This post was written in partnership with the Grand Ole Opry.
It was December of 2000 and my parents were visiting me for the first time since I’d moved to Nashville. As newcomers to the Nashville tourism scene, they’d dutifully booked tickets to see the Grand Ole Opry, and I was reluctant to go with them. I wasn’t a country music fan, you see, not by a long stretch, and so that night I resigned myself to sitting through the show for the sake of my parents.
What happened next was one of the great musical surprises of my life.
The curtains opened and the colorful spectacle that is the Grand Ole Opry began as a parade of musicians at all ages and stages took to the stage. Legends like Little Jimmy Dickens and Bill Anderson played their hits from yesteryear. Wide-eyed newcomers like Chalee Tennison earnestly belted out their new singles. World-class bass and banjo and fiddle and guitar and mandolin players all performed with breathtaking skill. I realized that night for the first time that there was more to country music than the twang I fumbled past on the radio — I heard songs that could be classified as folk, Americana, and bluegrass that night and I liked them. In fact, I liked them a lot.
The most memorable part of that night, though, came at the end of the evening, when a young man in a cowboy hat walked out on stage. Screams erupted in the audience and in a panic, I looked for the nearest exit and prepared to make a break for it. Before I could move, a stampeding herd of women rushed down the aisles to the stage, waving their arms and shrieking like a pack of coyotes at midnight.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Brad Paisley is with us tonight,” Opry announcer Keith Bilbrey intoned. The crowd went wild. I’d never heard of the guy, but I could feel by the electricity in the audience that I was witnessing something– and someone– special.
For this and so many other reasons, it was a night I will never, ever forget.
I have the Opry to thank for my introduction to classic country music and bluegrass — It’s a love affair that continues to this day and has led me to countless dive bars and churches and small town clubs to listen to some of the best artists and musicians you’ve never heard of. I’ve been to see the Grand Ole Opry several times since that first night and have left every single time exhilarated and inspired and eager to hear more from yet another artist I’d never heard of until that night. I recommend the Grand Ole Opry now to everyone who asks me what they should do while in Nashville, and I always assure them they’ll love it, even if they’re not typically country music fans. I am so confident about this, in fact, that I put my theory to the ultimate test by taking my 12-year-old daughter and two of her friends to see the Grand Ole Opry a few weeks ago.
We made an afternoon of it by going first to the Gaylord Opryland Resort for a boat ride around the Magnolia Atrium…
…and a phenomenal meal of burgers (for them) and sushi (for me) at Cascades American Cafe.
I have eaten at Gaylord Opryland Resort several times in the past and not been all that impressed with the food. Let me tell you, they have stepped up their game since the last time I was there. The burgers and fries were FANTASTIC — soooo much better than they’ve ever been here before. In fact, this burger and fries now rivals those of the best burger joints I’ve been to in Nashville. No joke.
With very full bellies, we walked from the hotel over to the Grand Ole Opry House.
The girls were excited, but I have to admit, I was a little nervous about whether they’d enjoy the show. They weren’t country music fans, after all, and the program generally runs nearly three hours. Could it possibly hold the attention of three pop music-loving 12 year old girls for that long?
We would soon find out!
The show got underway and the girls were mesmerized. We had talked a bit ahead of time about the Opry’s history — the fact that it’s been on the radio since the 1920s and still follows the same general format today. In fact, it’s now the longest-running radio musical program in history. This fast-paced format meant that each artist generally sings just two songs, which ended up being perfect for the attention spans of tweens — and for me, as well!
On this night, Opry alum Connie Smith took the stage first, followed by Aaron Tippin, who sang his hit Kiss This accompanied by his wife and son on backup vocals. This was a nice surprise for me– Years ago, I interviewed Tippin about the song and wrote about the story behind it for CMT’s 100 Greatest Country Music Videos.
Next up was Del McCoury, one of my absolute favorite musicians in Nashville. He’s an Opry regular, and his voice will give you chills.
Sam Palladio and Charles Esten from the popular TV show Nashville each took a turn on stage, as well as the fabulous Opry dancers– The girls particularly loved the dancers. Then, Opry old-timer Bill Anderson sang a hit he wrote for Roy Drusky back in the 1960s — it was a silly song called Peel Me a ‘Nanner. This was followed by another of my favorite Nashville bands: Riders in the Sky.
On this night, they sang a song from Toy Story 2— They won a Grammy for the album they created for the movie back in 2001. The girls were surprised and THRILLED by this unexpected performance straight from one of their favorite movies.
But the biggest surprise of the night was still to come. Right in the middle of the show, it was announced that an unscheduled guest would be making an appearance.
It was Opry superstar Randy Travis, making one of his first public appearances since a stroke three years ago nearly killed him. Travis received a long and emotional standing ovation from the crowd.
After several more appearances by artists like Jesse McReynolds, Mark Wills and William Michael Morgan, the incomparable Ricky Skaggs closed out the show. The curtain closed and the girls were ebullient, excitedly discussing the musicians and the dancers and the performances and the surprise appearance from Randy Travis. It was late, but we had scheduled a backstage tour — which I’ll write more about in an upcoming post — and they were still raring to go.
We didn’t head home until 11pm. I thought the girls would be exhausted, but they spent much of the ride home singing Peel Me a ‘Nanner at the top of their lungs. Bill Anderson would have been so proud. The Opry had worked its magic on them the same way it did on me nearly 17 years ago, revealing a wealth of styles and sounds within the genre of country music, as well as a rich cultural history that could make us all grateful to call Nashville home.
I’d recommend the Grand Ole Opry to anyone EXCEPT those of you with younger children. The show is long and little ones who have trouble sitting still will have trouble getting through it. Older children will enjoy the show, and it really does provide a wonderful introduction to country music and how it all began here in Nashville.
As for those of you here in Middle Tennessee, if you’re not going anywhere this Spring Break, consider planning a big night out at the Grand Ole Opry with your family as a special treat. If you want to make it even more memorable, spring for a night at the Gaylord Opryland Resort as well — You’ll feel like you’re on vacation. We have mini-getaways at Opryland from time to time and always have so much fun.
You never know who you’re going to see on that Opry stage — I’d love to hear your Opry experiences if you’d like to share them!