Grand Ole Opry Returns Home To Opry House

This appeared on Tennessean,com - September 28, 2010

Dozens of country music’s biggest names, past and present, crowded around a handful of small TV screens on the sides of the Opry stage, watching a video montage of footage from the devastating May floods.

After months of traveling among substitute venues, Tuesday night was the Opry’s first night back in the Grand Ole Opry House since it was nearly destroyed by the rising river. It was almost completely dark backstage, behind the heavy red curtain, just as it would have been that first weekend in May, when the murky floodwaters rushed in.

The flood reel ended. The spotlights flared. The curtain whisked up, and artists including Blake Shelton, Keith Urban, Marty Stuart, Trace Adkins, Martina McBride, Jason Aldean, Charlie Daniels and Dierks Bentley poured onto the stage to join Little Jimmy Dickens and Brad Paisley, who were already out front, to sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” on the stage of the immaculately renovated and refurbished Opry House.

The only indication of the dark days now is a thin strip of metal on the wall of the greenroom, mounted 46 inches off the floor, to indicate how high the waters had risen.

As the sold-out show went on — and even before the curtain went up — the atmosphere backstage was a party. Montgomery Gentry popped in and out of friends’ dressing rooms shaking hands and posing for pictures. Mel Tillis and Jason Aldean stood in the hallway smiling and shaking hands.

When Blake Shelton and fiancée Miranda Lambert arrived, they slowly weaved their way through the crowded halls, hugging industry friends and posing for pictures. Shelton didn’t know it yet, but he was in for a surprise at evening’s end on stage, when Trace Adkins invited him to become an Opry member.

After that emotional exchange, the show closed with an all-star guitar jam featuring Paisley, Keith Urban, Marty Stuart, Steve Wariner and Ricky Skaggs.

From 'Brady Bunch' to 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition'

Much of the emotion surrounding the Opry’s return home was evident early in the day, when the stars began arriving for rehearsal and saw the space for the first time. Brad Paisley walked in about 11 a.m. and strolled the halls open-mouthed, exclaiming over the extensive backstage renovations.

“It went from Brady Bunch to (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition),” said the country star. “And the stage, (which went from a light wood to darker teak), before you couldn’t really see the (historic) circle,” he said pointing to a picture of the stage hanging in a backstage hallway. “Maybe it’s there, maybe it’s not. Man, now you can’t miss it.”

As Paisley was standing there, Lorrie Morgan showed up, nearly giddy with excitement. She hugged Paisley’s neck as she walked by, saying, “Can you believe this?” Paisley’s reply: “It’s what it always deserved and should have been.”

Martina McBride got there soon after, leaning her shoulder on the doorway of dressing room No. 4 to take it all in. She slowly walked inside to see the laquered black piano, the comfy new velvet chairs and sofa and the pictures on the wall, then reluctantly walked back out to head to rehearsal, occasionally stopping to get a better look at some of the photos of Opry moments adorning the hallway walls.

“I never dreamed it would be this gorgeous, and (what a) wonderful job they’ve done renovating this place,” said Little Jimmy Dickens, who, at 89, is the Grand Ole Opry’s oldest living member. “It’s just like it was built yesterday.”

The old stage within the new

In fact, the building first opened 36 years ago. The Opry left its previous home at Ryman Auditorium to move into the newly built Opry House in March 1974. A circle of wood from the Ryman’s stage was inlayed into the new stage, in honor of all the country legends who had stood there to share their music.

“I’ve always loved this building,” said Paisley. “I love the Ryman for what it is, but this is the place I grew up watching on TV. This is the place that was more state-of-the-art and became the home, and this is the one I associate with the Opry. This is where I was asked to be a member and this is where I made my first performance. This is as much as the Opry as anywhere.”

“It’s such a range of emotion,” said Steve Buchanan, Grand Ole Opry Group president. “We went from experiencing genuine, heart-wrenching pain because of the flooding … to truly a moment of extraordinary excitement, as we are seeing the opportunity to have a homecoming with our family.

“For little Jimmy Dickens and Brad Paisley to be able to walk back into a fully renovated Opry House together, that truly symbolizes what we are about. But, it’s really about what’s in their hearts and souls, because that’s what carries us forward.”

The first image many people saw of the hallowed building after the May flood was a photograph that spread like floodwater via Twitter and e-mail — the iconic stage, covered in water. And many people now believe the Grand Ole Opry House was the poster child for post-flood recovery.

Before Tuesday night’s show, Paisley said he thought Nashville’s flooding would have gone largely unnoticed by the larger world if the Grand Ole Opry House “wasn’t underwater.”

“People would have said, ‘Oh, it’s just another flood,” he said. “But this building is the city’s most famous export … and it was completely metaphorical in its destruction, as it is in its recovery.”

By Cindy Watts

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