You probably can’t truly realize the impact of country music until you’ve seen the Grand Ole Opry. I’ve heard country music all my life and live an hour from Nashville, and I don’t think I understood or appreciated country music’s wide appeal until last Friday.
Growing up, all I heard from my dad’s bathroom radio, stereo or car radio was country music. No new stuff. Country music from circa 1977 and earlier. Anything from the 1980s was pushing it, with a few exceptions. I think Dad saw the Garth Brooks era of the 1990s as the death of country music. In some ways, I agree with him. Although my taste didn’t develop for early twangy artists like Hank Williams (senior) or Ernest Tubb, I didn’t mind Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, George Strait, Patsy Cline or Glen Campbell. When I mentioned these artists or their songs to my friends in elementary, middle and even high school, their confusion communicated to me that country music wasn’t cool; no one knew about it, or else only cared about the – in my opinion – “less pure” artists like Tim McGraw or Taylor Swift. Most people my age probably don’t recognize my allusion to Minnie Pearl’s famous catchphrase in the headline of this post.
I had the incredible opportunity to visit the Opry as a sophomore in high school and sit on the seats on stage behind the performers. With the band and bright lights obscuring my view, I couldn’t see how big the Opry House was, much less how many hundreds of people packed the pews. I didn’t know most of the artists who performed, save for Jimmy Wayne (who posed for a picture with me and told me he liked my hair *swoon*) and The Whites, who had a song in one of my favorite movies, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. I didn’t quite grasp the holy ground the Circle at center stage was, having been cut from the Ryman Auditorium and moved to the Opry House in 1974, making it a place where country legends past, present and future could all play. Even after all that, I didn’t get it.
Then Cory got us tickets to see Friday’s Opry show. I saw, for the first time, the true girth of the Opry House. The crowd mingling outside and inside was thick and included a variety of ages and races in anything from casual to formal attire. When the curtain came up before each segment (the show is broadcast on 650 AM WSM and divided into segments with commercial breaks in between) I thought I was the only one who felt…something. Until Cory leaned over to me before the third segment and said, “Every time that curtain comes up…chills. I just get chills.”
Yep. And as I looked around and sensed the energy of the crowd, I knew we all felt it. Throughout the show, it became clear that country music knows no bounds. Bill Cody, the emcee that evening and WSM’s morning host, gave a shout out to a couple from Ireland and another couple spending their honeymoon in Nashville. One of the performing artists was from Canada (and who knew that Canada had such a country following?). There was a group of high schoolers on a class trip who cheered and danced like there was nowhere else they’d rather cheer and dance, which only intensified when Lauren Alaina invited their friend Gus up on stage to dance during her song “Next Boyfriend.”
To my surprise and delight, the bluegrass songs drew the most whoops and hollers from the crowd. And when Bobby Osborne & the Rocky Top X-Press played their signature “Rocky Top,” the place roared. Canadian, Irish, Northerner, Southerner; that night, we were all country.
Regrettably, my plans to hear Josh Turner sing a new love song written just for me didn’t materialize *sigh* but it was an incredible night. Cory and I agreed that it was like a party. And I realized that while perhaps the younger country crowd will continue to gravitate toward the new artists who blend their music with two parts pop, one part country, the old guys and gals won’t be forgotten. There will always be a home for them in car radios, on digital files, in iTunes libraries, on old 45s and on the Grand Ole Opry Circle.