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Grand Ole Opry Finds New Purpose Amid Pandemic, Playing to Empty Houses and a New TV Audience

Closing in on the centennial mark, radio’s longest running broadcast is leaving the seats empty but drawing a big virtual crowd.

grand ole opry country music
Mark Mosrie

Brad Paisley knows the Grand Ole Opry has its ghosts, but March 21 felt downright eerie. There was no anticipatory murmur of excitement from fans filing into the Grand Ole Opry House that night. No curtain going up. No applause marking the moment the show began. Instead, Paisley and fellow Opry members Vince Gill and Marty Stuart sat on stools six feet apart and looked out at nearly 4,400 dark seats, a few cameras and fewer than 30 crew members, only a handful visible at any given time.

If an empty Grand Ole Opry House always feels a little haunted to Paisley, “it feels really haunted when there’s no one there but you know everyone’s listening.”

That Saturday, the Grand Ole Opry was televised live for the first time in nearly a decade, thanks to Circle, a TV network created as a joint venture between Ryman Hospitality Properties, which owns the Opry, and Atlanta-based Gray Television Inc. Just one week before, though, Ryman management had canceled all Tuesday and Friday Opry shows for the foreseeable future over concerns about the coronavirus and pared back the Saturday show to a one-hour format with no in-house audience. The announcement came just five days after Nashville’s first reported case of COVID-19 and the day following the SEC’s cancellation of its basketball tournament a block away at Bridgestone Arena.

For the past three and a half months, radio’s longest-running show has aired without a live audience for the first time since the 1920s. At the same time, the Opry has increased the number of people who watch or listen to the show, averaging a weekly audience of more than 2 million across multiple media platforms.

“It’s an interesting phenomenon that in the past three months we have been able to continue the tradition of the world’s longest-running radio show and also simultaneously reach many fans who probably have never seen the Grand Ole Opry,” says Opry VP and executive producer Dan Rogers.

A portion of the Grand Ole Opry was carried live on cable television for more than 25 years, though not every week, beginning in 1985 on The Nashville Network (TNN). That show, “Grand Ole Opry Live,” moved to CMT in 2001 and two years later to Great American Country (GAC), where it lasted until 2012.

Currently, the Opry is broadcast live on Circle and Gray TV stations, DISH Studio Channel 102, Sling TV and other TV affiliates, in addition live streams via Circle All Access Facebook and YouTube channels. It’s also carried live by Nashville’s WSM-AM and SiriusXM. The Opry may have gone from two-hour productions three nights a week to a single hour on Saturdays at 7 p.m. Central time, but it is the only high-quality entertainment production originating from a public venue during a nationwide time of sheltering.

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Grand Ole Opry goes on at Nashville’s Opry House, without an in-person audience Mark Mosrie

“We’ve been thrust into the spotlight with the Saturday night show when nobody else had live original programming,” says Drew Reifenberger, general manager of Circle Media. “That really put Circle on the map with many country music fans.”

The launch of Circle in January put the Opry in a good position to create a live show. On February 26, Circle premiered Opry, a one-hour show hosted by syndicated radio personality Bobby Bones that featured highlights from a previous week’s Grand Ole Opry shows. Circle aired four of those shows before the first televised “Opry Live” on March 21. Since the network already had a TV production crew in place, shifting to a live format was simpler than building a show from scratch when almost the entire industry was shut down.

The Opry completely overhauled its Saturday, March 14 show in about 36 hours after pausing live audiences the day before. Opry executives reformatted the show but kept that night’s previously announced performers: Opry members Connie Smith, Bill Anderson and Jeannie Seely, plus Mandy Barnett, Sam Williams, and Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper.

“The decisions were minute by minute,” Rogers says. “The changes were being discussed from that Friday right up until showtime. It was as people were in the building, getting ready for the show, that Jeannie Seely said, ‘Shouldn’t we all be singing ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ at the end of the show?’ And I thought, ‘Of course we should.’”

