February/March 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 2
The story of the world’s longest-running radio program and the extraordinary American music it helped make popular
The Nashville winter of 1974 was the Grand Ole Opry’s last season at the Ryman Auditorium, its home for thirty-three years. The 150 singers, pickers, comics, and doggers, who must agree to make twenty-one appearances each year to become members of the Opry company, had agreed to play down any misgivings they might have about moving out to the new Opryland, and four- and five-color brochures urged: “Come Share the Wonder of OPRYLAND , U.S.A., where the best of country music blends with the strains of Bluegrass, Dixieland, Western, Rock and all of the other exciting sounds of music from this great wide country of ours.”
Roy Acuff, the veteran “King of Country Music” whose rendition of “The Wabash Cannonball” is a country anthem, reportedly said he was glad to be moving out the nine miles on Route 40 East, that old Ryman was a firetrap, that he was worried about the walls falling down. But there were cynics like the beer drinker I talked to at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the tavern behind Ryman Hall that has acted as a watering hole for many of the stars and sidemen: “Why shouldn’t old Roy want to move?” he asked. “Ain’t they naming that roller coaster out there ‘The Wabash Cannonball’? By God, this is one old boy that ain’t setting foot inside that place. Hell, you can’t even buy a beer out there.” And a producer on Nineteenth Street, the center of the music publishing business: “Honey, Fm never going in there again. I went once and I had to leave. I began crying. Crying. That was the worst thing they could have done to country music. Oh, I just hate it. All that plastic and Astroturf. And that air conditioning is going to ruin country music. A country boy has got to sweat or he ain’t nothing.”
The final performance at Ryman Hall on March 9, 1974, in the old red-brick tabernacle, with the oak floors, the handcarved pews, the ecclesiastical windows, the tiny dressing rooms, and the galvanized steel trough in the men’s room, ended with Johnny Cash standing center stage with Maybelle Carter, Hank Snow, June Carter Cash, and fifty others singing the last number, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” During the show most of the cast had tried to make it seem like any other night at Ryman, but many wouldn’t, some couldn’t. Jean Shepard, right in the middle of her song, broke into tears and ran offstage crying. Pete Axthelm, who writes for Newsweek , was there and wrote, “I loved Jean Shepard for that burst of unconcealed emotion and I drank to her later, enthusiastically and at length in the bar [Tootsie’s] that the Opry left behind.”
The fifty-three-year-old Grand Ole Opry didn’t actually begin at Ryman Hall, but at Studio A in the National Life Building in downtown Nashville. Then it moved to the Hillsboro Theatre, then to the Dixie Tabernacle in East Nashville, then to the War Memorial building, and finally in 1941 to Ryman, whose beginnings run like a morality play. One hot summer night in 1891 Captain Tom Ryman, a hard-nosed riverboat captain whose big loves were drinking, raising hell, and breaking up revival meetings along the Cumberland River, docked his sidewheeler in Nashville. He stormed into a tent meeting with fifteen or twenty of his crewmen, intending to clear out Amen Row and drive the preacher from the pulpit. But Rev. Sam P. Jones, a leatherlunged Jesus shouter, was ready for him. As Captain Ryman started up the sawdust trail, Jones switched sermons and went into his favorite eulogy on Mother. Ryman stopped. He listened. Tears came to his eyes and he sank to the ground. When he arose, he was sanctified and reborn. And to the amazement of the congregation, and the agony of his crew, Tom Ryman announced that he would dedicate the rest of his mortal life to doing the Lord’s work, and that on the very spot where he was saved he would build the Ryman Tabernacle. Two years later the tabernacle was dedicated to the Gospel. With a seating capacity of thirty-three hundred, it eventually proved to be too large for Nashville Fundamentalism, and after years of serving as a convention hall, it finally became the home of Grand Ole Opry in 1941.
The first show at the new Opryland on March 16, 1974, began with Roy Acuff himself singing “The Wabash Cannonball.” Then he cocked his head into the mountain tenor of “You Are My Sunshine,” the song Jimmy Davis wrote and campaigned and won two terms as governor of Louisiana on in the fifties. Acuff himself had run for governor of Tennessee in the forties, and Tex Ritter, singing “High Noon” and “Boll Weevil,” had tried for the U.S. Senate in 1970. Acuff lost, as did Ritter, which may suggest something about Louisiana’s taste in music, or Tennessee politics.
