Before I embarked on this Nashville Trip, I asked myself a few questions. Would the Music City that I heard about in songs and read about in books over the past 11 years live up to the high expectations I had for it? The answer is a definite yes. Lower Broadway, in my opinion, is probably the coolest tourist district in the United States. And all the nightclubs and bars are so much fun. The festival greatly enhances the experience, but I think Nashville would be a great place on a normal week.
That said, I'd give the festival 9.5 stars out of 10. That's only because I was slightly disappointed with the night concerts. But a trip to the Grand Ole Opry received a perfect 10 from this cowpoke.
The entire week, I'd stayed in the area between my lodging and the downtown festival area. The Opry, located in Music Valley, is about 12 miles away, and I needed to take a shuttle there and a taxi back.
When I walked up to the Opry, I was amazed at how large it was. There was a nice little outside concert area called Opry Plaza where no acts could showcase their music.
I checked out the free Opry Museum and would have to say even though it doesn't have the glitz, glamour or advertising of the Country Music Hall of Fame, it still has just as many cool artifacts - with a lot of stuff focusing on Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff and Marty Robbins. But there's also features on the new Opry members.
On the grounds of the former Opryland theme park is the Opry Mills shopping mall. When I'd heard in the 1990's that they were turning the theme park into a mall, I was disappointed. But this is probably the biggest mall I'd ever been to, and the first one with a country music theme. I walked away impressed.
Before the Opry, about 300 fans gathered outside to watch Sunny Sweeney perform at the Opry Plaza. This was the second time that I'd seen the Texan, since she was performing at the Chevrolet stage outside the Sommet Center on Friday. This time, she was able to sing more songs, including "Mama's Opry", the Iris Dement-penned song about growing up listening to the Opry.
I purchased an Opry souvenir book before the show, and the introductory page had a comment from Brad Paisley about how a visit to the Opry is like a pilgrimage for country music fans. I certainly agree. And tonight was extra special because Mel Tillis was inducted as the Opry's 66th member. Not a bad year for the University of Florida - two sports championships and an alum getting inducted into the Opry.
When you walk into the Opry, you're amazed at the history in the place. Even though it started at the Ryman, this is the show of which country music began picking up a national audience, instead of being a regional thing.
A Minnie Pearl impersonator told a few jokes, and then they played a video on the history of the Opry, which gave me chills when Vince Gill said "legends are revered, new superstars are born and it's packed with excitement every time the curtain goes up."
If loud concerts are your thing, the Opry isn't for you. It's a live radio show that makes you feel like you're back in 1940's or 1950's, but much of the music is still fresh for today's audience. They do such a great job of mixing the legends, newcomers and everyone inbetween.
The first act was Little Jimmy Dickens, who sang "Take An Old Cold Tater and Wait". Dickens is a great honky-tonk singer, but he's every bit as good as a comedian. The 4-foot-11-inch star introduced himself by saying "Hi, I'm Jimmy Dickens or Willie Nelson after taxes."
Dickens told the folks the show was on television, "so if you're sitting next to somebody you shouldn't be sitting with, now's the time to move."
Hal Ketchum followed, and he sang "Stay Forever" along with his two daughters that joined him on stage. Ketchum has always been on the edge of country and an excellent songwriter. It was neat to see him showcase his talent.
Pam Tillis hosted a portion of the show and opened with a bluesy cover of "Ring of Fire" and then said she knew tonight's inductee all her life. All six of the Tillis children attended the show. In addition to having a member inducted, it was really neat to see a family member participate in the induction.
Prior to the induction, a couple of acts that I'd like to see as future Opry members performed, Darryl Worley and Carolina Rain. Worley sang "Awful Beautiful Life" and Carolina Rain did one of the catchiest songs in recent memory, "Get Outta My Way". They're like the country version of Rascal Flatts.
After Pam played "Shake the Sugar Tree", she told stories about how she went with her dad to work and took naps in his guitar case. Mel then came on stage and performed a pair of songs he penned, "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town" and "Detroit City".
After the induction, Pam asked her dad to sing "Coca Cola Cowboy" and then the Tillis family - both Opry members now - performed their first duet as members. It's strange that Pam got inducted seven years earlier, but that hardly matters right now. All that mattered on Saturday night was that a man who should have been inducted long ago, finally got his due.
The next few acts represented the wide variety of influence in today's country music from traditionalist Porter Wagoner, the bluegrass of Mike Snider, the cajun music of Jimmy C. Newman and the western harmonies of Riders in the Sky, showing why country is truly America's music.
Whisperin' Bill Anderson proved that country artists don't forget their fans. He sang "Wild Weekend" and dedicated it to a woman who had been to the Opry 10 times but never heard him sing it there. Anderson got a big applause when he introduced Jeannie Seely as originally from Pennsylvannia - "we most have some folks from Pennsylvannia - that's a great country music state", Anderson said.
The biggest applause of the night, even more so than Tillis' induction, was when Charley Pride stepped on stage near the end of the set to sing "Kiss An Angel Good Morning" and "Mountain of Love". He said it was great to see Tillis get inducted, and thanked him for writing some of his early hits.
Anderson closed the show with an excellent, spoken word ballad. There's no performer in country music better at that than Anderson, who chose "Golden Guitar".
I could go to a million concerts, and it still wouldn't match the uniqueness of Saturday's Opry show. It truly proves that country music isn't just a genre, it's a tight-knit group of performers who always know they have a home stage to return to whether they're selling millions of records or just a few thousand.
As Alan Jackson once famously said, "Thank God and the Grand Ole Opry for Country Music".