85 Years Young and Still the Heart & Soul of Country Music
by Karen Rubin
Grand Ole Opry is “The Show That Made Country Music Famous”. But how and why that happened, and more amazingly, how a radio show has maintained its iconic status after 85 years is really a compelling story.
The story reveals itself as you walk a figurative “trail” through Nashville, appropriately known as “Music City U.S.A.” which has become for the music industry what Hollywood is for movies and what New York City is for musical theater.
It is a story about how an insurance company recognized the value of radio, a new technology, to reach a mass market. It is a story about the push-and pull of popular culture and changing tastes. And it is the story of the people who realized their own dream in making it to the Grand Ole Opry stage.
It hasn’t always been easy – the Grand Ole Opry came close to closing several times. Indeed, Country Music went into decline until Chet Atkins figured out “The Nashville Sound,” replacing the “twang” with a lusher sound that allowed Country Music to leap to the Pop Charts.
The struggle continues today, compelling Grand Ole Opry to find that delicate balance between honoring what is considered a sacred duty to preserve its heritage and still satisfy contemporary tastes; to honor tradition while embracing today’s technological innovations.
“We want to embrace the tradition while still moving forward,” says “Opry Dan” Roges, Opry’s Senior Marketing Manager, who admits to being the number one fan of country music. “It doesn’t do any good to be 86 and be nothing that it was.”
What is apparent is that Grand Ole Opry has kept the “ole” while being new.
You don’t have to be a devotee of country music to thoroughly enjoy the story – in fact, only about half the visitors to Nashville come for the music. But I can guarantee that you will be captivated by the story -as well as the music – and leave Nashville a fan.
Seeing a performance of the Grand Ole Opry should be on the top of the “to do” list in Nashville, but it is best appreciated as the climax of a visit, and there are several stops you should make along the way.
The trail starts in downtown Nashville, at the Ryman Auditorium, the literal as well as figurative tabernacle of country music, which housed the weekly live radio broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943-1974. There is a tremendous amount to see in an extensive exhibit, but you should take the guided backstage tour – into the dressing rooms, the labyrinth of corridors and even onto that sacred stage, for the complete experience. You can even make your own sound recording in a small booth. You may not experience a ghostly presence, but you will definitely feel the spirit.
A short walk aroound the corner is the Hatch Poster Shop which printed the posters for every show -you can buy historic ones as well as current posters.
Stop in at the honky tonks where the current crop of country music-makers croon their tunes from early afternoon (that’s my favorite time to stop in, when the music experience seems purer and there is no cover charge, and kids can come, as well). No matter what time of day, the saloons are dark enough inside to appreciate their distinctive atmosphere.
Stroll over to the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, but be sure to allocate a substantial amount of time – so you may need to make this a second day activity. You will need at least two to three hours in the museum, itself, and probably more. Another must is to take the museums’ guided tour of the RCA Studio B – probably the most famous recording studio anywhere – involving a bus trip from the museum to Music Row where you see many of the music industry buildings. This is like going to where the movie lots are in Hollywood.
Then, return to Opryland – this massive complex which provides the setting for the Grand Ole Opry House today (though there are performances in winter at the Ryman downtown). Stop in at the Gayloprd Opryland Resort where the radio station, WSM still broadcasts 24/7 (you can look through glass at the DJs doing their show).
Though the Grand Ole Opry radio show has been housed in this, its first specially built concert hall since 1974 – longer than anywhere else – it is still called the “new” Opry.
Definitely, take the backstage tour of the Grand Ole Opry House, which continues that legacy from the Ryman. You can fully appreciate how strong the affection for the Opry tradition is when you walk onto the “new” stage and see the circle of wood paneling taken from the Ryman’s own stage. The home for the Grand Ole Opry since 1974, it now has the distinction of being the longest venue for the show.
Plan to spend two hours at least at the Grand Ole Opry Museum, within the Opry complex (it had just closed for renovation when we were last there, but is due to reopen this spring). Many of the same performers you will see on the stage will “come to life” in stirring displays of their personal artifacts, vintage photos and video.
Then, you are really primed to fully appreciate what is so unique and special about the Grand Ole Opry performance.
Grand Ole Opry: A Show Like No Other
Now in its 85th year, there has been a succession of owners, venues, mass media technologies. But something is enduring about the Grand Ole Opry. And that is the magic.
In fact, you sense this weighty responsibility of preserving the legacy, even as you need to fill 4,400 seats for two shows on a Saturday night (they actually empty and refill the theater in just 30 minutes).