Not always a singer, Roy Acuff started off as a pro ballplayer for the New York Giants farm team, but sunstroke ended that career. Forced to stay indoors, he began to learn the fiddle. After traveling as a singer, picker, and comic with Dr. Howar’s Medicine Show, he organized his own band, the Crazy Tennesseans, but “Judge” George D. Hay, who ran the Opry at that time, told him the name slurred the state, so he changed it to the Smoky Mountain Boys, which it’s been since 1938. For the past forty years Roy Acuff and his sidemen have been playing at the Opry, touring the high schools of the state, the state fairs of the country, and the coliseums of the world. He is very honest about his talent. “I think I brought a different voice to the Opry,” he recalled for Jack Hurst, author of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry . “Most of the people back then were crooners. They sang soft, and they sang harmony, where I would just open my mouth and fill my lungs with air, and let it go with force. … I didn’t realize how different my singing was from the rest until my mail started coming in. The letters I got would mention how clear I was coming through and how distinct my voice was and how they could understand my words.” Hurst explains that “The mechanical equipment available was too primitive to be able to transmit a very clear sound from the undisciplined live show. In the din, Acuff’s brief and impassioned solo spots stood out like gun shots at midnight.”
Roy Acuff once told me why he sang the same songs over and over and over again. He dodged the question at first. “You know, sometimes I’ll be singing along, like on ‘The Great Speckled Bird/ and if I get the right feeling going I’ll almost cry. That’s the kind of song you can sing every week for forty years, and each time you go at it, it’s a little different. It’s from Jeremiah, twelfth chapter, ninth verse.” But then he leaned forward and handled the question beautifully: “Of course, you’re right I got me a problem now, and there just ain’t no way out of it. People say, all old Roy ever sings is ‘The Great Speckled Bird’ and ‘The Wabash Cannonball.” … Lot of them think that’s all I know. But you know something, there ain’t a day that goes by that some fellow doesn’t come in here and say, ‘Roy, me and the wife’s been listening to the Opry for thirty years, and this is our first time here. Do me a favor, Roy. It’s her birthday, and we done drove all the way down from Wisconsin. How about playing ‘The Wabash Cannonball.’ ” And Roy shook his head. “Now tell me, how’m I going to turn my back on something like that?”
Following Acuff on this, the first show from the new Opryland, in alphabetical order were Bill Anderson, Jim Ed Brown, and Jerry Glower, the Mississippi comedian, Wilma Lee and Stony Cooper with their upbeat version of “Midnight Special,” Stonewall Jackson, Hank Snow and his ageless “Movin” On,” Ernest Tubb with “I’m Walking the Floor Over You,” Dottie West doing “Country Sunshine,” and twentyfive more stars performing twenty-five more numbers.
But the high point of the evening came halfway through the program when the WSM staff band brought President Nixon down from the balcony with a bluegrass version of “Hail to the Chief.” Acuff introduced him and, together, they clowned around about moonshine and country music and even toyed with Yo-yos (an Acuff trademark) before Nixon made a solemn little speech about Middle America and Family, Religion, and Humanity. Then he sat down at the piano to play “Happy Birthday” and “My Wild Irish Rose” for his wife, Pat, and “God Bless America”—the whole Opry cast singing along—before waving his famous V-fingered salute and heading back to Washington and Watergate.
