Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith
This time of the year brings about something of a down time for the Grand Ole Opry. The historic spectacular of WSM Radio does not go into hibernation in January but there is less interest in the Opry in the first month than at any time of the year.
In January, the Opry moves from the showcase facility out on Briley Parkway to the old Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville where it flourished for years — in the days of Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, Eddy Arnold, Grandpa Jones and Hank Williams. If you love country music, those were the days which stir your soul and make you pine for the past when country music was not exactly cool except with a segment of the population which worked for a blue-collar living and underscored traditional American values.
Whisperin’ Bill Anderson had made arrangements for back stage accommodations at the Ryman, and I was filled with anticipation to stand where the aforementioned Opry icons made history. The only thing that would have made it better, other than a reincarnation of those memorable characters, would have been an opportunity to sit on a sack of Martha White Flour. It was the same kind of rush you get when you went to Yankee Stadium — the House that Ruth built — or crossed the Golden Gate Bridge that first time. Playing the Augusta National. Seeing Georgia win a big bowl game. Getting a date with a camups beauty queen.
There is a new floor on the stage now. A circle was cut from the old stage and inlaid at the Gaylord Opryland stage, but the Ryman, aside from a redo of the dressing rooms, looks pretty much like it did in 1892 when a riverboat gambler and saloon owner, Sam Ryman, built the Union Gospel Tabernacle which became the home of the Grand Ole Opry in 1943. Like forever, the audience sits in church pews, befitting a house of worship.
As Whisperin’ Bill waked out of his dressing room, a shrine to Johnny Cash, to the 2nd floor balcony, you could see the reverence in his emotions as he recalled his past. “When I performed here for the first time in January 1959, I was about the happiest I have ever been in my life. I can’t tell you what it means to come back here each year. The acoustics in this place are amazing. I’ve spent a lot of happy hours here. Performing at the Ryman will always rank as a highlight of my career.”
The Opry is still a signature program of WSM, 650 on your dial. WSM, a 50,000-watt, clear-channel station, got its start in 1925 as a unit of National Life and Accident Insurance Co., getting its call letters from the theme, “We Shield Millions.” When the Prince Albert sponsored show affiliated with NBC, the Opry went Coast-to-Coast with a lineup of 143 stations. Country became cool almost overnight.
The Opry eventually outgrew the Ryman, but in 1992 Emmyou Harris returned to the Ryman for a series of concerts and recorded an album, “At the Ryman,” which prompted an effort to restore and reuse the ole church themed auditorium which is known as “The Mother Church of Country Music.”
In December, the Rockettes send a troupe to high kick at Opryland which gives the Opry a break. In January, as everybody is resettling and recharging, the Opry moves to the Ryman. You still get your money’s worth with familiar stars, in addition to Whisperin’ Bill, Ricky Skaggs, Jim Ed Brown, The Whites, Jimmy C. Newman and Jean Shepard on stage. Here recently, Shepard sang the Tennessee Waltz in memory of Patti Paige who died late last year. Jimmy C. Newman twanged his signature title, “Cry, Cry Darlin’.” At 85, he still connects with country music fans.
We won’t ever forget the Opry ole timers like Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon. You’ll remember her if I say, “Minnie Pearl.” Like Babe Ruth and Coca-Cola, the fame of yesteryear’s iconic country stars is enduring; like a Coke in the short bottle, I really miss ‘em.
Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.