The Circle Endures: Grand Ole Opry Celebrates 75 Years

Gill, Parton host CBS Special on Thanksgiving Night

With great regularity, the Grand Ole Opry has marked its major anniversaries with fanfare, special promotions and network television specials. This year — the Opry’s 75th — is no exception.

At 9 p.m. ET/PT on Thursday (Nov. 23), CBS presents a two-hour tribute, Grand Ole Opry’s 75th: A Celebration, hosted by Vince Gill and Dolly Parton and featuring performances by many members of the current Opry cast including Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Alan Jackson and George Jones.

Taped in October at the Grand Ole Opry House and Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the show seeks to make connections between country music legends past and country stars present. During one segment, a vintage clip of Patsy Cline singing “Crazy” gives way to Trisha Yearwood’s performance of the song, followed by Gill’s rendition of Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” and a duet by Yearwood and Gill on “I Fall to Pieces.”

Between live performances, Marty Stuart shares a number of “Grand Ole Opry Memories,” placing in historical perspective the careers of Roy Acuff, Cline, Johnny Cash and others, and exploring aspects of the Opry story only suggested by the evening’s entertainment.

In one segment, Martina McBride, the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year for 1999, pays tribute to Loretta Lynn, the CMA’s first Female Vocalist of the Year in 1967. McBride joined the Opry in 1995; Lynn became a member in 1962. McBride sings Lynn’s No. 1 country hit, “One’s on the Way,” complete with the song’s mock phone conversation, in which the singer’s husband calls her from a bar.

Lynn herself comes out to join McBride for a performance of “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” and in a further acknowledgement of the contribution of women to the Opry legacy, cast members Jan Howard, Jeannie Seely and Jeanne Pruett join in on Lynn’s “You’re Lookin’ at Country.”

Garth Brooks, the most prominent member of the Opry’s current cast, sings his most popular song, “Friends in Low Places,” with assistance from Johnny Russell, John Conlee, Bill Anderson and Porter Wagoner. Brooks appears to be thoroughly enjoying himself, and he takes special delight in Anderson’s “whispered” contribution to the performance.

Travis Tritt, clad in black leather, honors the original Man in Black, Johnny Cash, by performing “Folsom Prison Blues.” Patty Loveless joins Tritt for a version of Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” slower than the original, then Loveless finishes the medley with “Ring of Fire.”

In one of the most affecting moments in the show, Gill, backed by The Whites, explores Hank Williams’ legacy by performing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” on the famous Ryman Auditorium stage, home to the show from 1943 to 1974. Continuing the Williams tribute, Gill and Parton blend on a playful “Hey, Good Lookin'” in which Parton flirts shamelessly with her co-host.

Parton and Gill have good chemistry throughout and play a major role in the show’s success. Never guilty of taking herself too seriously, Parton pokes self-effacing fun both at herself and at Gill. During a segment on country music’s classic duets, viewers see George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, and Parton and Porter Wagoner, who sing “The Last Thing on My Mind.”

Parton also does a medley of songs associated with the King of Country Music, late Opry stalwart Roy Acuff, and she anchors a segment on living Opry members who also are members of the Country Music Hall of Fame: Jones, Lynn, Little Jimmy Dickens and Charley Pride.

The show concludes its celebration of the Opry’s longevity with a performance of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The assembled cast stands on risers as the evening’s principal performers come out, two-by-two, from the wings, singing as they join the others for the song’s final choruses.

On Thanksgiving night, Grand Ole Opry’s 75th: A Celebration offers another reminder to the American public at large that the Opry and country music are an important part of the national cultural fabric. The Opry has undergone great change since its early years as the humble WSM Barn Dance.

Today, it is undergoing change again as it struggles to keep pace with a new generation of country music entertainers and country fans. Gaylord Entertainment, the company with custody of the Opry, has gone through management changes of its own in recent months. But the Opry endures and continues to inspire young artists who see their charge as contributing to its ongoing legacy. For that, we can all give thanks.