Proximity to Nashville was a major perk of working at Amazon last autumn. The two touristy things I really wanted to do were to visit both the old and new homes of the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry was housed from 1943 to 1974 in the Ryman Auditorium (aka the Grand Ole Opry House and The Mother Church of Country Music). This new facility at Opry Mills opened in 1974, although Opry at the Ryman is still held for three months each winter at the original location. All of the big names in country music vie for stage time here, and it is a rare privilege to be invited to become a member.
Backstage daytime tours ($24 + tax) were scheduled every 15 minutes the weekend I was attended during the Christmas season, and about 30 of us gathered outside the side door, met by an enthusiastic young woman who walked us through the building backwards. That is, she walked backwards at a fast clip, talking the whole time while pointing out highlights and artifacts. We passed another group in the auditorium, and were exited into the gift shop within 45 minutes.
A favorite stop near the side door where the stars enter is the Post Office with its old-timey glass-fronted mail boxes, some stuffed with fan mail. The opposite wall held plaques with each member of the Grand Ole Opry. Names I recognized were instantly recognizable, such as the Dixie Chicks, Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton and Garth Brooks.
We were invited to tour each of the themed dressing rooms (our guide said not many tours get to see inside them all), some named after Opry legends like Roy Acuff and Little Jimmy Dickens. Many of the walls wore stenciled quotes like this from Alan Jackson “That’s what makes you so nervous – to think about the historical part of the Opry and how it’s played such a part in country music.”
When the Cumberland River flooded its banks in May 2010, a good sized portion of Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry House were under water. The photo shows an iron bar commemorating the flood line, level with this woman’s shoulder. We were treated to Christmas chocolates here before moving onto the great stage.
The famed wooden star’s circle taken from Ryman Auditorium was below water, along with the entire stage and first floor seating areas. The wooden disk was salvaged and built into the stage floor once more during renovation. You can just make out the edge of the circle here, although the stage had been covered with a thick black mat for a seasonal run of The Grinch. We were all encouraged to have our photos taken in the circle, in front of the large WSM-AM microphone. Photos were available for purchase at the exit, and a few folks had dressed up in their Western wear for their family Christmas card.
In the tradition of the Opry, church pews covered in pink velvety material made a unique theatre experience where the Grand Ole Opry is still broadcast every Saturday night at 7 pm central time. Growing up watching the Opry in black & white, it was neat to see how it had evolved over the years, while retaining a lot of American country music’s earliest traditions and roots.