Nashville, America’s country music capital, is a bustling city with fabulous restaurants and world-class entertainment. It also is a Mecca for musicians from all over the world.
Growing up in the Baby Boomer generation, we have seen country music evolve. Once considered the red-headed stepchildren of the entertainment industry, Nashville and country music not only have endured but are thriving. The popularity of ABC’s new hit show, Nashville, has created a whole new audience of country music fans and Nashville visitors.
The cornerstone of Nashville and country music is the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry began as a radio show back in the 1920s. It was a huge success right from the start, and with a rapidly growing fan base, it needed a place where fans could gather to watch the performers live.
In the early years the Opry had several homes in Nashville, but it wasn’t until 1943 that the Opry would settle in a permanent home at the Ryman Auditorium, a former religious meetinghouse. It stayed there for 31 years. No trip to see the Opry would be complete without starting at this location. With stained glass windows, the red-barn backdrop that sits on the stage, and decades of history and memorabilia that are displayed, the Ryman gave me chills. The history of the meetinghouse actually is a century deep. Presidents spoke here. Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan lectured here. Even Charlie Chaplin and Harry Houdini took to this stage. But, the Opry left perhaps the most indelible mark—during the years that the Grand Ole Opry resided at the Ryman, countless country superstars graced its stage.
The Opry became so popular that eventually it outgrew the Ryman. In 1974 the Opry moved nine miles away to a brand new building, the Grand Ole Opry House. Keeping in touch with its beginnings (and honoring the stage from which it emerged), a 6-foot circle of oak was cut from the Ryman’s stage and inlaid into the center of the new stage at the Grand Ole Opry House. That’s the thing about the Opry; in an ever-changing world, the place holds true to honor and tradition. Today’s performers stand on the very same wood on which so many country legends once performed. Whether or not you are a fan of country music, the history and tradition of country music is fascinating.
The best way to experience today’s Opry is on a behind-the-scenes, backstage tour. This tour gives you a real feel for what the Grand Ole Opry is all about. The guides are passionate about the Opry and share wonderfully heartwarming stories—not only about the building, but also about things that most ordinary fans don’t get to see.
When you take one of the private tours, you enter the building through the same door that the performers do, walk through the very same reception area where they are greeted upon their arrivals, and see where they pick up their fan mail. Then you walk backstage, to the dressing rooms. After a devastating 2010 flood that damaged most of the building, the dressing rooms were restored and decked-out in a theme honoring greats such as Minnie Pearl, Porter Wagoner, Jimmy Dickens, and Roy Acuff. If only the walls could talk.
The tour also takes you out onto the stage, where you get to stand in the center of that wooden circle. Here, I could only imagine what it must feel like to be a part of something so incredible and historic. Also, as I gazed out into the sea of empty seats, I realized that in just a few short hours, this very room would be alive with applause.
Viewfinder Tip: Keep your eyes peeled in Nashville; you never know when you might see one of your country music favorites around town.
What impressed me the most about what goes on during the night of a show is that there is no pomp or circumstance, no fancy performance riders with extreme requests for a particular color of jelly bean. At the Opry, you leave your diva attitude at the door. Everyone gets paid the same. An Opry concert is more like a family reunion backstage than a bunch of individual stars clamoring for the spotlight. It is refreshing. There’s a family room where everyone gathers before a show. Many of the performers live in Nashville and drive themselves to the Opry. It is just that simple. It is an authentic experience—the stars are honored to be there, and you get the feeling they are glad you’re there too.
Overall, my tour of the Opry was one of the most memorable tours I ever have taken. The tour gave me a unique perspective for my first show at the Grand Ole Opry House that night. The curtain went up, the stage was full with all of the folks that would perform. There was an announcer. There were square dancers. There was a band. There were country superstars old and new. I was there, in the moment, soaking up every song, dance and captivating moment. For an instant this New York City gal had gone country, through and through.