Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Night at the Opry

Here's my promised report about my attendance at the Grand Ole Opry, the late show of 14 February.

Before I set foot in the Ryman Auditorium, I had a totally delightful supper at a new (to me) place, with a couple of lovely ladies I've known for years. One lady I've known since her birth: my daughter Sarah, who's visiting from Houston, Texas. The other lovely lady is her mother, my wife Ellen. I'm serious about the lovely part: both were smartly dressed, Sarah in a maroon top and a jacket-length winter coat nicely trimmed with faux fur, and Ellen in a deep green top decorated with several small clear gems (rhinestones) at the center of the low (but not provocatively low) neckline!

While I awaited their arrival at the Blackstone Pub on West End Avenue near the Vanderbilt campus, I was warming up for the imminent visit to the Opry by listening to "Bluegrass Underground" on WSM. Once they arrived we ordered our food. We had an appetizer of nachos so covered with ingredients in addition to the basic nacho cheese that the cheese was lost in the sea of other stuff, according to Sarah! She ordered a sort of personal pizza -- pepperoni of a very juicy, tasty variety. (I knew this because she shared a couple of bites with me.) I had shepherd's pie, and it was delicious, too. Ellen had a plate that included several steak biscuits -- but these were more distinctive than those typical of Mrs Winners and other places that have steak biscuits on their breakfast menu. Definitely dinner fare these!

The two lovely ladies let me off at Music City Central, the downtown MTA depot that opened late last October, so I could hop the bus back to Mercury Courts. They were headed for Clarksville, and I didn't want to put them out of their way to take me straight to my lodging.

But alas! the buses apparently had just left (they all leave at the same time, quarter after the hour, in the evenings and on Sundays). Oh, well, I just found me a seat in the comfortable (72 degrees year-round) waiting room and put on my radio/CD with headset again. The early show of the Opry was under way, so I had great listening pleasure. And priming for attending the late show -- as if I needed "priming" after hearing "Bluegrass Underground" earlier in the evening!

Not that the Grand Ole Opry is all bluegrass -- far from it! Quite a bit of country rock is heard there any more. In fact, Restless Heart is guesting tonite, and I remember them beginning as a pop rock band before they became sort of "countrified".

At Mercury Courts I drop off my bag of stuff (including the radio/CD player), get my Opry line-up, and head to Shag's apartment near the middle of the complex. Shag may get his nickname from his appearance short and with long hair and a beard. His true name is Dave Tillis (yes, he's cousin to Mel and Pam). He says that he's a songwriter, and has written a few thousand. I'll have to take a look some time. But at the moment the two of us have a show to go to, in his van.

There must have been something else going on downtown, because we have to park several blocks from Ryman Auditorium. But no problem! the hike is good for the body. Near the Ryman we begin passing a very long line that leads up to its "new" set of doors that were built on the back end (facing Fourth Ave.) when it was decided to restore the building and add air conditioning and other amenities and start using it again for regular performances -- including the Opry itself during winter months. But the long line turns out to be of folks who already have tickets, so we go in the "will-call" doors (no line to speak of) and to the ticket booth windows. Sheldon, who worked at the Opryland ticket center when I did in the 1990s, smiles as she hands me my tickets. Shaq and I find our seats on the lower level, a few rows back under the balcony.

We sit down, and as I think, "let the music begin", I can also sense the ghosts of this venerable structure, just as I did back in December when I attended "Behold the Lamb of God" here. But it's no eerie feeling, and certainly not frightening. I'm referring to the ghosts of such great and gentle or big-hearted folk as Brother Sam Jones for whose evangelistic revivals this edifice was erected. And Capt. Tom Ryman, the hell-raising river boatman who came to a revival meeting to heckle Bro. Jones, got converted to the faith instead, and funded construction of the edifice. Oh, and then there's entertainers like Enrico Caruso of the golden operatic voice, and Hank Williams of the great country musical talent and the great drinking problem that cut him off too soon. And there's my favorite ghost: Minnie Pearl, the country-girl comedienne who all but choked up on-stage during the final Grand Ole Opry performance before the show moved out to its new home. Minnie doubtless accepted the "new" Opry House, but of all the cast who made the move, I feel that her spirit would be the one who'd most wish to return to the Ryman.

I'm writing all this with tongue firmly in cheek. I'm no Cowardly Lion; I don't believe in ghosts like that! But my active imagination loves the challenge and creativity of the "what if?" as much as any other mind game.

