Connie Smith, still a stone fox at 79, hair swept up and wearing a black Manuel rhinestone jacket with turquoise stitching, stands alone as a steel guitar drenched the Opry stage with sadness. It had been more than six months since fans attended America’s longest-running radio broadcast – and the empty Opry House felt a deeper kind of desolate.
Moments earlier, Marty Stuart, an Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame member, introduced his wife, saying, “For a lot of people, the North Star of country music is, I believe, Hank Williams. Probably the song that comes up more than any other of Hank’s is ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.’”
Torch mourning has never been a defined province, yet as Smith’s tenor found the final “as I wonder where you are…,” the performance was more than grief over a shattered love, or even the palpable emptiness of the empty auditorium that has seen Presidents, floods and icons since its opening in 1974.
As the Opry has done since its inception in the ‘20s, a Country Music Hall of Famer distilled the existential state of the world and stained Hank Willliams’ most forlorn composition with a new shade of blue.
Not floods, tornados, growing crowds, shifting mores, or COVID-19 can stop what will be its 4,947th consecutive week of broadcasting a live radio show over WSM-AM on Halloween. Originally conceived by the National Life & Accident Insurance Co. in 1925 as a “marketing notion,” WSM’s call letters stood for We Shield Millions. George D. Hay, the original program director hired on the strength of his wildly successful barn dance on Chicago’s WLS, launched the station at 8 p.m. on November 28, 1925, with Uncle Jimmy Thompson, a championship fiddler. Things just accelerated from the little studio on the fifth floor of 7th and Union.
A series of moves – to movie theaters, the War Memorial Auditorium and massive church revival houses – followed. In 1943, the Ryman Auditorium finally became the home of the Opry. Built for preaching, the acoustics were staggering – and the central downtown location provided easy access. The energy bristled, and the idea of discovery was almost as exciting as making the pilgrimage to “The Mother Church of Country Music.”
Hank Williams’ debut was so electric, he was called back for an unprecedented six encores when he played “Lovesick Blues” the first time. Earl Scruggs teamed up with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys featuring a young Lester Flatt to lock in the seeds of bluegrass. Loretta Lynn ran out of songs to play, she got so many ovations. Johnny Cash, inducted in ’56, busted out the footlights with his mic stand in ‘65 and was promptly expelled; but, in 1968 they made up and the Man in Black was reinstated. Cash remained a member in full until his death.
Patsy Cline. Loretta Lynn. Ernest Tubb. Bob Wills. Roy Acuff. Red Foley. George Jones. The Delmore Brothers. Chet Atkins. Johnny & Jack. The Jordinaires. Kitty Wells. The Carter Sisters/Family. Red Sovine. Ray Price. Faron Young. Lefty Frizzell. Porter Wagoner. Rose Maddox. The Louvin Brothers. Skeeter Davis. Slim Whitman. Willie Nelson. ALL before 1965 was over. Too many names, all leaving a mark on country music.
Tales of ducking out the backdoor, across the alley to Tootsies Orchid Lounge, are plentiful. With a lack of dressing rooms, the argument could be made, they were “just getting out of the way.” But the little bar with its own backdoor for the Opry stars – where owner Hattie Louise “Tootsie” Bess would let no-money songwriters like Nelson and Kris Kristofferson drink on credit – became legend, too. Carlene Carter laughs, telling about her mother June Carter sending her across the alley to call her father Carl Smith back to the Ryman just before his spot in the show.
For all the historic and crazy times, the Opry is a steady spot on the American landscape. The tempestuous ‘60s even closed out with a 1, 2 of Dolly Parton, then Tammy Wynette, becoming the 140th and 141st members. Considering DeFord Bailey, the harmonica player who bridged Black music and rural country blues, was the seventh member, the Opry’s musical – and social – realm was unspoken in a segregated South.
In many ways, the embodiment not just of “by the people, for the people,” but “the best of the people” if you’re considering sharecroppers’ kids, factory workers, coal miners, beauticians, dreamers, rounders, ramblers and general Christian-types. Yes, it was about selling insurance, but it also worked as a siren song to the overlooked masses between the coasts.