Garrison Keillor, a disc jockey out of St. Paul who was assigned to cover the opening for The New Yorker magazine, had decMed he couldn’t bear to hear the old music he was raised cnrplayed in the new auditorium. He didn’t want to sit in the “specially designed contoured pew-type benches covered in burnt orange colored carpeting,” or to lay eyes on this “vibrant and viable building that conveys a feeling of intimacy, informality, warmth and charm … yet contains the ultimate in modern electronics, acoustics, lighting and audio-visual equipment,” all as described in an Opryland brochure. Listening to the show on his radio in a downtown motel, he writes that he closed his eyes. “I could see the stage as clearly as when I was a kid lying in front of our giant Zenith console. I’d seen a photograph of the Opry stage in a magazine back then, and believe me, one is all you need.” He listened to most of the show: “And then—then—the moment I’d been waiting for. Sam and Kirk McGee from sunny Tennessee played ‘San Antonio Rose.’ It was the accoustic moment when the skies cleared and the weeping steels were silent and out of the clear blue came a little ole guitar duet. Stunning and simple, and so good after all the sound I’d heard that week—the sweetest ‘Rose’ this side of Texas. I turned out the light, turned off the radio, and went to sleep on it. In the morning, the radio was on the floor, its plastic cover cracked. I believe it would still work, but I will never play it again. It is my only Opry souvenir. Inside it the McGee Brothers are still picking and will forever, Minnie Pearl cackles, the Crooks are dancing, Jim and Jesse ascend into heavenly harmony, and the Great Acuff rides the Wabash Cannonball to the lakes of Minnesota, where the rippling waters fall.”
Despite the controversy over the old and the new auditoriums and the fact that over 2,000,000 of the faithful drive their lives out (average distance 470 miles one way to come to Nashville) every year to be with the stars and tour the homes and buy the souvenirs, and that another 20,000,000 see the Opry on syndicated TV, the show, regardless of its trappings, began as a radio program and is still conducted like one. It’s been described as “organized chaos,” with groups tuning up, friends visiting friends, agents arranging dates, songwriters plugging songs, and an occasional subpoena server standing in the wings waiting for the star to finish to get him back on his alimony payments. But while it’s bedlam onstage, the only sound that goes out to the audience and the radio listeners is the sound from the microphones up front and center stage.
While there are several versions of the program’s exact birthday, the consensus seems to be that it first took to the air on November 28, 1925, at the National Life and Accident Insurance Company’s station WSM (We Shield Millions). The story runs how Uncle Jimmy Thompson, an eighty-year-old dirt farmer, was introduced by Judge Hay, the announcer and originator of the show, and how the old gentleman claimed he knew more than one thousand fiddle songs. After his hour was up he complained, “Fiddlesticks! A man can’t get warmed up in no one hour. This show has got to be longer.” The show became longer, much longer, and finally expanded to four hours on Friday and four on Saturday, which brings it in as not only the world’s oldest radio program but also its longest.
Judge Hay was responsible for its name. He opened the program one night following Walter Damrosch’s “Music Appreciation Hour” from New York City. “Well, folks,” he said, “for the past hour we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera, but from now on we will present the Grand Ole Opry. …” The name stuck, the show grew, and today, over fifty years later, it is broadcast and relayed to every state in the country.
When Uncle Jimmy Thompson requested that they make the show longer for him, he had no idea of the competition that was waiting in the wings. Such high-powered groups as the Possum Hunters, the Crook Brothers, with Sam and Kirk McGee, the Gulley Jumpers, and the Fruit Jar Drinkers leaped onto the stage and stayed for twenty, thirty, forty years; the Fruit Jar Drinkers, the Crook Brothers, and Sam and Kirk McGee are still with us. But the big star in the first fifteen years was the banjo-playing, singing, dancing jokester, “The Dixie Dew Drop,” Uncle Dave Macon. He was introduced as the “struttingest strutter that ever strutted a strut with a banjo or guitar,” and his “Turkey in the Straw,” “Sugar Walks Down the Street,” “Ain’t Going to Rain No More,” and “Go Away, Mule” would set the whole audience to stomping and screaming. Uncle Dave’s following was enormous. Fred Ritchie, who died in the electric chair at the Tennessee State Prison on Tuesday, August 10, 1937, for slaying his wife, had warden Joe Pope call up WSM the preceding Saturday night. This was Ritchie’s last chance to hear the Grand Ole Opry and he had only one final request: he wanted Uncle Dave Macon to play “When I Take My Vacation in Heaven.” Uncle Dave didn’t let him down.
