Opry House, Circle Intact, Looks To Reopening

This appeared in The Tennessean - May 8, 2010

Country music's most famous circle is unbroken.

Cut from the stage of the Ryman Auditorium and inserted into the Grand Ole Opry House stage as a nod to tradition and history, the six-foot circle of oak was submerged in two feet of water during the flood of 2010. The rest of the waterlogged Opry stage will likely be trashed. But the circle, where Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Roy Acuff, Patsy Cline and other greats stood and sang is irreplaceable.

"It is in remarkably good condition," said Grand Ole Opry Group president Steve Buchanan. "We will ultimately need to replace the stage, but we do that every few years. But the circle will be saved, and it will be center stage when we open back up."

Buchanan declined to specify other individual Opry House items that made it through last weekend's storms. He and others are still searching through the rubble, which is, after all, better than wading through the rubble. The water is gone now from the auditorium and from the backstage area, though noxious filth remains. It should take three to four weeks to clean the mud off, after which the process of assessing and repairing the damage will begin.

"The destruction is on a grand scale," Buchanan said. "And this is a building we have a loving and emotional attachment to. There've been moments of significant emotion every day. It's hard for everyone here, because they care so much. the people that work here consider this to be a very special place. We will not feel a sense of relief until we have completed the entire process, until we have gone through and hopefully been able to restore or rebuild."

Thursday, workers removed items from hallway lockers that had been flooded. Before the flood, the backstage hallways looked like what may be seen in a typical American high school, only the lockers often held rhinestone stage wear and iconic guitars rather than textbooks.

"We are very happy with the amount of stuff that got saved," said Colin Reed, CEO of Opry's parent company, Gaylord Entertainment, before talking for a moment about some of the items that did sustain water damage. "There were instruments. Jimmy Dickens had a few of his suits...we hope they haven't shrunk." Reed's Dickens comment made during a mid-day press conference, drew nervous laughter. "If we didn't make light of it, we would be in pertetual tears," he said.

On Sunday, May 2, with rain pouring down and the nearby Cumberland rising, Buchanan and a team of others worked at the Opry House, moving items of value to higher elevations. They saved archival photographs and tapes, and numerous items at the Grand Ole Opry Museum. The work ended around 10 p.m., when word came that the water had breached the levy. Less than 12 hours later, water covered all but the top four rows of the auditorium and spread throughout the building. Eye-level photographs on the wall were high enough to escape harm. Below that, things look rough.

"It's a profound loss," said Opry member Marty Stuart. "The good news is that the House can be replaced. But there were treasures in there, and some of them cannot be replaced. In my dressing room, there was a tapestry on the wall that was made from what was to be Porter Wagoner's last suit. It was made for him an dhe died before he could wear it. I don't know if that tapestry made it through or not. There was also a lot of stuff at the Grand Ole Opry Museum that I want to know about: There's Roy Acuff's instrument collection, Marty Robbins' costumes and other things. It's hard for me to wrap my head around all of it."

"It breaks your heart," Buchanan said. "But it's our responsibility to be sure that the building comes back to life. And it will."

Buchanan and Reed expect the Grand Ole Opry House will reopen well before the Opryland Hotel, and that both will be open for business by the end of the year.

"Already, we're starting to see the effects of being able to get in and clean up, and we're realizing that, clearly, we can get this done," Buchanan said.

The Opry show will bounce between venues until its permanent home is patched and polished. Members will grin and bear the traveling. On his Twitter page Thursday, Brad Paisley posted a message: "Can't wait to play the Opry tomorrow night. Feels about as important to me as the very first time I ever played it, somehow." For others, the joy will come when the Opry House reopens.

"The history and legacy of that circle is awe-inspiring," recording artist Blake Shelton said.

The flood will extend that history, not destroy it. The circle has now withstood the stomp of Johnny Cash's boots, the click of Tammy Wynette's high heels, decades of stage light burns, and a prolonged Cumberland dunk.

By Peter Cooper

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