Visiting Nashville: Grand Ole Opry features legendary performers and newcomers

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?” asks Dan Rogers, marketing manager for the Opry. “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.

A gigantic screen shows Grand Ole Opry member Connie Smith performing.

Even a skinny truck driver from Memphis named Elvis Presley.

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.

Opry favorite Minnie Pearl is commemorated in a backstage photograph.

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.'”

On this particular night, Opry regular Mike Snider slowly saunters from behind the massive red velvet curtain, gazes out over the footlights framing the front of the stage and waits while fans’ cameras click away.

One of the secrets of the Opry’s tremendous success is the fact that the show is performed live each Friday and Saturday evening. There are no rehearsals but somehow each show seems to miraculously fall together at the last minute.

While entertainers take center stage, family members and other people with backstage passes watch from the sidelines or sit in the big wooden benches on the back of the stage. Band members and backup singers casually wander back and forth and chat on the stage – while the show is going on.

                                   Bigger and Better After 2010 Flood

Backstage dressing rooms are individually themed, such as this “It Takes Two” room honoring country music duos.

After a devastating flood in May 2010, the Grand Ole Opry came back stronger than ever. Although the Opry House was closed for five months, the show was broadcast throughout the summer from other Nashville venues – such as the Ryman Auditorium and War Memorial Auditorium –  without missing a single broadcast. Following a $20 million renovation, the Opry House welcomed the Grand Ole Opry back to its permanent home on Sept. 28, 2010.

“The Opry stage was under about 4 feet of water,” Rogers said, pointing out a decorative iron chair rail on the wall of the backstage “family room.” The rail represents the water line from the flood and is a stark reminder that the water was almost chest high in the famous room.

Painstakingly refurbished after being covered by 46 inches of floodwater, the 6-foot circle of oak wood was returned to its place of honor. “It is as it should be,” Opry member Brad Paisley said at the time. “That circle means the world to all of us who love country music.”

Highlights of the post-flood project include 18 new dressing rooms, each themed to celebrate some of the people and styles of country music that have made the Opry an American icon.

Themed rooms include the No. 1 dressing room, “Mr. Roy” (in honor of Roy Acuff), with a placard containing a line from the Opry patriarch: “Ain’t nothing gonna come up today that me and the Lord can’t handle.”

Backstage tours of the Opry House are offered during the day or after an evening performance. VIP tours also are available before a performance, ending with standing backstage for a few minutes when the big red curtain raises for the evening show before being escorted to theater seats.

                          Opry Enthusiastically Greets a Newcomer

Newcomer Mason Ramsey does a Hank Williams yodeling song.

In between performers, Opry announcers introduce acts, wave in applause to increase the excitement, read live commercials and keep a close eye on the clock so that the shows move on schedule.

Performers come and go quickly for our show: Connie Smith, John Berry, Jeannie Seely, the Whites and Kellie Pickler.

Newcomers also are welcomed. On this night, 11-year-old Mason Ramsey is causing quite a stir. The youngster gained Internet fame from a viral video of him yodeling Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues” in a Walmart. He was signed to a record deal earlier this year and his debut single “Famous” has hit the charts.

Being on the Opry is a “dream come true,” the boy said. I imagine many singers have felt that way ever since the Grand Ole Opry began. Who knows, maybe this boy may someday be an official member of the Grand Ole Opry, recalling when he first stood on that magical unbroken performance circle.

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