Nashville TN – via Paducah, KY: July 7-16, 2012

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Nashville was a bit farther than we wanted to take Thomas on his first ride, so we booked a brief stopover in Paducah, KY. As it turned out we were in the same campground six years ago, on the way from E. St. Louis to Florida after taking Serena to her big show at the Greater St. Louis Specialty. We didn’t stay here very long either time, and the continued three digit temps kept us from wandering too far from our A/C.

So it was quickly on to Nashville – our second visit there, too. But this time our plans were different. We’d done extensive touring on our 2010 visit, both downtown and throughout the area, so this time the focus was on music . . . music . . . music. First goal was to snag tickets to the Grand Ole Opry. In 2010, we’d driven out to the Gaylord complex and seen The Opry, the hotel and the monster shopping center, but our view was all external. One week after our visit, the Cumberland River flooded large parts of the city and put the stage under almost four feet of water. Both Gaylord and the Members rallied; the show played every week at earlier venues, and The Opry building reopened in five months.

Everything good was gone for the early part of our visit, but there were some close-in, off to the side tickets for Friday night. We grabbed ‘em. Meanwhile, I spotted an event at the Ryman downtown, the fourth in a series of six weekly bluegrass concerts. Reticent to leave the dogs for extra-long periods two nights in a row, Dot opted not to go. But the headliner was Rhonda Vincent, and the draw of the Mother Church of Country Music was too much to miss.

I headed downtown very early, not knowing what to expect in traffic and parking. As it turns out, each was a breeze. It started to rain as I strolled down to the theater, so I ducked into the Nashville Convention Center next door for a look-around but quickly got kicked out because a members-only convention was going on. I hadn’t brought my camera; they never allow photography during performances. So I pulled out my phone, at which I’m a total novice, and snapped a few pix of the building. It was then that I noticed a commotion at the other end of the alley alongside it – lots of people standing around under umbrellas – and headed for it. They were Rhonda fans, waiting for her exit from her Martha White Touring Bus, and when she did, they all burst out in a chorus of Happy Birthday. She was all smiles under the bright photo lights, and even more so when her family presented her with a new Chrysler retractable hard top convertible. The rain had eased to a drizzle, so Rhonda hopped in and the staff worked the roof. Tons of pix and another chorus later, she went back in the bus and we all headed for the entrance.

I knew less than I thought I did. I knew that the Ryman, formerly a religious meeting house, was the home of The Opry for 31 years until Gaylord Entertainment built a new larger home for it in their center about 12 miles outside of downtown. I knew that a six foot circle of the old Ryman stage had been embedded dead center in the new stage, so the circle would not be broken. Actually, The Opry returns to the Ryman for performances in the winter.

What I didn’t know was how casual everything was. A pre-show band, the Howling Brothers, was playing in the lobby as people took full advantage of the snack bars and liquor bars. Both concessions were repeated on the second floor, and there was no issue taking food, drink – or cameras – into the theater. The seats are pews, and cushions are on sale. The family in front of me, subscribers to the series, had blow-up stadium cushions that they pulled out of pouches that looked like Totes umbrellas. I succumbed to a tub of caramel corn and a water and took my place with empty seats on either side.

What I’ve said above about the atmosphere is the same as the spirit at The Opry itself. And so is the following. Eddie Stubbs, long-time evening show host for WSM680 AM Radio in Nashville and official announcer for The Opry since 1995, hosted this evening at the Ryman. The place was full of ads and commercials read in old-time radio style by Eddie. As you may know, Opry performances are actually on the air while you’re sitting in the audience watching them, so Eddie not only introduces hosts and acts but also conveys sponsor messages –and announces awards for raffle drawings and other promos.

The sponsor for the bluegrass concerts is Springer Mountain Farms, whose chickens are antibiotic, by product, hormone and growth stimulant free. They also boast that they are the only farm certified by the American Humane Association. The president was there with his own product giveaway. Also hyped is Martha White Baking Products. The company started sponsoring The Opry in 1948 and continues its close association with country music. Previous spokespeople include Tennessee Ernie Ford and Flatt & Struggs, and currently it’s . . . Rhonda Vincent! Rhonda’s bus is decorated on both sides with MW messages, and you can see the back above.

The opening act was Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers. The fact that I’d never heard of them was not the result of their quality – just a hole in my knowledge. Joe plays banjo and is joined, as one would expect, by a guitar, mandolin, fiddle and bass. The band is based in Ohio, where Joe owns three country/bluegrass radio stations. He put the band together in 2006 to promote ithe stations, but demand has led to a lot more dates. In fact, they had another Ryman gig nine days later. Rhonda came out and sang one song with them, dressed in the same outfit as she wore in the back lot. But she changed for her own performance. Side note: the Ramblers’ bus ain’t anywhere as fancy as Rhonda’s!

