Grand Ole Opry GM Pete Fisher says he enjoys watching the reverence and awe that a new artist takes in playing the revered stage -- especially the wooden circle that was transplanted from the Ryman Auditorium upon moving to the “new” Opry House in 1974.
“That circle of wood at center stage is probably one of the most important artifacts in country music history, because it provides a geographical location that centers the artists and focuses them on the importance of what they are doing at that moment,” he tells Billboard. “We’ve had performers kiss the circle on their debut. Kellie Pickler actually sat down on the circle and sang her first song there. It really represents how today’s new artists are just as filled with the values and the emotion that our legends from decades ago are filled with.”
On Tuesday, the show will release the first in a series of releases titled Opry 9.0, Vol 1: Discoveries From the Circle, a collection of some of the memorable live performances from the historic WSM radio show by three of the format’s brightest stars. The first volume will feature Chase Bryant, JT Hodges and Drake White. For Bryant, who made his chart debut this year with “Take It On Back,” the entertainment institution is something that brings back a lot of childhood memories.
“I remember my grandfather used to listen to the Opry, and we’d watch it on TNN back in the day growing up,” the RED BOW recording artist recalls. “It brings back so many memories. Now, having my name as a part of that pays tribute to my career. I don’t know how much cooler anything can be to have something with that name on it and my name be a part. I don’t know why they picked me, but I’m sure as heck glad they did.”
Fisher says the first release in the series is part of the show’s upcoming 90th-anniversary celebration this fall. “We wanted to shine the spotlight and tip of the hat to the Opry’s role in the discovery of new artists. Obviously, with every show we present, we want to have a mix of superstars, new stars, and legends. This series helps us reinforce the Opry as a place where fans can discover the talent of the future.”
One of the parts of the show that sets it apart is that sense of camaraderie between the older generation of legends -- such as Bill Anderson and Jeannie Seely -- as well as newcomers like Bryant, Hodges, and White. “As we continue to broaden the boundaries of what we call country music, one thing that is very apparent to me that is reflected in the new artists is that there is a shared sense of common values. The Opry is really the manifestation of those values that make country special so special -- honoring legacies, respecting our elders, community, family, seeing diversity work together. Under one single show, we can have three generations of performers. The Opry is that stage where all of that common ground is shared and celebrated.”
The GM of the show since 1999, Fisher says the first three artists are very much representative of that tradition. “Drake, JT, and Chase are artists who show a true connection to all that the Opry stands for. They are remarkable talents that we want to share with country fans all over the world.”
Hodges, who is currently climbing the singles chart with “Ray Bans,” says he is definitely mindful of that long-standing tradition. "To be a part of something like this is truly an honor. The Opry has always been a historical cornerstone in Country music for the last 90 years. The fact that I get to be one of the new artists that helps to continue that tradition into the future is beyond amazing to me."
Though the Opry has released projects before of their live shows, the new series marks the first time the venue has marketed performances from newcomers. Fisher thinks that it’s an investment for the fans -- but it also shows the investment that the performers are making to the show. “We think it’s going to be a great product for fans to collect, but also it’s more than just an EP. It represents the commitment that new talent is making to perform on the Opry, and to do an in-store appearance after the show where fans can meet the performer and get a copy of the disc.”
Hodges and Bryant will sign copies of Opry 9.0, Vol 1: Discoveries From The Circle following their upcoming performances on the show. Hodges is scheduled to perform and sign on July 10 and Bryant on July 14. The disc will be available at the four Opry retail stores as well at Opry.com.