May 3 will mark a dozen years since flood waters from Nashville’s Cumberland River overran the steps of the Grand Ole Opry House, submerging the stage for days.
Beyond the human toll of that disaster, one of the biggest structural issues was the fate of a six-foot circle of wood, preserved from the Ryman Auditorium when the Opry House was built in 1974. The section was professionally restored, and when it was placed back in its rightful location in August 2010, Brad Paisley asked rhetorically, “Will the circle be unbroken?”
“The circle can’t be broken, Brad,” replied Little Jimmy Dickens.
That wooden wonder is now the subject of a reverent bluegrass song, “Grand Ole Circle,” which incorporates that “circle can’t be broken” ideal into its respectfully emotional chorus.
Darin and Brooke Aldridge may not be tip-of-the-tongue names in commercial country circles, but they’ve built a reputation in their chosen genre, with Brooke claiming the International Bluegrass Music Association’s female vocalist of the year award four times. And their appreciation for the hallowed white oak and maple floor boards at the Opry, which they’ve played approximately 40 times since 2017, runs just as deep as that of their mainstream country peers.
“It’s just so surreal to stand there and think about all the musical heroes that have stood there,” Brooke reflects. “That full-circle moment hits you instantly.”
The resilience of the show and its iconic circle came into focus during 2020 when the pandemic forced Opry management to revamp the lineup for safety purposes, with only a handful of artists performing weekly for cameras in an empty Opry House. Songwriter Bill Whyte, who’s landed cuts with Joe Nichols and Hillary Scott & the Scott Family, grew up listening to the WSM-AM Nashville program in Missouri, and shared the Aldridge’s affinity for it. He thought it might be appropriate subject matter for a co-writing session.
“There’s been songs written about the Grand Ole Opry,” he says, “but it occurred to me that there’d been nothing specifically directed about the circle.”
Working ahead of their appointment, he found a basic chord pattern on acoustic guitar and penned two verses and a chorus on his own, telling the story of those historic planks. The first verse referenced Roy Acuff’s role in directing the circle’s 1974 relocation to the Opry House, while the second four-line stanza inserted the ghost of Hank Williams – whose undependability got him fired from the Opry 70 years ago – and the 2010 flood.
Whyte launched the chorus with his “circle can’t be broken” nod to The Carter Family’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” though he didn’t realize the line’s connection to that song – or to Dickens’ quote – until much later.
“I just remember being in the flow, and it just kinda rolled out and made sense,” he says. “It’s amazing how you write sometimes, and then it’s only after you hear the song 50 times or go back and look at the lyric again, sometimes you go, ‘Oh wow, that’s a pretty good line,’ or it’s got a double meaning that you weren’t even thinking about when you wrote it.”
When Whyte checked in with the Aldridges via Google Hangouts, they were happy to help finish it, picking up after that first chorus, which name-checks bluegrass icons Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs and Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, as well as Opry comedienne Minnie Pearl.
“You can close your eyes and you can actually picture those people standing on that stage, and that’s kind of what we did when we wrote it,” Brooke says. “We closed our eyes and thought about all the people down through the years who we remember standing on that stage.”
That included the Aldridges, who made their Opry debut July 4, 2017. Verse three flashed back to that day, recalling the moments they stood back stage until since-retired show host Eddie Stubbs introduced them. For the next chorus, they inserted a different set of names: Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Dickens and George Jones & Tammy Wynette, the latter selected because they had been – like the Aldridges – a married couple.
“We worried that the choruses weren’t all the same because we wanted it to stick in people’s heads,” Brooke says. “But we then decided that it just couldn’t be, because there were too many important people to include in the song. That was the hard part, figuring out who to put in the song.”
A bridge looks into the future, confident that “others are gonna be standing on that circle long after they’re gone,” Whyte says. Originally, the last chorus was to repeat the first, though the duo’s manager, Leadership Artists founder Brian Smith, suggested they should cite a few more Opry members. That made way for mentions of Bill Anderson, Jeannie Seely, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.
Darin co-produced the Aldridges’ recording of “Grand Ole Circle” with bassist Mark Fain (Alison Krauss, Bruce Hornsby) at Daywind Studios in Hendersonville, Tenn., in February 2021, with guitarist Bryan Sutton and fiddler Stuart Duncan filling out the four-piece bluegrass band.
A day later, they brought in four members of the Opry house band – drummer Eddie Bayers, electric guitarist Kerry Marx, pedal steel player Tommy White and pianist Randy Hart – to add some “Grand Ole Circle” authenticity. “We was toying with the idea of making two cuts of it, you know, making a more country-ish cut and then a more ‘grassy cut,” Darin says. “We was thinking if it’s too [country], then our bluegrass DJs won’t play it, and if it’s not enough, the country DJs won’t play just a strict bluegrass record.”
Instead, the Opry musicians found a delicate balance, playing just enough to make their presence felt, but not so much that they interfered with the Aldridges’ bluegrass foundation. “The only thing bad about it was the COVID protocols,” Darin says. “We all couldn’t have a big group hug at the end of it. But other than that, it was special.”
Ultimately, they shot a video during an Opry appearance, with Stubbs introducing the clip and the Opry supplying live footage from the archives, plus shots of the dressing rooms, the iconic Opry mic stand and, of course, the grand ole circle. Not surprisingly, it’s an emotional moment when the Aldridges perform “Circle” on the Opry, but it makes a connection in other venues, too.
“It’s been neat to see it move audiences, because that was our whole intention,” Brooke says. “We wanted to give people that experience if they had been to the Opry before, or if they’d never been to the Opry. I feel like we’ve done that, because people have come up to us after shows and said, ‘Man, when you were singing that song tonight, you took me there.’”