- “Country Music Is Wherever the Soul of a Country Music Fan Is”Opryland U.S.A. and the Importance of Home in Country Music
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As a genre of popular music, country music has never been as homogenous, stable, or traditional as both its critics and fans have often made it out to be. Even as far back as its commercial beginnings in the 1920s, country music’s multiple sub-genres and sonic diversity have defied easy categorization, and performers as well as fans rarely have fit the “hillbilly” stereotype that has long attached to the genre. The late 1960s and early 1970s, however, did find country music in a moment of considerable flux and potential consternation over whether the genre could maintain a coherent connection with its roots in the rural trappings and rustic performances of the early part of the American twentieth century. The country-pop Nashville Sound ushered in new instrumentation and production techniques—orchestrated violins, background choral groups, and smoother lead vocals instead of the fiddle, steel guitar, and twang of the previous eras—that made Nashville’s country music seem less “country” to some contemporary observers, who called for a return to what they saw as the genre’s true roots. In contrast with these extremely successful hits recorded on Nashville’s Music Row, country’s preeminent long-running live radio program, the Grand Ole Opry, resisted much of the change associated with the Nashville Sound, keeping acts who had performed for decades instead of catering to the new breed of country star, and retaining its traditional mix of comedy, tomfoolery, and song.
Because of the Opry’s inclination toward the traditional amid a season of change, the program had to delicately spin the 1974 decision to leave its home of over three decades, the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, for Opryland U.S.A., a new theme park complex outside the city limits, about nine miles from downtown. The size of the new complex—as well as its multiple commercial options, extravagant rides, and live animals—stood in stark contrast to the staid, cathedral-like old Ryman Auditorium. The Opry’s managers were aware that the live radio show’s historic location had been just as important as the list of performers who regularly plied their trade on stage every weekend. But the Opry’s corporate parent, National Life and Accident Insurance Company, envisioned the new park as something bigger than just a home for the Opry; they saw it as a chance to expand the Opry’s brand and generate revenue through multiple platforms.1
To justify the move from venerated older auditorium to expensive modern entertainment complex, Opry stars and leaders employed a two-pronged strategy. First, Opry figures drew on a potent national discourse about urban space and decried the “slums” of downtown Nashville to argue that the Ryman’s urban location was inappropriate for the Opry’s family-friendly audience and image. And secondly they argued that even though the Ryman had been “home” to the Opry for over three decades, what really gave a home its unique flavor was its inhabitants, and that fans and stars together would invest the new Opry House with the same down-home charm and character that they had brought to the Ryman. [End Page 92] The rhetorical defense of the Opryland U.S.A. complex and the new home for the storied radio program drew on and perpetuated a larger matrix of beliefs and values about country music’s...