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William C. Altreuter
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Monday, May 07, 2012

In Nashville last week for the Spring meeting of the Academy of Hospitality Industry Attorneys. Naturally the educational component was outstanding, but good as it was I'd have to say that the highlight was attending the Grand Ole Opry Friday night. I will confess up front to being less knowledgeable about country music in general and the Opry in particular than maybe someone who takes an interest in American culture ought to be, but I've been working on this deficiency, and I feel like I'm making progress. Part of the problem for me amounts to Sturgeon's Law: Ninety percent of everything is crap. Always in the past when asked about country music I'd say something like, "Well, I don't really care for it, but I like Hank Williams." Gradually the list of artists I'd admit to enjoying listening to grew. I mean, who doesn't like Dolly Parton? Or Johnny Cash? Dwight Yoakum? Willie Nelson? Loretta Lynn? How can anybody deny Ronnie Milsap? Or Merle Haggard? Lyle Lovette-- hell, I've been listening to him for years. Pretty soon you realize-- or I realized-- that what I didn't care for was bad country music, and that there was a whole lot of amazing country music that I've always liked, and even more that I didn't know about that I ought to. Imagine if your sole expose to rock and roll was through a Classic Rock radio station. There'd be quite a bit there that would impress you as utter rubbish, with only an occasional jewel in the dungpile. Like many things, I suppose, it helps to have a knowledgeable guide, but it is also good to have an open mind and big ears. Oddly, in a way it may have been Julia Child who helped me overcome my reluctance to admitting that I like country music just fine. When asked about her guilty pleasures Julia said, "I don't have any guilt." So yeah, the Opry. It's a radio show, which I sort of knew, broadcast live on WSM-AM. The format is straight variety show-- done in half hour segments, with each half hour hosted by an artist who does an opening number and a closing number, then introduces one or two guests. There are commercial breaks, which are read live by a silver-throated fellow named Ed Tubbs. Mr. Tubbs looks like an auditor who just realized he left his Gelusil in the pocket of his other coat, but he sounds so sweet that listening to him it's all you can do to resist buying health insurance or running out to the Dollar General Store right then. It is sort of like Prairie Home Companion, if Prairie Home Companion wasn't for assholes.* I had to do a little digging to find the line-up for our show, which looked like this:

7:00: Mike Snider (host); Connie Smith; Darryl Worley
7:30: George Hamilton IV (host); Jesse McReynolds; Canaan Smith
 Intermission
 8:15: Bill Anderson (host); The Whites; Terri Clark
 8:45: Jim Ed Brown (host); Jean Shepard; The Grascals

 Like they say, they had both kinds of music, country and Western. Mr. Snyder attires himself as a colorful rustic in overalls, a Hawaiian shirt and a baseball cap. He fronts a traditional string band, and plays banjo, and was hilariously great. Ms. Smith was straight-up Nashville, to the extent that means anything-- I found her reminiscent of Patsy Cline. Darryl Worley was a bit more problematic for my tastes. He's a pretty boy county artist with a more or less country rock approach. I can live with that, but rhyming "have you forgotten" with "bin Laden" is where I draw the line. (There's a spectrum for this sort of thing, in my mind. If all I knew about Neil Young was "Ohio" I wouldn't like Neil Young either.) George Hamilton IV is old-school, wearing a tatersal trimmed waistcoat with a prominent IV embroidered on the breast. He was backed by his son, George V, and was genial and enthusiastic. He brought out Jesse McReynolds, late of Jim and Jessie. Mr. McReynolds wailed on mandolin jus' like you like to hear, and was followed by another pretty boy country rocker, Canaan Smith, said to be an up-and-comer. Bill Anderson ("Whispering Bill") was the host following the intermission, a guy whose radio show-- interviews with other country musicians-- I used to listen to. He closed with a number I'd heard in the past, "Golden Guitar", which is the sort of hoke I used to pretend I didn't like, but which I now acknowledge as irresistible, at least in small doses. Damned if he didn't wipe away a tear at the end of it. Bill featured The Whites (my pal Dave said, "From the looks of things that's pretty much everybody here,"), who performed, inter alia, "Keep On The Sunny Side" which they also performed on the "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack. We also got Terri Clark, who says she is the only Canadian woman member of the Opry. She's from Alberta, and rocked along purty nice, although she forgot the words to one of her own songs. That's an easy sin to forgive in a woman who can carry off a black cowboy hat like that. Jim Ed Brown came out to host the last half hour, brought to you, friends, by the Cracker Barrel Restaurants and General Store. Jim Ed brought out Jean Shepard. Ms. Shepherd is "as you know", she said, presently suffering from tic douloureux, but it didn't hurt her singing any ("It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels") and it gave her a little bit of an Elvis sneer, which was actually sort of charming. The bluegrass component of this set was the Graskels, who I'd be glad to hear again as long as they promise not to sing the song about the childhood friend who came back from the army dead.

It was a terrific evening of music. I am here to tell you, these cats can all flat-out play-- the display of pure musicianship was jaw dropping. I'd go back again in a heartbeat. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ * I am experimenting with this joke. I tried "if Prairie Home Companion wasn't for hipsters," but it wasn't as funny. Either way, the joke is perhaps a shade more contemptuous of Prairie Home Companion than I probably actually am.

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