Oxford’s Lyric Theater thrives during its second act

Published 10:59 am Wednesday, March 20, 2024

By Jim Beaugez

Courtesy of Magnolia Tribune


On an unseasonably crisp September evening in 2021, clusters of local residents, Ole Miss students and visitors from at least as far as California made their way to the Square in Oxford.

As the temperature dipped into the fifties and slid downward into the night, they strolled past vaunted establishments like Square Books and City Grocery. Some out-of-towners maybe even snapped a selfie with the bronzed William Faulkner statue seated on a bench outside City Hall.

It’s a scene that wouldn’t be out of place on an autumn football weekend, but no one was heading to Vaught-Hemingway stadium — this was a Thursday night ahead of a bye weekend, during the COVID pandemic to boot.

Image from Visit Oxford

After a year and a half of social distancing, masking and swab tests, a thousand revelers instead walked past COVID-sniffing dogs and packed into the Lyric theater on Van Buren Avenue, where Mississippi blues obsessives The Black Keys played to a sold-out audience.

Riding high on their tenth album, Delta Kream, which came out five months earlier, the multi-platinum-selling duo paid tribute to blues legends Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside that night, playing covers of the former’s “Stay All Night” and “Do the Romp,” and the latter’s “Coal Black Mattie” and “Goin’ Down South.”

“[That] show was one of my favorites,” says Lindsay Dillon-Maginnis, co-owner and general manager of the Lyric. “It was the first sold-out show after Covid, so the tone was different, but the crowd was excited [and] the energy was great.”

On stage with them that night, and for the entire tour, former Kimbrough bassist Eric Deaton and longtime Burnside sideman Kenny Brown kept the Ohio natives’ groove anchored in the hypnotic jams pioneered by their heroes in the Hill Country north of town. While the event signaled a return of sorts for one of Mississippi’s signature artistic towns, though, the rebirth of the room that made it possible had long been in the works.


Originally built as a livery stable in the late 1800s, in the 1920s the structure was converted into a theater for live performances and silent films to provide entertainment for the community of 2,000 residents. When the film adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel “Intruder in the Dust” made its world premiere at the Lyric in 1949, the writer simply walked the few blocks from Rowan Oak to the place where his family once kept their horses, where a crowd greeted him under festooned banners and flags.

Much of that history had been lost by the time Bradley Bishop acquired the building in 2007 to establish the second coming of the Lyric. The building had long been subdivided, and at the time housed a printing business, apartments, a yoga studio and a sushi restaurant.

“The idea was to turn it back into a single-use facility where you could do concerts in a college town that was clearly growing,” says Dillon-Maginnis, who started here producing graphic work as an intern and worked her way up, eventually buying into the business to become Bishop’s partner.

Image from Visit Oxford

“Places for students to come and see bands that wouldn’t fit in the football stadium but were larger than would fit in a restaurant — it just didn’t exist in 2008.”

The renovations required them to gut the interior of the structure to make room for a stage and open the space so a balcony could be added.

Since reopening as the Lyric in 2008, the room has hosted performances from artists across genre and cultural lines. The ability to pivot from country stars like Eric Church, Willie Nelson and Morgan Wallen (years before his first Vaught-Hemingway performance in 2023) to indie rockers Big Thief and The Mountain Goats to hip-hop artists T-Pain and Lil Uzi Vert is one the venue’s greatest strengths.

“With new students coming into Ole Miss and the town growing, [the entertainment] always evolves,” Dillon-Maginnis says. “Ten years ago, EDM was a big driver of concert tickets. Now, it is more country or TikTok artists; it’s more pop music. So, we respond to what the market demands and get some input from college students or influencers or people around town, but we strive to target our shows to what people are listening to in the area.”

When the Lyric isn’t hosting national and regional music shows, the theater is in high demand as a private venue for wedding receptions, fundraisers, conferences and corporate events — all attracted by its reputation as a full-service space with multiple bars, green rooms and more. Besides, who wouldn’t want to stage a celebration or enliven a business event in such a storied spot?

“The venue has evolved since we opened and will continue to do so as long as we’re here,” she says. “We want to be a place of gathering and community for anyone that walks through these doors.”