Grand Ole Opry
Friday 20th June 2014
Titles are approximate
Brand New Day – Jeannie Sealey
You Can Lie – The SteelDrivers
Ghosts of Mississippi – The SteelDrivers
Tennessee Waltz – Jean Shepard
Ode to Billie Joe – Jeannie Sealey
Love Leaves No- Jim Ed Brown
Oh, I’m Ready – Bryan White
What I Already Know – Bryan White
Walk On – The Isaacs
Splendor of Heaven – The Isaacs
The Three Bells – Jim Ed Brown & The Isaacs
Bubba Garcia’s – Bill Anderson
Foggy Mountain Top- Jesse McReynolds
Okeechobee Wind – Jesse McReynolds
I Heard That Voice (Aisle 5) – Mo Pitney
Country – Mo Pitney
Too Country – Bill Anderson
(Yodel) -Riders In The Sky
Little Rock – Collin Raye
Galveston – Collin Raye
Boston (instrumental) – The Willis Clan
What You Gonna Do When The Power Is Gone – The Willis Clan
Red River Valley – Riders In The Sky
Happy Trails – Riders In The Sky
We knew virtually nothing about the Grand Ole Opry. Of course we knew its reputation, we had seen extracts of performances, we knew it was live radio, we knew it was a must-see event. But as far as we knew it was still in the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. It is in the winter too, but for most of the year it’s in its own huge purpose built theatre, and has been for decades. It’s a fifteen minute $25 high speed Interstate drive too, terrifyingly so coming back where the driver stayed on his cell phone the entire way, shouting in an African language I didn’t recognize, driving with one hand, except when he made a second call and when he picked his nose which was on a busy five lane section at 70 mph. They were both no hands moments.
Cascades: Gaylord Opry Resort
The ride out was mercifully normal though. When you get there, you have the Opry Mills, the biggest retail outlets mall I have ever seen. Literally miles of brand name shops all advertising alleged discounts of 30% to 50%. Yes, I know, they double the price then take 50% off. If you wish to avoid the massive food courts, you are advised to go to the neighbouring Gaylord Opry Resort, about a mile across the car parks in 93 degree heat. This is a hotel on the scale of the larger end of Las Vegas proportions, with waterfalls and gardens in its several lobbies. It’s bigger than many Las Vegas properties too with the added delight of no casino. They must not know that “gaylord” is the teenage homophobic insult in Britain, one which when thrown could mean a spell of “gender re-education”. Or maybe they do, because it’s not printed on the T-shirts, though it is printed on the napkins in the bar. That’s the only place in three weeks in America where someone blatantly tried to short change us $10 too. But the restaurant was good with traditional ludicrously large portions, and there was a free shuttle bus through the sudden thunderstorm back to the Grand Ole Opry itself.
When you book months in advance, you don’t know who is scheduled, but you don’t need to. There are twelve artistes, and quality and competence is guaranteed, whether the material is to your taste or not. As they’ve been doing this since 1925, they have a system, and changes between acts are instant and seamless. They have a warm up guy for twenty minutes before the show goes ON AIR, and then ten minutes of adverts from the sponsors on video screens.
The show is four thirty minute segments, each with a different sponsor, and pauses for adverts from the rich deep voice of Eddy Stubbs. Never have I heard such baloney delivered with such authority and so well. The curtain falls between segments. Each segment is bookended by an old style Oprey star (the host) who introduces the acts in the segment. There is an intermission between segment two and segment three.
Looking at the whole month, there are a lot of acts I’m familiar with, but this evening was mainly unfamiliar ranging to vaguely familiar. Checking amazon.co.uk afterwards revealed that these guys don’t sell in the UK. The format alternates between what I’d expected, older performers with even older jokes, middle ground (first hits in the late 1980s or 1990s) and with new up and coming artistes. Every time, the newer ones lifted the quality with their energy.
The first segment was hosted by Jeannie Sealey. You can feel that every one of these hosts is well-loved, and measures their Opry time in decades. The backing on Brand New Day was as expected, of the highest quality, though I thought the sound a little confused on the first number … but never later, where it was immaculate. Maybe her very raspy voice was the cause.
The SteelDrivers (iPhone)
She introduced the SteelDrivers, a bluegrass group who took centre stage, with the backing band departing. I rated the first song good, but the second, Ghosts of Mississippi as outstanding in every way. Fabulous stuff. Jean Shephard came on, they were obviously old friends and she joked (well) about her autobiography before doing Tennessee Waltz, a song one assumes was not getting its Oprey debut. The segment was bookended by Jeannie Sealey doing Ode to Billie Joe. Her rasping voice is a trademark and adds character, but as a major fan of the original, I thought the backing swamped the song. Too much going on.
