Spreading The Chicken House Gospel

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on February 26, 2007
Adele Starr Local and regional acts perform each week at the Gospel Chicken House in Montpelier, Va.

In 1973, Ray Pollard allowed a local gospel group to use the vacant chicken shed behind his house in Montpelier, Va., for a practice session. Word got around, and about 35 people showed up to enjoy the music.

“It just kept going from there,” says Pollard, 84, a retired parts and services manager for an auto dealership.

Pollard’s renovated chicken coop became The Gospel Chicken House, where music that glorifies God has reigned every Saturday night for more than 30 years in a building once home to 6,000 broiler hens.

Located on a farm where Pollard grew up, the refurbished hen house includes a stage, sound system, concessions and rows of old church pews to accommodate the 350 people who pack the place each week. Admission is free; musicians play for “love offerings” collected in buckets. Concession sales fund expenses, and volunteer staffers keep the venue operating. The atmosphere is part concert, part family reunion and part church social, all rolled into one.

Senior citizens, young adults and entire families with kids in tow fill the house. The 10-piece Chicken House Band gets things going as the audience claps and sings along. Walls are lined with photographs and posters of well-known acts that have graced the humble stage. Home-cooked burgers and tempting slices of pie are sold in the concessions area, where closed-circuit television allows workers to enjoy the musical mix of seasoned—and amateur—performers.

“We have some extremely talented people,” says Vicki Bruce, 61, of Glen Allen, Va., who emcees the show, sings and books musical groups. “And we have some where this is the only stage they’ll ever be on.”

House band vocalist Ramona Beam, 52, of Chesterfield, Va., says the Chicken House filled a void in her life when her husband died four years ago. “It’s more than music,” she says. “Everybody that comes on a regular basis looks at it as a big, extended family.”

Volunteer Carolyn Packard, 68, who lives in nearby Ruther Glen, Va., bakes as many as 16 pies weekly to donate for sale. “I feel like that’s my part at the Chicken House,” she says.

Bernie Markham, 67, of Richmond, Va., has been regularly attending the Saturday night performances, or “sings,” for 20 years. He now undergoes dialysis three times weekly, but wife Mary says he told his doctors “he couldn’t take it on Saturday because he had to be here. It keeps his morale up.”

Quite a few luminaries have graced the stage, including the award-winning husband-and-wife duo of Jeff and Sheri Easter.

“I did a Live At The Gospel Chicken House album with Dad’s group, The Easter Brothers, and Sheri and I played there, too,” Jeff Easter recalls.

But in recent years, the Chicken House has stuck with local and regional acts. “The big groups have all gone to charging fees and working with booking agencies,” Pollard explains. “People aren’t coming here for big names—they come for music and fellowship.”

Pollard and his wife Mary, 83, married for 64 years with two grown children and five grandchildren, are the heart and soul of the Chicken House. Mary faithfully attends each show, though Alzheimer’s disease has progressively reduced her role.

The Chicken House bills itself as the nation’s “longest-running gospel sing,” a claim backed up by Easter and others who’ve toured the circuit for years. Bruce acknowledges the existence of other gospel sings, but adds that many of them are “seasonal or special events. Ours is every week, all year long.”

“It takes special people that will lay their whole lives aside to do this,” Bruce says of the Pollards. “That’s what they’ve done.”

Pollard has a simple explanation for the long-running success and enduring lure of The Gospel Chicken House. “I think the Chicken House was God’s will,” he says.

Call (804) 883-6487 for more information.