NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Sept. 1, 2007) — “May the bird of paradise fly up your nose.”And welcome to the Grand Ole Opry, theme-park version. Little Jimmy Dickens was the host for the first segment of Saturday’s late show at Opryland USA, and his crossover novelty hit from 1966 set the tone for the night.
What was the tone? Kind of laid-back. Folks laughed politely at the moldy, cornpone jokes, and Dickens seemed to get a bigger hand for being 86 years old than for anything else.
Loudest cheers of the night went to the exciting gospel quartet Legacy 5 — No. 5 plays the piano — but they cheated, bringing in a busload of fans.
Perhaps I’m feeling ambivalent about this experience because it came only a few hours after I toured the “church of country music” and the Opry’s original home, the Ryman Auditorium. And perhaps no first-time trip to the Opry can meet expectations fueled by years of reading stories and books about it, seeing it on TV and hearing it, ableit rarely, on the radio. Because it is a radio show, broadcast still over WSM in Nashville, complete with live scripted ads for Martha White Flour.
Then there’s this whole Opryland USA thing, this monster created in the middle of nowhere 20 minutes out of downtown Nashville by Gaylord Entertainment, which saved the Ryman from the wrecking ball 20 years ago and rehabbed the old church, but not before moving the show out of downtown.
The Opryland hotel and conference center is a huge, sprawling complex that includes a meandering “river” and fountains and geysers, complete with boat tours. It looks a lot like the Riverwalk in San Antonio, except that the Riverwalk is, like, real and outdoors.The Grand Ole Opry is a 10 minute walk from the conference center, located adjacent to, what else, a mammoth shopping mall called Opry Mills. Yeeeha!Back to the show: Each half-hour segment has a host who is an opry old-timer and country music legend. Saturday’s roster was Dickens and the great Porter Wagoner, whose voices have been touched by time; and Jimmy C. “Diggy Diggy Lo” Newman and Jeannie Seely, who more than held their own.The good news about the Opry is that you get to see a number of acts, in this case 14 over two hours. The bad news is that if an act is one of your favorites, all you get is one or two tunes.
We were excited to see sassy Elizabeth Cook, a hit at Twangfest 11 in St. Louis in June, on the bill, but disappointed that she sang but one song, the touching “Mama’s Prayers.” Oddly, Newman went out of his way to promote her new CD, but neither he nor she mentioned its title, “Balls” — taken from the great track “Sometimes It Takes Balls To Be a Woman.” Some traditional Opry conservatism, perhaps?
Other highlights included Suzy Boggus (Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon,” a Judy Collins hit back in the ’60s); Eddy Raven, an energetic run through his hits “I Got Mexico” and “Bayou Boys”; young singers Ashley Monroe and Alecia Nugent; and the Whites family band.
Seeing the Grand Ole Opry was fun, but I don’t feel any compelling need to go back. Unless it’s back in time to the ’50s, when fans arrived early at the Ryman, the line streching down Fifth Avenue, wrapping around the block on Broadway and then back up Fourth.
If that happens, I’ll know to pack a hand fan and a picnic lunch.