When it comes to live performances on Saturday nights, SNL has nothing on the Grand Ole Opry. The longest-running radio broadcast in American history, the Opry has gone live every Saturday evening since November 28, 1925, a streak of 4,921 consecutive shows.
Show 4,922 could be one of its best yet, with Garth Brooks and his wife Trisha Yearwood taking country music’s most famous stage. Although the couple haven't been strangers to the show — they’ve both been members of the Grand Ole Opry for decades — it’s safe to say that given the coronavirus crisis, this performance will be unlike any other.
With this weekend’s concert part of Sling TV’s Happy Hour, we hopped on the phone with Grand Ole Opry Vice President and Executive Producer Dan Rogers to ask him about the show’s rich history, what he expects from Garth and Trisha’s performance, and why the Opry was uniquely equipped to handle the current crisis. Note: This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sling: For someone who isn’t familiar with the Grand Ole Opry or is just getting into country music, what is its history and significance?
Dan Rogers: The Grand Ole Opry is widely recognized as the show that made country music famous. The Opry is absolutely synonymous with country music and I would say is widely accepted as the physical and spiritual home of country music.
Sling: Can you talk a little bit about how it started and the building itself?
DR: The Grand Ole Opry is a show and it is housed at the Grand Ole Opry House. So the venue for the show is actually called the Grand Ole Opry House. The Grand Ole Opry began as a radio show in 1925 and it has really always been heard and seen on the technology of the day. So when the Opry first went on the air in 1925, AM radio was new and was king. And the Opry can still be heard on 650 AM WSM, its flagship home these days. But it can also be heard on Sirius XM, and over the past few weeks, it’s been able to be seen live on Circle Television.
The Opry has actually had several homes in its history, the most famous being the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. The Opry was housed at the Ryman from 1943 to 1974, and in 1974 moved to our current home, the Grand Ole Opry House, which is the first venue that was built specifically to house the Grand Ole Opry.
Sling: You mentioned the show’s origins go all the way back to 1925. How close did this incredible streak come to ending as a result of the coronavirus pandemic?
DR: Honestly, I would say it never occurred to us that we wouldn’t have a Saturday night broadcast at the Grand Ole Opry. It wasn’t a matter of ‘Will this show continue?’ but ‘How will it continue?’ And you know, thanks to modern technology, there are a lot of ways that we could have kept an Opry show on the air. But we’re very lucky to have a world-class technical team with the know-how to create a show utilizing the talents of very few people. And an incredible operational team that helped us determine how you actually could have a live show in the Grand Ole Opry House — without an audience in attendance — that could be seen around the world.
It certainly wasn’t easy, but the Opry is used to challenges, just in terms of the nights where we’ll have 12 very distinct acts on stage with only a minute break between each artist. So we have a team that’s very adept to change and very ready to make things happen.
Sling: What specifically have been the biggest challenges in terms of producing a show of this caliber while maintaining social distancing during this crisis?
DR: Our talent director really summed up our situation by saying, “These are some of the simplest shows we’ve ever done, yet they’re the most complicated shows we’ve ever completed.” When you look at the show on stage, it’s often three or four artists sitting with guitars, separated by social distance, across country music’s most famous stage. It looks pretty simple, but nothing about [what’s] gone into that show has been simple. Everything from making sure everyone is safe and not interacting with anyone else in the building, such that we know what entrance everyone uses, what exits everyone uses, and the routes any one person would be taking inside the Grand Ole Opry House.
So our artists who have visited the Opry over the past few weeks, could essentially come into the backstage area, walk to the stage, rehearse or soundcheck, go live on television, perform, and leave the building without getting any closer to anyone then the [other] artists that the world sees them standing near on stage. And they’re separated by the ever-important six feet of social distance.
It’s a testament to our crew and staff that that can happen. And it’s also an incredible testament to the artists who come to visit. I know it’s not the easiest thing in the world to come out and play for a completely empty house, while also playing for millions of people around the world. I’ve heard it described by artist after artist as “surreal.” And I’m certain it is, but I have to tell you, it’s also, just watching, very very magical to know that as simple as it may look, that music is touching the lives of people across the United States and literally around the globe.
Sling: This weekend Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood will be playing the Opry. It’s clear from his social media that this is a very significant thing for Garth. From your standpoint, what is the significance of his performance?
DR: I can’t say enough how much I appreciate Garth and Trisha’s appreciation of the Grand Ole Opry. In the non-COVID-19 era, they could play anywhere in the world on any given night. And on the night they come to the Opry, it’s because they’ve chosen to come spend that night with us. I appreciate that they love what the Opry stands for. And I’ll say I love to watch them when they come to the Opry, because I feel like they’re having the night of their lives as well. They’re connecting with some of their best friends in the music industry. And they’re connecting with their roots as people who grew up dreaming of one day playing that Opry stage and perhaps becoming the Opry members that they have become.
Sling: Can you talk a little bit about the Grand Ole Opry Members? I know you recently inducted the latest member, Gene Watson, back in February.
DR: Grand Ole Opry membership is all about relationships. It’s about the relationships Opry members have with each other, it’s about the relationships Opry members have with country music fans and Opry fans, and most importantly, it’s about the relationship that an artist has with the Opry itself. So when all of those relationships feel right, and when an artist has shown a genuine commitment to the Opry and the Opry senses there is a lifelong relationship there, often a membership invitation is extended and that artist becomes an Opry member for the rest of a long and happy career. And so Opry members go from being the new kid in town or the new person in the Opry family to mentoring and extending a warm welcome to the artists that come after them.
Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood would both, if they were with us today, would both be talking about the artists who influenced them and the artists they were excited to meet when they came and played the Opry. And by the same token, some of the day’s newcomers would also be able to tell us about the influence that Garth and Trisha and their music has now had on them and their careers. It’s a really beautiful, continuing story.
Sling: As far as this weekend’s performance, is there anything you can tip us off about in terms of what to expect? And is there any particular music you would like to see Garth and Trisha perform during their set?
DR: I’ve loved in the past when Garth and Trisha have just shown up at the Opry and have decided to do something [while] on stage. They’re such talented artists that I think they’re both capable of doing just about anything, whatever it feels like the night calls for. I think that most people tuned-in would hope that they're each willing to do at least a couple of their huge hits. And I don’t know of a night that Trisha in particular has played the Opry when she hasn’t sung the song that she credits with getting her to the Opry in the first place, which is “She’s in Love With the Boy.”
Garth and Trisha will know exactly what the night calls for with their music. When you asked what I’d love to hear, I will say this: I would love to hear, truly, whatever it is that Garth and Trisha want to play that night, because it is so much fun to me to see those two in particular enjoying each other’s harmonies and enjoying singing a song that means something to them.
Catch Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood performing live at the Grand Ole Opry by tuning in to the Circle Network Saturday, May 2, at 8pm ET.