Ryman Auditorium, known as the Mother Church of Country Music, played home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974. Backstage before Friday’s show, Dolly—dressed in a denim skirt and gold top, her nails painted a Backwoods Barbie pink—recalled her first appearance at the Ryman and what it meant to get on that stage, coming from a two-room house in the Great Smoky Mountains all those years ago.
“My Uncle Bill Owens used to bring me back and forth to Nashville,”
“And he would always try and get someone to let me on the Grand Ole Opry. The stars had two spots on the Opry. So finally my Uncle Bill talked to Jimmy C. Newman”
—the first Cajun member of the Opry—
“and he let me have one of his spots.”
It was 1959 and Dolly (a girl who made her first guitar out of an old mandolin and two bass guitar strings) was all of 13 years old. There were 4,000 people in the audience as she stepped out on stage.
“Johnny Cash was kind of hosting that night and he brought me on and I sang a George Jones song, ‘You Gotta Be My Baby.’ I guess that came out about 1956. And so that was one of my big numbers. It was a thrill beyond compare.”
She laughed, adding:
“I got an encore. I know now it wasn’t because I was good, it was because I was little.”
But the importance of this moment cannot be overstated.
“As a kid in the Smoky Mountains, I used to stand on the porch and sing in a tin can with a tobacco stick stuck down on the porch thinking I was on the Grand Ole Opry. It’s kind of like that song, ‘New York, New York.’ If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, and the Grand Ole Opry was my dream.”
The Ryman became something of a second home for Dolly. For more than seven years she appeared on The Porter Wagoner Show, which broadcast live from the auditorium, (watch raw video of Dolly singing "Dumb Blonde" in 1967—the same year her solo record "Hello, I’m Dolly" was released on Monument Records.)
The Ryman—once a tabernacle church dating back to 1892, where patrons still sit in pews—has always been celebrated for its acoustics. Before the building was renovated in the 1990s, there was exactly one dressing room for the men; the women, meanwhile, had to change in the ladies restroom. When it got too crowded, the performers famously went across the street to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, which acted as an unofficial green room.
“The old Ryman didn’t even have air conditioning,”
Dolly recalled backstage.
“There was one dressing room for the boys, one dressing room for the girls. We’d almost get in fist fights, you know, trying to get a spot at the mirror. You know how girls are. It’s air conditioned now, but it still has the same old feeling. I just love this place.”
Dolly’s return to the Ryman had been billed an acoustic tour.
“It’s not really some big statement I’m making,”
she said, with a smile.
“Like, oh, it’s Dolly unplugged!'
Rather the decision was as much about practicality as it was about honoring the Ryman itself.
“I didn’t have a band together. Everyone is out on the road working with Garth Brooks and all the other bands. I said, let’s put together a show of our own. We don’t have big screens or big productions or big sound. But hopefully, it’ll be more enjoyable—especially in a place like the Ryman where you don’t want a whole big bunch of stuff. It is the Mother Church of Country Music. And there’s just something sacred about it. We have the new Grand Ole Opry House, which we love. But there’s nothing quite like this old building.”
As for the title of the show, the [producers] said,
“What can we put on the tickets?”
“I said, 'Well, I guess just Dolly pure and simple?'”
Nashville is famously a songwriter’s town, and over the course of two hours, Dolly—dressed in a white suit, opening the show in silhouette—would return to some of her biggest hits, admitting:
“All those old songs are gonna hit me in a different place tonight. It’s gonna take me back in time.”
Of “I Will Always Love You,” she said:
“That will be a very special song tonight. As you know I worked with The Porter Wagoner Show all those years. I was with Porter when I became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1969. I owe so much to Porter. But that was a song I wrote when I left Porter’s show. So singing songs like that will be very special and very emotional to me.”
Proceeds from Friday night’s concert benefited the W.O. Smith School of Music’s Dustin Wells Foundation, which encourages young people to play music, and the show sold out in minutes. Dustin Wells was killed in a car accident in 2005 at just 21 years old; Wells’ father, Dennis, has been Dolly’s dentist for more than 20 years. Bringing levity to the stage, Dolly told the crowd:
“You know you’re a hillbilly when you get your boobs done before you get your teeth cleaned.”
A second show was added benefitting the Opry Trust Fund, which helps members of the country music family who are struggling with medical expenses. Lines stretched down the block, and level of interest in the two concerts surprised even Dolly.
“I just felt like, that many people didn't really want to see me in Nashville,”
“I don’t get to do the Opry as much as I’d like to. When I’m here, I just want to be at the house. I’m gone so much I want to hang out with my husband.”
But looking around, she said,
“This is kind of like home to me.”
If the concerts were about looking back, rest assured Dolly is looking ahead, too. She is producing a film, Coat of Many Colors—set in 1955 in the Great Smoky Mountains and inspired by her childhood—that will air on NBC this winter. And Dolly hints at more potential films to come inspired by her songs "Jolene" and "The Seeker." She’s also at work on a Broadway musical based on her life. She smiled, adding:
"Lord, I’ve lived so long, I got a lot of stories to tell. I can’t just tell ‘em all in one place. I’ll just scatter ‘em around.”
Special thanks to guest author, Mickey Rapkin.
Featured image courtesy of Stacie Huckeba.