The Opry added a video livestream for the 14th. The television show was ready the following Saturday and was made available on Circle and to affiliate TV partners, mostly stations owned by Gray TV or Meredith Corporation, which includes Nashville’s WSMV.

“That one-hour included three great artists — Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, and Brad Paisley — sitting on stools six feet apart, not touching anything from the minute they walked into the Opry House until they had reached all those people via a livestream until they left the Opry House,” Rogers says. They came in with their guitars — in Marty’s case, a mandolin — sat, played, got up, and left the venue.”

For Paisley, the most surreal aspect of that show was the silence between songs. “The silence added to the gravity of the situation,” he says. “You felt the gravity of the fear, since none of us knew where this thing was headed. You sensed that in the room: It was like having a crowd that was too scared to applaud.”

Gina Keltner, director of Opry talent booking and logistics, calls that first televised show “the simplest yet most difficult show we had ever done.

“It was the simplest in terms of production. It was a very stripped-down show. But difficult in the challenges and restrictions we had to comply with in order to make sure it was a safe show.”

To create appropriate sanitization and distance protocols, the Opry sought the counsel of Nashville mayor John Cooper, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and Nashville’s Metro Public Health Department.

“If we were going to put this together, we wanted make sure we kept the safety of the artists and our employees top of mind,” Opry Entertainment Group president Scott Bailey says.

“We have a whole surface map. People are literally assigned locations where they can stand, where they can go, where they can’t leave. Bobby Bones is eight feet away from the camera when he does his production in center row. It’s quite a feat.”

The Opry initially split the Opry House into three zones — stage and auditorium; control rooms; and backstage and outside engineering rooms — allowing no more than 10 people access to any area. Eventually, the stage and auditorium areas were split into separate zones.

“The 25 crew members on site during this time were not only responsible for transmitting the show around the world via 650 WSM, SiriusXM, Circle television, and digital outlets, but also for all aspects of the show itself: staging, lighting, audio, radio announcements, livestream interaction, etc.,” Rogers says. By comparison, a fall television special celebrating Dolly Parton’s 50th Opry anniversary had a 50-person crew devoted solely to the show’s television aspects.

“The protocols also include how the artists come into the venue,” Bailey says, “what doors they can come in, who is there to greet them — and what was supplied in and around the bathrooms, as well as all the wipedowns we need to do to make sure everything is clean and safe and that the artists feel comfortable.” Opry staff even made sure that each artist was provided their own Sharpie marker with which to sign commemorative posters.

Paisley consulted independently with friends from Vanderbilt University Medical Center and decided to bring his own microphones and stool for his appearance.

“You fidget with a stool,” he says. “All it would have taken was one stagehand coughing near the stool, then me fidgeting with it and touching my eyes.” Paisley says he probably won’t bring his own stool when he returns to the Opry stage, “but I will still bring my own mics.”

While a typical pre-pandemic Opry show has a backstage list that tops 200 staff, crew, musicians, industry partners, friends, and family, the shows on March 28 and April 4 were done with skeleton crews so small even Rogers, the show’s executive producer, didn’t attend. Instead, he says. “I sat at home and listened on the radio, and watched on both Facebook and Circle television simultaneously.”

The precautions appear to have worked. Rogers says he is not aware of anyone that has worked one of the shows being subsequently diagnosed with COVID-19.

During the pandemic shows, Bones emcees the show for television and livestream audiences from the center of the auditorium, while one of the Opry announcers assumes the same role for radio listeners from the side of the stage. At least one Opry member appears on each show, acting as onstage host, while some kind of thematic thread connects the artists. 

“We’ve seen that connection between families Vince Gill, Amy Grant, and their daughters; and, of course, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood,” Keltner says. “We’ve booked close friends like Luke Combs and Craig Morgan, who commiserated and each shared new quarantine-themed songs they had written during their downtime. And on June 6, Lee Brice and Michael Ray were in awe to be performing onstage alongside one of their musical heroes, Steve Wariner.”