I don't have to play mind games for long. Shortly the curtain goes up and the music begins. Mike Terry, the deejay whose Ray Stevens song titles game -- wasn't I just referring to "mind games"? -- got me the tickets to the show, is opening announcer or emcee for the late Opry.

First artist is Mike Snyder, a banjo-playing comedian. And he tickles those strings and our ribs equally well and as well as always. He's followed by guest Darryl Worley. I'm not familiar with young Darryl, like I'm unfamiliar with most newer country music stars ("newer" than ten years in their claim to fame). However, he hits my "hot button" with his final offering, his song "Have You Forgotten". It's a call to America to remember that 9-11 was a heinous attack that launched a war that won't be over for some time due to the nature of our terrorist enemies. At the final note I'm on my feet applauding, along with most of the audience. WE haven't forgotten, even tho' the majority of voters in the last election did forget!

After young Darryl the performance goes the other way age-wise, as long-time Opry cast member Jack Green comes out, attired in a purple rhinestone blazer, and sings his old signature song "Statue of a Fool". Then it's truly age before beauty when venerable Jack is succeeded by guest Kathy Mattea. I've always liked Kathy and her songs, and even bo't her Christmas album some years back. I was hoping she'd sing my favorite, "Eighteen Wheels"; she doesn't but what she does sing, "Where've You Been", is quite acceptable and probably my second fave. She follows it with a new hit, one off her just-released album "Coal". Now dear reader, one can hardly sing songs about coal mining without going to bluegrass! And so Kathy goes there; I relish watching the bass player as his fingers work the strings of the acoustic upright behind Kathy. Band and singer present "The L & N Don't Stop Here Anymore", a minor-key lament about the ceasing of train service (the L & N or Louisville & Nashville RR) and demise of coal mining in a community. Beautiful song!

Then we're back to Opry cast, and its "first family" -- in the opinion of yours truly at any rate. These are The Whites. I love these Texans, especially piano-playing daddy Buck and daughter Sharon who is Mrs. Ricky Skaggs. The other singing members of the family are daughters Chryl and Rosie. Daddy Buck otta be proud of his trio of daughters!

The Whites give way to the man who's responsible, one might say, for my being there: Ray Stevens. (See my post of Thursday, 12 February, for how he's responsible.) He's best known, probably, for comical or novelty songs such as "Guitarzan" (the winning-ticket song), "The Mississippi Squirrel Revival" and "Shriners Convention". I actually prefer his more or less "serious" songs like "Misty" and "Everything Is Beautiful". But I don't mind at all that the hit that makes the biggest "hit" in the Ryman tonite is "The Streak". I'm both amused and fascinated to watch his gestures and movements during this, acting out the story of the song. If you're not acquainted with this it was a huge pop hit when I was a student at the University of Idaho and streaking flashed briefly across the landscape of our country (pun intended). Streakers would run naked thru public places, causing a great stir of embarrassment and excitement in the places streaked. Stevens sings of three interviews after streaking incidents, all three of which involve a reporter asking questions of a witness who's married to Ethel -- who at song's end goes streaking!

Then we're back to the ladies of the Grand Ole Opry, as Connie Smith, the "Rolls Royce of Country Music", comes out to sing. Now, she has a rich voice (hence the nickname), and I always like to listen to Connie, regardless of what she sings. And the night's performances conclude with the country-rock band Restless Heart.

While these last few artists are performing, Mike has been replaced at the emcee's podium by Eddie Stubbs. I clearly remember when Eddie came to Nashville to become a WSM deejay. I remember, because right away he commenced a Saturday morning show on "The Air Castle of the South" in which he presented all sorts of "trivia" about each song he put on the airwaves. "Trivia" isn't the best word; the facts he presented, such as who was playing what instrument or who pitched the song to the artist, are all appreciated by this country music lover. I quickly chose to call him the "fount of country music info"!

Because Eddie's focus is also on the traditional styles, he endeared himself all the more to me. And to top it off, once in awhile while doing emcee service on the Opry show he'd pick up a fiddle and join right in with whatever artist and band was on stage! He doesn't do so tonite, but he does from time to time gesture with his upraised hands for us in the audience to increase our applause. This reminds me of my very first visit to the Grand Ole Opry (in the early 1980s) and how the great Ernest Tubb, one of the "Four Pillars of the Opry", likewise gestured for more applause for other artists who were on stage during the portion of the show he was hosting.

As for this late show on Saturday the Fourteenth, I cannot contain my applause. It WAS a memorable experience indeed!

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