Cover Story

A Ministry of Music Lives on at 

The Gospel Chicken House

 

Story and photos by Audrey Hingley, Contributing Writer

 

Ray and Mary Pollard established the Gospel Chicken House in 1973.

When Ray and Mary Pollard established

the Gospel Chicken House in 1973, they had no idea this humble hall would draw crowds from far and wide for more than three decades.

 

Every Saturday 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.

 

Located near 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.

 

There’s no 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 non-profit organization.

 

“I never 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.”

 

Tracey Pendleton of CYG.

Pollard, a 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 House.

 

“I was 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.”

 

Doug Charrington of CYG.

“When he 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.

 

“Approximately 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 night.”

 

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.

 

“We have 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.

 

Long-time emcee Vicki Bruce with a young Gospel Chickenite.

“We started 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.

 

Ray Pollard, 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.

 

The atmosphere: 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.

 

The 10-piece 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.

 

“We have 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.”

 

Adam Keith 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.

 

“The Chicken 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.”

 

Regarding the Gospel Chicken House’s appeal, Oxendine observes, “People are looking for something genuine, something real.”

 

Kenny 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].”

 

First-time 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].”

 

Volunteers Bill and Carolyn Packard.

Bill and 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.

 

“People will 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.

 

The Gospel 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.

 

Adams and husband Wayne, who runs an automobile-glass business, first visited the Gospel Chicken House in 2002 and “fell in love with the place.”

“Everybody 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.

 

Ray Pollard’s 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.”

 

Ray Pollard says simply, “It has become a ministry. I’m [just] the janitor — the Lord owns the place.”

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

The Gospel Chicken House

14709 Greenwood Church Rd.

Montpelier, VA 23192

Phone: (804) 883-6487 or (804)883-5794

Web site (see for directions):

www.angelfire.com/music4/gospelchickenhouse

 

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