Family Affair: Grand Ole Opry Members Enjoy Special Bond

It’s Friday night at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville. The halls backstage are astir with musicians, artists, fans and lucky spectators mingling as showtime approaches. Out in the auditorium, a near-capacity crowd of around 4,000 waits expectantly to hear performances by Opry cast members Little Jimmy Dickens, Ricky Skaggs, Bill Carlisle and Connie Smith and guests Paul Brandt and the Del McCoury Band, among others.

The Opry has a lot to offer. There’s the part-fashion statement, part-tourist attraction that is Dickens’ glittery, casino-style jacket. Mandolinist Ronnie McCoury, from the McCoury Band, and fiddler Bobby Hicks, with Skaggs, dazzle with their instrumental skill. Carlisle entertains the audience with vaudevillian shtick. The 91-year-old entertainer emerges slowly from the wings with his walker. Then, after singing a song, he delights the audience by throwing the walker over his shoulder and jauntily stepping off stage.

For several months during 2000, the Opry has celebrated its 75th anniversary. The festivities began in June with the unveiling of a new set, and continued in October with an official celebration and into November with the CBS telecast, Thanksgiving night, of Grand Ole Opry’s 75th: A Celebration.

CMT continues the festivities by making the country institution the focus of the December edition of CMT Showcase. The popular 30-minute interview and music show will profile the Opry throughout the month and feature two of its most revered cast members, Country Music Hall of Famers Loretta Lynn and George Jones.

CMT viewers also will see interviews with many in the Opry cast including Garth Brooks, Ronnie Milsap, Travis Tritt and newest member Pam Tillis. And they will meet some of the people behind the scenes of the world’s longest-running radio show including Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs and Opry general manager Pete Fisher.

On Friday night, in the bustling corridors behind the stage of the Opry House, things are different from the fanfare in the auditorium. Moments after leaving the crowd laughing and cheering, Carlisle, using his walker again, slowly makes his way back to his dressing room, alone. Opry backing vocalist Carol Lee Cooper clicks down the hall in stage attire, talking about the Florida election controversy with two musicians. Brandt emerges from a dressing room, nervously adjusting his tie. Jeanne Pruett, arriving a little late, greets Smith with a breezy hug and kiss at the door of the dressing room they share.

Jeannie Seely, an Opry member since 1967, sits in dressing room No. 7 with her friend, Sylvia, and her Pekingese dog. Though assigned to No. 17, Seely says she likes this room better. It has a piano in it.

“This room means a lot to me,” she muses, looking around. “I’ve written a lot of songs on that piano. When I lived out in the country it was not unusual for me to write a verse or a chorus on my way in to the Opry. I’d have the melody going on in my mind and I’d come rushing in here, ’Wait a minute!’ and go to the piano. Then I’d play it for whoever was around. There used to be a lot more of swapping songs and ideas, ’listen to this that I wrote,’ you know.”

A little later, a small crowd has gathered in Brandt’s dressing room as he rehearses the song he will sing. Onlookers watch quietly, nodding their heads and tapping their toes as he earnestly works through the arrangement. Brandt looks up and smiles, buoyed by their unspoken encouragement.

“We’re all pulling for each other,” Smith says, “especially the Opry regulars. We’re all so individual. You can go from Charlie Louvin to Jimmy C. Newman over to the music of Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and Jack Greene. Everybody is who they are, so there is no worry about anybody trying to take your spot, because we all have our spot. It’s a family, and when something good happens for one of us, we’re glad, and because it’s someone from our cast, it just makes us extra proud that we’re a part of it.”

The family-like rapport among Opry members extends beyond the walls of the Opry House. Dickens, the Opry’s longest-standing member (he joined in 1948), enjoys the company of other artists away from work. “Carl Smith and his wife are good friends of ours,” he says. “Bill Carlisle and I fish together, and so do Bobby Bare and I. When we can, we like to go have breakfast at the Cracker Barrel. It’s like being brothers.”

Seely and Smith agree with Dickens. “Dottie West and I hung out for many years, and I still miss her a lot,” says Seely. (West died in 1991 following complications from injuries she sustained in a car accident.) “Jan Howard and I get to do things together. I love to spend every minute I can with Jimmy Dickens or Johnny Russell; they’re two of my favorite people. Jean Shepard and I both have places in Florida that we usually spend a month at during the winter, and we go walking or to the flea markets.”

Smith remembers, “One time, when I was divorced and had my two boys, Dottie West found out that it was just going to be me and the two boys at home on Thanksgiving, and she invited us over to her house. Dottie always cooked from scratch and she’d cook all day. I loved her. All the girls are my sisters.

“The guys have been so good to me, too, anytime I need to be taken care of. I remember one night when someone was trying to hug me a little too tight in the dressing room when we were taking pictures, Carl Smith told him that I would slap the fire out of him, and if I didn’t, he would.”

There is more to the Opry family than just the performers, however. Technicians, stagehands, security guards and others all have their place. Dickens looks forward to seeing them each week.

“I’m always here at least three or four hours early,” he says. “I’m always the first one here. I love to be here. I talk to the stage hands and the lighting people and visit with them, see what’s going on in their worlds.”

“It’s true,” echoes Seely. “The staff, all the crews — some of us have been together for years. Sometimes we exchange gifts at Christmas.

“Traveling around the world, when I’m homesick, I’m homesick just as much for here as I am for my own family. There’s such a source of pride that goes with being asked to become a part of this family. In your birth family, you don’t have any say-so, but here you are chosen to be a part of the family and that means so much.”