It likely won’t have the shelf life of Throwback Thursdays or Taco Tuesdays, but “full-capacity Friday night” had an oddly special ring to it on May 14.
Grand Ole Opry announcer Bill Cody uncorked the phrase as the WSM-AM Nashville show had every ticket in the 4,400-seat Opry House available for the first time since March 10, 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic forced live entertainment off the stage. Some 2,400 tickets were sold, according to Opry vp/executive producer Dan Rogers, as the reboot coincided with an unexpected bonus: Barely 24 hours before the show’s start, the city of Nashville dropped face-mask mandates. The Opry matched the metro policy — signs indicated masks were welcome, but not required — and at least 90% of ticket-buyers dropped the fabric.
“It just felt liberating,” The Oak Ridge Boys‘ Joe Bonsall said after the group closed the two-hour show with “Elvira.” “It felt like maybe, just maybe, we are really on our way here. Maybe we are emerging. I mean, it was just awesome. I knew it would be, but it was even more awesome than I thought it would be. I almost cried out there. I didn’t, but I almost did.”
In ideal Opry fashion, the lineup reflected a variety of styles and eras. Lorrie Morgan opened with her chart-topping 1990 single “Five Minutes,” and the rest of the talent parade featured current hitmaker Michael Ray, Western vocal quartet Riders in the Sky, comedian Aaron Weber, Nashville actor Charles Esten and newcomer Brittney Spencer, who sang a new song, “Sober & Skinny,” for the first time in public.
Spencer’s appearance was a personal milestone, for she made her Opry debut. While she felt its significance (she conceded that her breathing was more pronounced during “Sober” as she fought off a case of nerves), she was still present enough to recognize a positivity across the audience.
“It felt like relief,” she said. “It’s this crazy time for a lot of people. This is their first time hearing live music in 14 or 15 months. I feel like you can just hear everyone taking a big sigh and [having] a sense of belonging.”
While most live events were canceled or postponed across the United States once the virus broke out in March 2020, the Opry kept going, in great part because it is a radio show at heart and was able to exist without an audience. Parts of the program also air on the Circle Network, and Opry management made major adjustments to keep it on the air, with a minimal lineup of artists performing to a vacant house. It was livestreamed beginning March 14, 2020, a move that Rogers now believes will lead to greater support at an international level.
Opry executives followed city guidelines closely, opening Opry House seating to 500 socially distanced patrons in October and gradually adding more tickets as Nashville loosened policies.
The Oaks appeared two or three times when no fans were present — the last visit, Bonsall indicated, felt “really weird” — but even after scattered seating was introduced, the atmosphere was unavoidably unusual.
“You look up in the balcony, and there’s all these people looking down in masks,” he quipped. “It kind of looked like the gallery on Grey’s Anatomy, looking down at a brain transplant.”
Still, after 14 months of caution, the abrupt return to more normal conditions was as much an oddity as the beginning stages of the pandemic.
“There was a backstage tour today, and it was the first time in well more than a year that I looked out and saw people in a group together without masks on,” noted Rogers. “It was just as strange as it looked in March of 2020 to see all these people walking around with masks on. I had the opposite experience today when I walked out and thought, ‘Oh my God: faces.'”
The backstage area, more than any part of the rebooted Opry experience, remains abnormal. Historically, the volume of acts — combined with their entourages, family members and personal guests, as well as other industry visitors — creates a mild party atmosphere that spills out to the side stages, where fans can see hangers-on. Those areas were barren on May 14, and the typically crowded back hallways were likewise spacious and easily navigated. That will probably remain the case for several months as the Opry respects the most cautious members of the community.
“My goal is to bring the area backstage to normal, where it feels congenial and Opry-like, if you will, but to really over the next few weeks still try to limit the number of people,” said Rogers. “That’s just so those who are back here can feel a little more comfortable. Maybe you don’t have your mask on when you’re walking through the family room and maybe you can go get your free popcorn from the green room again.”
Full-capacity Fridays, as well as full-capacity Saturdays and Tuesdays, are returning at an ideal time as the Opry looks forward to several significant milestones. Launched on Nov. 28, 1925, the show celebrated its 95th anniversary during the lockdown. Its 5,000th Saturday concert is set for Oct. 30, and its 100th birthday is less than five years away.
After coping successfully with a lethal, invisible threat, management has a refreshed attitude about any upcoming challenges.
“It’s not as if I had a lack of confidence before this,” observed Rogers. “But I thought, ‘If this team can get through this’ — and I knew we would be able to — ‘we’ll have so much more confidence, and things will seem so much easier to take on.'”
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