The country music institution is finding a new audience in the pandemic with its weekly Saturday broadcasts and infusion of new artists.

By Sarah Rodman
October 24, 2020 at 05:10 PM EDT
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Every country artist remembers their first time.

The first time they played the Grand Ole Opry that is. The venerable Nashville institution is in the midst of its 95th anniversary celebration this month and in chatting with three generations of Opry members, the refrain was the same: it is like a second home. And beyond simply being invited to play the storied venue, which during non-pandemic times boasts dozens of performances a week with nightly shows, an invitation to membership is even more prized.

"First of all, anything that makes it to 95 is worth celebrating," says Brad Paisley, an Opry member since 2001, adding with a laugh, "They should celebrate 96 too."  Chris Janson says of his 2018 induction,  "In my musical journey it's certainly one of,  if not the biggest, highlight ever. It's what country music singers dream of professionally." Jeannie Seely just marked her own milestone: 53 years as an Opry member. "The Opry has been a way of life for me," says Seely, who also celebrated her 80th birthday this summer. "As long as I can remember back to my childhood, I was either listening to it or then I've been on it. So it's where I love to be. I'm never happier than when I walk from backstage out front to greet that audience."

As part of its monthlong celebration, a parade of artists have come through those doors but, up until recently, there was no audience to greet, due to the pandemic.  But the venue recently reopened for reduced capacity crowds so there will be applause once again for tonight's entrant into the 95th anniversary celebration, the annual “Opry Goes Pink” show, marking the fight against breast cancer, featuring performance by, among others, Lauren Alaina and Opry members Little Big Town.

Perhaps most amazingly, the music never stopped during the pandemic. While it was restricted to Saturday nights without a crowd-- where it was broadcast on the new Circle network-- the show went on.

Paisley, Janson, and Seely all experienced performing during this deeply surreal time. EW chatted with all three about their own Opry history, the summer of no audience and how that might have actually helped boost the Opry's profile, and the new blood that has been inducted in the last few years.

Opry Memories

"It was in the end of May, sometime in 1966," recalls Seely of waiting to  get "the call." Her first big hit "Don't Touch Me" was riding high on the charts and she was on the road with Porter Wagoner.  "They kept calling me every week to tell me where my record moved up in the national charts. And I was happy to hear that, but my question was always 'Did Mr. Devine call?' Because Ott Devine was the manager of the Opry, and I knew you had to have a hit record to get invited to be a member of the Opry and that was part of my dream, to get to the Opry. And so finally we got to connect with Mr. Devine and it wasn't till a year later that I had time really to even go in and join the Opry. They didn't do a big presentation back then, like they do now."

Indeed, in the early days of the live shows at the Ryman-- which themselves had been born out of a popular radio show--  members were invited but there was little pomp and circumstance. By the time Paisley got the nod in 2001 it was a whole production which, in his case, included Seely and Opry favorite Little Jimmy Dickens dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus. The 15-time CMA award winner was still very early in his career but he had haunted the venue, performing as often as he could. "It was like [they said] 'We'll give him some keys," says Paisley with a laugh. "It was my dream to be a member. I knew I could play it any night that I wanted, that was the point. If this becomes your home and you're a member, it's yours  if you need it. If I had a new song I wanted to try out, I could drive up there on Friday or Saturday or a Tuesday and sing it. Throughout the pandemic, boy, has that come true. It's like, it's a place to play."

Garth Brooks was among those who helped induct Janson and the "Good Vibes" singer still sounds awestruck recalling the night but, he confesses that he has also really enjoyed being on welcoming committee too, as he was for newly inducted member Luke Combs. "I'll tell you, getting inducted yourself is one thing but being a part of someone else's induction is a whole other thing because it makes you feel a relevance and a certain reverence in a totally different way, kind of like, check this out!"

