Buttermilk and Crackers: Catching Riders in the Sky and Ricky Skaggs at the Grand Old Opry
In Nashville, I went to the longest-running radio show in the world and tried to untangle my own roots in country music.
Last week, I found myself in the audience of the Grand Old Opry’s 5,079th radio broadcast.
Every Saturday night since 1925, the country’s foremost singers, fiddlers, and steel guitar players have gathered to perform a live country music radio show that, oddly enough, started as an advertising platform for an insurance company.
By the 1940s, the show was a mega-hit for AM radio station WSM, which by that time was broadcasting straight from the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville and into millions of homes (and cars) from coast to coast, including those of my ancestors.
Pud, Joyce, Mary, Lee, Bob, Elsie.
Before this performance at the Opry, I hadn’t thought much about the role country music has played in my family, then and now.
But as I heard the opening song from Riders in the Sky, a country western band that plays prominently in the soundtrack of my youth, or the harmonies and string-picking of Ricky Skaggs coming out of his green room — our group of journalists got a backstage tour during intermission — their love of this music flooded my memory.
I remembered that they grew up listening to old-school country as kids growing up on a farm in Kentucky without any running water.
How many hours did they spend listening to the Grand Old Opry?
Especially during those years when they had no money to buy records?
Or when they finally stopped drinking and needed something to help fill those Friday and Saturday nights?
The country music-loving branch of my family, namely, my great-grandmother Joyce and her siblings Pud and Mary, were the ancestors who had the toughest time creating what we would call a stable life.
Joyce was born in 1916, and my guess is she fell in love with country music through the car radio when she was “cavorting all around” — her word, not mine — to all of those drinkin’ establishments she found herself at from the years of, oh, 1942 to 1951.
By the 1960s, when the Opry had about 10 million listeners a week, a change was a-coming that they weren’t that interested in.
My dad’s generation was well on their way to shaping the sounds of the era, so the aunties who raised him stuck to the old stuff.
By the time I came along in the 1980s, they’d lost all their spouses to cancer, booze, or grievances that weren’t worth mentioning all those years later. They lived together, a la The Golden Girls, first in a pink cottage in Florida and, later, at a house on a hill in Branson, “the Las Vegas of the Midwest,” where country artists like Mel Tillis and Charley Pride went to semi-retire but continue to perform residencies at their own theaters.
I remember them as the elderly great aunties with a house off The Strip that smelled of cigarettes and bacon and who loved a good hamburger, a game of chess, and a fast-fiddling man.
“Country music was as familiar to them as buttermilk and crackers,” my mom recalled this week when I asked her about their love of music that trickled down into our family.
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