I once asked Grandpa Jones, a singer and comic for Martha White Flour on the Opry, if he had heard a recent song. His reply was candid: “What’s it the tune to?” Country music writers have always allowed their lyrics to override the melody, and when a song’s lyrics are good enough, no one complains. The seventies hit “I Didn’t Know God Made Honky Tonk Angels” sounds (because it is exactly) the same as Acuff’s “The Great Speckled Bird,” which sounds (because it is exactly) the same as A.P. Carter’s “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.” But then a lot of songs go back to A.P. Carter and the Carter Family. In my copy of the Encyclopedia Americana there is a Don Carter, an American bowler who for seven years was the key member of the renowned Budweiser team of St. Louis. There are also twelve more Carters, including Nick, the fictional detective, but there is no mention of Maybelle Carter, no Sara Carter, and not one word about the man who probably had more influence on country music than anyone—Alvin Pleasant “A.P.” Carter.
In July of 1927, one Ezra Carter forbade his wife Maybelle to accompany A.P. and his wife Sara, who was Maybelle’s cousin, into Bristol, Virginia, for a recording session. A.P. had contacted Ralph S. Peer to audition for a tryout. The money was to have been fifty dollars per song; there was no guarantee of even doing one. But Ezra told Maybelle the twenty-five miles was too far and that there was too much to do around the house. A.P. finally volunteered that he would clear out a patch of weeds from Ezra’s yard if he would let her go, and Ezra gave in. A.P., Sara, and Maybelle loaded up their Model A Ford with instruments, and with Gladys Carter as a baby-sitter and Baby Joe, who was still being breast-fed by Sara, they set out for the twenty-five mile ride to Bristol. The rest is history. With Sara’s great voice and Maybelle’s guitar and Autoharp virtuosity and A.P., who did the harmony and “worked up” the songs, they were an immediate hit. Within a year they had recorded songs that will be with us forever: “Wildwood Flower,” “John Hardy,” “Forsaken Love,” “Diamond in the Rough,” “Foggy Mountain Top,” and on and on. Back home in the Clinch Mountain Valley they continued playing at the high schools and the churches, and A.P., always the organizer, tacked up posters on the pine trees: “Look! Victor artists A.P. Carter and the Carter Family will give a musical program at Elm Hill School August 10th … This program is morally good. 25 cents adults … 15 cents children.”
The Carters are virtually unique in country music in that unlike other groups who try to find out what the public wants, or what will sell, they stuck to what they knew and what they loved. Close harmony became their trademark.
The Carters’ most famous song is “Wildwood Flower,” and many of its rhythms and phrasings can be found running through most of their music. Every few years a songwriter tries to set new lyrics to “Wildwood Flower,” but the Carter arrangement is too formidable and too familiar and the public quickly rejects it. Even Woody Guthrie tried changing it to “Reuben James,” but “Wildwood Flower,” which is considered the national anthem of Nashville, won out, and “Reuben James” is rarely heard these days. Another Carter song that Guthrie reworked was “Little Darling Pal of Mine.” He rewrote the lyrics, and called it “This Land Is Your Land.” A.P. Carter, probably knowing how fast his favorite lyrics were being changed and forgotten, saved his favorite song title for his tombstone. In 1960 he was buried in Maces Springs, Virginia; the legend under his name and dates is the simple and straightforward “Keep on the Sunny Side.” Maybelle Carter’s daughter June having married Johnny Cash, the Cash-Carter line may produce great music forever.
Popular music in the twenties was heading in a dozen ‘directions at once. And even in the Appalachians, stretching from West Virginia to South Carolina—where they were still reading the Bible by kerosene light and playing hymns and ballads—radio and the recording industry soon spawned a different kind of country music. People now wanted more than Uncle Jimmy Thompson sawing away on “Old Zip Coon” and “Down Yonder”; they wanted voices they could hear and words they could follow. Many wanted the songs and singers they’d seen on the medicine shows that had rolled through their small towns, and many wanted the music of Jimmie Rodgers.
