The Show That Made Country Music Famous
By Hope S. Philbrick
Sitting in the audience during a Grand Ole Opry performance, you wouldn’t know that the American institution suffered severe flood damage. While you’re swept up in the festive atmosphere and up-tempo pace of the two-hour show, the weathered stage upon which artists strum, sing, dance and joke holds Country Music’s storied history.
Since 1974 the Grand Ole Opry House, considered to be the home of Country Music, has stood in its current location. As a nod to the Opry’s former home as well as a way to symbolically ensure the circle of performers is unbroken, the Opry stage features a six-foot circle constructed of oak floorboards from Ryman Auditorium. When artists step upon that more lightly-stained circle they tread where legends like Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Garth Brooks, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash (to name just a few) have also stood. It’s an honor that brings some performers to happy tears.
That literal history was at risk when the Grand Ole Opry stage was submerged under 46 inches of water as record flooding pushed the River Cumberland over its banks in May 2010. But there was no hesitation that the stage and building would be restored. “There was never a question, not for a minute,” says Dan Rogers, senior marketing manager. “It was always about how quickly we could get Country Music back to its permanent home.” The Grand Ole Opry returned home just six months after the damage.
While the $20 million restoration was underway, the show went on. “We didn’t miss a single show,” says Rogers. “We felt like it was our job to keep the Grand Ole Opry going so that people coming to Nashville could see it no matter where it was.” Six other venues hosted shows during construction, including the Ryman Auditorium.
With dual goals of honoring the past and preparing for the future, the Opry House renovations preserved the revered circle and also introduced a few changes. All eighteen dressing rooms now have themes that celebrate some of the people and music that made the Opry an icon, including Roy Acuff, Jimmy Dickens, Minnie Pearl, Porter Wagoner, bluegrass, songwriters, women of country, duets and more. A new artist lobby boasts a members’ gallery with placards naming all Opry members through the show’s 85-year history. A refurbished green room displays photos of Opry history above a chair rail that marks the water line from the flood.
Membership is a true honor. Currently, the Grand Ole Opry boasts just 60 members. “There’s no magic formula, no secret code that grants access to one of the most coveted invitations in all of music,” says Rogers. The decision rests exclusively with the show’s managers who consider various factors like radio airplay, album and ticket sales, industry recognition, career accomplishment, potential for continued success and each artist’s commitment. They strive for balance, inviting Country Music legends and young talents. Current members include Jimmy Dickens, the Gatlin Brothers, Dolly Parton, Brad Paisley, Charlie Daniels, Carrie Underwood and Blake Shelton.
Members are not the only artists invited to perform, however. The goal is to create a dynamic entertaining radio broadcast and so a range of acts expected to appeal to the Opry audience are invited. Past musicians and comedians who’ve graced the Opry stage include the Doobie Brothers, Pointer Sisters, Kevin Costner, Jack Black, Bacon Brothers and Steve Martin. “It’s fun for fans to see some of those people out of the context you’d normally see them,” says Rogers. “And it’s a fun opportunity for those people to play music’s most famous stage.”
The Grand Ole Opry is “really the only stage in America where you’ll consistently see three generations of artists on the stage together night after night,” says Rogers. Each show presents a mix of superstars and upstarts performing an eclectic mix of Country, Bluegrass and Americana music. Presented in four 30-minute blocks of time, each unique combination of performers ensures the show is never the same twice.
It’s a formula that has endured even as new technologies emerge. “One of the reasons we remain vital and popular is that we take the technology of the day and share the Opry with fans via that technology,” says Rogers. So while the show still airs on AM radio, it’s also possible to tune in online and even follow on Twitter. Of course, nothing compares to the thrill of watching a live performance where you can feel the vibrations of fiddles and foot-taps and see performers’ facial expressions and sparkly rhinestone outfits.
What does the Grand Ole Opry mean to Country Music? “We always say ‘It’s the show that made country music famous,’” says Rogers. “It’s the home of Country Music. When a lot of artists come off the road, in addition to going home and catching up with family, they want to come here and catch up with friends. It’s where Country Music’s biggest fans and stars go to connect. It keeps Country Music alive, the past, present and future in one place.”
Perhaps more than any other venue, the Grand Ole Opry is synonymous with Nashville. “Go to Seattle, London or Tokyo and say ‘Nashville’ and people will say ‘Grand Ole Opry,’” says Rogers. “Every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday the Opry takes Country Music to the world via our app, website and radio. And it’s a great reason for people to come to Nashville.”
Before or after the show, a Back Stage Tour gives an inside peek at where performers prepare for the stage plus a chance to view historical photos and costumes. You’ll also get an opportunity to stand on that revered circle of wood and imagine yourself performing on Country Music’s stage.
Home to history, the Opry also inspires dreams.
The Grand Ole Opry is located in Nashville at 2804 Opryland Drive. A uniquely American experience for more than 80 years, the Opry can be heard on 650 WSM-AM, SIRIUS XM Satellite Radio, and online at opry.com. The Grand Ole Opry is owned by Gaylord Entertainment, a Nashville-based hospitality and entertainment company that also owns and operates Gaylord Hotels. For more information, call 615-871-6779 or 800-SEE-OPRY or visit opry.com or gaylordentertainment.com.
-Photo Credits: Top photo © Grand Ole Opry / Courtesy Gaylord Opryland; Taylor Swift © Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.
A version of this article was first published in Where GuestBook Nashville. Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.