The Grand Ole Opry On A Saturday Night: GoodBye Ghosts, Hello 1st Times & 63 Year Members
The Grand Ole Opry on a Saturday Night
Good Bye To Ghosts, 63 Year Members + One Very Special Debut
There are very few things as American as the Grand Ole Opry on a Saturday night. Once upon a time, beamed across the middle of the country on the powerful WSM-AM 650, it was a unifying force of entertainment for the have-littles and down-homes. Today, for all of its controversial changes, it’s more the same home for country music than it is different.
Case in point, the first act on this night: Little Jimmy Dickens, 91 years old, and still cracking obvious jokes and getting big laughs for the effort.
“I’m shaking like a cow being milked with a cold set of pliers…,” he teases the audience as he blinds them with his rhinestone suit, while the next band’s musicians collect on the stage behind him. He tells a Viagra joke about his stiff neck being a result of “swallowing those little pills too fast.”
Then the talk turns homey and welcoming. Without missing a beat, he tells the near sold out crowd, “We want to thank you for being here. We’re hoping someone on this stage will do something to make it worth your while for being here with us this evening.”
After a few more jokes about his age and libidinal prowess, he brings out the equally rhinestoned Jimmy C Newman, who plugs his new CD. Then explains the next song – which is not on that CD — is “bi-lingual, and if you hear another language it’s Cajun French.”
A bit of squeezebox whirls up, then that distinctively Louisiana beat starts clicking and jumping with clean heats on the high hat and snares, kick drum thumping behind with an echoing authority. The fiddles swirls, too, capturing all joy and the effervescence that is Saturday night — and the audience reels in appreciation.
Nowhere does music melt quite like this. Decidedly authentic to the various regions and genres, this is a survey course of organic popular music. Not in a sheer historic sense, but in terms if genres that hit people where they live, how the work and what they believe.
Welcoming couples by name and enumerating the number of their respective wedding anniversaries, it is decidedly y’all come. Modernity gets a bow by way of the Facebook Fan of the Day; not just naming, but pulling pertinent facts from their profile to share with the Opry audience and all those listening live on WSM-AM and Sirius/XM radio.
More jokes, more primping and pimping. Dickens, whose been an Opry member for 63 years, introduces what amounts to “the new kid” on MCA, says some nice things that betray no knowledge of anything about this young man named Kip Moore, a standard issue acoustic guitar-playing, t-shirt’n’ball cap-sporting singer.
Dusty-voiced, he sings a midtempo littered with details about coming of age, late night drives and exploring the thrills that hormones drive youth to explore. Slightly breathless, perhaps a few too many words in his song, you can almost feel his heart thumping in his chest…
“Girl, tonight, let’s go crazy one more time…” is his appeal, and you can tell there’s an undercurrent of not wanting this night to end.
After all, the Opry is a sacred place – and if you don’t quite know why, you can’t miss the gravitas you feel just walking out on that stage. Embedded in those floorboards – restored after the deadly Nashville floods – is a ring of wood from the Ryman Auditorium, where Hank Williams Sr, Johnny Cash and Ptsty Cline have all stood.
He starts giving his witness. Moving here nine years ago, getting kicked in the teeth, and finally having something working. Tragically, it’s more conveyor belt machined Music Row-ery: slightly blues-flecked, but reduced to the clichery that is “Something ‘Bout A Truck.”
One more song about dropped tailgates, ice cold beer, girls in red sundresses, corn, a farmer’s fields, birds, bees… You get the idea. Not that country music has always been “Strawberry Wine” and “Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning,” but the novelty was at least clever more than clichéd.
Still, it’s hard to begrudge a kid his dream. Especially at the Grand Ole Opry on a Saturday night. Three young men with acoustic guitars, keeping it organic, keeping it – seemingly –authentic.
Novelty is something Joe Diffie knows about. He’s the reason I’ve tucked myself into one of the Ryman’s original pews, back behind the drum riser. Country music really is a family, and this week has seen us lose one of our own. Diffie’s erstwhile manager and sometime songwriter Danny Morrison died suddenly, leaving too many of us in shock.
Aside from managing Diffie, as well as Tim McGraw and Ty Herndon, the old school country texture had written hits for Kenny Rogers (“Blaze of Glory”), Diffie (“Is It Cold In Here”), Lee Greenwood (“You’ve Got A Good Love Comin’”) and Johnny Paycheck (“She’s Got A Drinkin’ Problem”). From another, wilder, prankier time, Morrison embodied the very notion of being character that was once requisite to have real estate on Music Row.
In the pews, there are kids, senior citizens, tourists, veterans of various wars marked with flag pins and still military posture, academics in their glasses and fans lucky enough to know someone who knows someone. Some of the players stop and tease the kids; a few get singled out by sidemen who’ve met the folks on the road.
The second segment is sponsored by Bass Pro Shops; hosted by Country Music Hall of Famer Whisperin’ Bill Anderson. Most of the people don’t remember when Anderson, who both went disco and had a string of Southern home cooking restaurants called Po’ Folks, had songs on the radio. It doesn’t matter; the beat moves the festivities along, the girl fiddler’s pretty and Anderson knows how to milk the crowd.