Each performance takes you through much of the lexicon of “country music.” And so on the stage is past, present and future – as many as 100 performers in a night, representing a marvelous array of styles, genres and even eras – legends, performers at the peak of their career, and newcomers making their debut on the Grand Ole Opry stage.
The night we were there, you had Little Jimmy Dickens, who with 50 years at the Opry considers it his second home; the guest host for that segment, he brought on Mallary Hope making her debut. There was Trace Adkins, Montgomery Gentry, and to close the first show, Jean Shephard, a 55-year veteran and one of the first women to win the coveted status of “Opry Cast Member”, brought on the Oak Ridge Boys.
The Grand Ole Opry is like no other live performance you have ever seen.
It is first and foremost a radio show more than a concert, so you have the radio announcer and commercials. The show progresses according to a strict timetable, but what gets you is how casual, informal the performers are who seem to roll on and off the stage, sometimes strolling over and bantering with other performers, almost as if the audience isn’t there. And then there are the elements of surprise with a guest walk-on, or something completely unexpected as only live performance can have.
But it is a concert, as well, and the performers play to the tiers and tiers of people in the audience (during the back-stage tour you get to see what they see). You are allowed to come up and snap pictures, and with each changeover of performer, another gaggle of people come up as near as they can to the footlights.
We had the unusual experience of watching the first show from the audience, and then seeing much of the second show from a “pew” of seats behind the musicians on the stage that are reserved for Friends and Family (each performer is allowed 10) as well as contest winners – so you see the lights that they see and the audience, plus the activity in the wings.
Largely to appease the hard-core traditionalists, though, a series of Opry Country Classics has been introduced, which features country favorites performed by legends such as Ricky Skaggs or Keith Anderson
(Grand Ole Opry House, 2804 Opryland Drive, Nashville, TN 37214. You can get schedules, purchase tickets, and plan your trip at www.opry.com 615-871-OPRY or 800-SEE-OPRY.)
The Grand Ole Opry performance was actually the climax for our “journey” through country music.
What is most interesting is how country music paralleled American culture, but how it has always been a business and therefore calculated and calculating.
The hayseed, folksy, down-home image was just that – an image created by one of the first radio show general managers, George D. Hay. That image actually went against the grain of Nashvillians who prided in their city as the Athens of the South, a high-brow cultural hub; Nashville even built a full-scale replica of Greece’s Parthenon for its centennial celebration.
Several of the Opry stars deliberately underplayed their education and background – like Minnie Pearl, a character created by Sarah Colley Cannon, who grew up in an affluent family, attended finishing school and Belmont College in Nashville. George Hay was upset when a new station manager hired The Vagabonds, a college-educated trio, in 1933. And Tex Ritter was going for his law degree when he dropped out to go into show business; in 1970, he ran for US Senate from Tennessee.
The radio show was sponsored by National Life and Accident insurance company, whose motto, “We Shield Millions” became the call letters for the radio station, WSM. The insurance company capitalized on emerging technology, AM radio, seeing it as a way to market to the masses. Today, the Opry is similarly capitalizing on new technology, streaming the radio show live (video, too).
On November 28, 1925, the insurance company started broadcasting the WSM Barn Dance show from a small fifth floor studio of its building. “Uncle” Jimmy Thompson, who claimed he could “fiddle the bugs off tater vine,” was the initial performer, fiddling for a solid hour. The reaction from the public was huge, giving the first general manager, George D. Hay, the sense of the people’s hunger for popular music.
Crowds of people would come down to the studio and stand in the corridors just to be where the show originated. WSM decided to move the Opry to Studio C, seating 500 people, to make the audience reaction part of the program.
NBC started broadcasting the show on its stations. The Saturday night show followed NBC’s “Music Appreciation Hour.” One fateful night in 1928, Hay, who called himself, who called himself “The Solom Old Judge,” introduced the barn dance show saying, “For the last hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera, but now we will present ‘The Grand Ole Opry.'” The name stuck.
By the 1930s, the throngs overflowed the 500 seats. Since a live audience had become integral to the show, the Opry staff had to find new place, first the Hillsboro theater, then the Dixie Tabernacle, and in 1939, the newly constructed War Memorial Auditorium, where, for the first time, an admission of 25 cents was charged to help curb the crowds. But the crowds kept growing.
By 1943, the show had outgrown that location, as well, and moved into the Ryman Auditorium, downtown. The Ryman was already a hallowed hall for performance of every style, the “Carnegie Hall of the South,” hosting such legends as Rudolph Valentino, Mae West and Charlie Chaplin, thanks to its inspired leadership under a fascinating woman, Lula C. Naff.
