The legendary Grand Ole Opry celebrates its 50th anniversary with a special show

By Dave Parsons


On March 15, 1974, the Grand Ole Opry had it’s final show at the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, Tennesee.  The next evening, March 16, 1974, Roy Acuff opened the first show at the new 4,400 seat Grand Ole Opry House with his signature song The Wabash Cannonball, with that evening’s cast on the stage with him.

So, it was not really a surprise what song was to be the first song played, some 50 years later to the day, at the silver anniversary performance of the iconic radio show at its most lasting home.

The first of many surprises of the evening came when the big red curtain was lifted, and the entire cast for the evening was on stage singing the same song.  Bill Anderson, Connie Smith, Jeannie Seely, Mandy Barnett, Clint Black, Gary Mule Deer, Riders In The Sky, The Gatlin Brothers, Crystal Gayle, Del McCoury and Don Schlitz filled the stage.  The most recent person asked to be a member, T. Graham Brown, was invited to sing a few of the verses.

Opry member Mark Wills followed that opening song by saying “Here’s to all those city streets and country roads that week after week, year after year lead us back to our musical home, the Grand Ole Opry House.”  The massive choir of country music veterans lead the audience in a sing along of Take Me Home, Country Roads.   Having grown up in West Virginia, and having sung that song for over 50 years myself, to have it included here did make me feel like I was home.

There were three performers this evening, that had stood in the same spot 50 years ago.  Following a video montage that highlighted her tenure, Connie Smith took the stage next.  Smith had said of her upcoming trip to the circle, I love the Opry and I’m proud to be one of the ones that was there 50 years ago.  Performing her signature song and a gospel song have always delighted the Opry crowds and this time around was no different.   

The Gatlin Brothers, Larry Steve and Rudy brought their signature style of country and brotherly harmonies next.  Larry even went in the audience to find a duet partner on one song.

Next up was another of the members who was on that stage that night back in 1974.  Entering the stage in a replica of the midriff-baring iconic outfit she wore on that night 50 years ago, Jeannie Seely shows why she is one of the most fun entertainers to listen to and to watch.  She switched wigs from the opening song to a 70’s style and the outfit stole the first half of the show.  Her last song of her 3-song turn was Who Needs You, which on that setting turned the clock back 50 years before your very eyes.

Bluegrass legend Del McCoury and his band showed why he is still considered one of the premiere legends of the field of bluegrass.  I don’t know what the average age of the performers were on the stage this night, but they made a lot of entertainers 1/3 of that age look like rank amateurs.

The Crystal Gayle and her iconic hair, that is to the middle of her cowgirl boots, round out the first half of the show with 3 of her biggest hits.  Iconic songs like that immediately take you to a place in your life, and what you were doing when you first heard it.

After a 20 minute or so intermission, the show resumed with the Riders In The Sky.  Known primarily for their cowboy songs, and western Swing recordings, you could hear the amazement of the audience when they announced they were doing a medley of songs from their grammy award winning CDs.  Those CD’s, however, were on Disney records and featured music from animated classics like Toy Story 2 and Monsters Inc.

As the Riders left the stage the huge video board played a video of Bill Anderson’s career on the Opry.  Anderson was the third and final member on this night who was on the stage 50 years ago. In introducing his last song of the evening, Anderson recalled the friendship he had with Roy Acuff, who was the king of country music, or at least the king of the Opry during his lifetime. Anderson recalled a duet the two of them had recorded, and sang on that stage many times, and he wanted to honor Mr. Acuff on this historic night.  His band started the song I Wonder If God Likes Country Music, and Anderson sang his usual part up to the chorus.  At this point, Acuff used to walk to the circle singing the chorus.  On this historic night, the video screen played a video of Mr. Acuff singing the song on a TV show, as his voice filled the auditorium.  There was barely a dry eye in the auditorium as Mr. Anderson and Mr. Acuff did their duet on the Opry stage one more time.  Anderson said he wanted to give Mr. Roy a chance to be a part of the celebration that night, and he left to thunderous applause.

I thought to myself, maybe they should have kept that as the finale. I found myself feeling a little bad for Mandy Barnett as she took the stage next.  I should have known better!  Barnett is a total professional, having appeared as a guest on the Opry almost 500 times before being asked to be a member. With a smooth voice and those good looks, she just appears at home on that stage.

A tradition on the Opry followed as the Opry Square Dancers came out in their colorful costumes as the band gave them so music to tap their toes and get the audience livened up for what was yet to come.

Legendary songwriter Don Schlitz came to center stage and pulled the crowd in with his versions of the songs he wrote for other folks.  His performance of The Gambler, the iconic song that Schlitz wrote, and became a trademark hit for Kenny Rogers had the crowd singing along with a volume that drowned the songwriter out.  You could feel the love and appreciation in the Opry house for this guy.

Veteran comedian Gary Muledeer brought his timeless routine to the stage. Within the first 30 seconds, the audience was along for the ride.  Muledeer rapid fires jokes, thoughts and songs that are border line naughty at times, but never one single cuss word in his routine.  There are few comedians, besides the ones on the Opry, can attest to that and it is great to laugh at a guy who is just funny….and clean.  

To close out this 3 hour extravaganza, Clint Black treated the crowd to his first hit, A Better Man, and closed the evening with the song This Ole House after inviting the cast back on the stage to help him with it.

The Grand Ole Opry itself will celebrate its 100th Anniversary next year. At this point, the majority of it’s existence has been in the now 50 year old Grand Ole Opry house.  When asked her thoughts on the 50th Anniversary Jeannie Seely said: Of course the Circle means something a little different to me in that it’s a part of the stage I got to walk on for my debut,  and then to claim as ‘mine’ when I became a member of the Opry family. Today, I’m grateful that the Opry management preserved it, and I’m proud every time I step into it, and happy to share it with those who really understand and appreciate what it is.  There is nothing Bill Anderson, Connie Smith and I would rather see than the Opry continue to add new artists to our family who will bring their sound and style, yet uphold the traditions that have made the Opry so revered by artists and fans alike. Will the circle be unbroken.

Amen. May it ever be thus.

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