– Carly Pearce
Carly Pearce, with four CMA Awards nominations for New Artist, Song, Vocal Event and Video of the Year for “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” has a reverence for the Opry that extends well before her years playing Dollywood, dreaming of country fame. A Saturday night regular, the 30-years-young country phenom was the perfect person to explore the origins and evolution of the Opry with octogenarian icons “Whispering Bill” Anderson and red-hot Jeannie Seely, both half-century veterans of the Grand Ole Opry.
Anderson, a member of the Country Music, Songwriters, Nashville Songwriters, Georgia and South Carolina halls of fame, has been a songwriting force – as well as innovative businessman – since getting his start in the ‘50s. Beyond his own career, he took home the CMA and ACM Song of the Year Award in 2005 (“Whiskey Lullabye” by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss) and 2007 (“Give It Away” by George Strait); both songs were also Grammy nominees.
Jeannie Seely, known for her soul/blues vocals, remains a one-woman country revolution. From the moment she arrived in her miniskirt at the Opry, singing the enduring “Don’t Touch Me,” her spirit, passion and incredible talent made her a woman to watch in country music. With a quick wit that’s made her one of the most in-demand performers in the genre, her 2020 An American Classic offers another exemplary collection of songs.
Carly Pearce: What was the Opry like when you both started first playing there?
Jeannie Seely: Well, Bill, you were there first, so…
Bill Anderson: [laughs] The Opry has always been the Opry, and yet it’s certainly gone through a lot of changes. It was at the Ryman, which was not in the greatest of shape back in those days. It was not air-conditioned. The heat in the winter was sorely lacking. Although the acoustics in the building were great, it relied on natural acoustics to give it that great sound. People lined up around the corner, down the street, and all the way down Broadway to get in. They didn’t have two shows on a Saturday night. There was one show, but people would leave and then there would be a couple of empty seats, so they’d let somebody else come in. One of the biggest differences back then is people came to the Opry just because it was the Opry. It was not artist-driven. It was Fred and Alberta, gettin’ up in the morning in Cincinnati and saying, “Let’s drive to Nashville to the Opry. ‘Well, who’s on?’ Well, it doesn’t matter. It’s gonna be a great show, it’s the Opry.”
Pearce: What remained the same? What are the big changes?
Seely: The Grand Ole Opry is the one thing that’s consistent in a lot of our lives in country music. And I love people like you, Carly, coming in, who have reverence for the Opry and what it stands for. When Bill and I came in in the ‘60s, I saw where the radio and television exposure showed in the Opry audience. The change is even moreso now, because young artists like you coming in, not only with radio and television, but the internet. People want to see people they see and hear on these outlets.
Anderson: The Opry spirit is the same – backstage with the entertainers and all. Yet, it transcends to the audience, too, in a way the Opry spirit is one of family, of cooperation. All of us are part of the show, but the star is the Grand Ole Opry. The internet and the potential audiences we have now! When I come home from the Opry, I’ve got email from somebody in Australia telling me they were having lunch on Sunday listening. And in Finland, a guy said, “You know, I’m having my breakfast and my morning coffee, listening to you guys on the Opry…” That is an amazing thing. When I came to the Opry, it was on clear-channel WSM. We covered 30 states, 35 states.
Seely: I remember something Ernest Tubb said to me. “One thing I want you to remember: when you’re out there on the road, that’s your show. But when you come into the Grand Ole Opry, you’re a part of this one.”
Pearce: Jeannie, you were the first woman to host a segment on the Opry, that’s just the coolest thing. How important was getting that done?
Seely: My early career was in banking and it was devastating to learn women didn’t have credit on their own. If a couple divorced – if she was the one who worked, signed checks, paid utilities and the house payment, when the divorce was granted, he walked away with the credit. She had none. So going back, I’ve fought for women’s rights, and not just heralding women, but the right thing to do. I saw it at the Opry. When I talked to Mr. Whittaker about it, I felt with only men – if I’m sitting in the audience – if it’s only men up there getting to say anything, I just wanna say, “Does anybody know I bought a ticket? I’m here.” I wanna hear the girls say somethin.’ Then as an artist, to be told, “You can’t do that, because you’re a female” made no sense. I felt like we were ignoring 50 percent of our audience, and missing out on a good portion of our talent and what they had to offer.
Pearce: Listening as you’re talking, I’m thinking I got to intro the woman who is allowing me to stand there and do that! That’s really awesome. So what did it take?
Seely: Well, a long time. [laughs] I’m trying to think how many managers I went through. 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,” [laughs] To me, always try to get something to change by trying to get somebody to look at another side of it. But Whittaker, I think the reason he understood more, is he had managed Opryland Park before the Opry. At all of their production shows, everybody had a microphone, a song, a chance to speak.
Pearce: Were either of you there the night President Nixon played the Opry? Was he better as a piano player or with a yo-yo?
Seely: Yes, I was there! I made the front page of the newspaper the next day, because he talked about not only could I sing, but about my outfit. That’s when I had the bare midriff. [laughs] That Shania Twain look that I did in the ‘70s!