Rhonda was absolutely terrific. The New Queen of Bluegrass, she was born in Kirksville, Missouri and still lives there surrounded by a giant family, commuting to Nashville. She played drums at the age of five in the family band, The Sally Mountain Show, and the show reprises itself annually. She plays mandolin – and sometime guitar or fiddle – and she writes songs from bluegrass instrumentals to heart-wrenching ballads. She has won the International Bluegrass Music Association award for Female Vocalist of the Year seven times, and she’s backed by her fabulous touring band, The Rage, whose newest member is 23 year old dobro ace Brent Burke. Brent got his B.A. from East Tennessee State last fall — the first student to earn a degree in bluegrass, old time and country music studies.

On Friday, we wer just as early to The Opry, arriving a full 90 minutes before showtime. It was long before the doors opened, so we wandered and people-watched. Among the people to watch was a real live up-to-date Minnie Pearl and a Roy Acuff, posing for pictures with fans. Once inside, we found the routine the same – plenty of snacks and drinks to be had and no problem taking eats — or cameras — to the seats, even though these pews were cushioned. In fact, every time a new celebrity would come onstage during the show, anywhere from a few to a few dozen fans would run down to the lip of the stage to take close-ups.

Our seats were seventh row and just outside the proscenium. No curtain was used. A jumbotron hung downstage, and smaller flat screens were right and left. They alternately showed Opry fun facts and ads for the evening’s sponsors. The four segments for the two-plus hour show were sponsored by Humana, Cracker Barrel, Johnny Walker Tours and Dollar General. Eddie Stubbs, of course, was the announcer.

Minnie came out in front about 20 minutes before the show and, starting us off with a Howdeeeeeee, told some stories, pitched some events and kept us entertained until Eddie took over. He had a lot more to do because he was on-air; in addition to thank-yous and contests, he had a slew of announcements of birthdays, anniversaries and the like. But then we got underway. Here’s a review of the talent; since this hasn’t been our lifetime #1 genre, some were unknown to us.

Segment #1: Host: Jeannie Seely. A Grammy winner in 1966 with numerous hits through the 60s and 70s, she’s been hosting at The Opry since 1985. Jeannie opened and closed her segment with songs of her own, and at 72, she still has it! Jimmy C. Newman, 84, has been singing since his teens and was invited to join The Opry in 1956, after his recording success had earned him a regular spot on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport. After becoming an established artist, he returned to Louisiana to integrate his Cajun heritage into his repertoire.

Segment #2: Host: Little Jimmy Dickens. Jimmy is still standing tall at 4’ 11” at 91. He’s the longest standing Opry member with 63 years of tenure. He’s also the only member whose mailbox backstage is out of alphabetical order, simply because he otherwise couldn’t reach it. His voice and guitar didn’t betray his age. George Hamilton IV broke into the business as a pop singer with the solid gold hit A Rose and a Baby Ruth. He agreed to record it only if he could put a song of his own on the B-side; it was If You Don’t Know I Ain’t Gonna Tell You, which defined his country reputation. He was hired by Chet Atkins at RCA Records in 1960 and officially joined The Opry the same year. In 1963, he struck it large with Abilene. After that, he went international and is considered the world ambassador of country music. His son, George V, a star in his own right, was on stage with his dad this evening.

Our favorite: Jimmy Wayne, a 40 year old talent from N.C., had a disastrous youth, living much of the time on the streets or in foster homes with his sister. He was taken in by an elderly couple at age 16 and his life turned around; he finished high school, earned an Associate’s degree in criminal justice and worked as a corrections officer. Two years ago, he created the Meet Me Halfway campaign, hiking half way across the country (1,660 miles) alone to raise awareness about homeless youth and more specifically children aging out of the foster system. After singing two numbers, he explained his young life in detail and debuted the new song he’s written about it, to be released in August. It had us in tears and brought the audience to its feet.

Segment #3: Host: John Conlee. A member of The Opry since 1981, he started his music career late, working first as a mortician and then as a disc jockey. He charted 11 studio albums and 32 singles between 1978 and 2004; seven singles went to number one. Sarah Darling is a beautifully-voiced 30 year old from Iowa. In 2003, she was a top-3 finalist on Wayne Newton’s reality show, The Entertainer. Newton took her aside, told her she was his favorite, but she wouldn’t win because she wasn’t right for Vegas – she was right for Nashville. She took his advice and paid her dues for five years until she was discovered by producer Jimmy Nichols who heard her song Stop the Bleeding on her MySpace music page and signed her as the first artist on his new label. Now she’s writing and recording and appearing for real. Will Hoge, 40, grew up just south of Nashville in Franklin, Tennessee. He worked toward a teaching degree at W. Kentucky U. until he realized he wanted a career in music . His early efforts were not strong, and his first album for a major label in 2003 was poorly promoted. But with a legion of fans and his band behind him, he persevered; he’s had resident dates and tours, and he’s released his seventh album. Vince Gill, a big fan, invited him to join The Opry.

