On Saturday, for the 4,915th consecutive time, the world-famous Grand Ole Opry show went on as scheduled — but not as they’d planned.
One day earlier, the 94-year-old country music radio program announced it would broadcast for the next four weeks without a live audience, due to mounting concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
And so, when Opry members Connie Smith, Bill Anderson and Jeannie Seely performed on Saturday, they did so in front of 4,000 empty seats at the Grand Ole Opry House. But that didn’t rattle them.
“Just because out of safety, we don’t have anybody in the auditorium tonight, that does not mean we don’t have an audience,” Seely said on stage.
“Let me tell you, every time I walk out on this stage to perform, I’m not just performing to those in the building with us. I’m talking and singing to every one of you I know are listening out there, all around the world. And we appreciate you so much.”
Though it’s been one of Nashville’s prime tourist attractions for more than half a century, the Opry wouldn’t exist without those listeners.
In its early years, radio station WSM’s powerful signal carried the show into more than 30 surrounding states. In the process, “Grand Ole Opry” became near-synonymous with “country music.”
Now, as the nation seems prepared to hole up at home in the weeks, perhaps months to come, the Opry has the same crucial role it did in the early days. It’s bringing live country music to the people.
“What everyone needs now is anything that seems normal, that they’re used to,” said Dan Rogers, the Opry’s vice president and executive producer. “So for all the people who have a Saturday night tradition of tuning into the Grand Ole Opry, I am delighted that that’s continuing, and I’m honored to be a part of making sure it doesn’t end.”
‘It feels a bit surreal’
While Rogers says it was never in doubt that the show would go on this weekend, there were many logistical and safety concerns to deal with.
Onstage, microphones were swapped out and cleaned between every act, and social distancing was on full display. Singers stuck to a smiles and nods when being introduced, and stood at least an arms-length apart from their fellow musicians.
“But trust us, we still love each other,” announcer Mike Terry assured. “And we look forward to hugs and handshakes real soon.”
Between the sound crew, musicians and staff, only a few dozen were present backstage, where an elbow-bump was the greeting of choice.
Security guard Jim Schermerhorn has seen Opry guests fraternize backstage for 26 years. He said it was “1/100th” of what it typically felt like on a Saturday night.
“It feels a bit surreal.”
It certainly was that way for Sam Williams. Saturday’s show was just the second Opry appearance for the grandson of country legend Hank Williams.
“It’s a little eerie singing to nobody out here,” he said. “I’m just as nervous as the first time.”
Performers didn’t shy away from downbeat material, either. Connie Smith opened the night with the heartbroken Marty Robbins hit “Ribbon of Darkness.” Mandy Barnett – intentionally or not – spoke to an anxious nation with a beautiful rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”
But a new, uplifting song from Bill Anderson provided the most powerful moment of the night.
“These are unprecedented times all around the world, and I struggled trying think of what song I had,” he said on stage. “And I guess a song that has a little bit of hope built into it is maybe what we all need to hear tonight.”
“Right now we’ve got questions without any answers,” he sang. “Our fate’s out there riding the fence/ but we’ve got to believe in things we can’t see/ Someday, it’ll all make sense.”
“And I believe it will,” he said, as the final chord rang out.
‘Just like the flood, we’ll weather it’
Colin Reed is staying optimistic, as well. The CEO of Ryman Hospitality, which owns the Opry, has seen the company through 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis and the Nashville Flood of 2010. The flood was particularly devastating, as the entire Opry House was submerged in several feet of water. But two days after it hit, the Opry carried on at Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium, and returned home four months later.
Reed says the Opry House’s full-time staff will be paid through its planned reopening on April 7, and part-time employees will be paid for the next two weeks.
Ryman Hospitality also owns Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, which has postponed all nighttime events through April 4, but continues to hold daily tours. The company’s chain of Blake Shelton’s “Ole Red” restaurants will remain open.
“But what we have said to our people in each of these businesses that we’re keeping open that if anyone has any reluctance to work, they don’t have to work,” Reed says. “We’re not forcing people to come in. We don’t do business that way.”
“On the costs side of this business, (we’re) taking pretty draconian actions all around. But here’s the good news for us. We had a really good January and February. We exceeded our own internal plans for January and February. We’re sitting on just under $300 million dollars in cash. We’ve got an un-drawn credit line of $700 million. So if this thing is a three-months and on (situation), just like the flood, we’ll weather it, get through, and deal with it.”
There was only one way for Saturday’s historic, surreal and affirming “Grand Ole Opry” to end. All of the night’s acts stood side by side — at a healthy distance — and sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Eighty-five years ago, the legendary Carter Family reworked the hymn, and unwittingly created country music’s eternal theme song.
“Circle” needs no introduction, but the night called for one final message from Seely before the night’s closing performance.
“Wherever you are,” she said, “and whatever you’re doing, you just feel comfortable, and stand up and sing this one with us.”
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