By Carol Cowan
It’s the longest-running live radio show in history. It’s the show that made country music famous.
It’s the Grand Ole Opry, and it’s been a Nashville legend since the 1920s.
The iconic country music show draws folks from all over the world to Nashville every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday night, while millions more tune in to its live radio and television broadcasts.
Featuring country, bluegrass and gospel music, clogging and comedy, rising stars and revered legends, a Grand Ole Opry performance provides reason enough to venture to Music City, and in fact, is a must-see for any visitor to Nashville. But to do the Grand Ole Opry right, visitors should also make plans to experience all the attractions that put the significance of the star-studded show in context. Once you’ve toured the backstage hallways, stood in the Opry “circle,” visited the historic Ryman Auditorium and heard the stories behind the music, you’ll understand why country music’s mega stars regard the Opry stage as holy ground and Opry membership, the pinnacle of success.
The Grand Ole Opry, originally known as the WSM Barn Dance, hit the airwaves in November 1925 with the fiddling of 80-year-old Uncle Jimmy Thompson. When announcer George D. Hay contrasted the weekly broadcast of down-home string music to the grand opera that had aired just before, he said, “And now we will present the Grand Ole Opry.” That was 1927, and the name stuck.
The radio show proved so popular that people crowded the halls of the station to watch the musicians perform. After several moves to accommodate the growing live audience, the Opry took up residence at the 3,000-seat Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville in 1943, where it remained for three decades.
The Ryman Auditorium
As its popularity grew, the Opry was defined by artists such as Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams. During the Ryman years, the Opry launched careers, welcomed stars and helped make Nashville Music City, with the likes of Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, the Carter Family, Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe and Chet Atkins gracing the Ryman stage.
Take a tour of the restored Ryman, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and see the Carter-Cash, Hank Williams and Women of Country Music dressing rooms. Hear favorite memories of Opry members in a video history presentation. Check out exhibits featuring costumes worn by the stars and the instruments they played.
The Grand Ole Opry returns to the Ryman stage during the winter months, and the internationally renowned venue hosts concerts by a diverse lineup of artists throughout the year.
The Opry House
In 1974, the Opry moved to its current and most enduring home – the Grand Ole Opry House, located in the Gaylord Opryland entertainment resort complex nine miles northeast of downtown Nashville. The opulent theater features 4,400 comfortable seats, state-of-the-art sound and giant video monitors.
Inset into the center of the Opry stage is an 8-foot circle of worn oak flooring cut from the stage of the Ryman. Opry performers hallow the circle, which survived the 2010 flood despite being submerged under four feet of water.
When you tour the Grand Ole Opry House, you will stand in that circle, enter the dressing rooms – and possibly catch a glimpse of the stars – and learn more of the Opry’s history from knowledgeable tour guides.
Of course, the show itself is the highlight of the Opry experience – no matter what stage you’re seeing the performance on. From the moment the Opry Square Dancers thunder onto the stage until the final number’s closing notes, the Grand Ole Opry is a one-of-a-kind entertainment event. You’ll see Opry legends like Little Jimmy Dickens, who often introduces himself as Willie Nelson after taxes; relative newcomers such as Rodney Atkins and Miranda Lambert; bluegrass icons including Ricky Skaggs and Ralph Stanley; and the stars that have been lighting up the country music scene from years past through today – Marty Stuart, Connie Smith, Alison Krauss, George Jones, Hal Ketchum, Carrie Underwood, Josh Turner, Sugarland, Rascal Flatts, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Trace Adkins, Martina McBride, and many, many more.
Each Opry performance consistently delivers two exciting hours of diverse entertainment.
It’s easy to make your visit to the Grand Ole Opry the centerpiece of an all-inclusive vacation with luxurious accommodations and world-class dining at the Opryland Hotel. Take a dinner cruise on the General Jackson showboat. Stroll through the Opry Mills mall. And visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and other Nashville highlights. (Related: Hatch Show Prints)
Finally, here’s a tip from Opry Dan, marketing manager for the Grand Ole Opry: If you want to bump into a country music singer, eat dinner at the Cracker Barrel on Music Valley Drive on a Friday or Saturday evening. Often, musicians performing on the Opry will be grabbing their dinner there too.
What’s your favorite Music City attraction? Leave us a comment!