Whether the Great Depression, wars, natural disasters, social upheaval or unthinkable circumstances, the Opry was. Before commercial country radio was colonized into an industrially-machined beast, people across the nation perched their radio in a window “just so” on Saturday nights to listen – giving the performers an instant platform to build success on.
That Opry reach allowed members to tour and sell tickets, to be known long before they might be through the more conventional system. In a world where Loretta Lynn would sing at the Ernest Tubb Record Store Midnight Jamboree, sending out a song without realizing Patsy Cline was listening from her hospital bed, John Prine would make it a point to introduce his first label signing from the stage of the Opry.
What might have been a quaint notion – like the haybales network television shows insist on hauling out when a country artist performs, or the people who proclaim it’s “Country & Western” – trading on its past, the last few decades have been wholly invested in creating a future for the Opry that was as innovative and expansive as what National Life & Accident set in motion 95 years ago.
Credit Steve Buchanan, a Vanderbilt University Owen School of Business MBA who’d done time at Buddy Lee Attractions, who became the Opry’s first marketing manager. With no budget, he went to work identifying the message, audience and strengths of the Opry. Suddenly, the Gaylord Entertainment organization was recognizing the intrinsic value of their holdings.
An early project was restoring the Ryman to its former glory after falling into such disrepair in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was no longer viable as a live venue. In 2010, the Ryman embarked on a run of eight consecutive Pollstar Theatre of the Year awards.
Gaylord invested. Buchanan supervised. The venue that proudly hosted “The Johnny Cash Show” returned to its former glory; Jonathan Demme even filmed Neil Young’s concert-documentary “Heart of Gold” there in 2006.
Similarly, Buchanan and compatriot Pete Fisher sought out artists who might not seem obvious. SiriusXM midday host – and now Circle “Upstream With” anchor – Elizabeth Cook began making regular appearances at the storied venue; her quirky hard roots country was a fan-favorite, adding a dash of humor and attracting the attention of David Letterman, who booked her on his network show multiple times.
The advent of the Garth Brooks explosion ran alongside a muscular new traditionalism from Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Tim McGraw, George Strait’s massive festivals in the stadiums, Reba having a single name and the high-powered girl power of Faith Hill, Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks. If Garth and Reba are the only Opry members, that quickening around country music was felt in other ways.
Sally Williams, now Live Nation’s Nashville inflection point, arrived as the 20th Century wound down. Booking alternative events – like the very roots, very hip Party on the Plaza to help celebrate the Opry’s 75th as a preparty with emerging Americana and bluegrass forces Old Crow Medicine Show, Jim Lauderdale, Billy Joe Shaver, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys – often led to actual Opry bookings, as well as providing another facet of fun and country music.
Incremental things, subtle yields. Yet, the stage was set for the Opry to become a touchstone. Younger artists wanted to become members; an Opry debut was a rite of passage. If the ‘70s saw only nine inductions and the ‘80s a scant 13, the ‘90s and 2000s saw not just consistent inductions – which includes a requisite number of appearances that have hovered between 10-12 times a year – but big artists were showing up. Icons including Emmylou Harris, Johnny Paycheck, Charlie Daniels and Charley Pride were inducted alongside Brooks, Gill, Jackson, Alison Krauss, Dierks Bentley and Underwood. Indeed, Hall of Famer and CMA Entertainer of the Year Mel Tillis was inducted by his daughter Pam, a CMA Female Vocalist of the Year, in 2007, seven years after her own induction.
But the Opry – as much as big stars certainly draw attention and fans to its hallowed rooms – has always been more than any single artist. It’s fellowship, connecting generations, sharing the lineage, mixing up the bluegrass of Del McCoury with a classic from Bill Anderson and some hard roots from Margo Price, Marty Stuart enlisting Sierra Hull or Ricky Skaggs playing with Brad Paisley and Steve Wariner in a guitar fest of awesome, Jeannie Seely and Carly Pearce – maybe – smuggling a little bit of wine into a dressing room for girl talk.
Just as importantly, it’s taking stands and offering broader perspectives. Seely not only wore the – scandal!! – first miniskirt onstage, she crusaded for, and through multiple management regimes, women to host the various segments that make up an Opry show. Figure Barbara Mandrell won Entertainer of the Year before Seely strode onstage as a host in 1986.
