On a trip to Nashville this summer, I finally made it to a performance at the Grand Ole Opry, but it was a long time coming.
|Elvis at the gates of Graceland
I had arrived in town a few hours before, heading east on the road across America, interviewing for reporter jobs at newspapers along the way. Earlier that day, I'd visited the Memphis Commercial Appeal and driven past the musical-note gates of Graceland, just to see the legendary house where Elvis lived.
Upon arriving in Nashville, I phoned the Banner's editor, Bracey Campbell, and identified myself as calling from the Associated Press, since I was working for AP Broadcast in New York at the time.
"You must be calling about Elvis," he said. "Why, Mr. Campbell?" I responded. "He's dead!" the editor said. "Oh, Mr. Campbell, that's terrible, Elvis being dead and all. We had scheduled my job interview for tomorrow," I said. This was, understandably, the least of Mr. Campbell's concerns. "Honey, I got more here than I can say grace over. I can't give you your job interview. "
So that night, not having much else to do, I drove around Nashville, twirling the radio dial. Even then, the Grand Ole Opry was no longer at the red brick Ryman, having moved in 1974 a few miles out of town to something called Opryland. Downtowns were deteriorating and theme parks with car-friendly acreage were on the rise.
Upon my return, I discovered Opryland was long gone and my conference was booked into a huge hotel called the Gaylord Opryland Resort, but the theater was right next door.
The Opry started in 1925 as a live broadcast on WSM radio featuring an hour of "barn dance" music. It followed a classical music program, and one night announcer George Hay said the grand opera program would be followed by the "grand ole opry."
|Riders in the Sky
Tickets were remarkably easy to get for a Saturday night. It's like a vaudeville or TV variety show, with each act doing 10-15 minutes. We took our seats in the pews, a style transferred from the Ryman. I was beyond excited, ready to experience American musical history.
However, not being real country music fans, my daughter and I agreed we would each get a point if we had heard of a particular act.
The host of the opening segment was Jeannie Seely, a dynamic, 78-year-old veteran of the Opry, tough and funny as hell. But there was also a male radio announcer reading broadcast ads for such products as Springer Mountain Farms chicken between sets.
Seely introduced The Sisterhood, the duo Ruby Stewart (daughter of Rod Stewart) and Alyssa Bonagura, whose soaring harmonies were more rock-tinged folk than classic country. They just made their Opry debut last year.
Banjo player Mike Snider took the stage with his group, beginning with self-deprecating humor, assuring us that his group would not "over-entertain" us. Snider, of course, then launched into banjo riffs that proved his National Banjo Champion credentials.
Next up was an old-timey Western group, Riders in the Sky, complete with chaps and amusing patter. I was starting to warm to a show that clearly welcomed performers in their 70s who still had a lot to give.
A couple of times, between other acts, the Opry Square Dancers filled me with joy as they pranced through their paces in teal satin costumes on a stage that really didn't have a lot of room for square dancing. The Opry stage production, however, was absolutely top-notch -- especially the sound, which transmitted every note and voice with absolute clarity.
The people sitting around us were from Tennessee and Iowa, enthusiastically into the music. By the way, the Opry is apparently perfectly all right with people snapping cell phone photos during the show, as I looked around and saw lots of folks doing just that. Other acts were Bobby Osborne & the Rocky Top X-Press, bluegrass group Dailey & Vincent, TV star Charles Esten and comedian Heather Land.
For me, the best came at the end. Charley Pride is 84 and one of the very few black country music stars -- a situation that occurred when he started out in the 1970s and exists to this day. In her autobiography, Loretta Lynn pointedly said she thought Pride was good for country music, to prove "it belongs to everybody." But as I looked around the theater, it appeared the audience was overwhelmingly white.
Still, Pride is a big star, yet he can amble onto the Opry stage, smoothly sing a couple of songs and uphold decades of history by himself.
The final singer's name had only crossed our path the day before, as we were waiting for breakfast at the local Cracker Barrel. A friendly young man from Mississippi insisted we listen to a video of Jamey Johnson, who looks like he just came down from the mountain.
Johnson and his acoustic guitar stood at the WSM microphone and simply held the audience spellbound with his deep baritone singing voice and storytelling. He sang one of his hits, "In Color," about a grandfather looking through the black-and-white photos of his life, saying "you should have seen it in color." I swear even men were weeping.
I had set aside any thoughts of politics as I attended the Opry, wanting simply to experience the music on its own terms. Johnson expressed the best of country music: stories about people that ring true. "In Color" may or may not have been based on an actual person, but the people listening to it clearly were walking through the histories of their own families.
I ended up with two points (Charley and Jamey) and Flo had one (Jamey). In the next post: we attend a musical and spiritual experience with an audience of a different color.