By Ellen Creager
RISMEDIA, January 23, 2009-(MCT)-A teenage boy grabs the microphone stand. He plants his feet at center stage. Then he grins and asks, “Can you take my picture?”
He’s finally singing at the Grand Ole Opry.
At least in his dreams.
They say no one knows what goes on behind closed doors. But in Nashville, those who take backstage tours of the Opry get the inside scoop about one of the most famous stages in the world, plus a fan-friendly tour of the nooks and crannies of the famous theater, where stars from Dolly Parton to Roy Acuff have made their mark.
“While the Opry is special to artists, it’s special to fans as well,” says Opry spokesman Dan Rogers. “Literally, everything you see backstage has a story to go with it.”
Out of 500,000 people a year who attend the Opry, about 50,000 take the backstage tour.
But that’s not the only insider peek you can get in Nashville.
Take a backstage tour of Ryman Auditorium, and you’ll experience the heyday of country music before country was cool.
Peek behind the imposing exterior of the Parthenon-an exact replica of the one in Greece-and your eyes will pop when you see the Jolly Green Giant-sized statue of Athena. Is this place really in Nashville? Who woulda thought?
Step into the Country Music Hall of Fame and into one of those little soundproof alcoves, and sing your heart out with the early pioneers of what once was called “hillbilly” music.
And please, keep your radio on at all times, tuned to WSM-AM (650), the original country music station.
One of the most disorienting things about Nashville is that the Grand Ole Opry, its most iconic attraction, isn’t even downtown. To reach it, drive northeast for 9 miles to the gigantic yet unpleasantly sterile Opry Mills shopping mall area that the Opry has called home since 1974. As you’re driving, listen to Dolly Parton circa 1975.
“My life is like unto a bargain store
And I may have just what you’re lookin’ for.”
Home for the Opry these days is a sprawling, folksy theater where most Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights there are performances featuring eight to 15 about-to-be-famous, currently famous and used-to-be-famous country stars. From their perches in the mezzanine, balcony or on the main floor, patrons this night watch Pam Tillis, Jewel, the Charlie Daniels Band, Darius Rucker, Bill Anderson, Cherryholmes, Jason Michael Carroll and Lorri Morgan sing.
Afterward, those taking the backstage tour meet in the lobby. First, they stand still for a corny photo of themselves holding a guitar. Then longtime guide Eloise Russo leads the way through the dim theater that’s unbelievably empty considering the concert ended just 20 minutes before. Russo takes the group backstage to a plain glass door-the performers’ entrance to the building. She stops at a portrait of comedian Minnie Pearl, an early Opry member.
A small hall beyond that leads to the mailroom, where tourists get to see the stars’ mailboxes.
“The story is that Alan Jackson once delivered mail to those mailboxes,” Rogers says. “His first job in Nashville was for a company that delivered mail to the Opry. He used to deliver fan mail. Now he gets fan mail.”
The tour moves to a soundproof studio where the country variety show “Hee Haw” was filmed in the 1970s and 1980s and where the syndicated TV show “Crook & Chase” now tapes. Then, it’s on to the dressing rooms (empty) and the turquoise “green room” (also empty) where the stars hang out until their acts start.
Finally, Russo guides the group to the tour highlight-the enormous Opry stage. Standing there, you see the dimly lit theater spreading out like a three-story fan and you swear you can hear applause coming from an imaginary audience in the 4,392 seats.
On stage, everyone takes turns posing at the microphone in the center circle. The circle actually is a piece of dark oak, 6 feet in diameter, that was brought from the Ryman Auditorium, the Opry’s home until 1974. It’s the most famous circle in country music.
“Being able to be on stage and stand in the fabled circle of wood, fans can look over the auditorium and see the same sights as Carrie Underwood or Brad Paisley see,” Rogers says. “That experience seems to resonate.”
It does. But the Opry stage is not the only behind-the-scenes glimpse you can get in Nashville.
Another day, drive into town, listening to Eddie Arnold on the radio.
“Say the things you used to say And make the world go away.”
In downtown Nashville, the world sort of does go away-because you fall into the spell of the backstage tour of the Ryman Auditorium, the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974. With its white gingerbread trim and wooden pews, it feels like a church, because that’s what it once was. Although it’s far more charming than the new Opry home, it’s far too small for today’s crowds. Yet, it remains the venue for small Opry performances from November to January and for bluegrass.
At night, stroll the entertainment district along South Broadway and Second Avenue, from honky-tonk to honky-tonk, enjoying the live, free music in each one. These are the tourist spots, but if you’re a tourist, who cares? It’s a ball.
