I wasn’t a country music fan until I visited Nashville Tennessee. A work conference took me to Nashville, where I could have a few days of rest and relaxation before the conference started.
The Gaylord Opryland Resort was the perfect location for my planned escape. The resort features an indoor waterpark, three glass atriums, and walking distance to the Grand Ole Opry.
When I finished checking in at Opryland, I immediately noticed two things. The resort certainly embraced the music theme. There were musical decorations of all types including oversized guitars larger than most humans. The second was the size of the place. There are 2,888 rooms and three huge glass atriums at the resort. Even though I was provided with a map, it took me some time to find my room.
Once I had settled in, I left my room with the goal of becoming lost. The glass atriums at Opryland are really a modern architectural wonder. My room backed on to the Cascades atrium which boasts a 3.5 story waterfall and over 8,000 tropical plants. Even though it was mid-February indoors, I could have sworn I was in the jungles of Brazil. Wandering through the resort, I entered the Magnolia Lobby which was built to resemble a Southern mansion. The area featured an impressive shopping district and restaurants. The final atrium I checked out was the Delta. The most impressive feature was a quarter-mile indoor river that also offered boat cruises.
During my walkabout, I discovered that Opryland had a working radio station with a long history. WSM Radio has been on the air since 1925. Perhaps most famously, it is responsible for the creation of the Grand Ole Opry which has been on the air every Saturday night for the past ninety-four years. Speaking with Opryland staff, they shared that many of country music’s biggest artists are still interviewed in the studio. I did not spot Dolly or Garth during my visit.
The next day, I was ready for my Grand Ole Opry experience. Growing up, I was not a huge country fan, but the Opry was a staple in our house as my parents enjoyed country music. Being in Nashville, I decided to go all-in on the Opry experience and got tickets for the Opry backstage tour and evening performance. I took the short walk from the resort to the Grand Ole Opry and met up with our tour guide. The tour started with a film narrated by Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. Once the film was done, our guide took us to the backstage area to see the various dressing rooms.
The Grand Ole Opry initially took place in the downtown Ryman Auditorium until 1974. When the Opry moved to the new location, a six-foot circle of oak was cut from the corner of the Ryman’s stage and inlaid into centre stage at the new venue. For me, the highlight of the tour was being able to step to centre stage and pretend I was one of the performers singing at the Opry.
Our guide also shared the Opry’s enduring legacy, including how a once-in-a-lifetime flood in 2010 put the Opry building underwater. The entire stage, main floor seating and the backstage area had to be renovated while performances were temporarily moved to a rejuvenated Ryman Auditorium. Today, the Opry does shows at both venues.
I still had a few hours to fill before the Opry performance. I headed over to the nearby Opry Mills shopping mall. Nashville being Nashville, Opry Mills had a strong musical flavour. The mall features live performances during the afternoon. Don’t think this is your Friday night karaoke type singer. The two performers I saw were at a professional level.
I also checked out the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum which was located in the mall. The museum featured some of the top country artists in wax form.
It was time to trade in the life-like country stars for the real thing. I headed back to the Grand Ole Opry about an hour before doors opened. Fans were milling about the gift store and talking about the artists who would be appearing. Many were decked out in their best country and western gear.
I felt out of place as I do not own a pair of cowboy boots and frankly only knew a couple of artists on the bill. I met a couple of fans who filled me in about the other artists performing and made it feel right at home. It felt like I was joining a fraternity of fans.
The doors opened and I made my way to the church-style pew seating. This was appropriate as the Opry has often been called the mother church of country music. The show was divided into different sections with a member of the Opry hosting a portion of the program. Since it is a live radio program, ad breaks were handled by 650 WSM legend Mike Terry.
The music is what surprised me the most. The two-hour show covered several different musical stylings including bluegrass and new country. There was even an appearance by the Grand Ole Opry square dancers. None of the singers needed to use an auto tuner and everyone could play their own instruments. As the evening went along, I found I was getting more and more into the music.
Since I visited the Opry, I have taken a deep dive into country music researching past stars like Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Waylon Jennings. I have also found the Opry live streams every Saturday night to be a source of comfort during this time of Covid and staying at home. The performances are done before an empty house and minimal crew. The most important thing is the quality of music and the message of hope each artist conveys.
Post-trip, I had the chance to speak by telephone with Grand Ole Opry member and lead singer of Old Crow Medicine Show, Ketch Secor. “In the summer of 2000, we had the chance to busk on the sidewalk outside the Opry House as fans entered and exited Opry performances,” remembers Secor. “In 2001, we had the opportunity to play the Grand Ole Opry Stage for the first time. It was the realization of the biggest dream I had. Many country music musicians dream about having hits. Mine was to play the Grand Ole Opry and be heard on WSM radio.”
This would not be the end of the affiliation between the Grand Ole Opry and Old Crow. The band has played the Opry dozens of times and in 2013, became a full-fledged member of the Opry. “Country music legend, Marty Stuart invited us to become members at a concert in Cleveland Ohio. It is still one of the best moments of my life.”
Fast-forward to the end of 2020 and COVID has not slowed down Secor and Old Crow. The band hosted a performance at the Grand Ole Opry with special guests. Of course, it was performed in front of an empty theatre. Secor also hosts a variety show on the internet every Saturday night called Hartland Hootenanny. The viewer can expect to hear corny jokes and great music.
I hope to return to Nashville Tennessee and see the Grand Ole Opry once things get back to normal. This time, I may even bring a pair of cowboy boots.
For more information about the Grand Ole Opry, visit www.opry.com. You can also Livestream the Saturday night performance of the Opry from this website. For more information about Nashville, visit www.visitmusiccity.com.
I was a guest of Opryland Resorts but all opinions are my own and they did not review the article.