I would not consider myself a fervent fan of country music. I like some of it, and am ambivalent about some of it. I am especially ambivalent about modern country music. If I listen to country radio for more than forty-five minutes, which I am sometimes forced to do since Eileen is a fan, all of the songs begin to blend together and one sounds just like the next.
The perfect storm of country music would be a song about driving my sexy tractor, sporting an American flag and a Love it or Leave it sticker, drinking from my red solo cup while chasing after the hot girl in the white t-shirt and daisy dukes so I can tell her about the values I learned in the backwater town I grew up in and am so fiercely and defensively proud of. Needless to say, modern country songs have become formulaic and predictable. Country songs used to be a bit more creative with their subject areas and clever titles.
Despite its limitations country music has a couple of things going for it that save it from itself and make it hugely popular across generations and geography . The first is musicianship. There is no where on earth where you will find a more concentrated collection of first-rate musicians than Nashville. You can throw a stick and hit a musician who is a virtuoso at his instrument. When today’s musicians are making an album the first place they look for studio musicians is Nashville. That is also why more and more artists from different genres are migrating to Nashville to record.
The other redeeming feature of country music is tradition. No genre of music honors its history and forebearers more than the country music community. Older artists are revered and celebrated. Younger artists remember to pay homage to those who paved the way. And country music has always remembered that their lifeblood is the radio. They consistently show appreciation for those who present their songs to the public.
It is not a coincidence that the area of country music that I really enjoy encompasses both of these features. Bluegrass is my favorite variation on country music and a large part of its roots. Any music featuring a banjo, fiddle, mandolin or a dobro, and you have my ear. Odd that although I am ambivalent about country music as a whole, one of my favorite genres of music is bluegrass.
Tradition also plays a huge role when it comes to music venues. Classical music has Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House. Rock music has Madison Square Garden and The Troubadour. Country music has the Ryman Auditorium and The Grand Ole Opry.
This past Friday we had the opportunity to experience both the tradition and history of country music as well as some of its best musicianship when we visited the Grand Ole Opry for one of its Friday night shows. The show featured one of my favorite country artists Vince Gill. Vince Gill is a great song writer, one of the best singers on the planet, as well as one of the best guitarists in any genre. He also started out playing bluegrass music with another of my favorites, Ricky Skaggs, who will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this year. An honor that is long overdue. No matter where Vince Gill’s career takes him, you can tell that his heart remains with his bluegrass roots.
What I enjoy about Vince Gill is you may hear a hard driving country song one minute and a traditional blue grass standard the next. He is comfortable in any genre. As proof he is currently touring with the Eagles in place of the recently deceased Glen Frey. On one night he may be playing riffs on Life in the Fast Lane and the next night singing Go Tell it on the Mountain. Needless to say, we were excited about seeing Vince Gill in person.
We were unfamiliar with the location and format of the Grand Ole Opry. We were somewhat surprised to find it in an area that is basically a shopping mall. Many people were there to go the Grand Ole Opry and many were there to see a movie or grab new towels at Bed, Bath and Beyond. It was a little disconcerting at first to see the shrine of country music next to the twenty-theater metroplex.
Once we actually walked onto the property we were able to forgot somewhat that this hollowed place shared a parking lot with Cinnabon. It is clear that you are at ground zero of country music. Flags featuring famous members adorn the street lamp poles and two giant guitars welcome you to the entrance. It is clear that membership is a cross generational affair.
Membership is not guaranteed to only those who sell the most records or make the most money. The Opry tries to ensure that membership has a generational balance and first and foremost is the preservation of country music.
There is a small sense of commercialism that exist within the walls of this shrine. There is a gift shop offering everything Opry. Inside, before entering the actual venue you can purchase food and beverages as well.
When you enter the performance venue you get a church feel. There is cushioned bench seating that reminds one of church pews. This is purposeful no doubt. It is very comfortable and relaxed. This is appropriate for a venue that is considered the cathedral of country music.
The Grand Ole Opry is essentially a radio show. It is the longest running radio show in America. The shows are broadcast in thirty-eight states and around the world on WSM and the internet. The show started in 1925 as The Barn Dance but was soon referred to as the Opry as a tongue-in-cheek reference as the counterpart to the local opera performances.
The Opry took up residence at the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville in 1943. That site is still referred to in reverent tones and still hosts performances and tours. In 1974 the show moved to the present site. In 2010 the Opry was flooded when Nashville had fourteen inches of rain. Needless to say, it was restored as was the sacred circle of flooring that was originally brought over from the Ryman and sits prominently at center stage at the Opry as a reminder of the unbroken circle.
The format of the show brings you back to the hey-day of radio when it was the primary source of family entertainment. There is a house band that plays for or with each performer. The show is broken down into four half-hour segments each with a host and two featured performers. The host begins the segment with a song which is followed by the first featured performer performing two songs. That is followed by the announcer, standing at a podium in full view of the audience doing a commercial for the sponsor of the segment. That is followed by the second featured performer, then the commercial and then the segment host finishes up with a song. The curtain them comes down during which time they set up for the next segment and do commercials.
There was a wide variety of entertainment this evening with the first and third hosts being old-timers Jeanie Seeley and Bill Anderson and the second and fourth being Riders in the Sky and Vince Gill. On every bill there is at least one comedian to provide a change of pace. This is a tradition that was made famous by the great Minnie Pearl. Anyone who ever watched Hee Haw on Saturday nights will remember her.
This Opry has followed this format for a very long time. It was actually the inspiration for a young Garrison Keillor to invent the Prairie Home Companion series. We enjoyed the pace and variety of the show. It allowed us to see some acts that we recognized, and also a few acts that we had never experienced. It is a carefully designed formula for not only preserving the traditions of country music but also enhancing the brand by broadening the scope and moving it forward.
Although I would not consider myself a religious follower of country music, a visit to the Grand Ole Opry, and witnessing the history, tradition and variety of what it offers enhances a healthy respect for the genre. It was well-worth the visit.