Nearly a century ago, the Grand Ole Opry began as a humble radio broadcast. It is now a world-famous live-entertainment phenomenon with a home as beloved as the show itself: the spectacular 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House. The Opry House’s wooden entrance doors crested by stained-glass windows make visitors feel as if they’re entering a place of worship. Inside, rich wooden tones are accented by vibrant lighting through the main stage and backstage areas, bathing the venue in a kind of spiritual glow; a glow that only a force majeure could threaten to extinguish.
When Roy Acuff said, “Ain’t nothing gonna come up today that me and the good Lord can’t handle,” he could not have foreseen the Grand Ole Opry’s cataclysmic future. In May 2010, the rapidly rising water levels of the Cumberland River surged through the doors of the iconic Opry House, flooding it beneath four feet of water. The region sustained billions of dollars in property damage, with a third of Tennessee declared a major disaster area by the federal government. The flood claimed 31 lives, but it could not claim the indomitable spirit of the show that made country music famous: the Grand Ole Opry.
Dubbed the “good-natured riot” by founder George D. Hay, the beloved Opry broadcast features upwards of 80 artists, musicians, dancers and comedians performing on any given night at the Opry House. The Opry relocated from Ryman Auditorium to the Opry House next to Opry Mills in 1974, where over a million fans flock to tour the building and catch big names in country music perform on the legendary stage.
The Opry’s backstage area required complete reconstruction in the wake of the flood, and the project was completed in five astonishingly short months. During this process, the Opry’s 19 dressing rooms—once blank canvases that reflected nothing but fluorescent light in their mirrors—were transformed into one-of-a-kind spaces that reflect the Opry’s incredible history and country music’s rich culture.
“When guests walk through the halls on backstage tours, great Opry stories come to life,” says Dan Rogers, director of marketing and communication for the Grand Ole Opry. “Stories like Blake Shelton being surprised with an invitation from Trace Atkins to join the Opry, Carrie Underwood meeting Loretta Lynn for the first time, Vince Gill sitting down and playing his guitar for fans in dressing room 1.”
And Garth Brooks seems to agree. “No offense at all to the people sitting in the seats,” he says, “but the real show is backstage.”
Oh, if these walls could talk.
Let’s start at Dressing Room 9, aka “It Takes Two.” Country music’s most famous duos are the focus here. The 1960s were a golden age for country duets, and this glittering dressing room features design elements that harken back to it. Photographs of legendary pairs such as George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, and Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner grace the walls.
Across the way, flashy and velvet-covered Dressing Room 19, “Wagonmaster,” is a sparkling tribute to Porter Wagoner, designed by country superstar Marty Stuart. Stuart chose the room’s name for his dear friend and mentor, who led a band of that name. Inside, vibrant red and lush purple décor accents bedazzled memorabilia from Stuart’s and Wagoner’s careers that bring the “sparkle and twang” for which both men are known. If nothing says country music like rhinestones, then this room is hollering.
On the night of his Grand Ole Opry debut in 2002, Tim McGraw had some good-natured fun at Wagoner’s expense: McGraw plucked a rose-embroidered and beaded leather shirt belonging to Wagoner from the dressing room’s closet and wore it onstage that night. When Wagoner introduced McGraw for his performance, McGraw joked, “Thanks for the shirt!”
In the old days of country music, women were told they couldn’t succeed as solo acts. Fortunately, trailblazers like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire steamrolled this ideology. In fact, Kitty Wells’ 1952 No. 1 hit, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” was banned by many radio stations for being too scandalous to play on-air.
It was Wells’ audacious hit that inspired loud-and-proud Dressing Room 14, called “Honky Tonk Angels.” With a leopard-print rug and a platinum chaise-style sofa covered with faux ostrich skin, it embodies the gutsy female pioneers, including Kitty Wells, Jean Shepard and Patsy Cline, whose photographs pepper the walls.
Some cherished Opry members have dressing rooms devoted singularly to their legacies. Take, for instance, Dressing Room 3, “Little Jimmy.” At 4 feet 11 inches tall, the late Jimmy Dickens was diminutive in stature, but larger-than-life in personality. The singer’s eponymous dressing room is inspired by the outlandish humor he brought to the Opry stage. The walls are adorned with canvas art prints that are actually close-up photographs of the star’s signature rhinestone-speckled Western wear.
What would the Opry House be without a dressing room honoring the everlasting imprint left by its matriarch, Minnie Pearl? “Cousin Minnie,” Dressing Room 16, pays homage to the great country comedian who starred in the Grand Ole Opry for more than 50 years. Don’t be fooled by the famous $1.98 price tag dangling from her iconic straw hat—her talent, warmth and uplifting spirit were priceless.
There is one dressing room door that always has been and always will be open: that of Dressing Room 1, “Mr. Roy King of Country.” Roy Acuff left his dressing room door open as a way of welcoming friends, fans and artists for a backstage jam or warm-hearted hello. Even U.S. presidents were among Acuff’s fans. In 1984, Ronald Reagan visited the Opry while on the campaign trail to celebrate Acuff’s 81st birthday.
Mammoth portraits of Miss Minnie and Mr. Roy are the last faces guests see as they leave the heart of the Opry House. Country great Bill Anderson wrote, “I look up at those photographs and say goodnight to them both … and every time I say it I just can’t help but think to myself there simply will never be anything to compare with the pure magic that exists backstage at the Grand Ole Opry.”
Joel A. Katz is an entertainment attorney for global firm Greenberg Traurig LLC with a star-studded client roster that includes many of the biggest names in music. Katz reflects, “I’ve been backstage at the Opry hundreds of times. I felt terrible, of course, hearing about the flood. … But, now, it is bigger, better, more beautiful than ever.”
Today, the flood is but one chapter in the Opry House’s storied past.
Guided backstage tours are available seven days a week, and take guests behind the big red curtain, through the roped-off halls, into the Opry House’s Studio A, dressing rooms, Member Gallery, Musicians’ Room and Family Room.