Clip: Grand Ole Opry Celebrates 80th Year
Grand Ole Opry Celebrates 80th Year
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: April 25, 2005
Filed at 9:17 a.m. ET
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- His Grand Ole Opry debut? Charley Pride remembers
it well. ''It was 1967, January 1,'' Pride snaps. ''Ernest Tubb brought me
on, and I was more nervous than a cat on a hot tin roof.''
That's how most performers feel about the Opry, the folksy live radio show
that's helped define country music for four decades. The stage with the red
barn backdrop is hallowed ground in Nashville, and entertainers still
consider their first performance there a milestone.
The show turns 80 this year, and while the anniversary doesn't have the
bang of a 75th or a 100th, the Opry is planning a big to-do, including a
rare broadcast from New York's Carnegie Hall in November.
Like a classic country song, the Grand Ole Opry has endured despite changes
in technology, musical tastes, ownership and location.
It's the longest continuously running radio show in the country, and though
at times it's been derided as stale and antiquated, there's a certain charm
when the house band begins to play and the burgundy curtain rises.
The feeling is one of seeing something authentic, down to the vintage
microphone stands, live advertisements and corny jokes.
The homespun feel, however, belies the elaborate production. The show is
marketed nationwide, streamed over Internet and satellite radio, shown on
cable TV, broadcast on regular radio and reaches more than 2 million people
The hayseed image has always been there, since Dr. Humphrey Bate, a
physician, donned overalls and led his band, the Possum Hunters. Later,
comedian Sarah Cannon recreated herself as Minnie Pearl -- a character from
the mythical small town of Grinder's Switch who wore a straw hat with the
price tag dangling.
But most credit the Opry's longevity to the music. Hank Williams, Patsy
Cline, Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe and Elvis Presley
are among the thousands who have performed and become stars there.
The show was broadcast coast-to-coast during its heyday in the 1940s and
'50s and is a main reason Nashville became the commercial center of country
music. It's the last surviving big country music show from radio's golden
age, outlasting competitors like the Chicago Barn Dance and the Louisiana
Yet beginning in the 1960s and continuing into the '90s, fewer big stars
joined the permanent cast because of the show's low wages and waning power
to build careers. The Opry acquired the reputation as a home for aging acts
who no longer have hit records.
''It's no secret that the heyday of the Grand Ole Opry was when it was the
best thing you could do for your career,'' said Pete Fisher, Opry vice
president and general manager.
Pride, for example, declined the Opry's first invitation in 1968.
''My manager pointed out the criteria wasn't suitable for what we were
trying to do,'' said Pride, who finally accepted in 1993. ''It was the
beginning of my career, and they required me to be there 26 Saturdays of
each year. For an artist just starting out, those were the best dates to
get your money.''
In recent years, management relaxed the appearance requirements and made
other changes to make it easier for contemporary stars to join. Today,
there are about 70 cast members ranging from Little Jimmy Dickens, Porter
Wagoner and Connie Smith to Alan Jackson, Martina McBride and Trace Adkins.
For Adkins, 43, the decision to join wasn't even a question.
''Growing up around Shreveport we had the Louisiana Hayride and that was an
institution for many years, but everyone knew the Grand Ole Opry was the
big deal,'' he said. ''It's like ball players going to the major leagues
saying they're going to the big show. When I was a kid the Grand Ole Opry
was the big show.''
The format of the two-and-a-half hour program has changed little over the
years. A parade of performers march on and off stage, doing two or three
songs apiece, with different hosts.
At a recent show, newcomer Jeff Bates performed his hit ''Long Slow
Kisses,'' singer Suzy Bogguss did ''I Want to Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart''
from 1988 and veteran Bill Anderson sang ''But You Know I Love You'' from
1969. A country rock act called Hilljack also performed, as did the
bluegrass picker Jesse McReynolds and a clogging group.
''It broadens our audience to have multiple generations on stage and
multiple styles,'' Fisher said. ''The fans can see where country music is,
where it has been and where it is going.''
The Opry has been broadcast on the same AM station, WSM, all these years.
The National Life & Accident Insurance Company started the station to sell
insurance. The call letters were an abbreviation for ''We Shield Millions.''
The show began almost by accident, according to ''A Good-Natured Riot,'' a
history of the Grand Ole Opry's early years by Charles K. Wolfe.
The station wanted to cater to those who considered their city ''The Athens
of the South'' by playing light classical and dance band music. But one of
the announcers, a former newspaper man named George Hay, asked a country
fiddler to come to the studio and play requests.
The switchboard lit up, and soon Hay was inviting other pickers and
fiddlers and calling the segment the WSM Barn Dance, a spinoff of the
National Barn Dance radio program he once had in Chicago. A couple years
later he changed the name to the Grand Ole Opry, a play on a Grand Opera
segment that preceded the show.
