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The sheets of rain were falling so hard and the rush of headlights was so expectant that it was easy to miss the cloverleaf exit that banks hard to the east off Briley Parkway and deposits the driver right into the heart of what the neon hails as MUSIC VALLEY. U.S.A. Turn here for Shoney’s. There for Cracker Barrel. You don’t even have to turn at all to veer into the WORLD-FAMOUS NASHVILLE PALACE, which appears to be a Denny’s with an overly ambitious Vegas Strip sign attached. All these establishments, with their blinkety beacons and boppity billboards promising extra-fluffy biscuits and the BEST CATFISH ANYWHERE!, are to the east off McGavock Pike, which itself is ten miles east of downtown Music City, not far from the blue-collar outposts of town, and just up the road from the real countryside. In short, in the middle of nowhere. A fine place to recreate a small corner of Everywhere, circa Anytime at all.
WELCOME TO OPRYLAND. U.S.A. TURN RIGHT FOR THE MAGNOLIA LOBBY.
LEFT FOR OLD HICKORY LOUNGE.
Unlike the ones across the street, these signs are written in soothing script. They are painted in white on handsome red boards that remind you of fairy-tale wholesomeness. And they unfold before the driver’s eyes on a faux country tableau of fluffy green grass, a white picket fence, and dozens of sculpted storybook trees wrapped in thousands of twinkling lights. On this night, uncommonly cold and rainy, the normally idyllic entrance to the Opryland Hotel, with its churchlike steeples, plantationlike columns, and county courthouselike red brick grandeur, has been overtaken by an even more idyllic constellation of candy cane light poles and plush fir wreaths in a holiday vision out of Currier and Ives. Even the guardhouse has been rebaked as a two-story peach-colored gingerbread house complete with giant plastic gumdrops and bouncing marshmallow ladies who wave at every car that makes it through the valley and into the parking lot of Gaylord s fantasy: WELCOME TO A COUNTRY CHRISTMAS. ALL SELF PARKING $4.00
Gaylord, in this instance, is Edward Gaylord, the Walt Disney of Southern culture and the aging, legendarily frugal proprietor of Gaylord Entertainment Co., which controls the dominant institutions in country music, the Opryland Hotel, Opryland Theme Park, CMT, TNN, and the gemstone in this hillbilly tiara, the Grand Ole Opry itself. All of these he has gathered in a 406-acre entertainment complex that draws visitors to an undistinguished plot of land not far from the airport with the paradoxical promise of unimagined wonder and old-fashioned small-town wholesomeness. Ironically, the hotel alone is larger than many small towns. With 2,870 rooms–the seventh-largest in the country and the largest outside Las Vegas–the hotel is an air-conditioned biosphere cum-theme park complete with giant murals, dancing fountains, and a 6-acre, glass-covered interiorscape with over ten thousand tropical plants. The newest extension, known as “The Delta,” has a fifteen-story-high glass dome covering 4.5 acres and featuring a 110-foot-wide waterfall and a quarter-mile-long “river.” Move over, Mickey Mouse. Tom Sawyer is the new American icon here, and he has gone uptown.
Driving around the facility (24 MPH SPEED LIMIT), past the Conservatory, alongside the Cascades, under several neo-Georgian overhangs, I finally arrive ten minutes later at the backdoor entrance to a modest, unornate, redbrick theater that since 1974 has been home to America’s most beloved radio show, the Holy See of Country Music, the Grand Ole Opry.
“Hi. May I have your name please, sir . . . ?” The officer retrieves a portable stop sign that has blown over in the wind.
“And who are you here with . . . ?” He starts flipping through his clipboard.
“Ah, well, Mr. Brooks is expecting you. He’s not here yet. Just drive up to the canopy and park wherever you can. The show starts in about an hour.”
The Grand Ole Opry is as old as country music itself and is one of the few institutions in American life to survive the transition from radio to television to global satellite intimacy. Begun in November 1925 as one of a burgeoning breed of down-home variety shows popping up on newly formed commercial radio stations, the “WSM Barn Dance” was simply a marketing tool for the National Life and Accident Insurance Company to sell products to rural listeners. Broadcast from the studios of clear-channel WSM-AM (an acronym for the company’s slogan, “We Shield Millions”), the show mixed banjos, fiddles, harmonicas, and string bands, along with homespun advertisements and a flamboyant host, George D. Hay, the “Solemn Old Judge.” It was Hay, in 1927, who gave the show its indelible name when he followed a network broadcast of opera classics by saying, “You’ve been up in the clouds with Grand Opera, now get down to earth with us in a performance of Grand Ole Opry.” It’s never missed a weekend since, moving to the legendary Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville in 1943, and then decamping to its current suburban roost in 1974.
Since moving to the suburbs, though, the Opry has lost much of its clout. Garth Brooks, like many new stars, may identify his induction into the elite cast of seventy-five performing Opry “members” as the highlight of his career (a position that is wise marketing, if nothing else), but his career no longer depends on the Opry. Simply put, he has outgrown it. As a result, it was something of a surprise that Garth chose the Opry this night–just a month after the much-heralded release of his new album, Fresh Horses and still a month before his gaff at the American Music Awards–to break his year-long hiatus from public view. Under the circumstances, it was clearly designed to send a message. Having flirted with rock’n'roll for years, Garth had long been viewed with suspicion among some traditional country fans….
Excerpted from DREAMING OUT LOUD. Copyright © 1998. Harpercollins Publishers. All rights reserved.