The Unbroken Circle
From the legends of yesterday to the fast-rising stars of today like Josh Turner, Nashville’s iconic Grand Ole Opry links country music’s past, present and future
Ask Josh Turner about the iconic role the grand ole opry plays in shaping country music and he might easily point to his own memorable debut on its stage ten years ago. It was the Friday before Christmas and late in the show when Country Music Hall of Famer Bill Anderson introduced to the Opry audience a 24-year-old singer/songwriter with piercing blue eyes and a deep baritone voice honeyed over with a South Carolina Lowcountry accent. Though he had just signed a record deal, Turner was still relatively unknown and had essentially begged his way onto that night’s bill. Given just enough time to sing one song, he somewhat boldly chose one of his own, a gospel country tune he’d written after a long night of listening to one of his childhood idols, country legend Hank Williams. By the time Turner finished singing the first verse, the audience was spontaneously clapping in approval; by the end of the chorus, they were already on their feet, cheering. When the raucous ovation didn’t stop even after he’d finished the song and started exiting the stage, show emcee Anderson politely told Turner to get back out there and sing it again. So, in something of a daze—he forgot the order of the verses and stumbled a bit through the chorus—he did. After yet another standing ovation, a disbelieving Turner staggered backstage to his dressing room and collapsed into a couch. Just moments later, the man whom Turner had pleaded with for a spot in the show came in, and he spoke the words that country music artists have longed to hear for four generations: “You can come back to the Opry anytime.”
“That moment onstage for Josh was one I will never forget,” recalls the man responsible for giving Turner his big break, longtime Opry general manager Pete Fisher. “It was truly witnessing a star being born.” Indeed, millions of album sales and multiple chart-topping singles later, Turner’s status as a fast-rising star in the country music firmament is well established. But then, the Opry has a long and storied history as the launching pad for the biggest names in country music; something that Turner says wasn’t lost on him that fateful night a decade ago.
“All I could think about was Hank Williams and the six or seven encores he had gotten for ‘Lovesick Blues’ in his Opry debut and I’m just trying to digest all this as I’m singing my song,” recalls Turner, the wonderment of that moment still evident in his voice. “It was hard to take in, but there I was standing in the same spot that Roy Acuff had stood, and Ernest Tubb and Marty Robbins; the list goes on and on and on. It was just a dream come true for me.”
Standing on the Spot
That spot behind the microphone at center stage of the Grand Ole Opry has been the foremost crucible of country music for longer than most fans can remember. So long, in fact, that its stature even predates the term “country music” itself. And without that spot—which is known far and wide to country music fans as “the unbroken circle”—it’s unlikely that Nashville would have ever become “Nashville—Music City, U.S.A.”
“If the Grand Ole Opry hadn’t grown up by itself, country music would have had to invent something like it,” writes historian Paul Kingsbury in his book The Grand Ole Opry History of Country Music. That country music’s heart and soul won’t be found cloistered away in a museum or stuck inside a recording studio, but rather onstage at the Grand Ole Opry, is no coincidence. Since the show’s first AM radio broadcast from a cramped, sixth-floor studio back in 1925, the Opry has come to embody country music’s past, present, and future precisely because of its unyielding commitment to the spontaneity of live performances. “It’s a living, breathing link to the past that continues to be revitalized by new talents,” Kingsbury says.
New talents not unlike Turner, who, after returning to play the Opry dozens of times in the years following his debut, was inducted as a full-time member in 2007. (Only 29 years old at the time, Turner became the Opry’s youngest member.) “I just love how you can go there and hear a lot of different styles of country music and hear artists from a lot of different eras and get a picture of what country music really is,” Turner says. But he also notes that being a member of the Opry is about giving back to the institution and the fans that helped to launch his career. “I was extremely honored to have that bestowed upon me so soon. But I knew then and I still know now that being committed to playing a show like the Opry requires a lot of responsibility.”
46 Inches of Trouble
As the oldest continually broadcast radio show in the country, the Opry has a longstanding tradition of honoring that responsibility and of taking an uncompromising approach to the old showbiz cliché, “The show must go on.” Indeed, after 86 years on the air and thousands of broadcasts, the Opry has only cancelled a handful of live shows in its long history—an amazing record. But nothing from the show’s sometimes challenging past—the numerous relocations to new venues, the rise of rock ’n’ roll, a corporate sell-off, and several generational cycles of talent turnover—could compare to what the Opry confronted on the morning of May 3, 2010.
“We’d gotten close to 15 inches of rain in the Nashville area that weekend,” recalls Opry General Manager Fisher. “Still, the regularly scheduled Friday and Saturday night shows had gone off without any problems.” So, when Fisher and the rest of the Opry House staff returned to work that next Monday morning, they, like thousands of others in the Nashville area, were unprepared for the devastation that awaited them. At the Opry complex, nearly four feet of water had swamped the theater and nearby museum. With no other way to survey the damage, Fisher and another employee decided to pile into a small boat and paddle their way through the Opry House.
Undaunted, Fisher and his staff scrambled to find an alternate location for the Opry’s regularly scheduled Tuesday night performance, which was less than 36 hours away. Somewhat miraculously, they pulled it off. “We mounted a show the very next day at the War Memorial Auditorium, which was coincidentally a former home of the Opry,” notes Fisher. And for the rest of the summer, the Opry continued to hopscotch around Nashville. In all, it landed at six different venues, including another of its former homes, the legendary Ryman Auditorium, all without missing a single show.