The Ryman seated 3,000 people, but even that was not enough, so a second Saturday show was added.
The Grand Ole Opry broadcast the show from the Ryman until 1974, when a new venue was specifically built, the 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House, at a country-music themepark, Opryland just outside the downtown (the themepark was closed in 1997, after 25 years, and replaced with an outlet mall).
The Ryman – Country Music’s Mother Church
I don’t think there is a performance hall in the country that has been so intimately connected with the course of America’s cultural heritage as the Ryman Auditorium. Its role in Country Music – and the place where Blue Grass began – is significant, but only a part of the story.
Tom Ryman owned a saloon and a riverboat, but when he saw Sam Jones preach in a tent, he was moved to build a tabernacle for him.
The Ryman was originally built as a nondenominational, Union Gospel church in 1892; in 1897, to accommodate a conclave of confederate soldiers, they put in the “Confederate Gallery,” which became such a defining element of its architecture, along with the pews and Gothic-style windows.
This history is marvelously presented in a video when you visit, as well as marvelous exhibits, currently Johnny & June, Grand Ole Opry 1940s & 1950s, and Grand Ole Opry 19602& 1970s. But the only way to get backstage is to take a guided tour.
Our guide, Margaret Newton, brings us into the dressing rooms so associated with the icons of country music and shares wonderful stories about Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams (the only performer who got 6 standing ovations on the Ryman stage), and Elvis Presley (booed off the stage, he never performed again at the Ryman).
The walls are lined with wonderful black and white photos of cast members for a given year (women don’t come into the picture for years).
Most fascinating, though, is learning about the Ryman’s general manager, Lula C. Naff, who stepped in when the Ryman was failing as a church, changing it into an entertainment hall and over the next 51 years, brought every manner of entertainment to Nashville.
“In 1914, people didn’t think that women could run a business,” Marilyn says.
She brought in the opera singer, John McCormack, and took out a second mortgage on her house to pay the $3,000 fee. She brought W.C. Fields, Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead, Basil Rathbone, and Orson Welles, Fanny Bryce, Bob Hope, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (even Trigger) to the Ryman stage. She staged a political rally, a boxing match, even a cattle auction, and, beginning in she brought in the Grand Ole Opry, where it remained until 1974.
We go to the stage door, and can see the alley that connects to the back-doors of the honky tonks on Broadway.
Wannabes would hang out in the alley – that’s where the Everly Brothers were discovered, Marilyn relates.
Minnie Pearl was supposedly robbed in the alley, and it became one of her favorite jokes. “I said, `But I haven’t got any money,’ so he frisked me and said, `Are you sure you ain’t got any money?’ I said, `No sir, but if you’ll do that again I’ll write you a check.'”
Her famous dime store straw hat with the $1.98 price tag and a ruffled dress is on view here. I linger over the display.
The Ryman was slated to be knocked down when the Gaylord company rescued it. In 1993, they paid $8.5 million to restore it.
“They were told to pull the gum off the bottoms of the pews but leave the nicks and scratches. Fifty gallons of chewing gum were scraped from the bottom.”
In 2001, the Ryman became a national landmark. The acoustics are considered second only to the Mormon Tabernacle Church (surpassing even Carnegie Hall).
Visiting the exhibits is included in the price of admission with the standard daytime tour ($12.50/adults, $6.25 children 4-11). The tour plus backstage tour is $16.25/adult, $10/child 4-11. Open daily, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. (Ryman Auditorium, 116 Fifth Avenue North, Nashville, 37219, 615-889-3060, www.ryman.com).
Touring the Grand Ole Opry House
The day after the Grand Ole Opry closed at the Ryman Auditorium, it reopened in this, its sixth home and the only theater built especially for the show.
Richard Nixon got a yo-yo lesson from Roy Acuff on the stage, the evening the Grand Ole Opry House opened in 1974.
The new building is a faithful – if bigger – re-creation of what made the Ryman so special – the tiers of pew seats (now with velvet cushions).
In the 1980s, American General Insurance effected a hostile takeover of National Life, and had no interest in entertainment. The Grand Ole Opry was on the verge of going under. Gaylord Broadcasting bought the entertainment company, in addition to the Ryman.
Being invited to become a cast member of the Opry is still considered a crowning achievement of a career in country music. They are required to perform a certain number of times, for which they get paid scale – significant in these days of stratospheric paydays for live performances. One year, they removed several “members” for failing to meet the required number of performances; The Opry has had to make some concessions, reducing the required number of appearances in a given year.
