The Grand Ole Opry, heard each week on Nashville’s 650 WSM-AM, is the longest running live radio show in American history. Since it began in November 1925, each of the show’s more than 5,600 performances has offered something special for country music fans tuning in throughout the world. But for those listening in and especially for those lucky enough to be in attendance this past Saturday, August 8th, the program was sprinkled with a little extra stardust. Not only was it the golden anniversary of one of the show’s most celebrated cast members, it was also a memorable night for fans of bluegrass and vintage country and was the site of an emotional reunion for a Country Music Hall of Famer and a long-lost friend.
Connie Smith, long regarded as the “Sweetheart of the Grand Ole Opry,” made her first appearance on the show in 1964, back when it was held at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. At the time, she was riding high on the charts with her debut single, “Once a Day.” A vocalist whose powerful, expressive pipes also earned her the nickname “the Rolls-Royce of country singers,” Smith went from being an Ohio housewife to a country hitmaker overnight, thanks in large part to Opry mainstay Bill Anderson, whom she met after winning a local talent contest in Columbus. Anderson wrote the singer’s Grammy-winning hit, the first debut single by a female artist to reach Number One on the country chart. He also invited her to guest on the Opry, where she would become a cast member on August 21st, 1965, within a year of her first appearance – and on the same night as singer Bob Luman was also added to the cast. (Luman died in 1978).
On hand to help celebrate Smith’s 50th Opry anniversary Saturday during a special hour-long segment were Opry members the Whites, Jeannie Seely and Smith’s husband, Marty Stuart. To mark the special occasion, Smith was presented with roses and an inscribed gold bangle bracelet. Backstage before her big moment, the night’s honoree told Rolling Stone Country, “It’s always been a part of my life. When I was five years old I said, ‘Someday I want to sing on the Grand Ole Opry.’ I always had that in my heart. I don’t know that I always thought it would come true. It was just a dream I had, and it did come true.”
Smith’s Opry anniversary performance included record-breaking hit, “Once a Day,” along with ‘You’ve Got Me (Right Where You Want Me).” She was also joined by her husband of nearly 18 years for the sweetly romantic duet, “Till I Found You.” The many spectators milling about in the backstage area also caught a brief glimpse of Smith and the Whites’ patriarch, piano player Buck White, getting swept up in the music and demonstrating their buck-dancing skills.
Opry member Mel Tillis, meanwhile, was also celebrating as his appearance coincided with his 83rd birthday. In the backstage lounge area, Tillis pointed to a pair of decorated cakes and said, to no one in particular, “Help yourself, I’ve got nine more of ’em!”
Also backstage – as well as in the audience – were a number of special guests and out-of-town visitors on hand to support the Cox Family, the country-bluegrass band from Louisiana whose first new music in 17 years premiered on Rolling Stone Country late last month. Introduced by segment host Alison Krauss, who produced their upcoming LP, Gone Like the Cotton, the group performed a trio of tunes with Krauss accompanying them on fiddle. Krauss also aided bluegrass icon Larry Sparks during his performance, while another bluegrass legend and Opry member, Del McCoury, was joined onstage by Marty Stuart for a rousing rendition of “Orange Blossom Special.”
As emotional as the evening’s festivities may have been for longtime Opry family member Smith or the returning Cox clan, it was Opry mainstay Bill Anderson who had to choke back tears of joy during Saturday’s broadcast. During his segment, the Georgia native recalled a guitar given to him 50 years ago by longtime Opry member and guitar manufacturer Billy Grammer. Jumping ahead five decades, Anderson explained that he had received an email about the long-lost instrument from Phoenix, Arizona, pawn shop owner Mike Grauer to let Anderson know he believed he had found that guitar. To celebrate the reunion of the instrument and its original owner, Anderson arranged for Grauer and his wife to experience the Opry from backstage. To welcome his old six-string back, the Hall of Fame songwriter invited one of his co-writers, Jamey Johnson, to appear with him during Saturday’s show. The two performed their poignant and now-non-fictional tale of a pawn-shop instrument called “The Guitar Song,” which served as the title track of Johnson’s acclaimed 2010 double album.
The Grand Ole Opry is currently in the middle of its 90th anniversary celebration, which began in March and will continue into the fall with more guest appearances and special events slated to take place on the venerable stage.