The Grand Ole Opry on Saturday Night Will Endure

Well here we sit on the eve of the Ides of March, just a few days removed from live music Armageddon the likes we’ve never seen before in history, in a moment we’re sure to remember keenly for generations to come. Fears of the spread of the Coronavirus have now reached every sector of music, and affected every county and municipality in North America and the world. Concerts, festivals, and tours have been cancelled, bands and artists are making their way home or are already there. Only a few straggler live dates are still left out there on the calendar for select performers, and everyone’s getting ready to wait out the wave of disease like a cold winter, despite the first glimmers of spring blooming right outside our windows. All we can hope for now is that the hiatus won’t last very long.

And it’s not just music affected by the moratorium on congregations of course. From Broadway, to basketball, to venues and events big and small, the collective decision has been made to shut it down. All of it. And so here we are.

One of the oldest institutions of American culture, The Grand Ole Opry, is not immune to this mothballing of American life. Announced late this week, the 94-year-old radio and stage show that gave birth to country music as a relevant American art form is forgoing their Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday night performances due to the COVID-19 outbreak. But it’s not going completely dark. As they scale back operations like everyone else at least until April 4th—if not longer depending on the severity of the outbreak—they’ve decided the Saturday night Opry performances will remain. Saturday is the original night the Opry broadcast emanated from WSM in Nashville, and was simulcast all across the country across scores of affiliates. There will be no audience, but there will be the Grand Ole Opry. And as we say in country music, the circle will remain unbroken.

Only one time can historians recall when the Opry went completely dark, and did not have an audience. It was on April 6, 1968 after Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, and riots were breaking out all over the United States. A citywide curfew in Nashville kept the Opry off the air, at least a live performance from the hallowed stage. WSM did play a previously-taped show in the slot, while Opry godfather Roy Acuff and other performers organized a makeshift show at a dance hall in town for Opry fans that afternoon.

There is more than a little bit of symbolism in the Grand Ole Opry keeping with its Saturday night tradition, even in this most unusual and dark of times. There’s a reason the Country Music Hall of Fame rotunda where the legacies of all the honorees are held in state is adorned with a radio antenna reaching to the sky, and a corresponding antenna pointing down into the hall itself. It’s because radio was how country music reached people across the country and world with entertainment, transporting them to a different time and place from their current troubles, whether it was the farmer in the Midwest, the coal miner encamped in Kentucky, or the factory worker in Pittsburgh. It connected them all together, and reminded them of a time that was much more simple, more wholesome.

“The sick and shut in” is who some older radio DJs and performers would often dedicate songs, performances, or specific programs to. Taken from religious notions of visiting those who could not make it to congregate with their community due to age, injury, or medical ailment, the advent of radio allowed music and message to reach those who were apart from society, but wanted to feel connected. In this moment of crisis and quarantine, sending out songs, thoughts, and prayers to “the sick and shut in” feels utterly apropros.

It’s not just the music, sports, movies, and theatrical performances we’ve been divested from. It’s our sense of community and oneness that has been usurped from our souls, leaving a hollow feeling. Today, television, the internet, and an array of entertainment options makes the idea of tuning into a live radio show seem obsolete for many. But there’s still something comforting, however arcane, that can make the radio more reassuring than other mediums. It’s about radio’s ability to stoke the imagination, and connect you with others. It’s this ever-present digital convenience of too much information that has made the modern day feel so impersonal, and face to face interaction so much more pertinent and valuable. You can make the definition as high as you want on a live video feed, but it will never replace the feeling of enjoying a musical moment right beside each other with the performers feet away from you. Radio is the next closest thing, because at least it allows you to imagine it.

For the Grand Ole Opry, the bond is even stronger and more magnanimous due to the institution’s ties to the past and its extraordinary lineage. Country music has been a continuum throughout the ages that is comforting and assuring because it pushes back on the incessant march to modernize, instead choosing to draw its inspiration from the past, and preserve those modes that are most familiar to us. You can’t find toilet paper on the shelves. But you can count on country music. It’s always there for you no matter how the winds of change blow, or how dire times may get. From World War II to 9/11, country music stepped up to encapsulate and soothe our collective concern.

Months, and years from now, we will be looking back at the moments we’re living in currently with sharp recollections, wonderment at what happened, and remembering where we were when everything ground to a halt. But the Grand Ole Opry remained beaming its signal out on Saturday night like it always has—connecting us through the magic of radio, singing to the sick and shut in, allowing us to forget our troubles, and remember the past in warm recollections, and reminding us that we are not alone.