Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Adventures in the South – Nashville, Part 1

We landed in Nashville late on Saturday afternoon, after flight delays, just in time to get to our hotel, get changed, and head straight out again to the Grand Ole Opry.  This was Jill’s gig really.  She enjoys the blues, but leans towards the folk and country aspects of roots music more than I do, and so had booked tickets for the Opry before we travelled.  And what a surreal experience it turned out to be.
Famously, the Opry was founded as a live radio broadcast, and it still is one today.  So, in a
Posing with a big ole Opry geetar

modern auditorium with adjacent theme park, in front of 4,400 fans, there are regular pauses for the compere to extol the virtues of “Mother Crabtree’s Savoury Sandwiches, sponsors of this segment of the Grand Ole Opry”.  Or whatever.  For those of a certain age, imagine The Good Old Days, with MC Leonard Sachs reading out adverts.  Oh yes, and there’s a dance troupe that puts in a couple of appearances at one side of the stage, doing country dancing type stuff in a manner that older Scots readers might liken to the White Heather Club.
There are several segments to the show, each with a host drawn from the Opry’s “cast members” – the crème de la crème, as it were, who are on retainers to be available for a specified number of shows a year.  They intersperse their own songs with those of the guest artists appearing in their segment, and sometimes perform with them.  The hosts come in all shapes and sizes, starting with the comic cowboy apparel and double entendres of Riders In The Sky, who pilot the opening segment.  And very entertaining they are too, in a Royal Variety Performance kind of way.  Later there was a segment with George Hamilton, now late of this parish, who was mostly familiar to me from BBC shows of the 70s such as Val Doonican, and who came across as rather tired.  Contrastingly, Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan are just the kind of dames you might expect to have got together to record an album called ‘Dos Divas’, delivering Shania Twain-ish material and comic patter with well-practised but entertaining sassiness. But closing segment host Vince Gill, a major star in the country music firmament, mainly made an impression on me with a charmless response to an audience member who dared to shout something between songs.
Riders In The Sky
As for the guests artists, they too cover a number of bases.  Some are cast members like the hosts, such as the veteran Connie Smith, a little lady with a big voice who cranks out a couple of songs in the most effortless and business-like fashion.  But there are also debutants, such as the Ohio bluegrass outfit Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers on this occasion, who do their thang with real verve, complete with highly polished harmonies.

But Joe Mullins is no kid.  He's the owner of a network of radio stations in Ohio.  This is an interesting reference point when contemplating the Grand Ole Opry, and indeed Nashville and the country music scene.  There’s a side to it that is pure business, and big business at that.  If you look at the roster of guest artists on the Opry website, you’ll find a swathe of younger performers, many of them identikit fresh faced blonde girls with acoustic guitars, to be sure, but including some who reach beyond the core country sound to blues and Americana, like the Cadillac Three.  Which is commendable artistically, but it’s also evidence of the Opry adapting and evolving, securing its audience and income stream for the future.  It may be entertaining, it may be kitsch, but don’t ever imagine it’s dumb.

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