegrass groups spent many of their salad day nights performing in front of the family friendly audience at Milton's Mountaineer Opry House during the past 40 years.
Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Mountain Heart, Lonesome River Band, Seldom Scene, Blue Highway, Melvin Goins, the Lilly Brothers, Lionel Cartwright the Country Gentlemen are among performers who have played at the 550-seat venue in a cement block building just off the Milton exit of Interstate 64.
"We've had bands signed to record contracts here," said Larry Stephens, the retired Cabell County Sheriff's deputy who runs Mountaineer Opry House with his wife, Mary.
"I think we've had just about everybody in bluegrass play here except Alison Krauss, and now we can't afford her," said Stephens. "But we've had some of the people who played with her over the years play here," including Adam Steffey of the Boxcars, the 2011 International Bluegrass Music Association's Mandolin Player of the Year, who toured with Krauss and Union Station for seven years.
While the Mountaineer Opry House has been in operation since 1971, Larry and Mary Stephens began running the bluegrass venue in 1991, after owner Paul King suggested they consider becoming managers.
"We'd been going to the shows there and developed a friendship with Paul," said Stephens. "When he asked about running it, I said I didn't know much about doing something like that, but he said 'You can do it. Give it a try,' and we did."
Twenty years later, Stephens said he and his wife have retained their love of bluegrass music, the musicians who play it, and the loyal customers who have become a kind of extended family.