The 4,300 seat Grand Ole Opry House was nearly full by the time we took our seats on the main-floor wooden pews. With a cold beer nestled between my hands, I watched the house lights slowly dim, the big red curtain go up, and the longest-running live performance radio broadcast in U.S. history come to life.
The Grand Ole Opry started in 1925 and is still an important fixture on the country music scene over 90 years later. Becoming a member of the Opry is one of country music’s biggest achievements and greatest honors. With weekly shows and tours, the Opry should be on just about everyone’s list of things to do when visiting Nashville for the first time.
While I had been to the Opry before, this was the first time that I had been to the Opry’s annual “Opry Goes Pink” show, held each October to support breast cancer awareness. My wife and I were invited as part of a media event to see the special show. Normally cast in red, the traditional “barn” shaped set goes pink for a night to help raise funds as well as bring attention to the disease. The show included Kelsea Ballerini, Easton Corbin, Runaway June, LANCO, and Trisha Yearwood, who introduced this year’s honorary cancer survivor.
I’ve always said that The Grand Ole Opry is something most people can enjoy, even if country music isn’t their favorite genre. The Opry is basically a variety show with a combination of up-and-coming acts, classic country stars, and current established country artists. Each act only performs 2 or 3 songs, so if you don’t like one, it’s not as if you have to sit though an entire set before somebody new takes the stage. In any case, the musicians are some of the best in the world. I can always appreciate great musicianship even if I don’t love the particular song they are performing.
One of the things I love about the Opry is that it is broadcast live on the radio and internet. This adds a certain energy to each show that isn’t present during other kinds of concerts. It’s fun to be part of something that is being broadcast to millions of people live. You are actually there, in the room, with the performers, part of a collective whole all enjoying the same thing. It’s electric, and exciting to be at the epicenter of the music. These days the Opry is broadcast not only on AM radio, but it is also broadcast online for streaming, through a mobile app, and via satellite radio.
My first time to the Grand Ole Opry was in 2001 with my mom. I remember seeing Blake Shelton in a cream colored cowboy hat sing his first big hit “Austin.” We were visiting Nashville as part of my orientation to a music business program at Belmont University. My plan at the time was to study the music business and work in the industry in some behind the scenes capacity. I ended up choosing a different path, and a different school, but ultimately found my way to Nashville six years later. On my most recent trip to the Opry, I saw a glimpse of that “behind the scenes” music business life on an amazing backstage tour.
Stepping backstage as an audience member is a little surreal. There are guitar cases leaned up against the wall, backup amplifiers in a closet, musicians practicing their next song quietly in the corner, and a maze of hallways leading to countless dressing rooms, all of which are uniquely decorated.
One of the stops on the backstage tour was the Grand Ole Opry Post Office. Each Opry member has a post office box where they can receive mail from fans. It’s right after the security check-in desk, and often the first stop they make when coming to play the Opry. This is one of several things that makes the Opry and country music unique. I can’t think of any other genre of music that has a dedicated concert hall, live radio program, membership status, and a special post office for the artists lucky enough be become members.
Our backstage tour turned into an “on stage” tour when the guide led our group through the stage door during the show. I had no idea this was part of the tour, and found my heart racing a bit. We were actually going on stage during a performance.
We entered the stage from the side, and immediately saw the performers who were bathed in pink and purple lights. I looked out into the audience, which was mostly cast in a shadow, lit only by the occasional cell phone flash and a bit of stage lighting. Seeing the crowd from the perspective of the performer was a little nerve wracking, but also impressive. I can’t imagine taking the stage as an entertainer in front of all those people.
Stepping on to the Opry stage during a performance is a Nashville music moment I won’t soon forget. Charles Esten, who plays Deacon on the TV show Nashville, was in the middle of a song when our group gathered on the side of the stage. We got to see him perform a couple of songs from the backstage area, including a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”
If you are coming to Nashville to see what this fine city has to offer, check out the Grand Ole Opry. It’s part of Nashville’s history, and something unique to visiting Music City. The musicians are fantastic, you are part of the live broadcast, and the Opry supports great causes like Breast Cancer Awareness.
Tips for making the most of your Opry experience
- For shows at the Opry House, there is free parking right across the street at the Opry Mills Mall.
- If budget permits, definitely look into doing a backstage tour.
- The Opryland Hotel has some nearby pre-show dinner options. (this place is huge, allow extra time to find your way around)
- Check out the Opry website. It has a fun trip planning feature.
- Opry shows are generally every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. Show information is here.
- Sometimes the Opry takes place at one of its former homes, the Ryman Auditorium. Make sure you know where your show is located!