An Easter-themed show featured Opry member Trace Adkins with Jason Crabb and T. Graham Brown. Opry member and former Army paratrooper Craig Morgan hosted a pre-Memorial Day Salute the Troops show. One Saturday, Lauren Alaina and Ashley McBryde joined Opry member Terri Clark, and the three rehearsed outside beforehand, harmonizing on classic country songs in the backstage parking lot. The pandemic schedule also boasted a high-profile Opry debut by Gwen Stefani, who performed remotely with Blake Shelton from Shelton’s Oklahoma ranch on May 11.

Continuing to broadcast shows has allowed the Opry to keep alive its streak of more than 4,900 consecutive broadcasts — it will reach 5,000 next year on October 30. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the Opry has canceled a Saturday performance just once, on April 6, 1968, two days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. Nashville’s 7 p.m. curfew that night forced WSM-AM to air a previously recorded Opry from its archive, while Opry member Roy Acuff hosted an impromptu gathering for fans and Opry musicians nearby, on the floor above a tourist attraction he operated.

The Opry’s streak had been threatened two other times since then. A 1975 flood forced the show to move downtown to Municipal Auditorium for one weekend. And ten years ago, a thousand-year flood submerged the Opry House stage beneath two feet of water; for the following five months, six substitute venues provided temporary homes for the Opry.

“I figured Nashville’s flood of 2010 would be the most memorable time of my 20-plus years at the Opry,” Keltner says. “I believe COVID-19 has topped that.

“With the flood, we temporarily lost access to the Opry House, which was a huge deal, but the show went on pretty much as usual, thanks to our staff and crew. In the case of COVID-19, we have to comply with so many more restrictions to even have a show that these shows look much different than our pre-COVID shows.”

As Nashville has begun to loosen restrictions on gatherings, so has the Opry. Musicians have been added onstage, and the size of the crew has increased. During the Salute the Troops performance on Memorial Day weekend, the Opry seated five members of the U.S. military in the balcony — the first audience members allowed in the Opry House in two months.

Each change brings new challenges. “We ran into a predicament one week where two artists wanted to bring their own piano players, so we had to address sanitation of the piano between the two players using it,” Keltner says

Pandemic-related restrictions also put limits on booking, Keltner says. Keeping the number of musicians onstage to a minimum means she’s unable to book groups or artists that require full bands, for instance. “Being able to only book two or three artists, all seated together onstage for the entire show, I have to make sure that the artist pairings make sense and that they have chemistry or a connection onstage that I haven’t necessarily had to worry about with our regular Opry shows.

“It’s like doing an Opry puzzle, shuffling the artists and the dates around until all the pieces fit.”

Meanwhile, other artists are watching what the Opry’s doing and inquiring about making appearances. “That’s how Jimmy Buffett came to know this iteration of the Grand Ole Opry, by having seen what’s been happening since March 14,” Rogers says. (Buffett’s would-be Opry debut is still in discussions.) “We’re talking with other folks, superstars in the genre, and their teams who saw the show and want us to consider having them do the show.”

An empty Grand Ole Opry House means the Opry’s loss of gross ticket revenue could easily exceed $250,000 per show, and close to Opry shows have been affected through the end of June. Thanks to Circle, though, the Opry has actually increased its audience, both in numbers and geographic reach, since March 14.

Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood’s Opry appearance on May 2 drew more than 5.5 million viewers and listeners, according to Bailey, and the average audience for each Opry show since the pausing of the live audience is approximately 2 million.

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Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood perform at the Grand Ole Opry during the pandemic Chris Hollo / Hollo Photographic

“We’re not a rated network yet, so we don’t have traditional measurement metrics,” Reifenberger says. “So we’ve pieced together what the affiliates are doing, because they are rated. We know empirically how many streams we’re doing. And we can reasonably estimate that we have a 2 million viewer audience for each Saturday night show. That’s not the official Nielsen way of doing things, and it’s not necessarily anything we can sell ads against, but it’s a heck of an audience.=

“If you had asked me in January if we’d have a 2 million Saturday night audience now, I would have thought that would be awesome.”

