Behind the Scenes at the Grand Ole Opry: Traditional Success and Today’s Country at its Best
The Grand Ole Opry is one of America’s greatest traditions, and it is known as the show that introduced country music to the world. Since its humble beginnings in Nov. 1925 when it aired on WSM Radio for the first time, the Opry has grown into a prominent event that celebrates Nashville with the world. In just about any walk of life, if you mention country music and the Grand Ole Opry, traditional country music comes to mind. So, how important has Nashville’s greatest tradition been in supporting artists that stay on the traditional road to success?
Traditional country was easily defined back in the 1920s when Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were at the top of their game. You might even say that these artists set the standard for traditional tunes. Beginning in 1927 and continuing for the next 17 years, the Carters recorded some 300 old-time country and gospel hymns. Jimmie Rodgers fused hillbilly country, gospel and folk, establishing him as the premier singer of early country music. This music has always been about the simpler way and represented the common man being proud to take the hard road.
Today’s country music is more of a major thoroughfare for anything from country rap to electro country, with smaller lanes for “traditional music” to weave their way through. But there are many artists who have stayed in the traditional-country lanes with great success, even in this day and time. The Grand Ole Opry has always been the driving force for the traditional country music that inspired the birth of many genres. And keeping traditional country music alive is important, because it speaks the language of the regular person. When things get too complicated, it helps to bring us back to the basics.
The Grand Ole Opry actually celebrates putting traditional music next to contemporary music. The principal programming philosophy for the Opry is to present new stars, superstars, and the legends of country music. The Grand Ole Opry doesn’t define what country music is – it tries to reflect what country music is with every single show. Artists’ variety helps impact the achievement of that goal. The majority of the Opry’s programming time is still given to the legends of country music, according to Pete Fisher, general manager of the Opry.
“The Grand Ole Opry wants to present shows that feature the past, present and future of country music, along with all of the country music styles, whether they are traditional, contemporary or alternative. That’s why country music legends such as Little Jimmy Dickens, Bobby Osborne, Jim Ed Brown and Jeannie Seely are all still very familiar faces on the Grand Ole Opry stage,” says Fisher. Traditional country has always been and always will be a huge part of the Opry Show. The Opry’s endurance of time is its ability to evolve without drifting too far from its roots, like inducting new members Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood in recent years, while Little Jimmy Dickens has been a part of the Opry for 65 years.
Country greats like Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Emmylou Harris, John Anderson, George Jones and Merle Haggard developed their own brand of traditional country that to this day still appeals to the modern generation. The “traditional country sound” has varied decade to decade, but that fundamental core has always been there, and the Grand Ole Opry has been right beside it, just like a lifelong friend. Country artists from the 1930s and 1940s like Roy Acuff, Eddy Arnold, Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams were doing western swing or driving roadhouse honky tonk music. Following close behind, the latter day Golden Age stars and innovators such as Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard also helped forge the foundation of the Grand Ole Opry. “Even then, some of this music was considered contemporary,” says Fisher.
Country music has always drifted toward crossover, but somehow traditional country is always pulled back to its foundation by an emerging act that takes it by storm. In the ‘80s, Randy Travis, George Strait, Patty Loveless and The Judds used vintage musical styling to deliver a new kind of traditional country music, and these artists helped to bring this music back to its roots at a time when country pop was dominating the charts.
I’ve heard people say, “I listen to classic rock” or “My favorite music genres are pop and R&B,” and that’s okay. But contrary to popular belief, you can enjoy more than one style of music, and traditional country still has its place in mainstream radio and on the Opry stage. Take artists like Jamey Johnson, Easton Corbin and Sarah Darling, for instance. They still have a core traditional country sound, so the old country sound does indeed still have a foothold in today’s market. These artists eagerly perform at the Opry as often as they can. “It’s always a thrill to perform at the Opry,” claims Sarah Darling, who has performed over 40 times since her debut in February 2011.
Darling states that playing the Opry is like being part of an amazingly talented musical family. “It’s a stage that’s allowed me to become a better performer and a better person. I’m absolutely on cloud nine, playing the same stage as the artists that influenced my music like Alison Krauss and Shania Twain. I’m getting ready to make a defining record soon. I am at a point in my life where I know it’s the right time. I just want to keep making music, that’s what makes me happiest. My grandfather was always one of my greatest influences, and he listened to a lot of traditional country.”
That’s the great thing about the Opry. It supports traditional country, but it is also open to trying new things, like letting newcomer Jenn Bostic take the stage for an emotional performance of her song “Jealous of the Angels,” a song written in honor of her father who was lost in a car accident when she was 10.
You might say that country, western, and bluegrass are the basic types of traditional country, and some forms of these sounds were developed in different parts of the United States, but all the sounds seem to be centered around the influence of the Grand Ole Opry. You can find shows and theaters in almost every state in the union that are named in its honor – from the Rockwell Opry in Bakersfield, Calif. to the Texas Opry Theater in Weatherford, Texas or the Smoky Mountain Opry in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
The driving force for the Opry’s sound is the Opry Staff Band, and in an interview with Opry staff pianist Tim Atwood, he claims that his favorite thing about playing the Opry is the Opry itself. The Opry is one big family, so it seems fitting that his favorite memory of the Opry is his parents seeing him from backstage while he played for Roy Acuff. Tim stated, “The tears streaming down my father’s face told me he was proud of me. That’s when you know you’re living your dream.” The Opry Staff Band consists of music director Steve Gibson, Tim Atwood on piano, Jimmy Capps, Kerry Marx and Mike Noble on guitars, Larry Paxton on bass, Eddie Bayers and Mark Beckett on drums, Tommy White on steel and Hoot Hester on fiddle.
The song is the foundation, and simplicity is the appeal of traditional country, so writing country songs plain and simple is the traditional songwriter’s key to success. Country music prides itself on being the heartbeat of the working class. The songs can be clever and intelligent, but it all comes down to a quote by the great Harlan Howard… “three chords and the truth.” Take songs like “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” “Detroit City,” and “Honey, Won’t You Open That Door.” There’s no question why these songs were so great, because they were written by country music legend Mel Tillis. Tillis has lived a life of traditional country, performing at the Grand Ole Opry for the first time in 1957.
In an interview with Tillis, he stated, “I got to meet all the greats from Roy Acuff to Jim Reeves. All those acts were really professional, and the music could really touch you. I’m not knocking the new acts,” Tillis stated. “I know times change. There’s quite a few of them I really like.”
Tillis is regretful that he never did meet Hank Williams Sr., but he is grateful to have gotten to walk among the legends as a peer. In 2007, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. In February 2012, President Obama awarded Tillis the National Medal of Arts for his contributions to country music. Tillis has also won the CMA Entertainer of the Year and has been inducted to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. When asked about his favorite memories, Tillis recalled performing for Frank Sinatra’s 65th birthday party and dancing with Gen. Macarthur’s elderly widow to the Tennessee Waltz.
Like always, the Opry is continually evolving and embracing acts both traditional and modern, both old and new. The Old Crow Medicine Show was formally inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in September 2013. “Marty Stuart, who extended the membership invitation to the band in August, helped induct the group, along with Dierks Bentley and myself,” stated Fisher. Bentley congratulated the group and welcomed them to “the coolest club there is.” Fisher also added that keeping close to the ground and staying true to real life is what keeps country music special. The Grand Ole Opry is honored to reflect that in every show, whether past, present or yet to come.
This story is available thanks to the sponsorship of Gaylord Entertainment