The Grand Ole Opry has entertained music fans for more than 90 years. And with the exception of some package and tent shows in the early days, that’s almost exclusively been generated out of Nashville, TN. Now with the opening of the Opry City Stage in Times Square, the brand is bringing Nashville vibes to New York City and likely beyond. It’s part of a deliberate business strategy rooted in recent and historical success.
We turn to guest reporter/producers Matt Follet and Brady Watson for this report:
Country music fans in New York are now just a subway fare away from a Grand Ole Opry experience. They may have to wade through the tourists visiting an I Heart NY gift emporium, an M&Ms candy store and a Christmas in New York store, but they can hear familiar country tunes playing out on the street from the Opry City Stage.
“Opry City Stage is a restaurant, it’s also a live music space,” says Lisaann Dupont, director of communications for the Opry Entertainment Group, the company formerly known as Gaylord Entertainment that owns the Grand Ole Opry House, the Ryman Auditorium and radio station WSM. “So within the restaurant, there’s a stage. You can see live music every night of the week.”
Dupont points out Opry photographs throughout the venue. “In this display up here there’s photos of Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three, and there’s Roy Acuff sort of dancing with Cash, which is adorable,” she says.
Another noteworthy photograph is Opry legend George D. Hay posing in front of a WSM microphone. “He is the one who coined the name the Grand Ole Opry sometime in late 1927,” says John Rumble, senior historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum back in Nashville. “It was kind of a play on classical music. You know, Grand Opera. Well, you might not call it Grand Opera, but it can be called Grand Opry.”
Stars like Acuff, Cash, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and others propelled the Opry to king and queen-maker status in country music from the 1930s onward. At more than 90 years old it’s the longest running broadcast show in American history.
According to Dupont, Opry City Stage opened in late 2017 as an extension of that legacy - “really to bring the Nashville experience up here to New York,” she says. “To expand the Grand Ole Opry, to bring the Grand Ole Opry to more people maybe that haven’t come to Nashville yet.”
This outreach isn’t limited apparently to New York City’s 45 million annual tourists. Colin Reed, CEO of Ryman Hospitality Properties Inc., told reporters on a conference call in February that the company is looking at several tourist-friendly cities—including Orlando and Las Vegas--for Opry City Stage sites. This is part of an effort to expand the Opry brand, one that also includes executive producer credits for the Nashville television show which ran for six seasons up until this year. A 2014 survey revealed that close to 20 percent of Nashville’s 13 million tourists visited at least in part because of the show.
New Yorkers have been showing an interest in the Grand Ole Opry for decades. It began 71 years ago and 8 blocks away from the Opry City Stage, with a two-night stand at Carnegie Hall in 1947.
“While there were some people who thought, ‘they’re going to do what at Carnegie Hall?,’ there were others who already knew, and knew well,” says Gino Francesconi, the director of Archives and Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall. “And those shows sold out. Billboard magazine showed that they made $9,000 bucks for those two concerts. That’s a lot of money.”
The show drew a New York audience thanks to the 50,000 watt, clear-channel signal of its host radio station, WSM. “From Nashville, it had been on since 1925, and it had a powerful transmitter. And this was one of the largest radio audiences in the country,” Francesconi says. “In the 1940s, there were 7 million people living here.”
The Opry returned to Carnegie Hall in 1961, and this time, there was some blatant classism on display in the local arts press. John Rumble notes the fierce criticism from one New York City columnist and socialite. “Dorothy Kilgallen said well everybody should just get out of town you know if they’re coming up here. You know it was the old ‘we don’t want anything to do with those hillbillies.’”
According to Francesconi, Kilgallen didn’t hold back any insults. “Head for the hills because the hicks from the sticks are coming. It was really severe. And she goes ‘remember when Carnegie Hall used to be associated with music?’”
Yet country music fans proved Kilgallen wrong by filling up the seats. “Ultimately, that’s all that really mattered at the end you know, whether they sold out,” Francesconi says.
Opry mementos are everywhere inside the Opry City Stage. Ranging from replicas of the Ryman’s stained-glass windows to a giant 650 WSM sign hanging over the bar. There is a Taylor Swift dress, a Porter Wagoner rhinestone jacket, and Dupont shows off a smaller wardrobe item. “And then over there in the end, with that big JD on the front, is one of Little Jimmy Dickens’s suits,” she says.
Little Jimmy Dickens was one of the Opry artists -- along with Vince Gill, Martina McBride and Brad Paisley -- that played at Carnegie Hall for the Opry’s 80 Birthday celebration in 2005. Gino Francesconi was there, observing the audience’s reaction from behind the stage. “And the place was rocking,” he says. “The people that were here didn’t fly from Nashville. They were locals and they were having a wonderful time.”
Back at City Stage, Nashville songwriter Chris DeStefano performs as part of an in-the-round format that’s proven so popular over the years in Music City. Opry City Stage has made sure to bring this part of Nashville culture to New York as well, through a collaboration with the Nashville venue, Bluebird Cafe.
“The Bluebird is here twice a month at The Studio in Opry City Stage, bringing in songwriters who you may not know by name,” Dupont says. “But when they get up there, they (might) start singing a Keith Urban song.”
Fans in attendance listened to songwriter Chris DeStefano discuss the origin of one example. “And Keith Urban put his phone number into my phone and said the next time you have a song you believe in just skip everyone else and send it straight to me,” DeStefano said. “So at 7:00 am the next morning, I texted him.”
Erika Wollam Nichols, general manager of the Bluebird Cafe, sees unlimited potential in the New York City location. “Well New York is the hub, and there’s an audience here that’s really unexplored I think in a lot of ways,” she says.
She booked the inaugural Bluebird at the Stage performance, which also included Nicolle Galyon and J.T. Harding. “We didn’t know what to expect,” Wollam Nichols says. “But to see this audience connect immediately, right over the top, that was incredible.”
Performances like this are at the heart of the Opry’s expansion plans. The company is looking to capitalize on country music’s international appeal, citing a possible European Opry City Stage because of the continent’s love of country music. And given the Opry’s support at Carnegie Hall in 1947, 1961, and 2005, the brand has proven it can travel out of Nashville and succeed.