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The Grand Ole OpryThe Making of an American Icon
By Colin Escott
CENTER STREETCopyright © 2006 The Grand Ole Opry
All right reserved.
IntroductionThere wasn't an empty seat at the Grand Ole Opry's eightieth birthday celebration in October 2005. Among the cast members onstage that night, there was one-Little Jimmy Dickens-who'd first appeared on the show in 1948. Back then, he'd mingled with veterans of the show's earliest days. At the eightieth, he stood backstage with Opry stars from the last fifty years. In the half-light, they formed a ragged, unbroken circle.
Today's Opry members coexist happily with the ghosts. No one who plays bluegrass can forget that Bill Monroe introduced the music from the Opry stage. Today's Opry members know that the torch has been passed to them, and that they in turn must pass it on. Away from the Opry, today's top stars can play to stadiums full of fans; at the Opry, they play to four thousand people, some of whom have little idea who they are. They have just a few minutes to win over the crowd while artists from the last fifty years watch from the wings. That's what makes the Grand Ole Opry one of the premier stages in American music.
Through the years, the legends of the Grand Ole Opry have become known by one name. Cash, Acuff, Hank, Patsy, and so on. At the eightieth anniversary, Garth was there. He emerged from a brief self-imposed retirement, and, in case he, or anyone else, was wondering, he's still the most powerfully iconic presence incountry music. Before joining Steve Wariner for some duets, he went onstage as the fourth member of a quartet alongside Little Jimmy Dickens, Porter Wagoner, and Bill Anderson. Backstage, every hand was shaken and every photo taken. Old-timers used to call it "shake and howdy," and it's a tradition that has almost disappeared. Garth, though, seemed genuinely pleased to carry it on. Ernest Tubb, who personified shake and howdy, would have smiled his big benevolent smile and approved.
Country music venerates tradition, and the Grand Ole Opry embodies it. There is nothing remotely comparable elsewhere in music. No show covers all the bases, from street-corner blues to hip-hop or from rockabilly to heavy metal, but every night at the Grand Ole Opry four thousand people of all ages can hear the broad sweep of country music from the back porch to the stadium. No one performs more than a few songs per segment, so the show isn't trapped in one time period. It's breathlessly varied and fast-paced, faster and more varied by far than the very first show when Uncle Jimmy Thompson played the fiddle for one hour to the sole accompaniment of his niece.
Brad Paisley, one of the current stars who has made a sustained commitment to the Opry, has a vision for the show. "Ideally," he said recently, "people will come hear Porter Wagoner or Bill Anderson on a night I'm singing and walk away saying, 'I like that new guy, too.' And maybe there'll be people who come to the show because they've heard my songs on the radio and they'll say, 'Boy, I didn't know Bill Anderson wrote "City Lights," or I didn't know Jimmy Dickens's "Bird of Paradise" is so funny. I need to go get their CDs.'"
The Opry came into a world with few entertainment options; now, of course, there are so many. Every era had its unique set of problems, though. In its earliest days, the Opry's managers had to contend with Nashville's old-money crowd, who believed that the show brought disgrace to their community. Today, as the interstates approach Nashville, the official road signs say "Metropolitan Nashville, Home of the Grand Ole Opry." The Opry has made Nashville synonymous with country music, and the country music business no longer has to trumpet how much it contributes to the city and its economy because the evidence is everywhere. Those entrusted with the future of the Grand Ole Opry contend with different problems, but the show will survive because too many people want it to survive. True, there are complaints that it isn't what it used to be, but it never was. If it was what it used to be, it would have been finished by 1930.
So much has happened in eighty years, and here for the first time the story is told in the words of those who witnessed it. Some were in front of the microphone, some behind the curtains, and some in the back office. Some observed and some participated. Everyone was there. Occasionally memories conflict, but that's as it should be. No two people have ever remembered the same event the same way.
For help in preparing this book, I'm deeply indebted to Brenda Colladay, curator of the Grand Ole Opry Museum and the vast archive that the Opry has accumulated along the way. The photo selection here is the tip of the iceberg. Brenda also compiled the list of Opry members by decade and assisted in many other ways. Thanks also to Melissa Fraley Agguini, vice president of Brand Development at the Opry's parent company, Gaylord Entertainment; to Gina Keltner, who helped arrange the interviews; and to Alex Smithline, whose idea this initially was. Finally, thanks to Steve Buchanan, president of the Grand Ole Opry Group, and Pete Fisher, manager of the Grand Ole Opry, who are steering the Opry into the twenty-first century with a vision that would appeal to those who originally conceived the show.
COLIN ESCOTT Nashville, February 2006
Excerpted from The Grand Ole Opry by Colin Escott Copyright © 2006 by The Grand Ole Opry. Excerpted by permission.
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