When the Grand Ole Opry makes a return visit to the Ryman Auditorium, in downtown Nashville, special things seem to happen.
This year, during the radio show’s two-month tenure in January and February, Brad Paisley will become an official member of the show’s cast. Nominated Wednesday (Jan. 3) for a Grammy, for Best New Artist, the West Virginia native will have his big night at the Opry on Feb. 17, just four days before the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.
Since 1974, the Opry’s official home has been the Grand Ole Opry House, located at some distance from downtown Nashville. When the Opry first returned to the Ryman, for one weekend in January 1999, Trisha Yearwood accepted an invitation to join the cast. Last January, during a month-long run at the Ryman, bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley joined the Opry family.
The two previous homecoming celebrations were all-around successes, says Pete Fisher, general manager of the Opry, but it is too soon to assume the visits will be an annual event. Opry officials will continue to evaluate their decision to change venues periodically.
“Two years ago we saw it succeed over one weekend,” Fisher says. “Last year we saw it succeed a whole month. Now we’re taking the next step and trying two months.”
Sometimes called the Mother Church of Country Music, the Ryman opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. The Opry originated from the Ryman during the show’s glory years from 1943-1974. From 1993 to 1994, the Ryman underwent an $8.5 million renovation and again became a viable concert hall when it reopened in ’94.
This year’s Ryman homecoming, part of an ongoing celebration of the Opry’s 75th anniversary, has been extended to include performances every Friday and Saturday in January and February, beginning tonight (Jan. 5) and continuing through Feb. 24. TNN’s Grand Ole Opry Live will expand to one hour (8-9 p.m. ET/PT Saturdays) during the run, pre-empting Opry Backstage.
“Our ability to grow the Opry’s entertainment value seems to rest on our ability to find unique ways to present the show,” Fisher feels. “Certainly, [changing] the facility is one of those ways. Theme shows is another way. In the coming year, we’ll be staging theme shows and tribute shows that recognize past and present members.”
Moving the Opry to the Ryman during slower winter months gives the show a nice kick of energy when Music City tourism is off-peak. The hall has its own special ambience and holds just over 2,000, about half the capacity of the Grand Ole Opry House. The Ryman’s downtown location also draws a larger local audience to the Opry.
“There is a different energy when the show is at the Ryman,” Fisher believes. “The room produces a different sound; the audience is closer to the stage. Playing the Ryman gives younger fans a chance to see the show in its most famous former home, while older fans can relive memories of the show’s original run at the hall.”
Paisley will perform Saturday (Jan. 6) to help kickoff the homecoming festivities. Opry members Vince Gill, Joe Diffie, Marty Stuart, Little Jimmy Dickens, Jean Shepard and Ricky Skaggs, as well as special guests the Del McCoury Band and Chalee Tennison, also will be on hand this weekend.
Paisley, 28, already has demonstrated a strong commitment to the Opry, making nearly 40 guest appearances since the release of his debut album in June 1999. Despite his youth, Paisley has become a popular presence both onstage and backstage, displaying knowledge of tradition and a reverence for the Opry’s senior royalty. His recent invitation to join the cast came at the Opry House, while his induction will take place at the older venue, which he reveres for its role in country’s past.
“I’m glad my invitation to join the Opry happened at the Opry House,” he says, “because that has been a home for me for the past 18 months and I certainly have some precious memories on that stage. Plus, I was only 2 when the Opry moved to the Opryland complex, so my personal experiences are seeing it staged there.
“However, being inducted at the Ryman will be a nice way to tie in the past — the past that formed the foundation for what I do. I think of people like Roy [Acuff] and Minnie [Pearl] and Hank [Williams] and Ernest Tubb, and I think, boy, their spirits are certainly going to be there that night.
“There’s a passage in the Bible that talks about, every time a sinner repents the angels rejoice in heaven,” he continues. “Well, I betcha every time somebody is inducted into the Opry the members that have passed on have a little party themselves. Their spirit will be foremost on my mind that night.”
The Midnight Jamboree, broadcast immediately after the Opry, on WSM-AM (650), each Saturday since 1948, also is participating in the homecoming celebration. Two shows will be held at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop on Lower Broadway, near the Ryman, instead of at its regular home near the Opry House. Marty Stuart will host the show Saturday night (Jan. 6). The Osborne Brothers will preside over the Jamboree on Jan. 27.
Other special events are in store for the homecoming, but Opry officials remain tight-lipped about their plans.
“Since we’re inducting Brad Paisley on Feb. 17, it would be impossible for us to bring any other member in,” Fisher says. “But we’ll use our opportunity at the Ryman to make another exciting announcement.”