I must be about the 8 billionth person to say, “Well, I’m not really a country music fan, but that was pretty cool” after a visit to the Church of Country Music – downtown Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, the winter host venue and spiritual home of the Grand Ole Opry.
Soaking in the historic building, caught up in the happy anticipation of the crowd, experiencing the Opry’s unique mix of artists both famous and not-so-famous (often more folksy than country, if that makes sense,) the feeling of making a personal connection with musical history….the Ryman was absolutely the highlight of my time in Music City.
While in Nashville at a conference, I decided to extend my stay one night and see who was playing at the Opry. Knowing nothing about it and thinking I’d have to call a cab to get from my downtown hotel out to the current Opry venue about ten miles east, I learned two things: the show moves back to the Ryman in the winter (roughly November to February) so I could easily walk to it, and the list of performers isn’t finalized sometimes until a day or two beforehand.
My first look at the performer list online for the available date showed just a few musicians confirmed, but by the time I sat down to buy a ticket, here is who was playing….
Ricky Skaggs? Marty Stuart? Charley Pride?
Hey, I don’t know country music all that well, but those guys are superstars, and I felt confident that whoever the other people were, they’d be great too or they wouldn’t be on the Opry (this turned out to be quite true.) All that for about US$40 for my ticket, and frankly I’d have paid double.
The Ryman Auditorium began life as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in the 1890’s, which is one reason that it’s called the “Church of Country Music.” The church windows are still there today, and the audience sits in wooden pews on the main floor and in the balcony.
It became the home of the Opry in 1943 and hosted the show until 1974, when the Opry was moved to its current larger building outside of downtown. You can see a variety of acts at the Ryman. Wander around looking at the framed Hatch Show Print posters in the entry hall and you’ll see plenty of performers outside of country music: Bruce Springsteen, both Elvis singers (Presley and Costello,) The Strokes, Hoobastank, and a B.B. King/Buddy Guy double bill, for example.
The Opry started in 1925 in Nashville as “The WSM Barn Dance,” a live radio show on 650 AM. It grew to become THE place where country singers could say they’d finally made it to the big time – they’d played the Opry.
Those early shows featured groups with names like Possum Hunters, Fruit Jar Drinkers – a reference to homemade moonshine drunk from jars, perhaps – and Gully Jumpers, in addition to now-legendary acts like bluegrass artist Bill Monroe.
My grandparents along with millions of others would tune in to hear the Opry show on their kitchen radio on Saturday night. They loved Roy Acuff (his song “Wabash Cannonball” must have appealed to my grandfather, who was a railroad man) and Uncle Dave Macon, the “Dixie Dewdrop.”
Now there I was in the building where the Opry broadcast originated and where so many have performed for decades, working my way around the back of the balcony to take my seat to the right of the stage, semi-squishing into my designated spot in the wooden pew….if you’re a large person, you may need to buy two seats to be comfortable.
That night, my favorite “star” performers were Marty Stuart and Charley Pride.
Like everyone else on the bill, they only played 2 – 3 songs, but they can still hit the notes – including Pride wailing on “Kaw-Liga” – they worked the whole stage, joked with the crowd and never seemed to be going through the motions, even though they must have performed at the Opry hundreds of times.
My favorite discoveries were the Quebe Sisters (kway-bee) with spectacular harmony of both voice and fiddle, and Lori McKenna who had such a beautiful voice and me practically in tears with her song “Humble & Kind.”
Update – here’s a video I found of her singing it:
If you go to the Opry at the Ryman, take the time to look at the costume and information display cases around the building. I learned a lot about Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon, aka comedian Minnie Pearl, who in real life was far from the simple hayseed character that she played onstage. There’s a photo of her in a balcony display case that is unrecognizable, since she’s in an elegant evening gown for a charity event.
Even if you have no idea who is playing and think you have no interest in country music, go to the Opry anyway if you visit Nashville. You’ll have a terrific time!
Tip: hear live Opry broadcasts on opry.com, on 650 AM WSM radio (still going!) and Sirius/XM’s Willie’s Roadhouse channel.
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