The story of Jimmie Rodgers has become a country legend. Born in Meridian, Mississippi, on September 8, 1897, he left school at fourteen to work full time as a water carrier on the railroad. Later the gandy dancers’ ringing lines would find their way into his music. “Hey, little water boy, bring that water round. / If you don’t like your job, put that water bucket down.” Most of Rodgers’ adult life was spent on the railroads of Mississippi and Texas, but in 1923 he tried the medicine-show business. Blacking his face, he set out with a road show as a singer. He was a born entertainer and with the money he made he invested in his own “Hawaiian Tent Show” and made his bid for the big money. But a high wind blew the tent down and in a matter of hours he lost everything he had. Forced to pawn his banjo to get back home to Carrie, his wife in Meridian, he arrived in time for the funeral of his six-month-old daughter, June Rebecca. One year later, broke and back on the railroad, he discovered he had tuberculosis, and spent the next three months in a charity hospital. Tuberculosis forced him finally to quit the railroad at twenty-nine, and he decided to make his living doing what he loved best, writing music and playing it.
As Jimmie Rodgers’ health failed, he traveled more, wrote more, and with the knowledge of having only a few more years left, began drinking hard and living as fast as he could. On August 4, 1927, he got his big break. On the Tennessee side of State Street in Bristol, Ralph S. Peer, who, a month before, had recorded the Carter Family, recorded the first Jimmie Rodgers’ record. It was an instant sensation, and in the next few years he was to record 111 more songs, most of them his own: “I’m Lonely and Blue,” “Way Out on the Mountain,” “Freight Train Blues,” “Muleskinner Blues,” and his famous “ T for T exas, T for T ennessee, / T for T helma, that gal that made a wreck out of me.” His success, with its built-in sense of self-destruction, fed his popularity: he was living the wild and doomed life his fans identified with.
Rodgers’ first hits featured his famous “Blue Yodel,” and when he hit the big time he built himself a mansion in Kerrville, Texas, and called it Blue Yodeler’s Paradise. In his song “Jimmie the Kid” he tells much of his own story: “I’ll tell you a story about Jimmie the Kid, / A brakeman you all know, He shoveled coal / On the T & N & P.O. …” The list of railroads goes on, along with his failures and his successes and his great pride in Carrie, his daughter Anita, and his Blue Yodeler’s Paradise.
For six years Jimmie Rodgers recorded and toured the country appearing with such stars as Gene Austin and Will Rodgers, and as the tuberculosis weakened him, he seemed to work harder. Maybelle Carter recalled recording with him a year before his death. “I played [guitar] for him. … He wasn’t able to play … he was that sick … I had to play like him, you know, so everybody would think it was him. But it was me.”
In April, 1933, Jimmie Rodgers knew the end was in sight. In New York for a recording session, he rested between takes on a cot set up in the studio. The last twelve songs recorded there were to provide for Carrie and Anita. On May 25, on a sightseeing trip to Coney Island, he began hemorrhaging, and late the next day at the Taft Hotel he died at the age of thirty-six.
Talents like Jimmie Rodgers—and jazz stars Billie Holliday and Charlie Parker—in reaching for the better tunes, the fresher licks, and the newer sounds, keep stepping up the pace until they are producing more songs, more music, and more poetry in one year than the rest of us do in a lifetime. But they pay a fierce price, fueling their talent with whisky, pills, and running around until it breaks them.
It is as if Hank Williams, who was born in Georgiana, Alabama, in 1923 and grew up selling peanuts and shining shoes, had read the book on Jimmie Rodgers and then set out to follow the same wild and careening trail. At twenty-six, after a wretched life filled with rejection, poverty, and living up to his reputation for being a drunk, he finally got a chance on the Opry. His first song was his own “Lovesick Blues,” which is still one of the toughest songs around. The crowd forced him to sing six encores and were standing on their feet screaming for more when Red Foley, the master of ceremonies, finally had to tell them there were other singers on the show, and they had his solemn promise that they would be seeing a lot more of Mr. Hank Williams. Melvin Shestack, in his Country Music Encyclopedia , recalls how, as a high school journalist, he interviewed Williams when he played a small town in New York State. After eating hot dogs and drinking orange soda, they sat under a tree and Williams tried to explain where he got ideas for songs. “I don’t know how to answer that. Sometimes I make ‘em up. Other times they just come to me. And other times I listen to people and try to understand how they feel about things. Feelings about things. That’s what songs should be about.”