Segment two was sponsored by Dollar General, and hosted by Jim Ed Brown, another with five and a half Opry decades beneath his belt. This is the kind of country I’m unfamiliar with. The deeply sincere sort. So Bryan White leaping on and leaping in to two energetic songs was great. This was much more the country rock end and more to my taste. The best bit of that segment was The Isaacs. This consists of a mother, two daughters and son band with another guy on packing case percussion in the first number. They accompanied themselves, with a gospel Walk On, then they reduced to just three … the daughters and son, for a hauntingly sung song about the Splendour of Heaven. Jim Ed Brown asked the four family members to join him for The Three Bells (aka Jimmy Brown) which he recorded in 1959, with his sisters, as The Browns. It was a number one Billboard hit. This is sentimentality at pastiche level, but it was so beautifully done by all, that it was my earworm all night.
Time for a restroom break. Plentiful facilities too. Bill Anderson hosted segment three, sponsored by Cracker Barrel Country Store (not Cracker Barrel cheese though the last song in the set, Too Country, was cheesy). His opening song was about a “Redneck Mexican” and called Bubba Garcia’s. The lyrics were very funny, and a woman came on to do a Speedy Gonzales style Rosita at the Cantina voice near the end. On the PC “how would you feel if you were sitting next to a Mexican” test, it failed, but it churned along nicely and you had to smile. He then introduced Jesse McReynolds and the All Virginia Boys, again accompanying themselves. Jesse is a star mandolin player, and the whole group are virtuosos. Foggy Mountain Top was shared vocals, then Okechobee Wind was a showcase instrumental, with everyone soloing. Classic oldtime bluegrass.
Mo Pitney (from his Facebook page)
Mo Pitney is twenty-one. Bill Anderson introduced him for his first Oprey performance, accompanied by his sister Holly Pitney on backing vocals. I genuinely think we just witnessed one of those “a megastar is born” moments. The first song was about shopping for Cheerios in Aisle Five and hearing the voice of an ex-girlfriend and running into her, Cheerios (embarrassingly) in hand. Brilliant lyric, funny, sad, endearing. But his voice lifted the roof off the place. He got an instant standing ovation, the only one of the evening. Every performer after him mentioned what a major impact he had made. Then he did a song called Country (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onVquVTogDQ) , which he said he wrote with Glenn Bulat and with Bill Anderson, who appears his mentor. Again, at that “a star is born” level. It is hard to go wrong with lyrics like:
Have you ever hitched a ride to Music City
Just to see an Oprey show?
I couldn’t find any albums (Curb Records) on sale in Nashville nor amazon, though. After another ovation for Mo Pitney, Bill Anderson intoned Too Country, a lyric which could equally be a Garrison Keillor pastiche on the whole genre.
Too country what’s that?
Is it too many pearls of wisdom under grandpa’s old hat?
Is it just too old fashioned, is it just too antique?
Is the question too strong, is the answer too weak?
Is the grace too amazing, is the steeple too tall?
Are there too many yes sirs, yes madams and how’re y’all
It was sincere.
The last segment was what I’d feared wrongly the show would be like. It was hosted by The Riders In The Sky in Roy Rogers costumes, except for the fiddle player who had lost his embroidered shirt. The lead singer was “Ranger Doug”. They bill themselves as a “music and comedy group.” The bass player, “Too Slim” even wore furry chaps (and a droopy moustache). The accordion player is Joey The Cowpolka King. I found that amusing, but not at Kinky Friedman levels. The first song sounded familiar from my childhood in Hopalong Cassidy garb, and was a yodel demonstration.
Collin Raye came up next, much more a rock ballad singer with percussive piano accompaniment than country to me. He did his 1993 hit, Little Rock at full power, then introduced his new tribute album to Glen Campbell Still On The Line – The Songs of Glen Campbell, and sang a forceful version of Galveston with full-on backing. Collin Raye reinforces the Atlantic divide on country: four Billboard number one country hits and most of the stuff available in the UK is as US imports. Still On The Line is only available in the UK as downloads.
The Willis Clan (Just the six)
Last? America’s Got Talent stars,The Willis Clan. Forget The Osmonds and The Jacksons. There are TWELVE of these kids. Only six sing and play at first, ranging from 22 (lead singer, fiddle) down to 16 (bodram, then drums) and 14 (double bass). The first Irish flavoured instrumental number from this Tennessee band had a Boston connected title and an Irish air. With twelve, you assume it’s a Catholic Irish air. Then a song with lyrics about What You Gonna Do When The Power is Gone, added the other six, ranging from two years old, then three upwards. And they all did a Riverdance bit, even the youngest. Utterly charming. But it also sounded great. They can all play.
Back to Ranger Doug and Pals for Red River Valley and Roy Rogers’ own Happy Trails. An excellent and varied evening. If I lived here, I’d try and catch the show on a regular basis.