Today, performers still cite the Opry as an influence and link to country's
Pride remembers his father tuning in from the family's Mississippi cotton
farm, exposing his son to key figures like Tubb, Acuff and Pee Wee King.
Even now, after all these years, Pride is sentimental.
''When I do the Opry I dress in the same room that Mr. Acuff had,'' he
said. ''And when you walk down the hall and see all the pictures on the
wall, you're going to see somebody that takes you back to the memories when
you were listening as a kid. Sure, you get all kinds of goosebumps. There's
no way you could not feel something.''
A Beloved Funk Group Rocks Again, and a Venerable Festival Rolls On
By BEN RATLIFF
Published: April 26, 2005
NEW ORLEANS, April 25 - The large bloc of anti-tourists in this city makes a show of suffering gamely through the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, or Jazzfest. They are the kinds of people who, when asked by an out-of-towner to recommend a place to eat, say, "Well, you gotta find a backyard, and a lot of crawfish." They are also the kinds who worry that New Orleans's musical history - in jazz, funk, R&B, gospel, Cajun music, brass bands and zydeco - has been increasingly diluted by the festival's embrace of jam bands and pop.
But the first weekend of the festival, from Friday to Sunday, was capped by an event that had pretty much all factions - the cynics, historians and mythologizers, the college kids and hippies and tourists - rooting for it: the reunion of the Meters. On Saturday, the soul and funk quartet, which in the late 1960's and early 70's transcended backup-band status to make its own records for a time, looked out on a giant audience that basically looked back at them as the hottest game in town. They are nobody's guilty pleasure.
Riven by legal disputes, the four original members (as opposed to a spinoff band, the Funky Meters, which includes two of them) had played together formally only twice since the mid-70's, most recently in San Francisco in 2000. Since then, their sound has only accrued more cultural capital: it is the irreducible basis for a lot of the jam-band world, and has inevitably made its way into hip-hop via sampling (including Tweet's recent song "Sports, Sex & Food"). Their show at Jazzfest was promoted, extremely well, as a more significant reunion, the only one that really matters. And also as the last.
We'll see about that. (Before leaving the stage, the band's drummer, Zigaboo Modeliste, told the crowd, "We gon' see you again," an utterance that was parsed all over New Orleans the next day.) It was a hard, battering set, with heaps of loud, discursive rock solos from the guitarist Leo Nocentelli, Art Neville's whistling organ tone and a full view of the band's range, from slow-moving soul ballads to clipped funk. Above all it was a miracle of craftsmanship: the prize was witnessing the mysterious agreement between the bassist George Porter Jr. and Mr. Modeliste, with the bumpy, ingeniously constructed bass lines wrought into way-behind-the-beat grooves.
Close watchers of the festival considered it news that Jazzfest appeared to be running smoothly; during a chunk of the past year, its leadership had fallen apart. An enormous financial loss from rainstorms during the 2004 festival - canceling an entire day and otherwise keeping crowds away for five others - led to tension between the two entities that had been putting on Jazzfest together since 1970: the festival's producers, the New York-based Festival Productions Inc., and the nonprofit company that owns the festival, the Jazz and Heritage Foundation.
Almost every other year a moneymaker, the festival lost nearly $1 million last year, according to Quint Davis, Jazzfest's producer and director. But this was a disaster following a gradual slide: Mr. Davis said in an interview that attendance at the festival had been dropping off since 2002.
Last June, the foundation's board, looking for a new start, came close to dismissing Festival Productions and sought proposals from other producers. In the end, after a long and bitter summer of negotiating covered closely by the local news media, Festival Productions had the winning bid. But not alone: they signed a contract as partners with AEG Live, the second-largest entertainment conglomerate after Clear Channel. The initial term of the new contract is five years, Mr. Davis said, with two options. "It could be a very long-term relationship," he said on Sunday.
With more marketing money and national reach, the beefed-up festival, which takes place at the Fair Grounds Race Course in the Mid-City neighborhood, had its largest advance ticket sales, Mr. Davis said: around 200,000. (Jazzfest had never before run advertising outside local newspapers.) Among the dozen stages is a new one featuring only brass bands and Mardi Gras Indian groups. That seems a smart safeguard against charges that Jazzfest has sold out too much to jam bands and pop; the festival has long been interested in presenting big names to sell tickets, and intelligently scaling back on star power is tricky business. (Other performers last weekend included Wilco, Brian Wilson, James Taylor and Nelly, and this week's - Thursday to Sunday - include the Dave Matthews Band and Elvis Costello.) New Orleans hip-hop is deep local culture, too, and though the festival has booked acts like Juvenile, DJ Jubilee and Mannie Fresh before, there was no local hip-hop this year.
