Review of American Serenade Cruise: Last Cruise Night at Grand Ole Opry

In the center stage of the Grand Ole Opry is a special piece of wood. It is from the old Ryman Auditorium.

Can you imagine what it has seen? If it could talk, think about all the legends it could tell about.

Over the years, thousands of performers have stood on this circle – Hank Williams, Jim Reeve, Patsy Cline, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Garth Brooks, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Little Jimmy Dickens.

Even a skinny truck driver from Memphis named Elvis Presley.

On our last night of the American Serenade Music Cities Cruise, we were hosted for a complimentary visit to the Grand Ole Opry evening show. American Cruise Lines motorcoaches were waiting for us at the Nashville riverfront dock where we boarded at 5 p.m. for the Grand Ole Opry evening show at 7 p.m.

Dinner was served early on the American Serenade at 4 p.m. Seeing the historic Grand Ole Opry seemed like a fitting end to our weeklong Music Cities Cruise from Memphis to Nashville. After spending two days docked in Nashville, we disembark tomorrow morning.

Circular Section of Old Ryman Stage

When the Grand Ole Opry moved to its present 4,400-seat home at Opryland USA in 1974, the circular section of the old Ryman stage was taken along as a reminder of the place the Opry had called home for more than three decades.

From its simple beginnings on Nov. 28, 1925, the Grand Ole Opry has never missed a Saturday night broadcast. Its audience, at first only a few hundred with primitive radios and crystal sets, has grown to include millions around the world.

It used to be that the Opry was pure country, but that isn’t so anymore. When I attended a show back in 2006, one of the performers was a 16-year-old girl making her debut on the Grand Ole Opry. Her first disc wouldn’t hit the shelves until a month later but, judging from the enthusiastic audience, newcomer Taylor Swift was already beginning her rapid ascent to stardom.

The show has a little bit of everything now. And if you don’t like one singer, you can just wait a few minutes and the show will have out someone you do like.

 How the Opry Began

The Opry has come a long way since that first radio broadcast in 1925. The featured performer that night was an 88-year-old fiddler, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, who boasted that he could “fiddle the bugs off a ‘tater vine.”

The announcer was George D. Hay, who billed himself as the Solemn Old Judge – although he was only 30 years old.

Before long, solo musicians and groups such as the Gully Jumpers, the Possum Hunters and the Crook Brothers showed up to volunteer their talents on the WSM Barn Dance, as it was known then.

Two years later, Hay opened the show with an ad-lib, which somehow stuck, and the weekly show picked up the nickname by which it has been known ever since – the Grand Ole Opry.

According to legend, the show followed an NBC program of classical music and operatic selections. That evening, Hay began his show by announcing that “for the past hour you’ve been listening to grand opera. Now, we’ll present ‘Grand Ole Opry.'”

Opry Performers

On this particular night, the lineup includes Dailey & Vincent, Corey Kent, Avery Anna, Red Clay Strays, Connie Smith, Bobby Bones and Maddie and Tae.

When he stood on the wooden Ryman circle to perform, Corey Kent said it was a dream come true to be standing in the same spot as his musical heroes. Corey almost choked up recalling the tough ride he has ridden to be at the Opry.

Corey thought he was on the right track with a publishing deal in Nashville until the COVID pandemic hit and he lost his touring income. With a wife, two children and another baby on the way, Corey said he needed to work to support his family.

Moving back to Texas, Corey took a job with a road paving company to pay the bills. He also released an album called, appropriately, “Blacktop,” because he never wanted to forget the supportive people who helped him through difficult times.

In 2022, Corey released a song that he says changed his life forever, “Wild as Her.” The platinum single was followed up by another hit, “Something’s Gonna Kill Me.”

Legends and Newcomers

A member of the Opry since 1965, Connie Smith’s debut single “Once a Day” arrived on Aug. 1, 1964 and became an instant success spending eight weeks atop the country charts. Connie often tours with her husband Marty Stuart.

For the Red Clay Strays from South Alabama, their first time on the Opry stage brought welcoming applause.

Sounding like familiar early Sun Records stars – a cross between Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley with a bit of Jerry Lee Lewis thrown in, lead singer Brandon Coleman and the high-energy group got a standing ovation.

Brandon thanked the audience and the Opry for a night to remember and the honor of being on the Ryman stage. I imagine many singers have felt that way ever since the Grand Ole Opry began.

Who knows, maybe Brandon and Red Dirt Clay may someday be official members of the Grand Ole Opry, recalling when they first stood on that magical unbroken performance circle.

Bottom Line: A complimentary evening performance at the Grand Ole Opry was a fantastic finish for our Music Cities Cruise. The voice of 81-year-old Opry legend rang as true as ever. And newcomers promised that the Opry circle will be unbroken for many years to come. Although it must have been a detail nightmare to get passengers on our fully booked American Serenade to and from the Opryland facility, get us seated in the huge concert hall and safely transported all of us back to the ship. No one got lost. No staff lost their friendly smile. A joyful evening to treasure as our final night on the beautiful American Serenade.

 Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

7 Night – Music Cities Cruise from Memphis, TN to Nashville, TN

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