Williams’ life held a raw and wild mixture of talent and unhappiness, and the problems that locked themselves onto him were so great that the only wonder is he managed to hang on as long as he did. By 1952, three years after singing “Lovesick Blues” and after making $500,000 and writing such songs as “Cold, Cold Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Jambalaya,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I Saw the Light,” “Honky Tonkin’,” and “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” the bottom began to come out. He was showing up for concerts drunk or not showing up at all. In the same year in which he and his first wife were divorced, he was suspended from the Grand Ole Opry for being too drunk to perform. Hank Williams found a new wife, but now almost broke, he was forced to restage the marriage for money in a Shreveport, Louisiana, theater: two shows, an afternoon “rehearsal” and an evening ceremony. Williams’ health, like Rodgers’, was now beginning to go, and then, in typical country music style, instead of checking into a hospital or seeing a real doctor, he took his sickness to a quack with a faked medical certificate. Hank Williams by this time had only one ambition, to be allowed back on the stage of his beloved Grand Ole Opry. He might have made it, but on a long drive from Montgomery to Canton, Ohio, to play a date on New Year’s Day, 1954, he died of heart failure, perhaps brought on by an overdose of drugs. He was twenty-nine. Commerce goes on; today in Nashville the green Cadillac he died in is on exhibit, and for twelve dollars I was offered what was claimed to be the needle he OD’d on, set in Lucite.
Country music, which has been defined to death, resists every classification except Kris Kristofferson’s “If it sounds country, man, it’s country.” It is a blend of British balladry, American folk, Protestant hymns, Southern white themes, and black blues. “Sometimes the music is called ‘hillbilly music,’ ” writes novelist Charles Portis, “which is only half accurate, because the southern lowlands have contributed just as much as the hill folks, perhaps more; and sometimes ‘country and western,’ which is misleading because such of it as reflects the culture west of Abilene, Texas, tends to be pretty thin stuff. ‘Southern-white workingclass music’ would never do as a tag. But that’s what it is.”
Perhaps it’s even simpler than that. Mastering a guitar or banjo lick or working out a new style, as in the case of the Carter Family or Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Williams, may very well come as a relief from the tension and the boredom of the day’s work. Earl Scruggs, who popularized the threefinger banjo-picking style, said it cleanly: “I taught myself. We were on the farm and it was in the winter. I didn’t have anything else to do.”
Merle Travis, who wrote “Sixteen Tons,” “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette,” “Dark as a Dungeon,” and originated a whole new method of guitar picking—which he describes as splitting his left hand in half while he plays the bass with his thumb—once said, “There is always a better guitar player on down the road. Always.” The new musician gets richer tones, faster runs, and comes up with new chords, and people gather around and listen. Then someone else picks it up and then it travels. It’s easy to see how pickers can keep doing showboat runs and fast fret patterns on the back porch after work and eventually figure out a whole new sound, a whole new technique from simply trying to get ready for the new player who’s just ridden into town. A Grand Ole Opry favorite, “The Orange Blossom Special,” which no one wrote and everybody wrote, has a rich structure, much like jazz, which has evolved out of thousands of hours of fiddle and guitar players trying to out-perform one another. Listen to the song and watch for the setup which allows the soloists to step forward and do their stuff and then sit back down and wait to do it again. Listen also for the incredible accumulation that sets the stage for the best fiddler in the area and challenges him to try and cut it.
Travis, who is always looking for that phantom lick out there in the dark beyond his talent, told me about the competition and the search. Much of it is done under the guise of general horsing around, but the competition is there. “This old boy came to my dressing room down in Waco, Texas, with a sheet of music, wanting to know how I fretted a double B chord. I said, ‘A double B?’ Yeah, that fool thought B-flat was a double B. Called it big B and little B. Well, I asked him if his fingers were limber, and he wiggled them around and told me he could reach and hold anything. Right there was where he made his mistake. I wound that rascal around that guitar neck like a pea vine running through a cyclone fence. I had him put a finger on four places an octopus couldn’t reach, and I said, ‘You got it.’ That old boy was holding on, sweating bullets, and his hand was so cramped up and stretched out so far it was throbbing. He said, ‘Yessir, I got her. I got her. But she’s slipping. … It’s going to take some strong practice to do this one. But listen, I sure appreciate this.’ ”
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.”