The next day, drive on over to the Parthenon in Centennial Park, near Vanderbilt University. On the radio? Brad Paisley.
“To the world you may be just another girl but to me, baby, you are the world.”
The oddest of all sights in Nashville, maybe even in Tennessee, maybe in the United States, is the Nashville Parthenon. It is an exact replica of the one in Greece, and in Nashville they joke that it’s even better because it never fell down. Built of wood and plaster for the 1897 World Exhibition, it was a bit unstable until the 1930s, when it was rebuilt of concrete, and there it has stood ever since.
That’s amazing enough. But step inside, and you’ll see a 42-foot-high statue of the Greek goddess Athena. Erected in 1990 and covered in 24-carat gold leaf in 2002, it’s a splendid and educated guess of what scholars believe actually stood inside Greece’s Parthenon in its glory days. Constructed of cement and fiberglass by artist Alan LeQuire, Athena is the tallest indoor sculpture in the United States.
She’s not just another girl, believe me.
Back in 1935, the Carter family recorded a version of one of the classic country songs of all time.
“Will the circle be unbroken, By and by, lord, by and by.”
The pathos, the emotion, the warmth of those words reflect the soul of Nashville, a city of simmering emotions and heart.
But I found the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, built in 2002, to be the opposite. Cold, harsh and sharp-edged, its light is as unpleasant and dim as a city bus. There is too much glass. Visitors take a sterile elevator in the back hall to the top floor, then work their way down. The actual hall of fame room, filled with plaques, is about as interesting as a tax office.
There is one good thing. Along the way, I slipped into soundproof spiral alcoves to hear (and what the heck, sing along with) renditions of pivotal country songs. I enjoyed that a lot. But I noticed a lot of people just walked right past the alcoves. They just didn’t see them.
Another thing people often miss in Nashville? The beautiful Tennessee State Capitol, set high on a hill overlooking the town. The 19th-Century limestone building offers free tours on weekdays.
Designed in a classical Greek style (but not as obviously as the Parthenon), the Capitol was built by slaves and occupied by Union troops during the Civil War. It also has a rather strange secret.
Its architect, William Strickland, is buried deep inside its walls. It was his last request when he died in 1854 as the capitol was being erected, to be buried there. Talk about being part of your work.
Anyway, it proves my point. In Nashville, the hidden stuff is always the most interesting.
If You Go:
Near the Opry, try the famous Gaylord Opryland Hotel, a 2,800-bed luxury mega-hotel (about $200/night-up, 2800 Opryland Drive, www.oprylandhotels.com, 615-889-1000).
Downtown, try Holiday Inn Express, a moderate hotel in a good location (about $145/night-up, 920 Broadway, www.holidayinn.com, 615-244-0150).
If you’re a cheapskate like me, try the no-frills but clean Country Inn and Suites Nashville Airport, about 15 minutes from both downtown and the Opry, (about $85/night-up, 590 Donelson Pike, www.countryinns.com, 615-874-8040).
Pick up the Nashville Attractions Guide or Key Nashville at your hotel. They both have discount coupons for many attractions.
Grand Ole Opry, 2802 Opryland Drive. The Opry performs here February-November. Backstage tours ($13.25 adults; $6.50 ages 4-11) are generally available after performances and sometimes in the mornings. For backstage or performance tickets: www.opry.com or 800-733-6779.
Parthenon, Centennial Park, 25th Street at West End Avenue. $5 adults, $2.50 ages 4-17; under 4 free (www.parthenon.org, 615-862-8431).
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, 222 Fifth Ave. S . $17.95 adults; $9.95 ages 6-17; under 6 free (www.countrymusichalloffame.com, 615-416-2001).
Ryman Auditorium, 116 Fifth Ave. N . Backstage tours offered most days; $16.25 adults, $10 ages 4-11. The Opry performs here in December and January (www.ryman.com, 615-458-8700, 615-889-3060).
Tennessee State Capitol, Charlotte Avenue, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues (tours weekdays, free, www.tennesseeanytime.org , 615-741-2692).
Famous downtown honky-tonks like Legends Corner and Tootsies Orchid Lounge are on South Broadway; the Wildhorse Saloon is on Second Avenue. The Bluebird Cafe is a bit out of town at 4104 Hillsboro Pike.
For all the details on bars and restaurants see the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.visitmusiccity.com, 800-657-6910.
© 2009, Detroit Free Press.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.