One can argue about the musical high point of a concert that lasted for four hours, but there’s no question that the emotional peak of the Nashville Association of Musicians’ 100th anniversary show Monday night (Oct. 7) came when 84-year-old Eddy Arnold wept onstage.
Local 257 of the American Federation of Musicians held its “Big 100” celebration at the Grand Ole Opry House. It featured the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and dozens of international stars, including Brenda Lee , George Jones , Willie Nelson , Ray Price and some of the most revered members of the Grand Ole Opry.
Still handsome and ramrod straight, Arnold walked onstage late in the first half of the show to the strains of his 1965 hit, “Make the World Go Away.” As the crowd stood (for the first of three times during his appearance), the singer’s voice broke at this prolonged display of affection. “I’m very sentimental,” he said, “so please bear with me.” Once composed, he continued, “I’m not a great fan of unions, but this union has been a great thing for this community.”
Arnold told the audience that he joined the Nashville outpost in 1940, “when I was just a pup.” He explained, “In many cities, particularly Chicago, they wouldn’t let country boys be in their union.” When the crowd laughed, Arnold added, “I’m serious.” He thanked the audience for attending, noting that “the money you’ve spent tonight will go to fellows who haven’t prepared for disaster.” Proceeds are earmarked for the Vic Willis Emergency Relief Fund and the Opry Trust Fund.
Harold Bradley, legendary guitarist and president of Local 257, then joined Arnold in the spotlight. He recounted that he was just 17 when he first met the singer and that the two aspiring but poor musicians used to ride the streetcar together in their ramblings about Nashville. Bradley said one of his most vivid memories of the day in 1944 when he was leaving town to join the Navy was watching Arnold as he trudged away from him. Before his tour of duty was over, he said, his sister was writing him to tell him how big a star Arnold was becoming.
After reciting some of Arnold’s many achievements during his 55-year recording career, Bradley presented him with the union’s Artist of the Century award. “I’ve been getting a lot of awards here lately,” Arnold responded. “I retired three years ago. I said to my wife, ’They must think I’m gonna die.'” With that, he walked off to another rapturous round of applause.
One would have to sit through a year’s worth of TV specials to get as much varied and memory-tugging music as this one show provided. The full Nashville Symphony was onstage throughout the concert, except for the Grand Ole Opry salute, and accompanied most of the main performers.
While the tilt was toward country music, there were also nods to pop, rock, gospel, bluegrass and classical. Vestal Goodman and the Happy Goodman Family sang “Peace in the Valley” and Ferlin Husky “Wings of a Dove”; the Osborne Brothers reeled out three bluegrass standards (including the wistful “Kentucky” and the raucous “Rocky Top”); Dobie Gray gave a dreamy, ethereal reading of “Drift Away”; the Jordanaires, who were frequent backup singers for Elvis Presley, sang a medley of his signature hits; Raul Malo, late of the Mavericks, tastefully covered the Roy Orbison tunes “Crying” and “Oh, Pretty Woman.”
Although it was a sizable audience, there were still hundreds of unoccupied seats in the house. Few faces in the crowd looked to be under 50, and a great many were clearly 60 or older. It was not an assembly that leaped to its feet on whim. But they were up and cheering wildly for saxophonist Boots Randolph. His orchestra-backed excursions through “King of the Road” and “Yakety Sax” drew louder and more sustained cheers than any other act.
During the symphonic tribute to Hank Williams, Don Helms, the last living member of Williams’ Drifting Cowboys band, took center stage to play steel guitar on “Cold, Cold Heart.” It was the same instrument he had used when touring with the band.
Ray Price, the penultimate act of the evening, was spellbinding in his renditions of “Crazy Arms,” “For the Good Times” and “Danny Boy,” displayed that same rich, resonant, old-wood voice that has made him one of country music’s best stylists for the last half-century.
Price’s one-time band member, Willie Nelson, closed the show, backed by the orchestra and his harmonica player, Mickey Raphael. With no “Whiskey River” intro to get his steam up, Nelson pretty much floated on his own relaxed rhythms through three pop standards he’s by now branded as his own — “Georgia on My Mind,” “All of Me” and “Stardust.” The entire cast reconvened onstage to usher the crowd out he door with “On the Road Again.”
The Grand Ole Opry staff band and background vocalists also accompanied several of the acts, including all those who sang truncated versions of their hits on the “Opry Salute” segment of the program — Jim Ed Brown , Jimmy C. Newman , Jan Howard , Little Jimmy Dickens , Jeannie Seely , Billy Walker , Jack Greene , Connie Smith and Porter Wagoner .
In addition to spotlighting musicians and vocalists, the show also drew attention to arrangers and conductors. Various of these waved the baton throughout the evening, including Byung Rhee, Jim Gray, Lloyd Wells, Buddy Skipper, Tony Migliori, Hank Levine, Bill Walker, Jeff Steinberg, Bergen White and Bobby Ogdin. Radio station WSM announcers Keith Bilbrey, Kyle Cantrell, Hairl Hensley, Eddie Stubbs and Jennifer Herron were the masters of ceremonies.
“Hoedown” from Rodeo
Medley: “Tennessee Waltz”/”Near You”/”Lucky Old Sun”/”Wabash Cannonball”/”Walking the Floor Over You”
“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”
Bobby Bare “Detroit City”
Medley: “Gentle on My Mind”/”I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”
Kitty Wells “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”
Medley: “Battle of New Orleans”/”Bye Bye Love”/”He’ll Have to Go”/”Oh, Lonesome Me”
Vestal Goodman & The Happy Goodman Family
“Peace in the Valley”
George Jones & The Jones Boys
“The Man He Was”
“He Stopped Loving Her Today”
Medley: “Ring of Fire”/”The Wind Beneath My Wings”
“King of the Road”
Medley: “Release Me”/”Hello Darlin'”
“I Can’t Stop Loving You”
Medley: “Ahab the Arab”/”Gitarzan”/”It’s Me Again, Margaret”/”Mississippi Squirrel Revival”/”The Streak”
“Everything Is Beautiful”
Medley: “Last Date”/”Coal Miner’s Daughter”/”Stand By Your Man”/”You Don’t Know Me”/”Make the World Go Away”/”I’m Movin’ On”/”Delta Dawn”/”Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy”
Ferlin Husky “Wings of a Dove”
The Osborne Brothers
Medley: “I Walk the Line”/”Help Me Make It Through the Night”/”Rose Garden”
“Today I Started Loving You Again”
Medley: “Me and Bobby McGee”/”End of the World”/”Good-Hearted Woman”
“Jambalaya”/”Your Cheatin’ Heart”/”Kaw-liga”/”I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love with You”/”Hey, Good-Lookin'”
“Cold, Cold Heart”
Jim Ed Brown
“Pop a Top”
Jimmy C. Newman
“A Fallen Star”
“Evil on Your Mind”
Little Jimmy Dickens
“Sleepin’ at the Foot of the Bed”
“Don’t Touch Me”
“Funny How Time Slips Away”
“There Goes My Everything”
“Once a Day”
“The Grandest Lady of Them All”
Medley: “El Paso”/”I Will Always Love You”/”Walk On By”/”Jingle Bell Rock”
“Oh, Pretty Woman”
Medley: “Heartbreak Hotel”/”All Shook Up”/”Love Me Tender”/”Don’t Be Cruel”/”I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You”
“For the Good Times”
“Georgia on My Mind”
“All of Me”
“On the Road Again”