Grande Old Opry in Nashville
Yee Hah Y’All
By: Charles Giuliano - 04/22/2014
While in Nashville we attended a broadcast of the legendary Grande Old Opry. Much has changed since the first radio show on November 28, 1925. While as big and glitzy as a Vegas casino the venerable Opry adheres to tradition and carefully guards its legacy and hallowed ground.
A sacred circle of oak was carved out of the stage of the former Ryman Auditorium which it long ago outgrew. From rustic origins the Opry located to the larger Ryman in 1943. From there it expanded to an Opry theme park and its current vast home in 1974. Seated President Tricky Dick Nixon, a pianist and country music fan, was on hand for opening night on March 16.
Tragically the facility and much of Nashville was flooded in 2010. During backstage tours the guides in cowgirl duds point to a marker in the green room about three feet up indicating the water levels. At the cost of millions it was rebuilt including engineering and flood control to prevent future accidents.
Last time we were in Nashville we went Honky Tonking or bar hopping to hear a bunch of bands along the downtown strip. What fun as we would catch a couple of tunes and then move to the next bar. There must be hundreds if not thousands of musicians in Music City USA. Many of them are adept and versatile session players ready to back recording artists from country to jazz and rock. They can put on a lick and pick through damn near anything.
Having ribs on the night before heading over to Opryland the waiters took turns crooning tunes when not slinging hash. Nice guy but, hey, don’t give up the day gig.
Of course everyone wants a shot at playing one of those broadcasts. The ultimate is being tapped to become an official member of the family. That means a brass plaque with your name on it. It entails the honor of becoming a part of the Country elite. We perused the vast array of names focusing on some familiar ones from Hank Williams to Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton.
Being invited into the family means a commitment to appear regularly. Back in the day there was a mandated minimum of some 20 plus annual appearances. Given the busy tours and commitments of the biggest stars today those rules have been relaxed. Some of the top earning celebrities like Tim McGraw and Faith Hill ain’t even interested. They would have to take a hometown paycut to make a few appearances so screw the “prestige.”
Expecting a lot of rhinestones and big hair, thanks to our friend, PR person, Ellen Pryor, we attended on Tuesday: April 8. To tell the truth, not being a huge country fan, I didn’t know any of the performers. But Astrid recognized a few that included: Maggie Rose, TG Sheppard, Chris Janson, Jeannie Seely, Henry Cho (comic), Josh Thompson, The Grascals, and Diamond Rio. During the back stage tour we met long term member George Hamilton IV.
During the warm-up for the show the emcee worked the crowd asking where y’all from? A lot hailed from Canada, Australia, Germany and all over the world as it turned out. Including a couple of tax and spend liberals from Massachusetts. When asked if this was the first visit about 85% put up our hands. As is true for all of the arts in America most were pensioners. An exception was the teenager in front of us going bonkers taking pictures with her cell phone. They let you photograph which explains the accompanying slide show of images for this piece.
The show started promptly at 7 PM with four sets of about 12 minutes each separated by three minutes or so of ads. There was a twenty minute intermission to sell overpriced snacks and souvenirs. Then another set with four acts ending with a top act. In this case The Grascals who are supposedly famous. I never heard of these ersatz headliners.
I expected a lot of tall hats, suits of glitter, tons of hair, sudsy vocals and nasal twang.
That was sortah but not necessarily true.
The opener, Maggie Rose, introduced as an up and coming artist was fresh and totally contemporary. She has a great voice with a heartfelt, straight up delivery. Taking the stage in tight black pants and spike heels with a loose white blouse she didn’t look particularly Country. Her hair was cut in a well formed blonde shell framing a sweet and lovely face.
To be honest I kindah swooned and fell for her. I just loved her engaging manner, intelligent material, style, and crisp delivery. She has the crossover chops to be a major artist given a few breaks.
Rose brushed back my cynicism and made me more open for what followed combining traditional forms and emerging artists. The programming reflects a management strategy to stick to their roots in Country Music but also to keep up with the taste and expanding base of younger fans. For the longest danged time Opry, for example, banned drums and electric guitars.
Chris Janson is another young talent to keep an eye on. By his way of reckoning Jesus comes first, followed by his wife, family and infant, then Grande Olde Opry. Praise the Lord. He was just bustin up with pride about the new kid and the Lord bringing them all together and stuff. He put a lot of zing into his short galvanic set including some romping, stomping Jerry Lee Lewis rockabilly on harmonica.
It seemed that Josh Thompson is more established based on fan reception. He was signing the new CD in the lobby after the show. Nice music I guess but it didn’t do much for me.
The comic Henry Cho milked the irony of Korean jokes at the epicenter of conservative America. Astrid thought he was too sexist and he admitted that the set would have been different had his wife been in attendance. He seemed self assured in front of such a vast audience and there was an uncanny intimacy to his act.
The old timers like TG Sheppard and Jeannie Seely knew how to work the crowd. Sheppard did the old into the audience, I’m singing this song for you, routine. That entailed putting the mike out to pick up the sing-along. Seely more or less told us that it’s great to still be alive putting a comic seniors’ twist on messed up lyrics to familiar tunes.
There was lots of old timey fiddle and banjo pickin with the groups The Grascals and Diamond Rio. It was very mainstream and the musicianship was suitably awesome.
When the house cleared out after the show there were a hundred plus that remained for the backstage tour. Depending on the color coding of our badges we were divided into groups and assigned a guide. Ours was the perky Laura.
As she told us she just loves the best job in the world which means hanging around Opry and rubbing elbows with the stars. The tour, which included looking into a number of dressing rooms all with distinctive décor, lasted an hour and was just fascinating. There were terrific anecdotes and lots of memorabilia to gawk at and photograph.
The tour included getting on stage. We were the first and I photographed Astrid standing in that sacred circle of old oak from the Ryman stage. Seems I had acted quickly as after that couples were posed for “official” photographs.
Back in the lobby they were sold bundled with a souvenir program for $25 each. A few tourists went for it. But the concessionaire seemed pissed when she tossed the unsold packets in the trash. Maybe she gets a cut.
The guides advised to get tickets early if we plan a return visit.
“You never know who will be a last minute guest performer or just show up on stage.” Then of course those advance tickets are worth a million.
But, oh well, that didn’t happen on a Tuesday night in April. That Saturday Charlie Daniels was appearing. It would have been a hoot to see him.
By then of course we were long gone with big memories to last until next time.
It’s just great to cross off another item from our bucket list.