Bryan Gowland taught history and social studies in St. Tammany Parish public schools for 33 years, working to instill in his students an appreciation for local cultural heritage. He retired in 2002, but he has continued and even expanded upon those efforts through the development of local musical programs that promote a sense of community pride.
This year he was chosen to receive the President’s Special Award from Parish President Kevin Davis during the 2010 St. Tammany Commission on Cultural Affairs Arts Awards program on January 15 at Louisiana Medical Center and Heart Hospital in Lacombe. Davis recognized Gowland for his “tireless promotion of the musical excellence which exists throughout St. Tammany.”
While he also served as the mayor of the Town of Abita Springs from 1990 to 2002, Gowland is now known nationally as host of the Abita Springs Opry, a musical program at Abita Springs Town Hall that six times a year features area musicians performing traditional Louisiana songs. It is the successor to the Piney Woods Opry which began in the early 1990’s to showcase area musical traditions.
“I’m grateful for the recognition,” Gowland said of the award, “but it’s really not just for me. It is for all the musicians from throughout the area who take part , and the Opry board of directors who have worked so hard.” But the star of the show is the music itself. “Louisiana culture is magic, and Louisiana music is magic,” he explains. “People come from all over the world to Louisiana to experience it first-hand.”
“The response has been phenomenal. It’s all about keeping it real, presenting the music for the sake of the music,” he stated. While the original effort was to perpetuate the musical culture of the state, its success as an entertainment program has made it even more fun, Gowland said.
The Opry work is an outgrowth of what he was doing in the classroom, he said, teaching students an awareness of Louisiana culture and what could be done to preserve it. After retirement, he took part in a special effort to bring the Smithsonian Museum’s “New Harmonies- American Roots Music” exhibit into local schools.
The Opry continues to reach out to involve young musicians and put them on stage to perform, all the while video-taping the programs and sending them out to public access channels across the nation.
“We send the tapes out on request to Virginia, North Carolina, Minnesota, California, Colorado, and even Las Vegas,” Gowland stated. “They watch them over and over again. We have a very loyal audience in Las Vegas. They’ve even come here to Abita Springs to see the show in person.”
Locally the show is seen on government access television and the SLU Channel in Hammond. As a result, Gowland is recognized wherever he goes as the emcee of the popular program. It has encouraged him to learn to play the guitar himself, and he has even built a guitar from a kit.
In addition to the Opry performance, the organization also provides free concerts at the Abita Springs Trailhead. People now contact him to ask for help in finding musicians for their own festivals. “So it’s getting our musicians some work at other events,” he said.
The President’s Arts Awards honor artists and arts patrons who have contributed to cultural efforts in St. Tammany Parish. Also chosen for awards this year were Ronnie Kole (Lifetime Achievement in the Arts); Alan Flattmann (Visual Artist of the Year); Shane Gorringe (Culinary Artist of the Year); Lori Murphy (Arts Patron of the Year); Allen Little (Performing Artist of the Year); and Brian Stoltz (Musical Artist of the Year). “All have made a significant contribution and commitment to the development of the arts in St. Tammany Parish,” said Davis.