Pandemic Pivot

"Bill Anderson, Connie Smith and I hosted the three segments on the first show without an audience," says Seely of the switch in March. But given that the Opry can be seen on several satellite and streaming services and seen and heard online through YouTube, SiriusXM and wsmonline.com, she understood that empty rows didn't tell the whole story.  "They were saying, 'I don't see how we can do a show without an audience.' And I pointed out, 'We've got an audience all over the world.' When I walk out there, I'm not just entertaining the people that are in the building. I'm aware there's people listening all over the world now."

Credit: Jason Davis/Getty Images

Paisley, who played three times during the spring and summer, including a show with Carrie Underwood, admits it was strange at first. He brought his own stool and microphone and realized that the latter had probably always been a good idea. "I think back to 20 years of singing on that Opry mic at 9:00 pm and it's been going since 6:00-something. The same mic that dirty old Vince Gill sang in right before," he says with a laugh poking fun at his buddy.

"I'll be honest with you, I didn't know what to think going into it as nobody would really know what to think," says Janson of his pandemic show with Chris Young, and Brett Young over the summer.  "It was just an amazing time. Even though there was no crowd there it was still special. To be honest with you, I liked the sound of it, I think, even better than normal because it's not condensed with a bunch of people. Which, to [the building and engineers'] credit, is amazing.I mean, you've got to have fans but, it worked out really good. There was something easy about it,  no pressure for the first time on the Opry ever."

And given that people couldn't go, it's possible that absence, and access online, will make hearts grow fonder for returning.

"I'm really proud of how from day one the Opry realized that they're like that glimmer of hope in World War II when the soldiers could pick up a baseball game and listen overseas," says Paisley of how the production crew shifted in order to continue broadcasting the Saturday night shows. "It's like we're in the middle of this thing, there's this beacon that happens every Saturday without fail. As long as that's going on, we have something to hang onto from the life before. It's like baseball is keeping me sane and the Opry is keeping me sane, I've played it three times since this began, and tuned in again to it on television.  I think in some ways this pandemic's been good for the Opry. It's not good for the bottom line I'm sure, but it's been good for it in terms of anything that makes something important like this, that should be important, has been I think a blessing for it. It's given us some feeling of hope for the future, as well as a comfort during this time."

Credit: Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Infusing New Life

While some have grumbled about the youth or lack of seasoning of some artists recently invited to become Opry members, this trio is on board with fresh faces like Janson, Combs, and Kelsea Ballerini. (Janson himself had played the Opry over 200 times prior to his invitation so, while "younger" as an artist, he had certainly put in the time.)

"I don't have the same outlook on that as a lot of the artists my age," says Seely who lost count in the thousands the number of times she has played the show. She also fought-- and won-- to have women as presenters. "I don't resent the new ones coming in. It's the only way that this wonderful institution of the Grand Ole Opry will continue another 95 years, is if we keep bringing in new people who bring in their fans. So it's really a good responsibility as well as a joy to see that happening."

"When I was inducted I was the youngest member at the time," says Janson. "It's great to see a young crop of us kind of all coming up in the same class. I think that's good for the Opry and continues to make it fresh."

"I'm sure there was grumbling with me too," says Paisley. "I think I had two number one songs at that point, and they're gambling on you that you're going to have more than that." Unlike other historic institutions, the Opry has no chart or touring benchmarks inductees have to meet. Members are invited solely at the discretion of the show's management and it ranges from huge, hall-of-fame-type names to lesser known but enduring artists. "There's people that have had one number one record when they become a member, and others who have had 10 or 20," says Paisley. "I think it's about, do you add to this place in a great way? The Country Music Hall of Fame is one of the best museums in America. It's where you go see the artifacts, it's where you go see the historical record. The Opry is a zoo. It's where you go to see the musicians in their simulated habitat."  And the inclusion of new names and the attention surrounding the pandemic shows, Paisley believes will ultimately benefit the Opry. "I think the moment we're in right now, if we do this right, can help propel another 95 years."

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