Traveling to Nashville Tennessee? Don’t Miss the Grand Ole Opry
By Alison Blackman with John Dunham
The Grand Ole Opry started as a lone fiddler playing on a local Nashville radio station “barn dance” program one Saturday evening in 1925. It has grown into the longest running live broadcast radio show in history. The Grand Ole Opry features the best of country music. It’s a lot more than just a stage show, it’s “the show that made country music famous.” The experience and spectacle of this huge, live broadcast is fascinating for young and old , and a not-to-be-missed experience when in Nashville, Tennessee.
One of the things that we enjoy is having the chance to try something new and unique. We love the so-called “Blue Highways,” places where the standardized, bland world of box stores, fast-casual restaurants and strip malls are not the rule. The joy of discovering something that is truly one-of-a-kind is also the reason why national parks, historical sites and even celebrity homes (e.g. Graceland) attract travelers from around the world. Simply put, they are authentic. On our latest trip to Nashville, Tennessee, it seemed funny that one of these truly unique, and absolutely authentic vestiges of Americana sits squarely between an interstate highway and a giant outlet mall, bordered by a 2,900 room resort hotel, but this is exactly where Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House is located.
The Grand Ole Opry is country-music’s most venerated institution. It is not just the name of the large concert hall complex that bears the name, but of the live radio show that is still broadcast (on WSM AM ‘The Legend“) to this day and can also be accessed online and through the Internet (and for smart phones, an Opry app). The show has created a coveted fraternity of the greatest musical performers of country, bluegrass, and old time western music, some of whom are invited to become coveted members of the official Opry family. For many others, it’s still a lifelong dream just to perform on the famous stages of the Grand Ole Opry House, and Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium.
The Grand Ole Opry is located in Nashville about 20 minutes from downtown in Opryland from February to October. In November to January it returns to downtown Nashville to the historic Ryman Auditorium. In 1943 the Opry moved to the Ryman Auditorium and stayed there for the next 31 years. The wooden pew seating and intimate setting earned the Ryman the fond nickname, “the church of country music.” When it isn’t being used to broadcast the Opry, other performers use the space. In February 2016, we heard blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr. performing at the Ryman Friday night, and attended the Grand Ole Opry at Opryland on Saturday night. The Opry moved in 1974 to the much larger Opryland auditorium, but it suffered extensive damage during the historic 2010 flood in Nashville. The newly-improved Opry House reopened September 28, 2010. Visitors who take the backstage tour after the show can see evidence of just how high the water rose at the Grand Ole Opry by watermarks on the walls and the hand-painted mural in the performer’s green room.
The Grand Ole Opry is its people: At the heart of the Grand Ole Opry there are people. A “family” of performers of country, bluegrass and western music and culture. plus the randomness of the audience members every performance. Only 63 people are currently official members of the Opry at any one time, and in its 90 -year history, only about 200 performers have been invited to join as official members of the Opry family. Some of the legends in this group include Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Dolly Parton, and more recently performers like Vince Gill and Darius Rucker.
The audience is also part of the Opry family, since the show is broadcast live on the radio. There are two cameras on stage broadcasting the detailed action on three big screens near the stage. The night we attended Grand Ole Opry, performers including John Conlee, Mike Snider, Riders in the Sky, Ricky Skaggs, Connie Smith and the most recent inductee, The Old Crow Medicine Show, all performed. What really stuck us was that the announcers, who change each of the four segments of the show, each continued to remind the audience that by being at the Opry they too were part of the Opry “family.” It’s that welcoming, folk-sy, “we’re so glad you’re here” vibe that makes everyone feel good (and behave properly even though alcohol is served) throughout the evening until the last note is played.
Opryland vs. the Ryman: The newer, Opryland location is much larger than the Ryman Auditorium, and the sight lines are very good, even if you are in the upper tiers (those large screens bring you close-ups through the cameras). The Ryman has a more intimate feel and if you are seated in the orchestra you may be able to enjoy the traditional Opry experience of walking up the aisle right to the stage to take pictures with your favorite performer (we didn’t see anyone doing this at the Opryland location). Visitors should be aware that all of the 4,000 seats in the Opry House are pew style, reflecting back to the Ryman Auditorium. These are not plush, and they also can get a bit cramped if the people sitting with you are “ample.” Unlike many concerts halls, here, food and adult beverages are available for sale throughout the show for reasonable prices and can be consumed at the seats. Despite this, the audience knows that they’re part of a live performance and they tend to be well mannered and polite. There are a few coveted seats that you can’t buy. These are the ones that are original wooden pews taken from the Ryman Auditorium. They’re placed behind the performers on the stage, and are reserved for family, friends and special guests.
Take a Backstage Tour: Nothing can beat the backstage tour of the Opry House following an evening’s performance. Even if you’re not a huge country music fan, the experience can be pretty awe-inspiring. Even the youngsters on our tour were fascinated by the equipment, the dressing rooms, the video explanations and a chance to stand on the circle of wood taken from the Ryman Auditorium that some of their favorite musical stars have probably stood on as well. A ticket for a backstage tour is just $27.00, a true experience and a real bargain. Each guest gets a souvenir “laminate” (a “backstage pass”) with a specific colored lanyard breaking up the large crowd into groups by colored lanyard. The backstage tours are led by extremely experienced and friendly young guides, many of whom are country music performers themselves.
Backstage tour visitors are allowed backstage to see the large studio spaces, the incredibly impressive dressing rooms, and the clubhouse features that Opry members and performers use, including the “green room” lounge where they stay prior to going on stage. Throughout the tour visitors are given detailed explanations of what it is like to perform at the Opry through entertaining videos hosted by 2012 inductee Darius Rucker, one of country music’s most popular modern performers. In addition, it is not uncommon to see some of the musicians, and even Opry stars themselves during the tour. After all of this, visitors are invited to walk onto the Opry stage, where the likes of Alison Kraus, or Charlie Daniels or Dolly Parton may just have performed, and stand in the circle, a six-foot circle of wood at center stage which was removed from the Ryman Auditorium and represents a continuum of the country music family. Nearly anybody who ever was anybody in country music has stood on that same circle of wood at one point in time. It is an honor to stand there, if just for a moment, and imagine your own debut as a performer on that famous stage.
Visit the Grand Ole Opry: One thing is certain, when you visit the Grand Ole Opry, if just for a performance, but even more so for the backstage experience, you become one of the Opry family. This is something that everyone says at the Opry House, and we really think that they mean it. Country music is family music. It started out being played in the evening on the farm, or in a hootenanny in town, where people got together to relax and to enjoy the company of family, friends and neighbors. The Grand Ole Opry is still that small town hootenanny (just kind of supersized) and it maintains those feelings and traditions to this day.
For more information on the Grand Ole Opry and on performance or back stage tickets visit http://www.opry.com also check out the Grand Ole Opry’s Trip Planner Page
Experience a taste of the Grand Ole Opry. Video of Host & bluegrass performer Ricky Skaggs February 27, 2016
*click the square in the right hand corner to expand this video to full size (run time 3.24)