In such total overload - about 200 sets in three days - you can be devastated by only a few. One, for me, was a summit meeting of late-50's swamp-pop singers, including Tommy McClain, Warren Storm and Phil Phillips. It's hyper-romantic music, and Mr. Phillips, who wrote and sang the 1959 hit "Sea of Love," still has a soft, light tenor, which settled over the stout buzzing of the horn section. Another was a powerhouse big band fronted by Dave Bartholomew, the singer, producer, songwriter and major-domo of 1950's New Orleans R&B. Another was the Stooges Brass Band, a mass of overlapping trumpets, trombones and chants. ("Don't fall, just slip," they repeated for a few minutes over a popping groove.)
New to nearly everyone was Bobby Lounge, a balding, middle-aged eccentric from Mississippi who on Saturday delivered lethally sardonic songs (like "I'll Always Be Better Than You") with a percussive blues-and-barrelhouse piano style. He was wheeled on and off stage in a silver steam cabinet, the kind of thing once used for weight reduction. "I call it the Iron Lung," he said backstage, sipping a beer. "It perpetuates the myth that Bobby's a little infirm." (He keeps his real identity secret, his manager said, so as not to imperil his day job.)
In the gospel tent later that day, Dorothy Norwood exercised a power over her audience that was fantastic and almost cruel. She completely wrung it out - by rising steadily to breakdown-level screaming and then abruptly ordering her band to stop playing, or by leaving the stage for a little while, or just by starting to tell a story. At one point, standing on a folding chair in the audience, holding a black handkerchief with white lace edges, she was surrounded by the wreckage of weeping audience members; she looked straight up and sang to the roof.
A lot more music went on in the city at night after the fairgrounds closed at 7; New Orleanians construct their own festival during vampire hours. The Soul Rebels, one of the better new brass bands, rolled into Le Bon Temps Roule, in the Uptown district, Saturday night after playing at a sorority party. They were missing two members who had early-morning jobs, and it was a casual gig. "We just wilding out," said the bass drummer Derrick Moss, killing time outside on the street at 3 a.m. When they started up again, they alternated their strings of chanted funk with Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," one of the old songs that are in a lot of brass-band repertories, along with bebop, hip-hop and reggae; those repertories are like jazzfests unto themselves.
- Culled from ICE.
Big Bear Big Bear (Secretly Canadian)
Caribou (formerly known as Manitoba) The Milk of Human Kindness (Domino)
The Catch get cool (Secretly Canadian)
The Go-Betweens Oceans Apart (ICE #218) (Yep Roc)
The Keep Always The Keep Always (Secretly Canadian)
Little Charlie and the Nightcats Nine Lives (Alligator)
Aimee Mann The Forgotten Arm (produced by Joe Henry; ICE #216) (SuperEgo)
Nouvelle Vague Nouvelle Vague (bossa nova remixes and reinterpretations of songs by The Clash, Joy Division, The Cure, Dead Kennedys and more; ICE #215) (V2)
Oneida The Wedding (guest Phil Manley of Trans Am, others) (Secretly Canadian)
The Raveonettes Pretty in Black (Columbia)
The Stereotypes 3 (two CDs) (Secretly Canadian)
VA I Love Guitar Wolf (tribute album w/Jon Spencer, J Mascis & the Fog, Jim O'Rourke, Coachwhips, Puffy Amiyumi and more) (Narnack)
OCR Monty Python's Spamalot (ICE #216) (Decca Broadway)
Bill Bruford Gradually Going Tornado (Winterfold)
Bill Bruford's Earthworks All Heaven Broke Loose (Summerfold)
Solomon Burke Live at the House of Blues (1994 album) and Soul of the Blues (1993 album) (Shout! Factory)
Maria Muldaur Louisiana Love Call (guests Dr. John and Aaron Neville) and Meet Me at Midnite (Shout! Factory)
The Partridge Family Come On, Get Happy!: The Very Best of (w/four previously unreleased tracks; ICE #218) (Arista/Legacy)
They Might Be Giants A User's Guide to: Melody, Fidelity, Quantity (anthology; ICE #218) (Rhino)
Webb Wilder Scattered, Smothered and Covered: The Best of (Watermelon Records recordings; ICE #217) (Varèse Vintage)
- Carl posted about:
> http://nytimes.com/2005/04/26/arts/music/26jazz.htmlA recording of this performance (and a bunch of others from this
> A Beloved Funk Group Rocks Again
year's Fest and last), is available, here:
Scroll about half-way down, to 23 Apr. There's also a photo, here: