Ministry of Music Lives on at
Gospel Chicken House
and photos by Audrey Hingley, Contributing Writer
and Mary Pollard established the Gospel Chicken House in 1973.
When Ray and
Mary Pollard established
Chicken House in 1973, they had no idea this
humble hall would draw crowds from far and wide
for more than three decades.
night for 33 years, hundreds of people have driven along country roads
looping their way to a destination that appears to be smack in the middle of
nowhere. They come from across the state and around the world to enjoy what
staffers say is the nation’s longest-running “gospel sing” at the
Gospel Chicken House.
Montpelier, a short drive from Richmond, southern gospel and country-infused
music is presented in — literally — a chicken house on Ray and Mary
Pollard’s 84-acre farm. The 40-foot-wide, 100-foot-long renovated
cement-floored chicken house includes stage, sound system, concessions area,
and rows of old church seats accommodating 350 people.
admission charge. Singers and musicians who grace the Gospel Chicken House
stage play for “love offerings” gathered in cardboard buckets passed
around the audience. Concession sales fund facility expenses for the
thought it would get this big, or last this long,” admits Ray Pollard, 84,
who along with wife Mary, now 83, founded the Gospel Chicken House on their
farm in 1973. “It’s amazing to me all the new faces we see each week.”
Pendleton of CYG.
retired auto dealership parts/service manager, is an affable man who seems
loved by everyone you talk to at the Gospel Chicken House. He grew up on
this farm, his family’s home place. Ray and Mary, married nearly 64 years,
have two grown children, Jane Williams and Robert Pollard, and five
grandchildren. Ray seems almost baffled by the success of the Gospel Chicken
singing bass with a gospel group and offered the chicken house to use for
our practicing,” he explains. “We had raised chickens here, we had 6,000
broilers and then layers, but the chicken business had dropped so we had
gotten out of it. We decided to practice here every Saturday night, and word
got around. The first Saturday night we had 35 people [show up]. It just
kept going from there.”
Charrington of CYG.
first started, he had no idea it would be a blessing to so many people,”
Jane Williams says of her father. “It gives them [my parents] a reason to
get up in the morning. My mother looks so forward to it. I think it was the
Lord’s plan all along.”
Vicki Bruce, a
vivacious brunette who looks much younger than her 61 years, emcees most
Saturday nights. A district manager for a subcontracting company, she’s
been involved with the Gospel Chicken House for 26 years. Bruce sings and
schedules musical groups, booked up to a year in advance.
20 acres of grass is always cut for us. Snow is plowed in the winter. These
humble people [the Pollards] will be the first to tell you over the years
many, many people have pitched in to clean, cook and help out. But I
personally know the final responsibility is theirs,” Bruce says.
“Everything is always completed and ready to roll [every] Saturday
More than a
dozen volunteers work each week to keep the Gospel Chicken House operating.
Key volunteers include Carolyn and Bill Packard, Wanda and Chris Branson,
twins Ronald and Donald Lineberry, Vicki’s husband Danny Bruce, Doug
Fender, and Jackie Adams.
people here from all walks of life, everyone from someone who doesn’t know
where their next meal is coming from to the wealthy,” Bruce notes.
“There is the humbleness of Jesus Christ in this building.”
As the 7 p.m.
starting time approached on a recent Saturday night, few empty seats were
left. Large numbers of senior citizens dot the crowd, but there are also
children, teenagers and entire families with kids in tow.
emcee Vicki Bruce with a young Gospel Chickenite.
noticing a shift, with more families and more young people coming, about
1999. I think family life started coming back; families started doing more
things together. And southern gospel and bluegrass music have become popular
again,” Bruce notes.
dressed in a pale blue shirt and blue jeans, is in the sound booth but will
take the stage later, adding his distinctive bass to a group dubbed the
Chicken House Ramblers. Wife Mary sits smiling in a front-row seat next to
her daughter Jane. Ray’s beagle dog Shorty ambles comfortably among the
casually dressed crowd. Audience members walk from the concession area,
home-cooked food in hand, while others congregate in the back, eating,
talking and laughing.
part family reunion, part church social, part concert hall. Picture a
Christian version of Cheers, the TV show set in a bar, “Where everybody
knows your name and they’re always glad you came.”