Segment #4: Host: Riders in the Sky. The Riders are nationally known for their classic Cowboy and Western songs and their comedy routines. Over thirty-five years, they’ve had (more-or-less) 6200 live performances, 300 national TV appearances, 200 public radio shows, 700 Grand Ole Opry appearances, 3 television series and 30 albums. They’ve been the voice of the Yella Wood lumber campaign for the past few years. Singer-songwriter Ray Pillow, 75, formed his first band, The Stardusters, after earning a business degree from Lynchburg (VA) College. He and his wife sold everything in 1963 to move to Nashville, where he got his first break on Martha White radio and TV shows. In 1964, Capital Records signed him, and he was invited to join The Opry in 1966, his banner year filled with top-10 hits and national awards. As a music publisher and A&R representative, he’s helped developed the professional careers of other top artists, including Lee Greenwood of God Bless the USA fame.

Randy Travis closed the show. He had numerous run-ins with the law as a kid. But a relationship with Elizabeth Hatcher — much too complex for this blog — got him a contract with Warner Brothers, and since 1985, he’s sold over 25 million records and has his share of platinum and multi-platinum albums. Among dozens of awards, one that lauds his acting career is a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His musical career waned in the late 1990s; in 1997 he moved from Warner Bros. to Dream Works Records and refreshed it by changing his focus to gospel. He is credited with major innovation in country music. In the picture at right, you can see Randy standing on the circle that will never be broken – not even by the disastrous flood.

Well, we did do one non-musical thing. Tennessee celebrated the centennial of its statehood in 1896 with the Centennial Exposition. After reading about the effort and viewing many pictures of the Expo, we were totally blown away by the effort. There were dozens of sponsored buildings and exhibits, with a centerpiece that reflected the city’s slogan: the Athens of the South. A full-size replica of The Parthenon, originally built from wood, brick and plaster, was created for the Expo. It was enough of a hit to be retained after the celebration, but built for a short life, it quickly decayed. The city’s love for it didn’t, and between 1920 and 1931, it was rebuilt in concrete.

It houses a permanent exhibit of paintings in the Cowan Collection. James Cowan, a successful insurance man, collected over 700 works of art in his lifetime. He personally selected 63 of them, all by American artists and most featuring landscapes and seascapes, and donated them anonymously to the city in 1927 for exhibit in the rebuilt hall. His generosity wasn’t revealed until 1930, when he passed away. Cowan considered Tennessee his ancestral home and had been an invitee to the 1897 Centennial.

So precisely is it now detailed that architectural elements were molded using pieces of the original in the British Museum. Surrounding the naos, or upper chamber, outside its columns, are re-casts of the figures purchased from that museum to complete the pediments – sculptures in the triangle of the roof at each end of the building. They were originally removed from Greece to England in 1804 by the Earl of Elgin.

But wait . . .there’s more. I had been to the Parthenon before. In the 1980s, Camping World was on my database client list, and my visits involved flying into Nashville and driving up to Bowling Green. Since then, a feature missing from both Tennessee renditions has been added: the 42 foot tall statue of Athena Parthenos that stands in the naos, or upper chamber. In 1990, the full-size reproduction by Alan LeQuire was unveiled. She then stood alabaster white until 2002, when LeQuire and master gilder Louis Reed adorned her with 23.75 karat gold, eight pounds of it! A six foot Nike stands in her hand, preparing to crown her with a laurel wreath, and a plethora of gods and goddesses decorate the rim of her podium.

Two revolving art exhibits downstairs also struck our fancy. One was a series of photographs of Nashville celebrities photographed in the garb and pose of famous paintings. The other was an exhibit of the triglyphs and metopes (huh?). Metopes are scenes that appear in a frieze below the roof and above the columns. Tryglyphs are undecorated panels that separate them. In his continuous frieze that circled the room, the artist charmingly updated the metopes to the 21st century.

Next stop? Another chapter of the story that started — by surprise — in the Tri Cities of Washington in the spring of 2011. And a return visit to two of our favorite Schipperke – and all-around great personal – friends. As a bonus, we got a wide-eyed education in eastern Tennessee. Read on . . .

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