This is a night of engaging the fans… They don’t come for the artists so much as the experience, connecting with something larger than the collected stars put together.
In the wings, there is a cluster of players gathering. Diffie still has signature mullet, bleached blond and looking old school as can be as he shifts his weight from side-to-side waiting to go on. He’s been gracing this stage now for more than two decades; a lot of life, love, songs have passed under his bus tires and if he’s not worse for the wear, he’s a bit worn for the living.
A couple fans chat him up as bluegrass’ Mike Snider takes the stage in his overalls and truckers cap, talking up a blue streak. Thing about Snider, though, the man can play – and play he does: showing the audience what old, old Appalachia can be.
Diffie, like everyone else taking the stage, knows those fans are what keeps country music alive. Long after the radio stops spinning your hits, these people remember – and he looks people in the eye when he speaks to them, guitar slung across his big barrel chest. That’s just how it is, and these artists are happy to smile, shake hands and have their “picture made” with the people who come from all over the nation.
When Diffie makes his entrance a little girl in a pink skirt skips out with him. She’s introduced as his daughter Kylie – and she looks like the stage is more fun than a water flume, roller coaster or flat out pony ride.
The accelerated train beat and steel-drenched “Next Thing Smokin’” requires a certain amount of tongue twisting and vocal dexterity, tossing the melody up and down like a yoyo. Diffie’s been singing that long-gone song since his very first record – and as he scales the ascendant “Gooooone” on the outro/instrumental break, you can feel the years, but nobody seems to mind.
Once upon a line dance, this was big fun on a Saturday night in a sweaty beer joint. That’s not something to forget, and Diffie helps them remember.
“This is kind of a sad night for… A person who worked with me for a long time, a former manager of mine… passed away recently…”
He explained that Danny Morrison had co-written the song he’d just sung – and he’d also co-written this next one.
With a Hargus “Pig” Robbins-influenced piano flourish, a thick back and forth bass part and just enough cymbal, the neon’n’whiskey-stained tearkerjer unravels – and the audience comes to life. They remember “Is It Cold In Here (Or Is It Just You),” a two-week #1 too many years ago that still holds all the pathos that makes beer joint country so strong.
Like Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Match Girl, there’s a sense of holding the flame aloft to keep the image present. It won’t work, but that doesn’t matter. For a few minutes, it’s obvious how good songs stain lives with the listener’s own memories, moments, emotions.
In the end, life is finite. But for a few seconds, he is immortal and the power of songs transcends the grief that accompanies a week marred by the loss of a true character.
Jeannie Sealey slips onto the stage, still slinging hillbilly girl glamor in a black sequin top and hair – or wig – perfectly coiffed. Walking straight up the middle of the bandstand, she hits the front of the stage, pivots and gently bobs to the quick-picking time signature. There’s nothing like a shuffle to kick off a segment, and the Grammy-winnng Sealey’s working it for all it’s worth, bending down and taking flowers from fans, getting cheek-to-cheek for pictures and hugs.
Even with all the back and forth, she never misses a lick or a line. Keeps singing, keeps shining, keeps connecting with the fans any way she thinks will.
She introduces George Hamilton IV, in a red and white checked shirt and a vest. IV introduces his son George Hamilton V. Then he tells a story about the Gaither Singers, a tale about a song that won’t be done until the Good Lord takes all of the singers home…
Always a stately man, Hamilton can make spoken word seem like music. The easy lope that follows sets up a song he dedicates to Whitney Houston, proving that circle of music knows no bounds and is as wide open as the hearts of the people playing it.
The commercials are old school. Done live by an announcer at the side of the stage. They go on forever it seems, yet no one seems to mind.
Gives the acts a chance to get into place, get set up to entertain the fans – because it’s a tradition no one wants to fail.
If Matraca Berg is nervous, you can’t tell. She has her harmonica in its holder, mahogany hair tumbling down her back. She’s a Songwriters Hall of Famer… fresh off the Grammys, where she was nominated (again) for Country Song… for “You and Tequila,” a plaintive duet for Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter.
“I was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee… and I wrote this song about missing home… I haven’t been here (the Opry) since the flood, and they’ve done such an amazing job on the restoration…”
It’s a quiet twirl of picked notes, gentle, almost hushed. The song is “Oh, Cumberland,” which first appeared on Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol 3 as a duet between Circle originators the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Emmylou Harris.
The song, a paean to the river that swelled up and overflowed Nashville in almost Biblical proportions is all yearning, all angst and just enough balm that the hankering for all things home is tangible. Berg’s voice has a hint of tart, the bitter of losing what you love, but also wide and earthy, the grounding that makes all things somehow right.
Berg knows. She was raised here, even if this is her first time performing on the Opry. A kid whose Mom was a sometime back-up singer, she wrote her first #1 at 18 with Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Braddock. She’s a witness to almost as much as the river she sings of, and the tremor in her voice is as much for what’s being lost and paved over as the appearance on this sacred stage.