Restoring the Glory
But while the show went on elsewhere, a large band of carpenters, designers, and restoration experts descended upon the Opry House. The damage to the theater was extensive and costly. All of the orchestra-level seating as well as the backstage area had to be totally gutted, and early estimates of the renovation costs totaled $17 million. What’s more, because the Opry staff was determined to reopen the theater in time for the show’s 85th birthday, just six months later, in October 2010, time was short.
“Right after the flood, I got a call,” recalls Kathy Anderson, who owns an interior design firm near downtown Nashville. “I grew up listening to the Opry, so it was a perfect project for me.” Tasked with redesigning the green room, makeup room, and each of the Opry’s 17 dressing rooms, Anderson ended up creating a different theme for each space. (Among the more notable are rooms dedicated to Bluegrass, Patriotism, Cousin Minnie Pearl, and Honky Tonk Angels.) “My team didn’t get to sleep much that summer,” she recalls, laughing.
The post-flood Opry stands as an appropriate mix of form and function—new seating and contemporary lighting complement antique rugs and historical photos. The backstage areas, which serve as the Opry’s hardest working spaces, required extra attention to strike this perfect balance, Anderson says. “Dressing room countertops get a lot of abuse, so we needed a surface that could withstand everything from hot curling irons to heavy amps and not get stained by makeup either,” she explains. “We really liked Cambria because we needed something that would look glamorous and yet be very durable and maintenance-free as well.”
For his part, Cambria CEO Marty Davis couldn’t be happier that his company’s products have found a home at the Opry. “Cambria, as a family-owned company, places great emphasis on honoring legacy and tradition,” Davis says. “We are honored that our product, Cambria, born out of our family’s history and with its American-made roots, is a small part of the rebirth of the Opry, which itself has a long legacy of family history and American heritage.”
An Opry members’ preview of the backstage area, just hours before the show’s emotional homecoming broadcast on September 28 of last year, earned rave reviews. “The older members that came through said they really liked it because it paid respect to Opry history,” Anderson recalls, “while the newer members thought the designs were also very hip.”
Everything New is Old Eventually
This tension between the old and the new, between history and modernity, reaches back to show’s earliest days, says Opry Museum Curator Brenda Colladay. “Nowadays, we get lots of Opry fans telling us who they don’t like and why this or that artist doesn’t deserve to be on stage,” she explains. “And that’s great, because it means people are listening and it means they still care.” Still, she points out that, just like Turner, even the biggest stars in Opry history were all unknown artists at one time. “Plus, it’s important to remember that in 1939, Bill Monroe’s bluegrass music was new music; the songs that Johnny Cash performed in the 1960s were new songs.” And though country music earned its own Billboard sales chart in 1949, Colladay notes that its artists have always borrowed liberally from other musical forms, whether they be swing, Tin Pan Alley, gospel, folk, pop, rock ’n’ roll or even rap. “Country music,” she emphasizes, “has never existed in a vacuum.”
Fisher, who still books the 190 live shows put on by the Opry each year, agrees. “Nowadays we don’t apologize for putting a very traditional performer next to a contemporary performer. In fact, we celebrate it. We always say, ‘If you don't like what you are hearing right now, wait three minutes, I bet you’ll like the next thing.’” And it’s true. At no other venue can music fans regularly see fast-rising stars—like Turner or Taylor Swift—perform right alongside established legends—like Bill Anderson or Emmylou Harris.
“When you go to an Opry show, you’ll not only hear artists from a lot of different eras, you’ll hear a lot of different styles of country music as well,” adds Turner. As a self-proclaimed student of country music history, Turner says the curation and cross-pollination that takes place on the Opry stage makes for a great musical education and is a big part of its appeal to him and many fans as well. “I think the variety of it and the honesty of it really makes the Opry what it is.”
As one of Nashville’s most popular tourist destinations—nearly half a million fans attend a live show annually—the Opry’s status as an American musical icon is now secure. Nevertheless, to keep the show vibrant, the Opry continues to explore the latest frontiers and expand its reach to better connect its artists and fans. Indeed, there are now numerous other ways to enjoy the Opry besides tuning in to the show’s longtime radio home in Nashville, WSM AM650. There are the syndicated Opry broadcasts on 200 radio stations nationwide, Friday and Saturday night show broadcasts on Sirius XM satellite radio (Channel 56 - "Willie’s Roadhouse"), occasional Opry TV specials on the Great American Country network, and live streaming performances at the OPRY.COM website. And let’s not forget Facebook (180,000 friends and counting), Twitter (more than 40,000 followers), and, of course, the Opry’s iPhone and Android apps.
“I would hate to think of the Opry ever becoming like a museum piece,” Colladay says. “If it did, it would die. That’s why it has to continue to embrace the new artists. The Opry expands their horizons, and, in turn, they expand the Opry’s horizons.” But the key to it all, she says, is that magical connection between artist and audience that only exists at a live show. “No one has yet figured out how to turn the experience of seeing a live show into a bunch of ones and zeroes,” Colladay says, with more than just a trace of relief in her voice. “It’s really the secret weapon of all music—there’s nothing like seeing it live. And that’s what the Grand Ole Opry still does best.”
As someone who’s experienced firsthand the life-changing power of a live Opry performance, Turner couldn’t agree more. “Our job as Opry members is to continue to spread country music to those who’ve never given country music a chance,” he says. “It’s a great family to be a part of.” Country music’s past, present, and future might not always look or sound the same, in other words, but thanks to the Opry, it’s all part of the same unbroken circle.