On Facebook, the Circle All Access page has grown from 10,000 followers to 134,000 during the pandemic, and Bailey says they’ve seen online viewers from a hundred countries tune into the live-streamed Opry show. “To put it in perspective, in Australia, that’s like ten in the morning; in the UK, it’s like one in the morning,” he says. “You can check socials to see who’s in and who’s calling out, and everything from Mozambique to New Zealand has been tuning in.”

Reifenberger believes his job is to convince those “Opry Live” viewers to return every Saturday night. “At the same time,” he says, “we want them to go sideways and view other Circle franchises” like “Coffee, Country & Cody,” a morning radio simulcast hosted by WSM-AM’s Bill Cody, and Opry member Craig Morgan’s reality show “Craig’s World.”

A SmithGeiger research study conducted in April showed, that just three and a half months into Circle’s existence, 43% of its potential audience — i.e., country music fans who stream content — already knew of its existence and 83% of those people had already viewed the network’s programming. That audience is significantly younger than the Opry expected, with 53% of those viewers falling between the ages of 18 and 34. Additionally, 52% of those who said they had never visited the Opry intend to do so after watching the Opry via one of the Circle properties.

“What we’ve been doing with the Opry has been the silver lining for us [during the shutdown],” Bailey says. “I think it will pay dividends in a variety of ways, not the least of which is introducing it to worldwide and younger audiences, as well as firming up our core. I think it also will continue to strengthen an already strong relationship with the industry, because we have an outlet at scale where we can help artists.”

Reifenberger says Circle’s success with the “Opry Live” show has led to “more meaningful conversations” with potential distributors and others. “It’s hard for a new network to get noticed sometimes, he says. “This has absolutely helped the conversations with sponsors, advertisers, and distributors.”

When it comes to a timetable for bringing back a live audience, nobody really knows. For one thing, that decision will be tied to Nashville’s four-phased reopening plan.

“We’re going to follow the audience and follow the rules,” Reifenberger says. “It’s a fluid situation, as to what that looks like and when the audiences come back, when we’ll have multiple weeknights, when the artists will be back touring. We don’t have any specific timelines.”

It’s also too early to say how the current iteration might cause Opry shows to evolve going forward. Rogers said he and his staff have been so busy putting on each week’s show the they haven’t had a chance to step back and begin developing a longterm vision for a new world when audiences can fill the Opry House seats again.

“I’ve personally loved the interaction you see with artists onstage together,” Rogers says. “I’m not saying that’s something that would continue post-pandemic, but I think people around the world would agree that it’s interesting to watch one artist’s reaction to another artist’s performance.”

Ultimately, the defining moment in an Opry fan’s journey is a visit to the show itself. “We’re never going to do better than that,” Reifenberger says. As much of a silver lining as the new live shows have been, they’re a shadow of a full-scale production with a live audience. “Our role is to be the next best thing. You can’t be there every week. Right now you can’t be there at all. Circle has to create the Opry experience in a media and digital world as best we can, to get people as close to that feeling as possible. But the live, in-person experience is always going to be better. Whether it’s one night or three nights, whenever that changes, whatever the format is, our role doesn’t change.”

The Opry House reopened for tours on June 26. (So did the Ryman Auditorium, the show’s historic former home and one that still hosts the Opry on occasion.) But with Nashville’s Phase 3 going into effect June 22 and set to last at least a month, paying ticketholders won’t be readmitted in any configuration before late July at the earliest.

On every Saturday night in the meantime, Opry members and their guests will gather in and around the iconic circle of white oak and maple that rests centerstage at the Opry House, a remnant of a former stage from the Ryman. They will sing their songs and find a way to push forward a tradition that dates back to 1925.

“It’s probably some combination of reverence and stubbornness that we make sure this keeps going on every Saturday,” Paisley says. “I love that these traditions exist. They kept us going.

“We have to make sure the world is given a dose of this every Saturday night. I think it has been a beacon of light.”