Over the past year, the Grand Ole Opry's return to relative normalcy after the peak pandemic months created opportunities for multiple acts to step inside the Opry House's circle --a well-tread piece of flooring from the show's previous home, the Ryman Auditorum-- for the first time. Some waited months after initial plans for 2020 got nixed, while others' career-affirming nights built off recent professional strides.
For example, the band American Aquarium's May 2020 introduction to Opry listeners got postponed, with the earliest options for a makeup date constricted by guidelines that would've forced lead singer BJ Barham to appear on the show without his five bandmates.
"There's so much lore that goes into making a Grand Ole Opry debut, and I didn't want to do it without my guys," Barham told Wide Open Country. "We've kind of been through so much together already. It's one of those things where it's all or none. Luckily, the Opry was kind enough to wait and hold our spot. As soon as they felt comfortable having a full band come back on after COVID, we were able to make our debut."
More than Barham's bandmates joined him on July 13, 2021, as loosened restrictions allowed for family and friends to receive superstar treatment.
"The biggest moment for me was my father had never been on an airplane before," Barham explained. "Never flown anywhere. He always had the quote that if it's too far to drive, it's too far for me to go to. It was one of those things were when I told him I was playing the Grand Ole Opry, he booked a plane ticket to come see me play the Opry. My sister brought him, and it was one of those really great moments where my dad who at that time was 66 years old had never been on an airplane. He refused to get on one his entire life, but the Opry got him on an airplane. His kid playing the Opry was enough for him to fly."
Bluegrass artist Becky Buller also waited not-so-patiently after getting a rain check for her planned May 2020 Opry debut.
"I kept telling myself that they called once, they're going to call again," Buller said. "Finally in July , they called and had an opening. I couldn't do it because I had committed to something else. Again, I told myself that they called a second time, they're going to call again. They did, and it was a really amazing evening. There is a season for everything, and it just wasn't time until Sept. 3 ."
Buller's big night paid off two decades as a working musician and proved right her earliest supporters.
"I had friends back home from back when I was a little kid," Buller explained. "They said, 'Now someday, you're going to be on the Opry. You give us a call when you get to do that.' I'm like, 'Yeah right, like that's going to happen.' They were my third call when I found out that we were going to get to play."
Understandably, many get butterflies before they step into the Opry stage's hallowed circle for the first time: be it as part of soundcheck or, as some prefer, during the live show. A lot of those same artists soldier through and own the moment because they know they've earned the right to stand in the same spot as some of the genre's most impactful stars, past and present.
"I've dealt with horrible stage fright my entire life," Buller shared. "It manifested in different ways at different times and kept me from doing a lot of things. When we first found out we were going to play the Opry, I was pretty scared. I was trying to put myself in that space. What was I going to say that day? I didn't want to babble. But once we finally got there, I just floated through the whole thing and felt such intense peace and joy."
Shortly before gaining invaluable exposure on NBC's American Song Contest, firefighter-turned-rising country star Tyler Braden shared his Opry entry point (Jan. 8, 2022) with fellow singer-songwriter Ernest. Having two special guests on one night didn't water down the genuine excitement among Opry stars, staff members and others yet to become jaded by repeatedly witnessing the magic surrounding an artist's debut.
"The crew was super aware of how it must feel for your Opry debut," Braden said. "I can tell you that multiple people stopped me in the hallway. I didn't know these people, and they would stop me and say, 'Hey man, just kind of slow down and take it all in. I know it's a lot, but just try to be in the moment.' It was really cool for people that you don't know that are backstage crew to actually care enough and appreciate what they do for a living."
The hospitality of the Opry normally includes a VIP parking spot with a custom sign. Due to circumstances out of the show's control, only half of that equation played out for Braden.
"We'd had a really bad ice and snow day a day or so before, and the plow or whatever they had cleaning up the parking lot there had knocked down the post so I didn't get a sign [on my parking space]," Braden shared. "They still gave us the sign. They just couldn't hang it up, which was kind of funny."
Though Braden's performance in front of over 30 former co-workers from the Brentwood (Tenn.) Fire Department went smoothly, he can still joke about how he handled the weight of the moment.
"I was told I got a standing ovation, but I was also told it looked like I ran off the stage," he explained. "I don't know if I was just nervous or what I did. In my mind, I was like, 'Okay, don't stand here too long.' I guess I didn't stand there long enough."
On April 15, 2022, Texas-based singer-songwriter Joshua Ray Walker followed up his Ryman Auditorium debut --a show the prior evening with Wheeler Walker Jr.-- with his first appearance at the Opry House. A much more subdued crowd than a profanity-spouting comedy character's rowdy following gave Walker a standing ovation at his second consecutive dream-come-true gig.
"Most of the people are there because they want to be at the Grand Ole Opry," Walker said. "They don't know what they're going to see at all. That's one of my favorite types of audiences. Like, trying to win over an audience and they have no idea who you are, and they might not know what to expect. In a lot of ways, we don't look like the sound necessarily, so it's awesome to go in there and surprise the audience."
Like others spotlighted here that get billed as a solo act with a backing band, Walker could only choose two touring bandmates to perform with him and the Opry house band. Fair or not, the rule keeps the show going at its rapid pace because it eliminates the equipment changeover and between-set soundchecks that slow down the average concert.
"It really is a well-oiled machine," Walker added. "It was awesome to watch it all happen. There's so many moving parts, and they were executed really well."
On May 2, 2022, native Texan Coffey Anderson cemented his spot in a country music lineage he reveres by stepping inside the circle for the first time.
"For me, it was a celebration of years of hard work," Anderson said. "Being a massive Hee Haw fan, Roy Clark and Minnie Pearl were two of my favorites, ever. Being in the same building where they filmed Hee Haw and to know the gravity of the torch that I carry with performers, with country boys... I understand the history of what we have to carry on."
That special night for Anderson, his kinfolks and the 50 or 60 supporters that flew to Nashville might've happened sooner if he'd checked his phone more diligently.
"It was the week my reality show [2020's Country Ever After] came out on Netflix, so it was like 19,000 unread messages," Anderson shared. "I basically ghosted the Opry because I didn't know it was in there. When I reconnected with Jorden Pettit [the Opry's director of artist relations and programming strategy] through Riser House Records, he was like, 'I messaged you last November, and you ghosted me.' I was like, 'Oh, shut up.' He found my name on his phone, and it was left unread. I was like, 'I'm a jerk. I didn't know it. I love you. I'm sorry.'"
For more on specific acts' Opry debuts, check out the show's series of YouTube videos that follow performers throughout their big night.
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