Monday, April 14, 2008

Gibson Brothers at The Grand Ole Opry

It was a huge thrill for us to see the Gibson Brothers at The Grand Ole Opry. To see this band getting the attention it deserves in one of the most hallowed and celebrated places in all country music cannot prove to be anything but good for them. Furthermore, putting this appearance in the context of the current rollout tour for their new CD Iron and Diamonds, punctuates the importance of this appearance. The house was a sell-out, dominated by a huge group from Focus Publications, an organization serving respiratory therapists, sleep technologists, and health care workers. Apparently, every performer had been admonished to use the word “FOCUS” in their patter, and each time it generated huge cheers. Really. It’s worth remembering, too, that The Grand Ole Opry is primarily a two hour radio program, consisting of four half hour segments each hosted by a revered “member” of the Opry. Membership in the Opry does not depend on record sales, quality, or any other factor than a decision of management. Nevertheless, members constitute a list of country music’s most revered performers and membership is highly valued. For many years, Bill Monroe made certain that new members were not welcomed, especially women. Alison Kraus broke that barrier in 1994 and a flood of younger members in recent years has assured the continued popularity of the Opry. Tradition is honored here, however, by having a member act as host of each segment. On Friday, three of the four host/entertainers were way over the hill. Jimmy C. Newman (age 81), Riders in the Sky, and Jean Shepard (75) are real old-timers. Marty Stuart, who cut his chops in bluegrass before making his reputation in country music, is still a lively and entertaining headliner.

The Ryman Auditorium

Eddie Stubbs at Podium

It’s worth remembering that The Grand Ole Opry, from its inception in 1925 as the WSM Barn Dance, has been a radio program which, until it was bought by Gaylord Enterprises in 1974, was dedicated to providing advertising for the National Life & Accident Insurance Company. It began broadcasting from the Ryman Auditorium, known as the Mother Church of Country Music, in 1945 and remained there until 1974 when it moved to the current venue in, appropriately, the suburbs. When the move was made to the current Grand Ole Opry House, a five foot circle was cut from the stage at Ryman and installed in the center of the Opry stage as a bow to the original site, which had begun life as Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892 and is now a included in the National Register of Historic Places. The birth of bluegrass music is often dated from December 8, 1945 when Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe at the Grand Ole Opry for the first time.

Jimmy C. Newman

Country music has moved a long way since the days of Bill Monroe, and, today, bluegrass is given more lip service than real recognition at the Grand Ole Opry. Bobby Osborne (77), one of the early greats with his brother Sonny, came out and sang two songs, including “Good Old Rocky-Top,” the Tennessee state song, to huge cheering, so loud his performance couldn’t be heard. His nineteen year old son, Bobby Junior called BOJ, gave the most animated performance we’ve ever seen from him. Bobby himself clutched his mandolin, barely able to chop, his tremor so great. He did pull himself together for a brief break, and then left the stage.

Ryders in the Sky

The Grand Ole Opry House (map) is actually quite an attractive southern style building in suburban Nashville. The huge auditorium is snuggled into its surroundings and thus does not appear particularly huge as you approach it. To its right is the smaller Acuff Theatre as well as the Opry Museum. The Opry Museum is barely mentioned on the Grand Ole Opry web site and there isn’t much information about it on the web. Too bad, because this small, free museum stands as a shrine to the best known country singers and members of the Opry. Including exhibits dedicated to Tex Ritter, Minnie Pearl, Patsy Cline, George Jones, and others, the museum uses period photos, film and television clips, clothing, old instruments, and some room settings to tell the story of a number of musicians as well as the Opry itself. The museum is worth taking an hour or so to stroll through it and enjoy soaking up country music history.

Bobby Osborne and the Rocky Top X-Press

We climbed up the stairs to our nose bleed seats to find ourselves surrounded by too many kids on an excursion and their chaperones, who never stopped talking. Next to us was seated a Japanese gentlemen who coughed hard until he thoughtfully fell asleep. We were surprised that folks attending were allowed to bring beer and soft drinks to their seats. The auditorium is huge, seating 4400 and this night was a sell-out. Eddie Stubbs, one of the long-time Opry announcers came to the podium at stage right and read some commercials before introducing Jimmy C. Newman, an Opry member and Cajun music performer. The general format of each half hour is commercial, introduction of Opry member host who performs one song, introduction of one or two performers, each of whom performs one or two songs, a couple of interspersed commercials, and a final song by the member/host. There are four of these segments, each with a major sponsor.

Jean Shepard

The Gibson Brothers were scheduled in the third segment, which ran from 9:00 – 9:30. The segments seem to be designed to build to a climax in the fourth segment, so the third half hour is a good placement. Jean Shepard, who reached the height of her fame in the 1950’s as one of the first women to show she could sell country records, came out and sang a song before introducing an unscheduled and unmemorable singer for one song. After he left the stage, she introduced the Gibson Brothers. It was pretty obvious she didn’t know who they were. The band came on, set up quickly and kicked off their two song set. They opened with “Lonely You, Lonely Me” to appreciative applause from the audience. They chose the Tom Petty song “Cabin Down Below,” which looks like it’s headed for being a hit for the Gibsons, which was also very well received.

The Gibson Brothers

Now comes the problem, for me. I suspect those of us in the audience were not treated to the best sound possible for this wonderful band. Bill Faulkner has posted on Bluegrass-L that the Gibson’s performance on WSM streaming was a “good show.” But Irene and I didn’t hear the same quality sound transmitted over the air and through the Internet. I thought Clayton’s usually sweet sounding fiddle sounded shrill and a little harsh, something his playing never manages to achieve, even under the least high quality festival sound. I also didn’t think the other instruments penetrated the auditorium the way they should. But then I didn’t think any of the other performers were showcased to their best either. The problem, for me, grows from knowing that the live audience isn’t the real target. Rather the millions of loyal WSM listeners tuning in to 650 AM or listening around the world to live streaming of the performances were the people who were treated to the best sound. I truly hope, and actually believe, that their audio experience was first rate, and that many people had the joy of being introduced to the Gibson Brothers.

The Gibson Brothers at the Grand Ole Opry

Marty Stuart closed out the show. The highlight of his part of the performance was a lovely mandolin solo the audience mostly talked through. When Stuart was done, the announcer read one more commercial, the curtain came down, the crowd left, and our Grand Ole Opry experience was over. I don’t think we’ll return, but seeing The Gibson Brothers perform in this famous setting was worth it all.