It's "the mother church," in Dolly Parton's words. It's what Yankee Stadium is to a ballplayer, what Carnegie Hall is to a classical musician. It's the ultimate stage for country music performers.
The radio broadcast that became the lifeblood of country music for most of this century marked a milestone late last year, and "The Grand Ole Opry 70th Anniversary Celebration" (airing at 9 tonight on CBS) gives it its due.
Far less slick than most of the recent crop of network country specials, the two-hour show relies more on the country canon itself than on today's chart-toppers and high-profile pinups. Even the biggest stars--Vince Gill, Clint Black--get little celeb treatment, deferring to some of the most rough-hewn and authentic characters to hit network TV since the "Rawhide" cattle drive got rolling.
The roster is a refreshing response to the mounting complaints that the media neglect country's older generation. When's the last time Ray Price, 69, sang on CBS? Old-timers Chet Atkins and Don Gibson team on "Oh Lonesome Me" after reminiscing about the creation of Gibson's 1958 hit, which Atkins produced. George Jones, voice and hair-sculpture in fine form, more than holds his own in a sing-off with his younger acolytes.
Affectionate and intelligent, "Celebration" offers little about the nuts-and-bolts history of the Opry itself, focusing instead on the music and personalities it fostered. The artists crowd the stage in segments devoted to such genres as honky-tonk and bluegrass, but always manage to make room for one another.
If all these roots don't do it for you, you can always ponder the new country-grunge looks sported by Black and Gill, and the fanciful outfits into which Parton squeezes herself.