Grand Ole Opry Hosts a New Barn-Raising

Don’t worry, folks. They didn’t burn the barn.

The Grand Ole Opry unveiled its new stage backdrop Saturday night (June 10) as the official opening of its event-rich 75th anniversary celebration. And to the relief of traditionalists, the set didn’t resemble the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Like preceding Opry stage sets, the new one features the outline of a pristine gambrel-roofed barn. Where the loft door would be in a real barn, there is a huge screen on which to project closeups of stage activity, as well as logos of the show’s sponsors.

Designed by Emmy-winning Rene Lagler, the set’s other additions include a white board “fence” that separates the Opry staff band from the performers and tall pointed screens at both sides of the stage to shield the audience from the masses of performers and fans who swarm around the edges of the back curtain.

The designer retained the rows of church benches that sit behind the band and face the audience. There is no mid-point opening in the new backdrop as there was in the one it replaced. Emblazoned across the barn are the words: “650 WSM Grand Ole Opry” (Since its founding in 1925, the Opry has been broadcast on radio station WSM, located at 650 on the AM dial.)

“It’s certain to be a historic evening,” Opry manager Pete Fisher promised before presenting the new set to the crowd of reporters and ticket-holders. In describing the Opry’s “family” qualities, Fisher spoke of such special “moments” as when Trisha Yearwood walked onstage unexpectedly to sing a duet with Garth Brooks and of the SHeDAISY sisters talking excitedly to their grandfather on their cell phone just seconds before they went on stage for their Opry debut.

But, Fisher continued, “Tonight is also about evolution, celebration and dedication. We’re evolving. More and more new talent is discovering the Opry is a place they’d like to be . . . The new Opry set honors the past and serves as a symbol to our commitment to the future of the Opry.”

Reciting the anniversary activities that lie ahead, Fisher called the Opry celebration “the world’s biggest birthday party” and said that “Garth Brooks, Loretta Lynn, Vince Gill and Steve Wariner have already RSVPed.” He said the celebration will proceed “well into 2001.”

Fisher then traced the history of the Opry’s stage sets, from depictions of log-cabin interiors to various scenes of rural imagery to the “familiar red barn [which] arrived on the scene in the 1960s.” An updated “big red barn” set was installed in 1978, he noted, and remained the backdrop through the May 27 performance of this year. It will go on display at the new Country Music Hall of Fame when it opens next May.

When the curtain rose on the new set, the stage was packed with Opry members and guest artists. Among them was 88-year-old Bashful Brother Oswald (Beecher “Pete” Kirby), waving from his wheel chair. The former Smoky Mountain Boy came to the Opry in 1939 and performed in Roy Acuff’s band until Acuff’s death in 1992. He was made an Opry member in his own right in 1995 but has been prevented by illness from performing in recent years.

The assembled cast sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” before turning the stage over to Steve Wariner for the first official segment of the evening’s show. His guests for historic occasion were Jim Ed Brown, BR5-49 and Chely Wright.

“We are not the owners of the Grand Ole Opry,” said Gaylord Entertainment chief Terry London before the curtain went up on the new set. “We are caretakers of a treasure.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to