Nothing is more associated with Tennessee than country music, and nothing is more associated with country music than the Grand Ole Opry. Many southerners grew up on a steady diet of country music and love it. Others have an attitude that seems to vary from being perplexed to indifference to hatred.
A joke about country music among newcomers to the Nashville area is, “If you live here long enough, you’ll get to where you can almost stand it!” This author was among those who thought it unsophisticated and hated it until, after suffering a personal loss, I had the radio on in the car and was shocked to hear the singer voicing my feelings exactly. That is the way it is with country music. It speaks to the soul.
Whether you love it or hate it, no trip to Tennessee or Nashville would be complete without a visit to the Grand Ole Opry, rightly billed as the “shrine of country music.” This is the long standing variety show where older country stars got their beginning. Even now, some of the biggest names in entertainment are associated with The Opry and perform there. The show has become legendary and several shows are performed in the Opry House every weekend, unrehearsed.
A visit to the Grand Ole Opry will easily show why it has reached the level of legend that has come to be associated with it. With tickets as low as $35 per seat, it is without a doubt the biggest professional entertainment bargain you will every encounter. The Opry House itself is plain, comfortable and functional. The atmosphere is casual, more like a ball game or movie than a live stage performance.
People munch on popcorn and watch the three-hour show, which is almost continuous with only brief pauses of a few minutes. Fans leave their seats and walk forward to the stage to snap pictures of favorite stars. Yet, there is no chaos, but complete order and almost an awe of what is going on. The performers and audience alike seem to be caught up in the nostalgic aspects and enjoy being a part of history, something somehow greater than any one performance.
When attending it is necessary to “let go” and get into the spirit of the music to enjoy it. It is folk music — music of the common folk. The songs are about loving, lying, cheating, drinking and common life. It is interspersed with unsophisticated comedy acts, a bit of dancing for variety, and toe-tapping, fiddle and banjo playing.
When you make a reservation for the Opry, you never know who will be performing. The lineup is announced Wednesday prior to the show. Probably the most interesting aspect of the whole thing is that it is live on the radio, and live radio commercials can be heard by the audience and seem to tie the various parts of the show together. Part of the show is also carried live on cable television. The cameras are there filming and monitors show the audience what the television audience is seeing. It is truly amazing how everything continues to flow and the show goes on without interruption.
Why is it called the Grand Ole Opry? It seems that way back in the 20’s when the show first began, it followed a radio show of classical music. The announcer made a crack about the Grand Opera being followed by the Grand Ole Opry and the name stuck. It is, of course, about as far from opera as music can get.
Nashville is now a cosmopolitan southern city with live theater, an orchestra, and a ballet. But the roots of southerners and of Tennessee and the heritage for which they will probably always most be known, is still the music of the common folk, country music.