Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 22, 2023

My Take: Long-overdue Opry visit a true Music City delight

 At intermission, a tall, slim fellow in a camo baseball cap grinned as he walked by, no doubt seeing the smile that had been perched on my face pretty much all evening.

“You enjoying it?” he asked. I told him I was.

“Right on,” he said, extending a fist for me to bump in anonymous solidarity. “Great stuff.”

Why, I found myself wondering, had it taken 33 years since I first rolled into Nashville to make it to the Grand Ole Opry? OK, I was gone for most of that time, but still. There’d been plenty of opportunities.

And the fact is, if a former New York newspaper colleague of Kayne’s hadn’t planned a Nashville visit to check the Opry off her bucket list and invited us to come along, I probably still wouldn’t have been there. This even though, in a 2019 column for this paper, I vowed to “Think about going to the Grand Ole Opry.”

I hadn’t thought about it. It wasn’t on my bucket list.

As noted in another column recently, country music is not my thing. And while I’ve visited several other local music venues large and small over the decades – among them the Ryman, the Station Inn, 3rd & Lindsley, the Bluebird Cafe, 328 Performance Hall and, most recently, Springwater to see a friend play – I was reluctant to go to a place where the entire audience might be singing along to songs I’d never even heard. By artists I’d never heard of.

Turns out that’s not such a bad thing.

I should have gone before anyway. Living in Nashville without seeing the Opry is like living in New York and not taking in a Broadway play. Living in Paris without visiting the Louvre. Living in New Orleans and not eating at … well, fill in the blank. Commander’s Palace. Brennan’s. Mother’s. The list goes on.

Which is to say, the Opry is a cultural touchstone for Nashville. Like the Ryman and some of the other music venues mentioned above, and very unlike the more recent profusion of blaring honky tonks on Lower Broad and environs.

And it’s world famous. On the night we were there, the WSM emcee welcomed a couple of people from Norway, along with a woman celebrating her 85th birthday, a guy celebrating his 80th and various couples marking various marital anniversaries.

They picked an especially good night for it. As did we, quite by accident. Our party of four had attached no special significance to the date, Sept. 12. We attach it now. We’d arrived on the 20th anniversary of the death of Johnny Cash, which the Opry marked with a memorial show.

Even people who don’t much care for country music would be hard-pressed to say no to an evening like that. Including me. Cash is the answer when I’m asked who’s the most famous person I’ve ever met. It was 1991, at his home. I was on assignment for The Tennessean.

“Hello,” he said, as we shook hands. “I’m Johnny Cash.” At least that’s what my memory insists, and that’s the version I tell.

The night of tributes included some people we did know of – the Gatlin Brothers, Rodney Crowell – and a lot we didn’t, but are now glad we do. That list included John Carter Cash, a Johnny son, and Thomas Gabriel, a Johnny grandson. They did the man proud.

Not every song was related to the honoree. The Gatlins, to perhaps no one’s surprise, opened the evening with “All the Gold in California.” But there were plenty of Johnny classics, including three versions of “I Walk the Line,” which I’m here to tell you is not too many. It was fun to hear three singers limboing their voices down to Man in Black depths.

Other familiar offerings included “Ring of Fire,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Jackson” and “Daddy Sang Bass.” And the man himself made an appearance via video from his ’60s TV show, singing “Orange Blossom Special” and WAILING on not one but two harmonicas. He had serious chops. (Apparently, nobody thought “A Boy Named Sue” would fit the bill, gender confusion being a delicate topic these days.)

Among the non-Johnny highlights was a rendition of “Buy Me a Boat” (which I’d never heard) by Chris Janson (who I’d never heard of). Of course, the audience sang along. Janson’s whole high-energy segment, which closed the show, was great fun. He’s got chops, too.

So, yeah, as Opry first timers we struck gold. I’m in debt to Kayne’s former colleague, Carol, and her husband, Rich, for nudging me out of my inertia. I’ve retroactively put the Opry on my own bucket list. And happily checked it off.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.