The birthday cake has been cut and consumed, the balloons dropped and the red carpet rolled out and rolled up again — and after 75 years, the Grand Ole Opry endures.
With a great deal more fanfare than usual, the longest-running radio show in America mounted another set of performances Saturday night (Oct. 14), but these celebrated the show’s 75-year legacy.
Throughout that period, the Opry has been broadcast on Nashville’s WSM-AM (650), where it debuted Nov. 28, 1925, just weeks after the station signed on the air for the first time, on Oct. 5. First presented as a promotional venture aimed at helping Nashville’s National Life and Accident Insurance Co. sell policies to rural listeners, it went on to become a national cultural institution. Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Uncle Dave Macon, Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Patsy Cline and many other country artists built careers through their association with the show.
In keeping with custom, the Opry offered a wide variety of country music styles during the evening’s two shows, from the cornball country comedy of Bill Carlisle to the tradition-conscious music of Marty Stuart, the classic country of Loretta Lynn and the western songs of Riders in the Sky. High-wattage Opry stars Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton and Vince Gill were on hand, along with the clogging Melvin Sloan Dancers and unparalleled vocalist Connie Smith.
Lorrie Morgan, who all but grew up on the Grand Ole Opry stage, paid tribute to the institution with a song she wrote in tribute to many of the Opry stars past and present including her father, the late George Morgan. “That’s what makes these Opry walls,” went the song’s chorus. Morgan honored Opry legend and Country Music Hall of Fame member Patsy Cline with a performance of the Willie Nelson-penned Cline classic, “Crazy.” Both Morgan and Trisha Yearwood did songs associated with the late Tammy Wynette.
Before the 6:30 p.m. show got underway, Country Music Hall of Fame member Little Jimmy Dickens, who joined the cast in 1948, and former CMA Female Vocalist of the Year Pam Tillis, who became a member this summer, shared the duty of cutting a large ribbon, stretched across the red carpet in the outdoor Opry Plaza.
Politicians and business people, including Sen. Fred Thompson, Rep. Bob Clement, Gov. Don Sundquist and members of the Oklahoma-based Gaylord family, who now own the Opry and WSM, joined Morgan, Lynn, Travis Tritt, Stuart, Ralph Stanley, Porter Wagoner and many others as they made a grand entrance on the temperate fall night. Fans — some of whom had arrived as early as 7 a.m. on Saturday — lined both sides of the walk.
Eighty-eight-year-old Pete Kirby — Dobro-playing Bashful Brother Oswald of Roy Acuff’s Smoky Mountain Boys — greeted the throng from his wheelchair. Carlisle, who turns 92 in December, rode up the carpet on a golf cart.
Dickens, 79, sported a sparkling red, Nudie-style suit. During the evening’s first show he performed his trademark “Out Behind the Barn,” with Tillis singing harmony vocals behind him. “These people are perfect examples,” Tillis said later, “of how, when you do what you love, you stay young forever.”
After performing “Country in My Genes,” her new song, and “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” her signature number, Lynn came backstage with Tillis to talk to the press. An Opry member since 1962, she treasures her place in the cast, she said. “I’ve always knew that I could come back here any time I want to, and it’s a great feeling because the Grand Ole Opry is the greatest show on earth, in country music. If you haven’t been on the Grand Ole Opry, you haven’t quite made it yet.”
Brooks certainly has made it. His performances during the birthday weekend were flashbulb-popping extravaganzas, and he stuck with rowdy country fare — “Longneck Bottle,” “Two of a Kind” and “Friends in Low Places” — and the quiet Bob Dylan tune, “To Make You Feel My Love.”
“I just want to do my best to hold up what they have built,” he said of the Opry members who have preceded him. “I don’t know if I can, but I hope I’ll do my part … I feel lucky to be here, and I wish I could be here more, but I think my part is just to tell the people that might not get to the Grand Ole Opry what it’s about.”
Steve Wariner joined Brooks for a performance of “Longneck Bottle.” Later, with Jean Shepard, Wariner talked about the Opry as a family, a theme echoed throughout the evening. “I’ve been playing the Opry since I was 17, in one form or another … that’s why being a member here, it really is a family and I feel a big part of it.”
The family has to be replenished and strengthened by commitment from younger artists, Travis Tritt said. “If we’re going to continue for another 75 years, or 75 beyond that, or 175 beyond that, it’s going to have to come from new, young people who come in and recognize what a tradition we carry on,” he reasoned. “And also recognize that, no matter what kind of music you’re in … you need to know where your roots are. You need to know where the music comes from. In our case, if you’re from country music, this is where it all started, right here.”
At the appointed moment, Opry officials wheeled a multi-tiered white cake from the wings on to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry House, the show’s home since 1974. Wagoner led the cast and audience in singing “Happy Birthday,” then his own downhome anthem, “Y’all Come.” Dickens danced a little jig. Carol Lee Cooper handed out cake. Lynn, Jimmy C. Newman, Sloan, Jeannie Seely, Charlie Walker, Billy Walker, Ernie Ashworth, Wariner, Stanley, Rudy and Steve Gatlin, Tritt, Ray Pillow, Riders in the Sky and others wished each other well and reveled in the moment.
In her backstage comments, Tillis said new artists need to understand that Opry membership is a responsibility that requires sacrifice and a mindset that must endure. “People need to know the tradition of entertainment,” she said. “They need to watch these older entertainers and learn from them and keep that same kind of connection with the audience, that realness and that downhome feeling. That’s what people the world over are relating to.”