The 60 members of the Opry cast represent three generations and a range of different styles of music. The show consists mainly of cast members, but about a third are guest performers who have included Steve Martin, Jack Black, Kevin Bacon.
You see the cast entrance, the desk where the performers check in, the Opry’s “post office” – where there is a mailbox for every member (in alphabetical order except for Little Jimmy Dickens, who isn’t tall enough), and you get to visit the dressing rooms, where regulars like Porter Wagoner used to keep their doors open in order to greet everyone.
What comes across at the Grand Ole Opry House is how personal it is for the “cast members” – especially those who have been here for 50 and more years. The Opry built a home on the site for Roy Acuff, so he could continue. Porter Wagoner played there up until he died. And the night we come, we see Little Jimmy Dickens and Jean Shepherd, who clearly were at home on that stage. All the cast members even have mail boxes.
(Backstage tours of the Grand Ole Opry are $15A, $7.50 child.)
By now, I am completely captivated by these stories behind Country Music and their colorful personalities.
I seek out the Opry Museum (you actually have to look for it), located just steps from the Grand Ole Opry House, across the Plaza. This is probably the best-kept secret in Nashville.
The museum has recently reopened with three exhibits in celebration of the Grand Ole Opry’s 85th anniversary – including a exhibit of photographs showcasing the most memorable Opry moments; a salute to the late Opry icon Porter Wagoner; and a spotlight on Opry in the first decade of the new millennium, including artifacts from Martina McBridge, Montgomery Gentry, Carrie Underwood, and more.
You enter and it is as if you are on stage, looking at the audience.
To an even greater extent than the Country Music Hall of Fame (if this is possible), this museum expands upon the intriguing stories of the Grand Ole Opry and its castmembers.
Here I get to learn more about my favorite Opry figure: Minnie Pearl, who I vaguely remember seeing. And here, I see clips of her from the early television shows.
Minnie Pearl, with her trademark dime store straw hat with the dangling $1.98 price tag, the ruffled dress, and the shrill “How-dee. I’m just so proud to be here,” opening, was the creation of Sarah Colley Cannon. She studied drama at Belmont College. After college, she accepted an offer to travel from town to town, directing amateur plays. She based her character based on an Alabama woman whose house she lived in where she was sent as a field producer. “She was charmed by the elderly hostess’ wry humor and utter sincerity with which she told stories – that became inspiration for the character.”
The price tag on her hat came later. She rushed to buy the hat and forgot to take out the price tag, which fell down during the show. She kept it in the act.
She was the only woman in the Opry cast when she joined in 1940.
The memorabilia, artifacts, vintage photos, video clips are phenomenal, and the timeline for the Grand Ole Opry is best presented here.
You see how George Hay, who coined the name, “Grand Ole Opry,” devised hick-ish names for the bands, like the Gully Jumpers and Fruit Jar Drinkers, had performers wear overalls, floppy hats, and cultivated the hayseed image.
Here I learn more about Jean Shepherd, who was one of the hosts for the Opry show I had just seen. A strong, independent woman, she was one of the first to have her own act when women who performed with a band were called “Sister” (as in, no hanky panky). Her husband, Handshaw Hawkins, died tragically in the airplane crash that also took Patsy Cline.
One part of the exhibit re-creates Patsy Cline’s den; another recreates Marty Robbins’ office, and there is even his race car.
The experience is like going backstage of their lives.
You see them as business people as well. Roy Acuff, who with Minnie Pearl came to represent the public face of Grand Ole Opry, was also a music producer and ran for governor. He ushered in a new era of Grand Ole Opry – before, the performances were mainly instrumental; he introduced song. You see his ukelele, which he used to sign so many autographs, the back was imprinted with his signature.
You better appreciate what these people went through to become country music stars.
Little Jimmy Dickens, who we also see perform, in the 1940s worked in radio in five states. In Saginaw Michigan, he was the opening act for Roy Acuff who invited him to Nashville to give one appearance at Grand Ole Opry. He debuted in 1948. “Raggedy Ann,” which we see him perform, became his signature song.
Photographer Gordon Gillingham took 5000 images of Grand Ole Opry and some of the most famous ones finish the exhibit.
For me, visiting Grand Ole Opry Museum adds immeasurably to appreciating the story. (Open daily, from 10 a.m.; $5 admission; combo tickets with the Grand Ole Opry backstage tour; www.opry.com).
Wednesday, 7 April, 2010
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