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Around the Opry TableA Feast of Recipes and Stories from the Grand Ole Opry
By Kay West
Center StreetCopyright © 2007 The Grand Ole Opry, Gaylord Entertainment
All right reserved.
IntroductionIn the early days of the Opry, touring was far from the comfortable experience it is today. Entire bands were crammed into a single car, suitcases stuffed in the trunk and instruments strapped on the roof, driving miles and miles from one small town to the next-an arduous journey unbroken by convenience marts or roadside restaurants. It was not at all unusual for fans to invite the performers who had been broadcast into their lives every Saturday night via WSM radio to come into their homes, sit at their table, and share a meal before a show. Nor was it uncommon for food to be used as commerce, meaning Opry members literally sang for their supper. Porter Wagoner, whose membership in the Opry dates back a half century, had friendships with some of the earliest members, like Roy Acuff, who said there were many times that if people didn't have the cash for a ticket, they would bring food to the box office instead. "Maybe a slab of bacon, or some ham. If it was a big family, they might bring three dozen eggs!"
Fan clubs could be counted on to put on a mighty fine feed when the objects of their affection came to town. Bill Anderson recalls summers touring a circuit of outdoor parks in the Northeast, and the good eating they enjoyed thanks to the friendly competition between local ladies who took pride in their cooking skills.
We used to play two shows at those parks, and members of the fan club in the area where we were playing would get together and plan a picnic for us between shows. They'd set up big long tables end to end, and lay out the most incredible spreads of the best home cooking. These ladies would have cooked for days. There might be six different hams, fourteen bowls of potato salad, a dozen plates of deviled eggs, and pies as far as you could see. All the ladies would be making sure you tried their ham, and they'd want a picture of you eating it to prove it. They'd come over with a plate of ham and their Instamatic camera and you'd try to tell them you had already had some ham and how good it was, but they'd say, "That was Mabel's ham. I want a picture of you eating my ham." God help you if you fussed over one ham more than another! I have fans that have been coming to see me for forty years, and they rarely come empty-handed. They are genuinely fans and friends, and that's one of the most lasting treasures of this business.
On the road, artists know that certain towns mean certain foods from certain folks will find their way to the bus: bratwurst in Milwaukee, Key lime pie in Florida, country ham in Kentucky, and tamales in New Mexico.
At home, the backstage desk at the Grand Ole Opry House is the receiving department for tomatoes, potatoes, pies, and pickles. One year, nearly thirty cakes arrived to celebrate Vince Gill's birthday. As one fan explained, "They give us so much with their music, we just want to give them something back to show them how much we love them."
More than any other institution in America, with the possible exception of organized religion, the Grand Ole Opry serves as an extended family; many would argue that the Opry is a religion. After all, two of its ancestral homes have been churches.
Sixty-five current cast members are the immediate family who fill the sacred circle at the center of the stage of the Opry House; the spirit of more than 250 singers, musicians, dancers, comediennes, and entertainers who preceded them hover in the rafters above; and the Opry's countless friends and fans stand in the wings, completing the circle.
Since its inception in 1925 the Opry has been a guest in their homes, thanks to radio, television, and in the twenty- first century, the Internet. Opry members have come to their cities and towns, performed in their schoolhouses and roadhouses, dance halls and concert halls, in theaters and amphitheaters. Millions of the faithful have made the pilgrimage from their homes to the home of the Grand Ole Opry, smack dab in the middle of Tennessee. They've claimed a spot in the crowded hallway outside the first WSM studio in the National Life and Accident Insurance Company building in downtown Nashville, or settled into a cushioned pew in the climate-controlled comfort of the spacious 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House.
For more than eighty years, the Grand Ole Opry has generously shared its weekly repast of music, comedy, showmanship, culture, and characters with this extended family. Around the Opry Table serves up a feast of another type: memorable meals, appetizing anecdotes, favorite foods, and treasured recipes from its storied past and abiding present.
Off the stage, cast members and staff come together for meals, whether at a restaurant to grab a bite to eat between shows, at formal dinners, or at casual potlucks. Spending so much time on the road, time around the table with their own families enjoying the foods that say "welcome home" becomes especially precious.
Interviews with cast members, Grand Ole Opry staff, and fans, Opry archives and old cookbooks have yielded a collection of recipes, stories, and songs from family, friends, and fans that span the history of the Opry, from Uncle Dave Macon's passion for good old- fashioned country ham to the thoroughly modern Tennessee paella served at Dierks Bentley's Opry induction party. There are mama recipes and great- grandma recipes, one from Aunt Floy and one from Aunt Margaret; there are recipes from way back in the hills, up north, down south, out west, back east, and a couple from the old country. Around the Opry Table serves up a banquet of meals and memories that speak of friendship, gratitude, generosity, and love, spanning miles and years, slow cooked by place and time.
From the book:
Uncle Dave Macon Joined the Opry cast in 1925 (1870-1952)
A handbill promoting a schoolhouse show-a typical venue in small towns-in June 1930, touts the headliner, Uncle Dave Macon, as "the greatest trick comical banjo player in the South." Whether or not trick comical banjo playing was a highly competitive field at the time is not known, but there is no doubt that Uncle Dave-who was fifty-five years old when he joined the Opry-was a consummate showman and a larger-than-life personality.
