Weekly Column of Senator Lamar Alexander - “Honoring Minnie Pearl and 80 Years of the Grand Ole Opry”
For the week of October 31, 2005
Posted on October 28, 2005
Last week, I joined Senator Frist in cosponsoring a U.S. Senate resolution celebrating the Grand Ole Opry’s 80th birthday. As you might expect, it passed unanimously. Its 80th birthday has given us a great opportunity to celebrate the Opry not only in the Senate, but all over Tennessee and across America. Many people are surprised to learn that the Opry was really started so that the National Life and Accident Insurance Company could sell debt insurance. They got a big 50,000-watt tower in Nashville, and all the people who were on little radio stations came to Nashville so they could be on the big radio station. That’s why Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins, Archie Campbell and Dolly Parton all moved from East Tennessee to Nashville. Thousands and thousands of Americans sat on those uncomfortable pews in the back of the Ryman Auditorium, and later in Opryland, to enjoy this radio show on Friday and Saturday nights. On September 24, I was a guest announcer on the Grand Ole Opry. They didn’t trust me with a GooGoo Cluster commercial or with the 7:00 p.m. show, which is nationally televised, so I was on at 8:00 p.m. I did get to do the Martha White flour commercial, and I got to introduce Porter Wagoner three times. There’s nothing quite like the Grand Ole Opry. There were 3,400 people in the audience. Flash bulbs were popping. Everybody was having a good time. There was Jimmy C. Newman from Louisiana, who next year will reach his 50 year mark on the Opry. There was Susan Haynes, the daughter of my law school roommate. This is her first year on the Grand Ole Opry. There were the longtime backup singers, Carol Lee and Nora Lee. At 7:00 p.m. there was Vince Gill who ended his hour-long session with a piece of jazz music. There was Keith Bilbrey, who was backstage interviewing people. He was explaining what Charlie McCoy, the great harmonica player, once said about the four stages of being a country music star, which sounded a lot like being a politician. Stage number one is, “Who is Charlie McCoy?” Stage two is, “Get me Charlie McCoy.” Stage three is, “Get me somebody who sounds like Charlie McCoy.” And stage number four is, “Who is Charlie McCoy?” That night I also heard the story behind the famous $1.98 price tag that hung from the straw hat Minnie Pearl wore on the Grand Ole Opry every Friday and Saturday night for about 40 years. Minnie was performing on the Opry. She pinned the garland of flowers to her hat, and during her performance, the price tag wiggled down and started dangling from her hat. She left it there for the next 40 years as a reminder that anybody can make a mistake, and that it’s all right to make one. Most of the time, Minnie Pearl was the Grand Ole Opry along with Roy Acuff. She would greet people with “How-Dee! I’m so proud to be here!” She was a talented woman who wanted to be Katherine Hepburn, but as she said, “that was already taken.” She set a lasting conduct and style for the Grand Ole Opry. That style was simply this: she was a very nice person. She would sign the last autograph. She would say hello to anyone. She would pay a call on an Opry family member who was sick. She would stay and see the last fan who had waited for hours after a show. Minnie Pearl told me one time, “I’ve gotten to the point in life where I’ve decided that if people aren’t nice, they’re not so hot in my book, no matter how big they are.” It was in the spirit of Minnie Pearl and the thousands of Americans who have created and enjoyed the Grand Ole Opry over the past 80 years that I made my tribute last week. As I told my Senate colleagues, if you understand how important the Alamo is to Texans, you’ll understand how important the 80-year-old Grand Ole Opry is to Tennesseans. Happy 80th birthday, Grand Ole Opry.