(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
There were many heartbreaking images from the 2010 flood that will stay with us forever in Nashville and Middle Tennessee.
There were the flooded cars that killed their occupants. There were the hundreds and hundreds of houses that were ruined — and whose owners had no flood insurance. And the many businesses that may not recover from the blow they received. The unending stream of dump trucks rumbling through my Bellevue neighborhood, removing truckload after truckload of ruined family possessions, ripped-out drywall, carpeting and the like piled up at curbside.
And then there were the losses the music community suffered. A huge number of Nashville country stars and musicians stored their instruments and gear at Soundcheck, a huge facility on the Cumberland River in East Nashville. It flooded badly and countless numbers of treasured guitars and other instruments were ruined. No one was spared — musicians such as Keith Urban, Brad Paisley and Vince Gill.
Another huge loss there involved heritage instruments and equipment from the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum. The MHOF had to vacate its downtown headquarters in February so it could be demolished for a new Nashville convention center. The musical inventory went into storage at Soundcheck. Now, irreplaceable instruments have been seriously damaged, such as Jimi Hendrix’s 1966 Fender guitar, the guitar Pete Townshend played on the Who’s Quadrophenia tour and instruments and amplifiers from the likes of Chet Atkins, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell and Waylon Jennings.
Fortunately, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum downtown escaped major damage and was able to reopen fairly quickly.
One truly heart-wrenching image was that of the Grand Ole Opry stage under water. The famed circle of wood from the original Opry stage, where the likes of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline stood, apparently survived the long flood baptism and will soldier on when the Opry House is renovated.
The Opry occupies a unique place in country music history, in music history and in American history. It’s a window to the world on traditional and contemporary country music and has been since it began on radio station WSM in 1925. Since the flood, it has not missed a show, moving to former Opry home sites — War Memorial Auditorium and the Ryman Auditorium. Commendably, a number of current country artists, as well as the Opry core members, have rallied to play the shows and demonstrate their support.
At its core, the Grand Ole Opry is simply a radio variety show, performed live in an auditorium before an audience. That’s its appeal. And it works. It works so well that Garrison Keillor patterned his A Prairie Home Companion directly after it. And that works, too.
The Opry has always been a strong-minded entity with some quirky individuals whose personal stories can’t always be told. Hank Williams was fired from the Opry for drunkenness and for missing shows. He has not been reinstated, long after his 1953 death, and there is a popular movement to put him back on the Opry artist roster. Johnny Cash was disinvited from the Opry after kicking out the stage footlights in a performance.
I first went to the Opry in 1970 when it was still at the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville and got to sit on the stage and witness and hear everything up close.
It’s a wonderful experience and, fortunately, I’ve been privileged to get some of my out-of-town relatives a chance to sit on the stage during a show, and it’s something they will never forget.
When the Opry left the Ryman for suburbia and Opryland in 1974, the King of Country Music, Roy Acuff, made no secret of his dislike for being in an old building downtown. “I’ll tell you what,” Acuff told me for a Rolling Stone story then. “I’ll be the first one to knock the bricks out of that old building.”
Fortunately, a campaign led by Emmylou Harris saved the Ryman from demolition, and it has gone on to become a much-desired concert venue and is now, in fact, the temporary home for the Opry again until the Opry house can be renovated.
But I’ll tell you one thing: Spending some time onstage and backstage gives you some rare opportunities to see and hear some of the Opry secrets. One thing the Opry has always had is some headstrong individualists with some real back-stories.
Back when CMT was headquartered in several buildings in the Opry’s backstage parking lot, we would see the Opry regulars all the time and became friends with many of them. But one encounter in particular I will always remember. One night, I left my office in a double-wide trailer that once was WSM DJ and TNN television host Ralph Emery’s office and ran into Grandpa Jones in the parking lot after an Opry show.
Grandpa had a reputation as a somewhat standoffish, cantankerous sort. But I foolishly thought I would try out the line always used on him on the show, Hee Haw.
“Hey, Grandpa,” I asked. “What’s for supper?”
Without breaking stride or even looking at me, Grandpa replied, “F**k you!”
Now, that is some true Grand Ole Opry attitude for you.