This past weekend I was in Nashville for the Grand Ole Opry's 87th birthday celebration. Not to start off on a negative note, but I have been attending the birthday shows every year since the late 1980s, and I have to state that overall, this was the worst weekend of shows that I can remember. In the past, the birthday celebrations have had some of the strongest line-ups of the year, with a majority of the Opry's members present and all shows with a full line-up of stars. While the birthday shows the past several years have had a smaller number of Opry members than in the past, the quality of the shows were still good. But this year, I believe that the Opry hit an all time low. Now for a recap:
The weekend started on a high note as on Thursday, Opry Country Classics took place at the Ryman Auditorium. The Ryman was about two-thirds filled and the line-up consisted of John Conlee, Mandy Barnett, Jim Glaser, Rhonda Vincent, T.G. Sheppard and Crystal Gayle. The show was excellent and all the artists were in fine form. To me, the highlight of the night was Jim Glaser. He did 3 songs, including "Loving Her Was Easier" and "Woman, Woman", which I had forgotten that he co-wrote. He was in fine form and received the only standing ovation of the night. After being gone for a while, Jim has been making more Nashville appearances lately and it was good to see him. With the exception of Crystal Gayle, who had her own band, all of the acts used the staff band.
The Friday Night Opry had a full house and I thought the show was the best of the 3 Opry shows this past weekend. Ricky Skaggs started the show, as he did each of the weekend shows, by playing "Tennessee Wagoner", the 1st song that was played by Uncle Jimmy Thompson on November 28, 1925, at 8:00pm, in what the Opry recognizes as it's start. After that, John Conlee came out and hosted the 1st segment. His guests were Tyler Farr, one of the newcomers and Jean Shepard. Some have commented to me how frail Jean has looked lately and I have to say that I agree with those comments. She looks like she has aged some and she walked somewhat slowly. She sounded fine and was very animated on stage. The 2nd segment was hosted by Jimmy Dickens and at the age of 91, he looked and sounded pretty good. Jesse McReynolds and Jaida Dreyer were his guests and Jesse was good. Jaida is another of the new artists and was well received. After intermission, Steve Wariner hosted. Steve had dressing room #1 for the night and he brought on George Hamilton IV, Connie Smith and Kelleigh Bannen. George IV and Connie did their usual fine jobs, while Kelleigh was also good. The last segment had Jim Ed Brown hosting, with Jan Howard and Rodney Atkins. Rodney was the best received artist of the night and he had the house rocking. The show ended with the cake coming out, with stage hands pushing it out while Jim Ed played Happy Birthday.
Saturday night's 1st show, in my opinion, was a train-wreck. To start off with, only 10 artists were scheduled for the show, and that was quickly down to 9 as Bill Anderson posted on his facebook page that he had to cancel out after becoming ill during the afternoon rehearsal. I felt bad for Bill as he was on vacation and came back early specifically to do the televised portion of the show. While I was hoping there would be a last minute replacement for Bill, there was not and nothing was mentioned about Bill to the Opry audience. As with Friday night, the show was sold-out and Ricky Skaggs started off the show, followed by the Square Dancers with Earl White. Jimmy Dickens came out to host and The Whites were his only guest. Jimmy still sounded strong and The Whites did their usual good job. Riders In The Sky hosted the next segment, with Mallory Hope doing "Ring of Fire", followed by Ray Stevens, with his full stage band and back-up singers. Ray looked and sounded good and did 2 numbers, with the 1st song being a new one about airline travel and the 2nd being "Everything Is Beautiful". Ray has a deep catalog and I would have preferred Ray doing another of his hits instead of a new song that will never get played on radio, and might not even get recorded. Then it was time for the television hour, hosted by Nan Kelly of GAC. Jason Aldean kicked it off, and the rock concert was underway. The volume level in the house was way up, and while many of the older fans did not appreciate it, the younger fans who sold-out the place absolutely enjoyed him. Casey James was next up and kept the noise level going. Steve Wariner used Bill Anderson's band for "Tip of My Fingers" and was great. I don't think that song made it to tv. After Steve, Jason and Casey were back. During the commerical breaks for television, the Opry Staff Band played a couple of numbers and the Opry audience saw the same video clips that were shown on GAC, with the various artists talking about the Opry. The cake came out, with only Jason, Casey, Steve, and Ricky Skaggs out on stage. Nan's auditorium mic was not on so the audience did not hear the introduction of the cake, which was rolled out by a couple of stage hands. For the 2 hour show with 9 acts, we received 17 songs. And as with anytime the Opry televises and hour of a two hour show, the televised hour seemed very detached from the 1st hour of the show.
With a 2nd show to start 30 minutes after the 1st show, the Opry House staff was hustling to get the sell-out crowd out and another near sell-out crowd in. In fact, there was such a rush to get the 2nd show people in that the staff at the door did not even scan the tickets. You just had to hold it up. I wonder how many were holding up tickets to the 1st show and just went on in? They did have a fenced off area for the ticket holders and some of those people were scanned, so they made an effort. With Bill cancelling out, there were 11 acts on the 2nd show, with Jim Ed Brown, Jimmy C Newman and Bobby Osborne joining those from the 1st show, with The Whites not scheduled. From the 11, we got 20 songs, with Jimmy C and Bobby Osborne, the Opry veterans, only doing 1 song each. As with the 1st show, everyone did a fine job, and the volume level was again turned up when Jason Aldean and Casey James performed. Riders In The Sky hosted the final segment in place of Bill Anderson, who was not replaced with another artist.
As I mentioned before I left, to have only 9 acts on a birthday show, with only 5 Opry members, is discouraging. And that is what we got for the 1st show on Saturday. While I realize that they days of having 20 per show is gone, Pete Fisher could have done better for the birthday weekend. It is supposed to be the highpoint of the year, and it is treated more and more like another weekend. Yes there was the cake and televison, and the plaza activities, and it did sell all of the tickets, but it just didn't have that special feeling to it. I know I left thinking that maybe I just won't be back for the 88th birthday next year, but like last year, by the time I got home I was already checking on ticket availability for next years show, which will again be the 1st weekend in October.
On a final note, I think all of us remember when the Saturday Grand Ole Opry was the most important show of the week. The Friday Night Opry was considered not as important as the Saturday night shows, and many of the artists did not do the Friday Night Opry. The weekday shows that were done when Opryland was open, were much like the Tuesday Night Opry is today, with 8 or so artists scheduled. But now, it seems like the Tuesday Night Opry is becoming the big show of the week. We have seen much stronger line-ups on Tuesday night, with more star power than the weekend shows. Loretta Lynn's 50th anniversary was on a Tuesday night, and when the Opry House re-opened after the flood a few years back, it was on a Tuesday. The upcoming Minnie Pearl tribute show is scheduled for a Tuesday night. And the induction of Darius Rucker as the Opry's newest member is taking place on a Tuesday night. I realize that many of the Opry's members are doing tour dates on the weekends and it is probably easier to get some of them to come out to the Opry on a Tuesday night instead of a Friday or Saturday. But I just hate to lose the tradition and importance of the Saturday night show. While I am glad that some of the Opry's bigger names are taking advantage of the Tuesday Night Opry, management needs to make sure that the Saturday Grand Ole Opry maintains it's spot as the relevant Opry show each week.