Walls are lined
with posters and glossy photos of the famous and not-so-famous gospel acts
who have played at the Gospel Chicken House over the years. Famous alumni
include gospel music luminaries like The Cathedrals, Jeff and Sherri Easter,
and Gold City. A closed-circuit TV in the dining area allows volunteer
workers to hear and see the program lineup. Nearby tables overflow with
performers’ CDs for sale.
Gospel Chicken House Band gets things going every Saturday night. When a
singer announces “one of our most requested songs,” the gospel-infused
hit “Long Black Train,” the crowd responds enthusiastically, clapping
and singing along. The songs keep coming, from a rousing version of the hymn
“When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” to Vicki Bruce soloing on “One Day
at a Time.” "We’ve all got CDs, come see us!” a musician jokes
from the stage.
In an era of
superstars, anyone can be a star at the Gospel Chicken House, which is part
of the place’s homespun appeal.
people here [singing] who would not fit in a church choir,” Bruce admits.
“We have extremely talented people, and we have some people where this is
the only stage they will ever be on.”
Oxendine, 34, is lead vocalist for The Oxendines, a trio of North
Carolina-based Native Americans who’ve recorded three CDs and play more
than 200 dates a year. Their well-crafted harmonies are a huge hit with
Gospel Chicken House audiences. But Oxendine admits he was “very shy”
the first time he sang at the Gospel Chicken House a decade ago.
House gives newcomers a chance to be on stage and be exposed to different
audiences,” he explains. “They are very encouraging people, and the
audiences here are just phenomenal.”
Gospel Chicken House’s appeal, Oxendine observes, “People are looking
for something genuine, something real.”
Epps, Donnie Warthan, and Don Fussell of Church Yard Grass (CYG).
Kenny Epps of
the Varina-based group Church Yard Grass adds, “It’s one of our favorite
places to play. They’re family [here].”
visitor Ragan Davidson, Jr., 18, of Glen Allen, says, “I like country,
Southern gospel and bluegrass. The atmosphere here is right up my alley.
Sometimes church is more like a program; this place is more on the fly.
Coming here was good for me ... it kind of woke me back up [in my faith].”
Bill and Carolyn Packard.
Carolyn Packard of Ruther Glen, both in their 60s and employed fulltime,
share cooking/concession-area duties. Bill does most of the grill cooking.
Carolyn starts on Monday nights baking as many as 16 pies and several cakes,
which she donates for sale at the Gospel Chicken House. They discovered the
Gospel Chicken House via a neighbor a dozen years ago. Carolyn was attracted
to the come-as-you-are philosophy.
listen to music who won’t necessarily come to church,” Bill observes.
“Everyone is welcome here. The groups who sing here, they are really
singing for the Lord, it’s not just a job. I feel closer to the Lord here
than in some churches I have attended.”
Once a year, on
the fourth Saturday in June (this year June 24), there’s an all-day sing,
attracting as many as 1,000 people to hear a dozen or more groups on an
outdoor stage. A small admission fee is charged for this event only.
Chicken House Web site is a new promotional tool. Started in 2002 by
volunteer Jackie Adams, a self-taught Webmaster, the Internet site has
literally introduced the Gospel Chicken House to the world. Adams, 47, a
construction company treasurer, says at the end of 2005 the site’s visitor
counter stopped working at 100,000 hits.
“We had one
band contact us from Poland who said they want to play here ... the name of
their band is The Happy Gospel Boogie Band,” Adams says with a chuckle.
husband Wayne, who runs an automobile-glass business, first visited the
Gospel Chicken House in 2002 and “fell in love with the place.”
made us feel loved, welcomed and part of the family,” Adams recalls. “I
had never done a Web site, but I was so excited about what this place did in
my life [that I wanted to do it].”
Over and over,
the stories continue, and the same words are mentioned: love, family,
friendliness, the humble spirit of the Pollards.
daughter Jane Williams says, “He and mother are the Chicken House, so
he’s in charge as long as he’s living. I told him I would do whatever I
could [to keep it going]. My parents are very strong Christians, and I think
it has made their beliefs even stronger. They feel they are doing what God
wants them to do, and as long as He wants them to, they will.”
says simply, “It has become a ministry. I’m [just] the janitor — the
Lord owns the place.”
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