A Night At The Opry, D.C.-Style

This appeared in the Washington Post - March 27, 2006

In the old days, you could be a big-time country star, but you were still a hick.

Lester Flatt. Earl Scruggs. Hoo boy.

If you played the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in the 1930s, the 1940s, it was the biggest thing in the world. Country kids from Georgia to Kentucky would know your name by dinnertime.

In big cities, sophisticated places, nobody cared. Get off the bus in New York, people called you hayseed.

That ended a long time ago, but the Grand Ole Opry, an institution in country music and in rural American culture for more than three generations, finally played the Kennedy Center last night. It was the first time. It was the night after Buck Owens died. It was a little sad but mostly on the upswing. Mississippi-born Marty Stuart hosted the evening, played "Buckaroo," one of Owens's hits, in tribute. The song was, as they say in the still-water parts of the deep South, a real foot-stomper. You could call it a barn-burner or a (expletive) kicker, too, they're all the same thing.

"The Grand Ole Opry comes to the Kennedy Center ," a smiling Travis Tritt told the sold-out crowd of 2,500 during his part of the package show, drawing a burst of applause. "I never been here. Seen it on TV."

This was all part of the Opry's night to shine during the Kennedy Center's ongoing festival "Country: A Celebration of America's Music." It started last week, goes through April 9, and presents country stars like Tritt, Stuart, Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack, Ray Price and Kris Kristofferson in a setting designed to showcase music once seen as provincial as something more pristine.

Stuart, who left home at 13 to play at the Opry, has performed with all of the genre's traditional icons -- Flatt, Johnny Cash, etc., etc. -- and had been part of shows at the Kennedy Center before. But to host the first appearance for the Opry at the nation's home for the performing arts was a big deal.

"The Hollywood Bowl, the Ryman Auditorium" -- the Opry's most famous home -- "the Kennedy Center -- these are places you don't forget, but the Kennedy Center is the nation's cultural touchstone," Stuart said after the dress rehearsal yesterday afternoon. "Performers used to go to New York and get treated like second-class citizens. The word 'hillbilly' still has a stigma . . . so for the performing arts center of the nation, and for the arts tastemakers, to have country music here shows that country music is finally considered a cultural art form."

The two-hour show last night followed the standard Opry package format, tested, cured and honed during nearly 81 years of Saturday night radio broadcasts. Former WAMU announcer (and current Opry master of ceremonies) Eddie Stubbs kept up a patter during changes between acts, Stuart hosted and sang, and Rebecca Lynn Howard, the Del McCoury Band and Tritt performed individually before coming onstage together for the boot-stomping finale.

The Opry has been doing this since 1925, when the National Life and Accident Insurance Co. started up a radio station in Nashville to help drum up a little business. It was at 650 on the AM dial, call letters WSM, for "We Shield Millions." Started life as a barn dance kind of shindig featuring an 80-year-old fiddle player.

It soon became known as the Opry, and when WSM went to 50,000 watts in the early 1930s, the show could be heard on Saturday nights over most of America. It is difficult to express the cultural reach this had in the time before television, particularly in rural Southern areas: the Smokies, the Appalachians, the flat and fetid Delta.

It was the Opry broadcasts that so greatly helped sustain and spread the developing music, from its Scotch-Irish roots to the shadings that white country musicians were picking up from black sharecroppers and field hands. The music took on its themes of heartbreak and religion and Mama and trains and whiskey and women. Of course it played in the cities. But there is a deep emotional strand of traditional country music that stems from loneliness and poverty and rural isolation, and the good pickers always knew that.

Down a dirt road somewhere, kids sat on the front porch in Louisiana or the hollers of West Virginia, watching the tubes glowing orange in the back of the radio. A twist of the dial, some static, and in the early blue-dark of the evening there would be the voices of the Carter Family and Roy Acuff and fiddle players and banjo pickers and chatter between the sets. The night would be alive with the sound of their voices. Crickets, too, just outside in the grass.

These were people who worked in sawmills and open fields and drove trucks from Texarkana to Shreveport and worked as waitresses in, say, Johnson City, Tennessee. Big cities, even Nashville, seemed on another planet.

"When my dad and I sat outside and listened to the Grand Ole Opry . . . in the summer months, it seemed like it was a million miles away," Tritt said last night, remembering growing up in Marietta, Georgia.

So maybe it was understandable that last night's show had the feel of addressing the historical record rather than just another night of country music. It was a little formal. Perhaps that was as it should have been.

Buck Owens, a country kid from Sherman, Texas, would have known that.

By Heely Tucker

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