It’s been 10 years since Carrie Underwood made her debut on the Grand Ole Opry in June 2005, less than two weeks after winning American Idol. But that milestone wasn’t what brought the “Smoke Break” singer back to the Opry stage for the umpteenth time Saturday night. It was actually the second of a two-day series of shows at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, celebrating he 90th anniversary of country music’s most hallowed institution and the longest-running radio show in U.S. history. Also on hand were Trace Adkins, soon-to-be Country Music Hall of Famers the Oak Ridge Boys, Opry star Jeannie Seely, cowboy comedy troupe Riders in the Sky, Countrypolitan mainstays Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers and cast members from the ABC series Nashville.
“I felt very unworthy, and still do, to a certain extent, just because it is. . .the Grand Ole Opry,” Underwood told reporters during a backstage press conference before the first of two shows. Naturally, the singer, who was inducted into the Opry in 2008, was a little wistful looking back on her debut there. “I was definitely nervous that people would be like, ‘Oh, she just came off this TV talent show, what’s she going to do?’ But that’s part of the reason we wanted to come to Nashville immediately and say, ‘This is it for me, this is what I want to do, this is where I want to be.'”
As expected, Underwood turned in a pitch-perfect performance that would have made Simon Cowell gush with praise, singing her first Billboard chart-topper “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” her latest hit “Smoke Break” and a rollicking rendition of Dolly Parton’s 1980 classic “9 to 5” with glass-shattering ease. It was a three-song set that reflected the tone of the night, satisfying two sold-out crowds with a contemporary classic, offering a look to the future with a new cut off her forthcoming Storyteller LP and paying a deferential nod to country tradition with a timeless standard. “[The Opry] loves what country music is now, but it loves the past as well,” Underwood said. “And it loves artists that just continue to do what they love.”
Adkins took a similar approach to his performance. After bringing the party with his 2006 Number One “Ladies Love Country Boys,” he nodded to his predecessors, rattling the Opry House’s 4,400 seats with his voice-of-God-like bellow on Don Williams’ “‘Til the Rivers All Run Dry.” It was a moment that, inevitably, might rank high on the baritone singer’s long list of Opry memories.
“I was scared to death,” Adkins told reporters, looking back on his almost ill-fated 1996 Opry debut, which sent the house band scrambling to learn his song when a miscommunication led him to arrive solo. Later that night he proposed to now ex-wife Rhonda Adkins. “I didn’t think I’d ever get to come back,” he said with a laugh, “thought I might as well propose while I’m here.” But Adkins did get to come back to the Opry, many times over, eventually joining as a member in 2003.
Since ABC’s Nashville (which is executive produced by Opry Entertainment Group president Steve Buchanan) debuted in 2012, many of its cast members have also been fixtures on the Opry stage. Four of them — Charles Esten, Sam Palladio, Chris Carmack and Aubrey Peeples — appeared Saturday night, getting a combined 30 minutes of stage time during the two-hour anniversary bash.
Backstage, Peeples shared a spoiler — that her character, Layla Grant, makes her Opry debut in an upcoming Nashville episode. Peeples made her real-life Opry debut almost two years ago, and took the famed stage for a ninth time on Saturday, performing her Season 4 single “Makes No Sense at All.” But don’t call it method acting. Peeples, like her cast mates, can really sing.
“It’s become very meta,” Peeples told reporters backstage, musing on the blurred line between reality and fiction at play. “In a way, [Nashville] has opened up a lot of musical opportunities for us, but in the same way that’s what our characters are doing, so it’s very art-mimics-life-mimics-art.”
Though Esten is best known for playing the mercurial Deacon Claybourne on Nashville, taking center stage at the Opry the affable actor-musician had a twinkle in his eye worthy of Kris Kristofferson, as he belted out an arena-worthy country shuffle that garnered as enthusiastic of a crowd response as veteran Opry stars on the bill. Palladio, for his part, did his finest Gunnar Scott, mellowing the mood with the slow-burning Season 1 standout “Fade into You” before joining Carmack to pitter-patter along on a cajon drum during Carmack’s drifting blues ballad “Pieces of You” from his upcoming EP.
“Are we interlopers?” Esten said backstage. “You’re an interloper as much as the community that is there makes you feel like that. . . . We’ve not been made to feel like that at all. Having said that, every one of us knows the side door that we walked in. We know that there’s other ways to get here that people might consider far more legitimate. . . . We get that and nobody respects that more [than we do], but we also know that there’s a tradition in country music of the singing cowboy, whether it’s your Gene Autrys and on and on.”
Esten, who took over hosting duties for Larry Gatlin during the Nashville portion of Saturday night’s show, said such sentiments were on his mind when he first made his Opry debut, singing an apropos cover of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally.”
“I’m not saying I belong,” he joked. “I’m just saying that if you’re going to invite me, I sure ain’t gonna say no.”
The Oak Ridge Boy, meanwhile, only said yes to an official Opry induction just four years ago. The Oaks’ Duane Allen says the road is the reason the legendary band had to wait it out. It’s a matter of simple economics, really. As part of paying dues, the Opry requires active members to perform regularly on the show, which broadcasts weekly on Fridays and Saturdays (and often Tuesdays as well). That presents a problem for perennial road dogs and weekend warriors like the Oak Ridge Boys.
“We feed a lot of people,” Allen explained, speaking of his group’s backing band and road crew, “so we depend on those nights of the week.”
Allen says that after 25 years of on-again, off-again talks, the Opry offered that the band could sign on as members and simply come and play as often as their schedule permitted. And the Oaks held up their end of the bargain, making no less than four appearances on the Opry stage this past weekend alone. Friday night, they surprised the crowd by appearing to sing their 1981 classic “Elvira” with newest Opry members Little Big Town. Saturday afternoon they played a full matinee concert as part of the anniversary series. And when Hurricane Joaquin forced them to cancel a gig in Virginia, they adjourned to the Opry posthaste for a pair of Saturday night performances.
The work ethic and hard-won showmanship was on full display as frontman Joe Bonsall roused the crowd through a call-and-response-heavy “Elvira” and raised spirits with country-gospel classics like “Just a Little Talk With Jesus” and “Roll Tennessee River.” Such veteran charisma was also on display earlier when Gatlin took to the Opry House pews to sing a slack-keyed “Houston,” and later when Seely sang her 1967 Grammy-garnering career-maker “Don’t Touch Me.”
In the end, Adkins best summed up the Opry doctrine while expressing his own feelings to repoters: “I love coming out here and listening to these folks [sing] these songs that I’ve heard growing up.”