A Riverbank and Stonewall Jackson: Now That’s Country

ROPE Show Also Features Jim Ed Brown, Helen Cornelius, Jeannie Seely

Sunday morning, June 13, 1954.

That’s what it felt like, providing you could forget that most of the songs you were listening to were written later — and that your belt was a lot looser back then. The occasion for this onslaught of nostalgia was the ROPE Legends Show held Sunday morning (June 13) at Nashville’s Riverfront Park as part of the CMA Music Festival.

Here, the setting was intimate, the performers folksy, the music familiar and the jokes redolent of an age when sex was still deliciously naughty and when there were spots in the country so remote that, as Stonewall Jackson cracked later, “They didn’t get the [Saturday night] Grand Ole Opry until Thursday.”

Arriving early for the concert presented by the Reunion of Professional Entertainers (ROPE), several hundred fans were already sprawled on the grass and seated on the steps leading down to the Cumberland River when former Grand Ole Opry announcer Kyle Cantrell opened the show at 10:30 a.m. A few early arrivals, who’d found a breezy spot in the slim rectangle of shade directly in front of the stage, cautiously applied unguents as the rising sun nibbled away at their refuge.

Jeannie Seely welcomed the crowd with a smoky rendition of Kitty Wells’ 1952 classic, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” After a stale “caught you” joke about humanity’s iffy relationship with God, she finished her set with her own signature hit from 1966, “Don’t Touch Me.” In keeping with her feisty image, Seely turned her back the audience, bent over and wiggled her bottom at the photographers clustered at the edge of the stage.

Jim Ed Brown followed Seely. “I think I’ve got the theme song for this year’s Fan Fair,” he said, hooking his finger in his mouth to make the popping sound that kicks off “Pop a Top.” The crowd sang happily along. Brown apologized for the state of his voice, explaining that he was suffering from a cold. Even so, he sounded good. After doing the one song, he relinquished the stage to Helen Cornelius, his singing partner from 1976 to 1980. She opened with “Rocky Top,” which led her into a convoluted joke about backwoods hanky panky in East Tennessee, “where the family tree don’t fork.” For her second selection, she sang “Blue Bayou.”

Brown returned to join Cornelius for three duets: “Fools,” “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” and their No. 1 hit from 1976, “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You.” Still evident were the ringing harmonies and interpersonal chemistry that helped win them the Country Music Association’s vocal duo of the year award in 1977.

Next up was Moore & Moore, twin sisters who have toured with the Statler Brothers. They enlivened the proceedings with the bouncy “Rockabye Boogie” and pulled Cantrell onstage between them for a whimsical tug of war for a cover of Loretta Lynn’s pugnacious 1996 declaration, “You Ain’t Woman Enough.” The sisters’ stage patter about how to distinguish between the younger and older (by 10 minutes) needed some pruning. But the scripted spat got a bit funnier when one remarked that the other’s butterfly tattoo — which she’s had for 10 years — now resembles a dead bat.

Jackson closed the show. Dressed in a black T-shirt and black pants, he displayed the bulk and spring of an aging prizefighter as he walked about the stage. He began with “Me and You and Dog Named Boo,” his 1971 cover of Lobo’s pop hit of the same year. His recording of the song netted him his last Top 10 single. Apropos of nothing, Jackson told the crowd, “It’s a successful show if you get there and get your money.” His next number was “Don’t Be Angry,” which, he said, won him membership in the Opry (in 1956) and “took me off the streets.” Introducing his biggest hit, “Waterloo” (five weeks at No. 1 in 1959), Jackson said, “I cut this song bluegrass, and they snuck into studio and put drums on it. That was awful. In my day, that was double awful.” Judging from the applause, the fans thought otherwise.”

The ROPE organization is devoted to the needs of veteran country music performers.

Set List:

“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”
“Don’t Touch Me”

“Pop a Top”

“Rocky Top”
“Blue Bayou”

“Have I Told You Lately That I Love You”
“I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You”

“Rockabye Boogie”
“You Ain’t Woman Enough”

“Me and You and a Dog Named Boo”
“Don’t Be Angry”

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