The Grand Ole Opry launched its 85th anniversary celebration Tuesday night (May 25) at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium with a guitar jam that registered 8.0 on the Atkins Scale — the Chet Atkins Scale — just short of the level at which strings melt and fingers fly off the hand.
Steve Wariner, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill and Brad Paisley each did a three-song segment with his own band on the Tuesday edition of the Opry before standing shoulder-to-shoulder to blaze through a two-song finale.
The Opry also used the occasion to solicit contributions for victims of the recent Nashville flood.
Opry star Jeannie Seely, who lost her home and virtually all her possessions in the flood, joked with the audience that “this was the most thorough spring cleaning I’ve ever done.” She said Opry manager Pete Fisher agreed to put her on the show after seeing her on the sidewalk, holding a sign that read, “Will Work for Sheetrock.”
Backed by fiddler Jimmy Mattingly, Wariner opened his part of the program with the classical-tinged instrumental, “1620,” from his Grammy-winning tribute album to Chet Atkins. Then with his full band, which included his brother, Terry Wariner, he romped through the sassy “Guitar Talk.” Switching from electric guitar to acoustic, he concluded with another instrumental cut, “Blue Angel,” also from his Atkins homage.
Next up was Skaggs. Cradling his mandolin and backed by his Kentucky Thunder band, he breezed through the Bill Monroe lament, “Toy Heart.” He reminded the audience that bluegrass music was born on the stage he was standing on.
Skaggs really set the house rocking with “The Bluegrass Stomp,” an instrumental that called on each band member to trot out his flashiest chops. After that, the band left the stage and Skaggs brought out songwriter Gordon Kennedy, who’s perhaps best known for co-writing the Eric Clapton hit, “Change the World.”
Skaggs said Kennedy has written 13 songs for Skaggs’ upcoming gospel album, Mosaic. Each wielding an acoustic guitar, the two men sang and played one of those Kennedy compositions, “You Can’t Shake Jesus,” to end the set.
Like Skaggs, Gill ambled out and plugged in before announcer Eddie Stubbs could give him a properly dramatic introduction. Stubbs told the crowd Gill had lost “at least 60 guitars” in the flood and that he and his wife, singer Amy Grant, have donated $100,000 for flood relief. Gill said that as he was mourning the loss of his many guitars, Grant offered him the not entirely comforting observation, “You only need one to make a living.”
“Some of my favorite guitar players are onstage tonight,” said Gill. “I’ve known Ricky since I was 17. I played on Steve’s early records, and I think I babysat Brad.”
Gill kicked off his set with the raucous “One More Last Chance” and followed with the dreamily euphoric “Whenever You Come Around.” He explained that Grant was the inspiration for the latter song, which he co-wrote in 1993 with his longtime pianist, Pete Wasner.
“We wrote the first lines about her smile,” he said. “We made up the rest since we didn’t know her very well.”
Gill bowed out with “Liza Jane.”
Paisley walked on to the loudest cheers of the evening. He wore a white cowboy hat and a black T-shirt that bore a picture of guitar legend James Burton and the line, “Got Guitar?”
Playing a blue electric guitar, Paisley greeted the audience with his current single (and tour theme), “Water.”
“This is sort of like a fantasy night for me,” he said. “You get to see three benchmark talents.” He said he felt like the kid on the playground who only gets into the game because his mother says, “Let your little brother play. He’s not as good as you are, but let him play.”
Paisley stayed onstage as Wariner, Skaggs and Gill returned. All strapped on electric guitars, except Skaggs, who kept the same acoustic one he’d used on “You Can’t Shake Jesus.”
After a minute of conferring with each other, the quartet of string wizards turned to the crowd and roared into Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues.” When Skaggs took his turn, holding the guitar neck high and flatpicking in a blur, Paisley stared in amazement.
The song won the four a standing ovation — a long one.
Speaking on behalf of the “old guys,” Skaggs told Paisley, “You don’t have to take a back seat to anybody.”
Paisley took the compliment and then looked at the audience with a sly grin. “Right before he smokes me,” he said.
Skaggs switched back to mandolin for the finale, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a song so overdone that it takes colossal talent to make it bearable. These guys did. And then some.