Monday, April 2, 2012

Carolina Opry - Myrtle Beach, SC

We arrived in the cast parking lot of the Carolina Opry shortly after 6:00 PM and immediately recognized Gary Brown, long time cast member and music director of the Opry. It's hard to miss his long, lanky frame carrying what looks like a very small mandolin case walking across the lot.  He, and his wife Martha, have been cast members since nearly the beginning of The Carolina Opry having joined in 1989. Gary, a cousin of mandolin player Alan Bibey, comes from Walnut Cove, NC and Martha from Knoxville, TN. Their background is in bluegrass music, and both have toured with bluegrass bands.

Gary Brown
The current Carolina Opry theater, home of the Opry since 1993, is a 2200 seat palace located in North Myrtle Beach at the convergence of business and bypass U.S. 17. The Carolina Opry was established by performer/entrepreneur Calvin Gilmore in 1986 and has moved twice to enable larger audiences in better settings.  An hour and a half before curtain the stage is quietly taking on life as cast members prepare for their evening's performance.  The magic of a live theater hasn't been turned on yet. It's a working place where production staff and cast members are busily preparing to go to work.  

Kevin Hughes - Bass

 Dressing Room Area

 Kim Perry Williams
Gary Baker (guitar) & Kim Perry Williams

 Gary Brown and Others

It's a busy environment, but people have the time to stop to greet us as they move along on their preparations, focused, but not in a huge rush.  It's not a time for small talk, but we feel welcomed in a place quite different from our usual music setting. Even though the elements are familiar, there's an air of routine and workmanship less often found in the moveable feast that is the world of bluegrass. The people here are settled professionals working at a six day a week performance that in less than two hours will open before over 1,000 people who've come to see the show.  

The Sound & Light Pit

Backstage Sound for Performers

Instruments at the Ready
Ushers Ready

The large Carolina Opry building gives the impression of ante-belleum splendor which is reinforced by the lobby with its two curved staircases leading up to balcony seating. The gift shop has memorabilia from the Opry including t-shirts, performance DVD's, and solo projects by some of the performers. A snack bar sells popcorn and snacks, and the redolent smell of popping corn fills the lobby. 

The Lobby
Gift Shop

As show time approaches the seats fill up, the ushers help the growing crowd find seats, and anticipation of the show to come rises. The stage is now hidden from view by a dark blue velvet curtain with the words The Carolina Opry lightly projected onto it.  An open grand piano sits on stage, as if waiting. Then pianist Rocky Frets comes on stage to begin warming up the audience as the last few people are helped to their seats. He helps establish a tone for the evening with his piano renditions of Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art along with a couple of his own original tunes.

Rocky Frets

The warmup pre-show continues as a bluegrass band, featuring Gary & Martha Brown as well as other cast members takes the stage in front of the curtain. The Carolina Opry certainly isn't a bluegrass show, but the opening helps the audience understand something about where the music they'll hear during the evening originates while giving a taste of a sound many country music fans haven't heard before. The bluegrass band kicks off with Clinch Mountain Backstep, an instrumental song familiar to bluegrass fans. and follows with Freeborn Man and Pig in a Pen.  The stage goes dark, the bluegrass band leaves and....

The Bluegrass Band

Trent Wideman & Gary Brown
 Kevin Hughes
Martha Brown

Gary Baker

The Magic Begins

The Carolina Opry is an ensemble-based show. There aren't any stars. Rather a group of dedicated professional performers proceed to offer about ninety minutes of a mixture of country classics and contemporary country music mixed with humor and a few surprises. The singing and picking are excellent. The show moves along smartly with no lags between acts.  Songs, comedy, dance, and production numbers followed each other in quick succession - fast paced and well produced solid entertainment.  We've become so accustomed to professional videos and canned performances that we're unused to live variety shows. This makes an evening in a real, live theater featuring real live performers providing real live music a real live treat.  It came with light shows and plenty of bearable sound, unlike the chaos attached to the country music awards show on TV the next night. 

Singer Nathan Herron (Idol Contestant - 2005) with 
Comic Kym Sherbutt

Singer Kym Perry Williams with Dancers

Clogger/Tap Dancers
Christie Templeton

Gary Brown

 Comic Eric Gumm w/ Trent Wideman

Eric Gumm - Comic Singer

 Kim Perry Williams

Grand Finale

The Carolina Opry can be counted on for good, wholesome entertainment. There are two programs: The Carolina Opry and Good Vibrations (classic 60's, 70's, and 80's music) running on alternating nights six nights a week. Information about show times, ticket prices, and how to purchase them can be found here.  Regular readers of this blog know we concentrate on attending and covering bluegrass festivals with occasional forays into Americana and other acoustic music. We've even ventured to a rock concert or two in our time. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our visit to The Carolina Opry and heartily recommend it for its wholesomeness and musical quality. We were also impressed that, after the finale, the curtain opened and the cast made themselves available to fans for a substantial meet and greet period, usual in bluegrass, but not often experienced at other shows of this size and popularity.  While tickets were available at the box office on the day we attended, we recommend that people wishing to attend call to purchase tickets in advance. 

How to Find the Carolina Opry

We'd like to thank our friends Mike and Rachel Rogers for suggesting our attending The Carolina Opry and opening the doors to us, Gary Brown, Musical Director, and Production Manager Wendy Sweetman as well as the cast and crew of the Carolina Opry for making this visit possible and making it such a delightful experience.