– Bill Anderson
Anderson: There were two great lines I will always remember. One after President Nixon came onstage and did the yo-yo, and piano, the next artist that came out to sing – ’cause the show stopped when he came out – was Jan Howard, my former duet partner and a great singer. Jan followed the President of the U.S., and she walked onstage and said, “I wouldn’t give this spot to a dry cleaner,” which was great. One of the most memorable things was standing on stage – and there are pictures of it hanging backstage at the Opry, where we’re standing there like a big choral group and President Nixon and Mr. Acuff were out on the front part of the stage. I was next to Ernest Tubb; I turned and said, “Ernest, did you ever think you would live to see the day that the President of the United States would come to the Grand Ole Opry?” He looked at me, and he said, “‘No, but I wish it was a different President.”
Pearce: Do you have a favorite Opry memory?
Anderson: When I was 14, my mom and dad brought me and my sister to Nashville to the Grand Ole Opry, because I had always wanted to go. The Opry was owned by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. Dad had some connections through the insurance business and got pretty good seats downstairs, under the balcony on the right-hand side of the auditorium. We were packed in like sardines. My mom, in honor of the occasion, bought a beautiful new pink dress. I can see it now. She was so proud and looked so pretty. In those days, the Ryman was in pretty bad repair. Somebody sitting upstairs over us spilled a soft drink, a Coke or RC Cola, on the floor. It leaked through the floorboards, onto my mom’s new pink dress. She couldn’t move to her right or left and was sitting there as that soft drink dripped down into her lap. I felt so sorry for her. About that time, Carl Smith came onstage; he was one of the big Opry stars, a handsome, good-looking devil. He had on a white suit and a red tie. And when my mama took a first look at Carl Smith, she didn’t care how many Cokes spilled on her lap. [laughs]
Pearce: That’ll make it all better.
Anderson: The Grand Ole Opry, and she could’ve cared less! Years later, I told Carl Smith that story. I said, “I believe my mama would’ve gone home with you that night and left all of us.” And he looked at me as only Carl Smith could, and said, “Your mama had really good taste.”
Pearce: Did either of you ever go to Tootsie’s after a show at the Ryman?
Seely: Woo-hoo! Yeah.
Anderson: After the show, or during the show? [laughs]
Seely: Or before, during and after…
Anderson: Me and George Hamilton IV were the Opry squares. We went down to Linebars. While the rest of ‘em were at Tootsie’s drinkin’ beer, we were at Linebars eating ice cream.
Pearce: [laughs] That would have been me.
Seely: Some good songs, song ideas and everything, came from there, too.
Pearce: What makes the Opry the Opry?
– Jeannie Seely
Seely: I think it’s the greatest show there is. Aside from that, it’s family. Johnny Russell said it best when he said, “These are the people. They may be your peers, they may be your competition, but they are the ones who know your feelings better than anybody else.” I have one birth sister, but I have so much more in common with my Opry sisters, my country music sisters, than I did with my real sister because she was very shy. She could never have imagined, “Oh, Jeannie, how can you walk out in front of 5,000 people?” While I’m like, “How can you stay home with two kids?!” [laughs] I remember when Johnny lost his mother. He 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.”
Anderson: In the early days, especially, it was us against them. In the beginning, country music people, musicians and artists and songs and singers, we were the vast minority. We were always looking for that little bit of respect, or that little bit of something we could latch onto. That drew us closer, because it was a mentality of us against the world.
Pearce: How do you feel when you’re getting ready to go out onto the Opry stage? I still feel like I’m gonna throw up.
Anderson: Minnie Pearl told me one time, standing on the side of a stage of an Opry show that had gone out on the road when she was getting ready to go on, “Bill Anderson, do you think we will ever get to the point where we’re not nervous before we go onto a stage?” I looked at her, “Don’t tell me Minnie Pearl is nervous!” She said, “No, I’m not really nervous, but I get butterflies.” She looked at me, “But you know what? If you don’t get a few butterflies, it doesn’t mean as much to you as it should.”
Seely: I get excited. I wanna go out there. Several years ago, I realized, “Jeannie, it’s not about you at all. It’s about them.” My focus when I walk from that center backstage, “I’m going out there. My goal is to try to make them laugh or at least smile.” If it’s a ballad that brings out emotions, see them being drawn into that. I wanna make them happy, and I wanna make them so glad they came. I learned a long time ago, if an earring bothers you, take it off. Don’t worry about anything going wrong. Just focus on them. If you make a mistake, they’re not gonna criticize you. Just laugh, and they’re gonna laugh, too. If you’re upset, don’t let them know, because nobody bought a ticket to be upset. They just wanna have a good time.
Pearce: I look at both of you as Opry royalty. You are the people I would love one day for the next generation to see me as. Any advice?
Seely: Being in our neighborhood, I see you coming in with your guitar, knowing you’ve been writing. To me, your work ethic says it all. You’ve not been an overnight success, and you know the value of hard work. And because you’ve had to work for it, you have a better appreciation. You’re gonna see that in other people, so that’s gonna help you on into the future.
Anderson: Maybe the greatest line is what Mr. Acuff told Minnie Pearl when Minnie was first starting at the Opry. She was nervous and scared. Mr. Acuff looked at Minnie, and said, “Minnie, just go out there and love ‘em, and they’ll love you back.”