The music was good, and there was that famous stylized barn logo at the back of the stage. But it wasn’t the Grand Ole Opry.
Working in conjunction with the ongoing Country Radio Seminar, Opry management brought a version of the famed radio show to the Nashville Convention Center Wednesday night (Feb. 27). But it didn’t bring the Opry’s rustic yesteryear charm.
Where were the veteran performers or the attentive working-class audience that actual pays attention to what’s happening on onstage? Not here, alas.
So thank goodness for Vince Gill , whose quick wit, expert musicianship and reverence for Opry traditions kept the two-hour show moving briskly along.
During the course of the evening, he welcomed to the stage — and made sure each was properly applauded — Little Big Town , Dustin Lynch , Josh Turner , Greg Bates , Ashley Monroe , Scotty McCreery , Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio (the actor-singers from the ABC-TV series Nashville), Darius Rucker , Kacey Musgraves and Brad Paisley , in that order.
Would it have hurt to toss in a bluegrass act to give it a real Opry flavor?
Rather than using the Opry house band and background singers, most of the performers brought their own backup musicians.
The massive display space in which the show was held was divided into two sections — several rows of seating close to the stage and a much larger area with tables, where most of the crowd sat or wandered about, conducting loud conversations instead of heeding the music.
Sharing the hosting duties with Gill was WSM-AM’s affable and learned DJ, Bill Cody.
Gill, a 22-year-member of the Opry opened the program with “Take Your Memory With You,” his 1992 hit. It would turn out to be the most ancient song offered the crowd.
“Thank you for your thunderous applause,” Gill quipped in reaction to the audience’s muted response. “Did you folks just finish eating?”
Little Big Town followed with a three-song set consisting of “Tornado,” the band’s current single, “On Your Side of the Bed,” its next single, and last summer’s favorite and recent Grammy-winner, “Pontoon.”
The band didn’t point out that “Pontoon” had won a Grammy, but Gill did as LBT left the stage.
In true Opry fashion, Cody read commercials or promotional copy between acts. When he announced that B. J. Thomas would be playing the Opry on March 2 in support of this new album, The Living Room Sessions, Gill leaned in close to Cody and delivered a dead-on impression of Thomas singing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”
“That’s a great song,” Gill told Lynch as he exited. “Did you write it?” Lynch nodded that he did. “That’s a good band you’ve got, too,” Gill continued. “You ought to give them a raise.”
Looking casual and assured, Turner took his turn at the microphone, booming out “Time Is Love,” “Deeper Than My Love” (which he said was the song’s “first official live performance”) and his career-launcher, “Long Black Train,” with which some of the crowd sang along.
Turner said “Long Black Train” was the first song he sang on the Opry — and he cited the exact date he sang it, Dec. 21, 2001.
“Nobody in the world knew who Josh Turner was [then] except my family,” he mused. Turner became an Opry member in 2007.
Cody pointed out that Gill had a role in the episode of Nashville that happened to be airing just as this show was going on. Gill said he was “recording it on eight-track” so he could see it later. “I play myself,” he told Cody. “It was really a stretch.”
Obviously more attuned to current than veteran singers, the crowd cheered heartily when Bates came on to entertain them with “Did It for the Girl” and “Fill in the Blank,” the latter of which, he teased, was a song for “people with dirty minds.”
Gill announced that he was going to introduce a surprise guest, which he reminded the crowd was an Opry custom. “She’s one of the most talented kids I’ve seen come to Nashville,” he said. “She writes songs like she’s 100 years old.”
So saying, he beckoned Ashley Monroe to the stage, adding that he produced her new album, Like a Rose. Monroe lived up to his praise, singing the grimly ironic title cut as he accompanied her on acoustic guitar.
When not soloing, Monroe is a member of Pistol Annies .
“My next guest doesn’t even shave yet,” Gill confided, as he called out McCreery. The songs the 19-year-old American Idol winner sang — “Suntan” and “See You Tonight” — suggested Gill might have been wrong about his level of maturity.
For the first time in the evening, the crowd went quiet when Gill introduced Nashville stars Bowen and Palladio. She in white and he in a trim black suit and tie, the duo looked and sounded like they’d been singing together on the country circuit for years.
Palladio accompanied their sweet and earnest ballad, “When the Right One Comes Along,” on acoustic guitar.
There was a brief break in the singing while the crowd watched — or ignored — a short video that showed Brad Paisley inviting Darius Rucker last year to join the Opry.
It may have been the late hour or attraction to other diversions, but those remaining in the audience seemed to be a bit more respectful of the performers as the evening neared its end.
Confessing he didn’t know the next performer, Gill stumbled and introduced her as “Karey Musgraves” instead of Kacey Musgraves. He corrected his error almost immediately after a woman in the front row loudly called it to his attention. But there was more to come.
Unruffled, Musgraves came out and sang the feisty “Step Off” and the grim and fatalistic “Merry Go Round.”
Still sensitive to his mistake — and apparently still being razzed by the woman who caught it — Gill explained that erring on people’s names was an Opry tradition. He noted Grandpa Jones had once introduced Martina McBride on the Opry as “Matilda McBride.”
Gill then reached down from the stage and pulled the stylishly dressed, middle-age woman up, inviting her to read the show’s script without faltering if she thought it was so easy.
Looking baffled at first, the lady nonetheless accepted his challenge and began reading aloud Cody’s list of Opry trivia questions.
As she gained confidence, she turned to Gill and said, “Vince, I think you can go home for the night.”
“Are you inviting me,” he riposted.
“I like your wife too much for that,” she snapped back.
After the fencing match ended, Paisley strolled out, unaccompanied by his band, to conclude the show.
As if to gently remind the audience of what their convention was all about, Paisley began with “This Is Country Music.” Midsong, he forgot the lyrics. “I’ve been off the road since October,” he explained with a sheepish grin.
Gill then came out to trade guitar licks with Paisley on his final number, “Mud on the Tires.”
Both men thanked the programmers and disc jockeys in the audience for playing their music.
“We are grateful,” said the mischievous and now-seldom-played Gill, “as much as we can be.”