After introducing husband/Dort band anchor Jeff Hanna to the audience, she moves to the piano. Explains that her father was a physicist, met her mom – and sometimes would send her to his parents dairy farm, the farm that was the scene of her CMA Song of the Year “Strawberry Wine.”
But Berg doesn’t opt to play that one. No, she chooses an elegy for a way of life that’s dying.
“The Dreaming Fields” is a minor key breath-taker, about the fate of family farms where the land is worth more as a housing development. It s a sad song, and the Opry-goers, who know her songs, but not her music, are rapt.
When she finishes there are sighs, then much applause. Even the unknown when it’s true lands clean and hard. These people love music; they come to believe. In a moment like this, their faith is rewarded – and that’s no mean feat given the history stacked like cord wood.
Coming offstage, there are tears and hugs. Old friends lined up to talk about shared experiences and “times that…” It is the fiber that holds generations together, that keeps the Opry strong. It is everything that this institution has been built on.
And just when the moment can’t get any more triumphant, Sealey introduces the Opry Square Dancers. Way more uptown in their purple lame inset-shirts and circle mini-skirts, their moves are staunchly barn dance-centric. Clogging, buck dancing and the formation do-si-doing make this a truly country experience, something you won’t find at a rave, a three-day jam band festival or a hip hop excursion. And that is the point.
But there’s still more. One more section. One more thirty minute segment that’ll go long, as all the others have. For many of these acts, this is now the epicenter of the universe – and Opry wranglers Steve Buchanan and Pete Fisher know this.
Though there was a certain amount of blood-letting when they took over, there is also a recognition of the role these acts have played in building this genre. They are treated with respect and compassion, and they understand what it means that these older stars are still here.
John Conley, a man who looks oddly like a hedgehog, but who is blessed with a thick, resonant tenor, is the night’s final host. He waddles more than walks, but his voice remains robust.
With a rubbery beat, he bounces through a mid-80s chart-topper, the spry “I’m Only In It For The Love.” A ditty in the truest sense, it’s the kind of ear candy that moves with your wiper blades, and the audience claps along. Indeed, it’s a beat that even the whitest of white people can find – and they do so with gusto.
From the old guard to another new kid… a second Grand Ole Opry debut of the evening. Canaan Smith is just 24 years old, working on his first single. He’s a Virginia boy who knows what this Opry appearance means.
Though his single is loitering just below the Top 40, this almost makes it worth the hauling all over America to grip, grin, dine and shine for an endless string of program directors who’ve seen it all before.
His song is another one of those wistful ballads about being young and in love. “We’ve Got Us” is vanilla as it comes, yet he finishes up and is so aw struck, you believe in the innocence he exudes because he wears it so guilelessly.
He talks about coming to the Opry, standing on the side, wishing with everything he’s made of that he could appear here one day. “Gosh, is this real?” he asks – and the audience responds with a gentle shower of applause.
Firsts like this are what makes the ensuing years tolerable. When it’s too many nights of bad food, lousy monitors, crummy bus, torn up roads, away from your kids for too long, you can drift back to this and know why..
Caanan Smith doesn’t know that yet, but he will. Or he will if he’s lucky.
And that remains to be seen. But for sure, no one will ever be able to take this rush away from him. He stood in the circle where every major country figure has stood, let his wistful, almost weightless songs drift up to the upper balcony and felt a part to one of the truest musical traditions there is.
Following him is the multiple-Grammy winning Diamond Rio. Known for their tight harmonies and wicked instrumental work, they’re the best of everything there is in the genre.
The trouble with bands, of course, is they end up being faceless.
For Diamond Rio, they were squeaky clean, quick to embrace novelty and blessed with a singer who could get it done. They hit #1 right out of the gate with “Meet In The Middle,” and were one of the incredibly consistent acts of the 90s.
Even before they hit the first chorus, they’ve got the audience stomping and clapping. When the drums and that great big bass start locking and loading, the Opry erupts like a revival’s in session
If “Unbelievable” was all percussive free-fall, “Beautiful Mess” is sultry, more a case of overwhelming desire and steam rising. Easily the night’s most engorged musicians, the reality of still playing a lot of dates adds a wallop: drummer Brian Prout hitting hard, guitarist Jimmy Olander burning his solos with an authority that’s commanding without being domineering.
One more commercial break, one more song – and it’s over.
At least tonight. But some things never change. There’s always a line outside, waiting for the chance to witness this spectacle of what music beyond generations, genres and even fame can bring.
It is only at the Grand Ole Opry, of course. That is the reason people travel for miles to witness it; the reason young kids grow up dreaming about walking out on that hallowed stage.
Conley swings into “Amazing Grace” to wrap it up. Of course he does. It is a song of deliverance, faith, grace and the fact that there is always, always a higher meaning – we just have to accept it.
Acceptance is everything. Kinda like the Opry, which has weathered storms, changes and yes, the flood waters of 2010. To believe is to ascend, and that is everything the Opry is built on.