The Grand Ole Opry: A Transcendent Temple Of Music, Family & Tradition

The Grand Ole Opry
Courtesy Grand Ole Opry LLC
– The Grand Ole Opry
at Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, where it resided until 1974.
The Grand Ole Opry. Let the words resonate, its history and multitude of meanings wash over you. It’s very existence, for 95 years, has provided a musical hearth for generations of Americans and their families – and so many others – to gather ‘round. It’s all but impossible to quantify or qualify its reach and the millions upon millions it’s touched that’s grown exponentially for almost a century, but still pales in comparison to its sum. 
Through floods, economic crisis, picking up stakes and now pandemics, the Grand Ole Opry has far transcended its humble roots as a radio barn dance begun on Nov. 28, 1925 at Nashville’s National Life and Accident Insurance Company HQ with 77-year-old fiddle player Uncle Jimmy Thompson. With so many performances since, providing so many cultural, communal, spiritual and foot-stomping epiphanies, of course they transcend the temporal as well as any constraining definitions by those who claim to know.  
Just reciting the Opry’s performers, the core of the Opry’s DNA, takes on a holy sheen, even if comprised of both saints and sinners. Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Bob Wills, Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle, Minnie Pearl, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and legions of other old school legends who should have statues erected in their honor in town squares across the land. 
And all those inspired by hearing them after dialing into 650 AM WSM on Saturday nights from the heart of their family farm, shack, trailer or manse. This includes the likes of Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Patty Loveless, Charlie Daniels, John Prine and so many others who heard it, felt it and then started warbling. 
Yes, the Opry is steeped in tradition, but like any transcendent institution, that tradition evolved and changed and became richer and deeper with time. To read the wondrous Jeannie Seely, in conversation with Carly Pearce and Bill Anderson, describe how she had to fight for gender equality is part of our shared history. “Every time there would be a management change, I’d make an appointment, go in, lay out my whole story. Most of the time, what they alluded to was, ‘tradition.’ Nobody wanted to break that tradition. I finally came out as stark as saying, ‘You call it tradition, and I think it smells like discrimination.’” Her determination led to Seely becoming the first woman ever to host a segment at the Opry.
The Opry has had diversity on its stages for decades. “Through the years, [we’ve had] James Brown, the Pointer Sisters, Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick,” said Dan “Opry Dan” Rogers, the Opry’s EVP and GM (Page 10) who came up as an intern and also noted that Elvis Costello and John Fogerty also performed there. 
For the preternaturally talented Mickey Guyton (click here), playing the Opry in 2015 was a life-changing moment. “It was a blur,” she said, “so many emotions all at once. My family had come from Texas, they were in the wings. My label, friends, everyone had come for this moment – and I honestly don’t remember.” Though her performance remains foggy, the repercussion of that performance is eternal. “From that day, [The Opry] really rose up and loved on me. You look back and think about the tradition it holds, what continues to happen, it’s a family in the truest sense even more than an artist community.” 
“Family” is a word that comes up consistently whenever the Opry is discussed and it was used repeatedly by the likes of Keith Urban, Larry Gatlin, Patty Loveless and Chris Janson in their Opry Tributes (click here). 
Seely recounted the perfect example of just how much of a family the Opry is. “I remember when Johnny [Russell] lost his mother,” she said, “‘Some of you might think it’s strange that I would bury my mother this morning, but I’m here at the Opry tonight,’ he said, ‘Let me tell you, a time like this is when you need to be surrounded by people who love you and who care about you. No one cares any more about me than this family.’” The Opry’s continued vitality, relevance and influence on popular music and our culture is all the more incredible given its history and how its navigated this wretched pandemic. 
“We have a reach of 90 million streaming, 275 million smart phones. Every Android and Apple device,” Drew Reifenberger of Circle Media told Holly Gleason, this issue’s brilliant editor and writer whose love, knowledge and passion for the Opry (and so much other music) is unparalleled.  She notes that when Opryland Entertainment and Gray TV came together to launch Circle in January of this year, no one could’ve imagined the 95-year-old Grand Ole Opry would be Pollstar’s No. 1 streaming source since the chart launched in May.  
This special Opry 95th issue’s cover feature couldn’t be more on time with Luke Combs (click here for Q&A). Not only has he matured into a superstar over the last year with arena sell-outs and boffo streaming numbers but he let his emotions shine through  on the Opry stage upon getting the news of his membership.  “It was one of the biggest highlights of my career,” he said, “I just don’t really have the words to give it justice, you know?”