Finding The Sacred Bond From An Opry Pew
It was my first trip to Nashville, a college kid stringing for The Miami Herald. Like Dorothy in Oz, I’d come to the Emerald City where Fan Fair magically transformed the Fairgrounds into Livestock Barns filled with “booths” where country stars cheerfully signed autographs for well-wishers and performed label-oriented shows on the heat stroke-inducing blacktop of the attached speedway.
When John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, promoting a solo album about to come out, asked if I’d like to go to the Opry, I almost fell over. Acting cool, because Oz was one thing, but the Opry? Even growing up in the rock ‘n‘ roll capitol of the world (just ask Todd Rundgren, Bruce Springsteen or the ghost of Jane Scott), the Opry was mythic. I replied, “Yeah, that would be great.”
“Okay, I’ll leave your name at the back gate…”
Back gate? Drive on? Oh, whoa. Truly. Back when Fan Fair wasn’t the monolith that is CMA Music Fest, things were smaller scale and somehow more sparkly. There was nothing like Nashville back in the day; raise that statement to the power of 10 about the Opry.
Pulling up, the guard checked off my name, told me to park “over by TNN” and waved me through. Just like I was supposed to be there. Walking up the cobblestone sidewalk, crammed with people in short crinoline (they were Opry[square]Dancers), families prattling about the family gossip, a few hot girls with Mary Kay make-up and high hair looking for attention and more men in low heeled boots with instrument cases than I’d ever seen, it really was like going over the rainbow.
A whole world you couldn’t imagine unless you’d seen it. Checking in, they knew my name. I didn’t get it that day, but that’s the beauty of the Opry: once you’re there, you’re welcome. Take a program, find a seat, float down the halls and listen to all the singing and picking coming out of the dressing rooms.
Suddenly shy – and not wanting to bother the banjo-playing comic entertainer before he went on – I walked wide-eyed to the far side of the stage. Who played? I have no idea. So awestruck, I just kept turning around, looking at the ropes, the pulleys, the men in neckerchiefs waiting to go on, the men with oiled hair, pompadours, polyester suits biding their time.
A stagehand pointed at the curved wooden benches on risers on the back of the stage, nodded and smiled. I could sit there? Where people could see me? It was okay? He nodded again, and I slid into middle row. I’ve never performed on the Opry stage, never walked out there when someone I knew was playing. But sitting in that pew – and it was a pew, from the Ryman Auditorium brought over when they opened the much fancier Opryhouse – I understood something about the magic of being part of the family. Looking across a house band who played with all the biggest stars of whatever era they were existing in, you could see the faces, shiny and tilted up at that stage in pure rapture. Big star, nobody, comic, picker, it didn’t matter.
If Minnie Pearl used to tell the young’uns, “Just love’em and they’ll love you back,” she failed to mention what a pressure hose of appreciation these folks were. They came to embrace the music, to feel the rapture of being part of a tradition over half a century old. Yes, they might come more unwrapped for Dolly Parton than Mickey Gilley, but let me tell you, Porter Wagoner or Little Jimmy Dickens – blinding in their 100,000 watts of rhinestones evoked cheers just stepping onto the stage.
Seeing that kind of unconditional love? There’s nothing like it, and it’s as addictive to sit in those pews looking out as it is – most likely – to rock a stadium of 60,000, something I’ve felt at myriad monitor boards .
Being a good guest, I watched my friend make the crowd laugh. A leaf from Uncle Dave Macon’s tree and a close friend of Steve Martin, he understood tickling people in unlikely moments. When he finished his eight or so minutes, I got up and went searching for him.
An Opry vet, I seem to recall finding him inside Roy Acuff’s dressing room, the first one when you come off the Opry stage, reminiscing about something. Acuff hadn’t been so sure about those hippie kids when the Dirt Band came to Nashville to make Will The Circle Be Unbroken; lured to the studio – finally – when he heard the scruffy kids play, he’d grown quiet, then proffered, “Well, that’s nothing but country music.” Ahhhh, the way true pickers find common ground.
That revelatory attitude defines the Opry, where Margot Price is as welcome as Larry Gatlin, Molly Tuttle is as celebrated as Carrie Underwood and Mickey Guyton is embraced by Opry icon Jeannie Seely.
Nashville – don’t let anybody fool you – is a company town. Even the songwriters have become way more focused on “the process” than the creative expression; it’s a business after all.
Over the years I’ve lived here – longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my life – the Opry’s been a touchstone and a North Star. Confused, disheartened, worn down by justifications, it was always the place I could go, settle into one of those pews and know the magic would happen.
And with all the apps, social media, streaming and radio signals, there’s still nothing like it. When I got word Luke Combs – our cover – was being inducted, I made it a point to be there. Looking out at the crowd when they “made it official,” hearing the roar, the most central truth of all was on full display: those Opry stars are us, but with musical gifts.
They look cooler, write cooler, know how to work a stage and speak to feelings, falters or thrills we can’t quite express. When you see them out there – or the crowd responding – you know what a sacred bond the Opry is. And when Combs sang “This One’s For You” to the crowd, the Circle… the hallowed circle of wood taken from the Ryman and embedded in the Opry stage… is more than unbroken, it’s holding strong for generations to come.