Grand Ole Opry

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There is a lyric in the old song “On Top of Old Smoky” that runs: “He’ll tell you more lies, / Than the crossties on the railroad / Or the stars in the skies.” Somehow that horizon out where the railroad and the clustering stars come together captures many of the feelings that country music tries to touch; the prairie, the sadness, the trouble. The great songs have this quality, and when they are sung right, there is nothing quite like it in the world. And some Friday or Saturday night, somewhere in between the commercials for Goo-Goo Clusters and Trailblazer dog food and Martha White’s everything, if you listen close to the Opry, these moments will be there again.

While I was in Nashville the last time, I walked through old Ryman, trying to remember my favorite performance. The church pews are still slick from the years of wear since Captain Tom Ryman had them carved for Reverend Jones, and the sunlight streaming through the high and pointed red, yellow, and blue tabernacle windows still washes colors over the Confederate Gallery, the front rows, and across the big stage. The watchman’s dog was sleeping in the center aisle, and as I moved around him, the old wooden floor creaked. Thinking back, it wasn’t hard to remember one night back in the sixties when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were riding together on the Martha White portion of the show. I was sitting in the orchestra in the middle of the fried chicken, the sausage biscuits, the beer. I took no notes that night because I needed none. But later I jotted some down at the Alamo Plaza and still later they found their way into a novel I was working on. While this description doesn’t catch the music, because I know of no way to do that, it does point to it as it goes winging by, which may be all we can ever do:

“Flatt and Scruggs and ‘The Foggy Mountain Boys’ came on like race horses, steel sharp and as right as railroad spikes. The high-pitched banjo crawled up on top, the low fiddle growl held at the side, while the steady driving dobro underneath pushed it all together and straight out at us. It curled and skipped, danced and broke and raced forward, ricocheting off sheet metal onto some wilder level where heat lightning flashed and forked and waited. ‘The Foggy Mountain Boys’ held the frenzied bridge for eight straight bars and Earl Scruggs tipped his white hat and stepped in tight. The rest backed. He came on somber-faced, expressionless, placid and picking like a madman. High, shrill, and quick as a lizard. His jaw was set and his eyes were riveted to the twin spider hands as his ten fingers with twenty different things to do walked back and forth on the ebony-black and motherof-pearl five string frets. He went to the top of where he was going, held it, and then slid down in a machine-gun shower of sharp C, G and A notes that moved like a ribbon and streaked out over the crowd to be heard a country mile away. He bowed quickly and stepped back as Lester Flatt, his guitar up high with the box to his ear, moved in. He sang with his eyes closed, his head cocked for range, and threw out his nasal, perfect tones in a short sowbelly arc that rose and fell gathering in all the mountain folds, wood smoke and purple twilights of the Cumberlands. He was unconscious of the crowd and the back-up men, of himself. He heard only the music which raised him up high on his toes and twisted him around until his jaw was pointing to the top of the long curved ceiling. No one in the crowd spoke, coughed, or shifted. They strained forward, not wanting to miss a beat, a sound, a flash. It was an old Carter song, ‘I Still Think the Good Things Outweigh the Bad.’ It wasn’t gospel but as the words hung in the heat and the hundred year old oak of Ryman, it was gospel for Lester Flatt. The back-up men moved in to pick him up. They were dark-eyed and haunted-looking under their big shadowthrowing hats. Too many years and nights on the road had ground them down, but it had sharpened them and their music into the close grained group they were. They heard each other and they listened. They blocked for one another and dovetailed in right, building, breaking, and backing up with tight close counterpoints. The fiddle player swooped in with wild slides and dips, stops, double stops and high, close, screech work at the top of the neck. They peaked and held, and then easing off they stepped aside as Mister Earl Scruggs moved back in. He cranked the D tuner down, then up on the peg head and slicing into a fresh key brought the house down with his blinding showering finish. … The crowd rose shouting, whistling, stomping, rebel-yelling and the flash bulbs exploded from every angle and I was screaming louder than any of them.”