It’s not just gender. DeFord Bailey represented the impact of Black music on country in the beginning and Charlie Pride offered proof a Black man can be Entertainer of the Year. More recently, Darius Rucker’s Opry membership and Mickey Guyton’s and Jimmie Allen’s regular performances speak to dissolving walls.
At the height of the George Floyd/Breonna Taylor/Say Their Name moment, a talented guitarist/songwriter named Charlie Worsham took the stage, offering a history lesson about “when the fiddle met the banjo, that’s when country music was born.” An eloquent monologue, he schooled all viewers – and became a semi-national media story – on the fact that banjo came from Africa, DeFord Bailey’s harmonica, the Carter Family’s friendship with Leslie Riddle, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 9” was a collaboration with Louis Armstrong, and Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music. It was humble, but provoked thoughts and created potential bridges.
When Sally Williams joined the fold as the General Manager of the Ryman, a new co-operation dawned. The Opry would broadcast from its second-longest home; the Ryman would become a national crown jewel of midsized concert halls. As Patsy Cline famously quipped after playing New York’s most storied venue, “Carnegie Hall was real fabulous, but you know, it ain’t as big as the Grand Ole Opry.”
In some ways, the Opry has ignited the current Nashville “It” town boom. In 2010, Buchanan took a meeting with Callie Khouri, CAA and several influential TV execs. From that partnership, the ABC – then CMT – series “Nashville” was born. Written into the story as a piece of the narrative, not just a location, what couldn’t the Opry do?
In 2010, when the flood waters of the Cumberland River rose and swallowed the Opry, they returned to the Ryman and War Memorial. Never missing a beat, sowing comfort and stability in the face of a Biblical natural disaster.
They’ve taken the show to Bonnaroo with Ricky Skaggs, Riders in the Sky, Steve Earle and Old Crow representing its myriad facets. They’ve made a point to keep inducting the Old Guard (think Bobby Bare, Gene Watson, the Oak Ridge Boys and Crystal Gayle), as well as emerging superstars Kelsea Ballerini, Blake Shelton, Little Big Town, Keith Urban and Combs.
As prodigious as that was, when Williams took a job spearheading Live Nation’s position in Nashville, Dan Rogers rose to EVP/General Manager of the Opry. Concurrently, Opry Entertainment President Scott Bailey joined forces with Circle Media to take a long hard look at just what the Opry possessed. Like Buchanan before, the assessment created opportunities and new adventures.
“There were 8,000 hours of historical content, a couple million people coming into the space and No. 1, passionate fans who care so deeply about this music, these artists,” Bailey says. “There’s a largely underserved audience of 129 million country music fans, and the Opry is well-positioned in terms of history and its relationships with the artists. There’s an almost religious reverence. So how do you do it? Focus on technology , content and creating experiences that bring them closer to these artists they already feel close to.”
Rogers agrees. “At the end of the day, we’d be nothing without the artists who’ve stepped up to the microphone. It’s that thing of not just how rich the history is, but the idea we’re making history every night.”
When COVID-19 hit and the live music industry shut down, the Opry was there. Still delivering music and community, still pressing the boundaries of what’s possible, still bringing music to people hundreds, even thousands of miles away.
“Even in the shutdown, we’ve got Bass Pro Shops, the Shriners, Verizon, GEICO, AARP,” reports Reifenberger. “They all recognized the authenticity not just of the music, but the connection. Nobody values the fans like the country artists – and they can feel that as an authentic way to connect what we have here.”
As fans start coming back and the Opry adds a second night, it appears the magic remains. If the pandemic taught people anything – beyond lean into real musicians who play from the heart and come from an almost century long tradition – it’s the value of honest music to people feeling isolated. When masks are necessary, social distancing must be maintained, how a song makes you feel doesn’t change.
Whether business is back to normal any time soon remains to be seen. But until then, the Opry is going to show up, allow performers to make music for however many people can be onsite, and as many people from around the world who tune in through myriad mediums. Beyond that, no doubt the Opry brain trust is thinking about its next waves of creative expansion.
“I think it’s the question that keeps the Opry young and keeps the Opry interesting: ‘What’s next?’,” enthuses Rogers.
“Because it’s always something.”