Born in 1870 in Smart Station, Tennessee, he spent the first thirteen years of his life on a farm in Rutherford County. In 1883, his father-a Confederate war captain-purchased the Broadway Hotel in downtown Nashville, relocating his wife and ten children from country to city. The Broadway was the road home for many traveling entertainers and musicians, and young Dave took advantage of their presence in the lobby of his father's hotel to learn banjo at the feet of the masters.
When his father was murdered in 1885, his mother moved the family back to rural Tennessee, where she operated a country inn and raised her brood. Macon married Matilda Richardson in 1899, sired seven children, and operated his own horsedrawn wagon company in the Kittrell community of Rutherford County, Tennessee. He indulged his love of the spotlight by providing "pass the hat" entertainment at area schools, introducing himself as Uncle Dave to put children at ease. In 1918, when the automobile burst out of its starting gate with more horsepower than his stable could hope to muster, he parked his wagons and decided to take a stab at making music his livelihood. His ebullient stage persona and mastery of the banjo captivated audiences, and for the next seven years, Uncle Dave barnstormed the South, making regular appearances for the Loews theater chain. In December 1925, he was invited to join the cast of WSM's Barn Dance by announcer George D. Hay, known as the Solemn Ole Judge, or simply Judge Hay, after a stint writing a humor column titled "Howdy, Judge" for the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis. Uncle Dave's membership predated even the name Grand Ole Opry, which was bestowed by the judge. Hay, who prided himself on dispensing catchy nicknames, introduced the entertainer as the Dixie Dewdrop.
Having performed his singing, banjo-picking, joke-telling act professionally since an early age, and with several recordings for Vocalion and vaudeville tours under his belt, Uncle Dave Macon was the first bona fide star of the Grand Ole Opry cast. The sheer energy of his performances and his folksy, conversational introductions to his songs leapt through rapt home listeners' radios, and tremendous crowds turned out for his traveling shows.
In 1939, Republic Studios in Hollywood expressed an interest in making a movie of the growing national phenomenon of the Grand Ole Opry, and sent one of their executives to Nashville to catch the show. WSM executives decided to take full advantage of Uncle Dave's charismatic personality and gracious Southern hospitality and asked if he would entertain the gentleman at his farm in Cannon County. Uncle Dave enthusiastically accepted, and directed his cook to prepare a "real, sho-nuf Tennessee dinner with all the trimmings." Opry announcer and program director Judge Hay, who was part of the party, was so impressed that he wrote about it in his column, "A Story of the Grand Ole Opry," which ran in Minnie Pearl's Grinder's Switch Gazette.
"After Uncle Dave asked the blessing, we were served a dinner which is not for sale anywhere in these United States ... rich country ham, fried chicken, six or seven vegetables done to a Tennessee turn, jelly, preserves, pickles, hot corn bread and white bread. Then came the cake...."
On the drive back to Nashville, according to Judge Hay, the man from Hollywood turned to him and said, "I have never met a more natural man in my life. He prays at the right time and he cusses at the right time and his jokes are as clever as the dickens."
Not surprisingly, Uncle Dave was chosen to be one of the stars of the film Grand Ole Opry, along with Roy Acuff and His Smoky Mountain Boys, and Judge Hay, in 1940. When it came time for production to begin, Judge Hay and Uncle Dave took the train to Hollywood while Acuff and his group drove Acuff 's Ford limousine touring car. According to Acuff biographer Elizabeth Schlappi, Acuff carried along a rather unusual piece of luggage in the trunk.
Knowing that it was highly unlikely there would be any country ham on the West Coast, Uncle Dave had prevailed upon Roy Boy-as he had dubbed him-to tote one with him in a wooden crate. Acuff agreed, and as he recounted to Schlappi in Roy Acuff: The Smoky Mountain Boy, "I put it in my car and started off with it. We soon found that the border guards were checking everything at each state line. I guess they were looking for fruit flies or whiskey or something. Well, anyway, everywhere we stopped, we'd have to undo that ham box, knock the slats off, and let them examine the ham."
By the time filming was completed, Uncle Dave had polished off the ham. He asked Acuff to take the box back so he could use it as a hen's nest. The easygoing fiddler agreed.
Uncle Dave Macon not only ate ham every chance he got, he sang an ode to it in his stage show, adapting a late nineteenth- century black minstrel tune, "Ham Beats All Meat," as the basic recipe for "Country Ham and Red Gravy."
Country Ham and Red Gravy Uncle Dave Macon
Rich folks go to market house to buy that mutton and lamb I am going to the country store to get that good sweet ham Oh, how them people yell, when they heard the dinner bell Oh, how them onions smelled, three miles away
Uncle Dave continued performing at the Grand Ole Opry until three weeks before his death in 1952; in 1966, he was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Every summer in Rutherford County, Uncle Dave Macon Days, founded in 1977, honors and celebrates one of the county's most famous sons. The family-oriented event draws nearly fifty thousand people to Murfreesboro for one of the few old-time music competitions in the country, and a purse totaling sixty-one hundred dollars is awarded during the music and dance contests. The three-day event concludes with that fine old bluegrass festival tradition, a gospel sing and a stirring rendition of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."
Excerpted from Around the Opry Table by Kay West Copyright © 2007 by The Grand Ole Opry, Gaylord Entertainment. Excerpted by permission.
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