Two Tons of Steel, most nights running better than a 1956 Cadillac.

Nashville's bastion of country tradition has changed, and Two Tons of Steel are proof of it

After a couple of late nights at the 8.0 Bar in Fort Worth, and Juanita's in Little Rock, local rockabilly favorites Two Tons of Steel will be motoring up to Nashville to play their fifth show on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. Considering how the Opry does business, Two Tons must be developing a good reception in the Music City. But in the Opry's long and fabled past, there was a time when a rockabilly band like Two Tons wouldn't have made it through the front door — much less the stage door. Times have changed — and that has not always been easy for the Grand Ole Opry.

When Two Tons steps onto the Opry stage, they join a list of entertainers reaching back to the winter of 1925, when Uncle Jimmy Thompson unpacked his fiddle and performed for a Nashville radio show that three years later would become known as the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry is the great mother-church of country music — and radio is the hammer that built the church. WSM, Nashville's megawatt station, had the muscle to deliver the Opry's performers into the living rooms, cafes, and barrooms of nearly every American town in the South and Midwest. On many Saturday nights, in that simpler time, the Opry was the best — and sometimes only — entertainment to be found.

For the next 20 years, the Opry's popularity grew far beyond the radio. Lines regularly formed for sold-out shows, and singing on the Grand Ole Opry became the dream of many country musicians across the country. As America changed, so did the dream, but the force of the Opry as one of America's great stages is still felt today. "The first show was pretty nerve-wracking," recalls Two Tons singer, Kevin Geil. "They call on you back stage, and in a couple of minutes you just walk up and play — no sound check or anything." For the newcomers, the pressure starts before the show as you see country music legends like Little Jimmy Dickens, Ricky Skaggs, and Marty Stuart visiting and playing music in a backstage Opry tradition that has gone on for more 75 years.

In the early days, after moving through three successively larger venues, the Opry eventually found its rightful home at the Ryman Auditorium. Thomas Green Ryman was a Nashville riverboat captain who had been converted during the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening, by the legendary preaching of the Reverend Sam Jones. In 1885, Ryman

When Two Tons' frontman Geil takes the stage next week at the Opry, he will be standing on the same piece of floor that was used by Ray Price, Patsy Cline, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, and George Strait…
constructed a tabernacle building, on Fifth Avenue in the heart of town, so Jones could come to Nashville and convert souls. When the Opry moved into the Ryman Auditorium in 1943, they were grateful to get the added seats, and decided to let their fans enjoy country music's greatest performers from the hard luxury of the old church pews.

The hard pews are still there today, but the folks listening to Two Tons of Steel won't have to endure the pious pain of the old Ryman's pine; instead, they will enjoy the show from the plush seats of Opryland. If the Ryman is the mother church of country music, then Opryland could very well be its strip mall. Opryland was the result of one of the most vicious battles in the history of country music.

Throughout the '40s and early '50s, country music was dominated and defined by the Opry's heavy hand. The down-home radio show had grown into a venture that could create stars, and extinguish them. Under a charge of "perpetual drunkenness," they even booted Hank Williams, the greatest country singer of all time. No one was too big for the Opry to take on — at least until 1956 when Elvis Presley swiveled onto the scene.

By 1970, country music was attempting to defend its territory in the American market, but it was clearly living in a hostile rock 'n' roll world. In a move to expand profits, and fortify itself against rock's musical assault, the powers-that-be proposed moving the Grand Ole Opry to an amusement park/auditorium complex on the outskirts of town.

By the time this move was proposed, the old Ryman Auditorium had long since become the legendary home of country music's tradition, and tradition is the very heart of classic country music. Immediately following the proposal, sides were taken and the battle ensued. The money, of course, won out, and the Opry moved into the new 4,400-seat facility in 1974 where it remains today. But the traditionalists made one last stand.

Part of the new package was a deal to actually tear down the Ryman Auditorium to make way for a parking lot. The parking lot maneuver was one battle the traditionalists were determined not to lose. Led by the father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, the Ryman was defended successfully from the disrespectful opportunism of the developers, and the mother church was saved, eventually refurbished, and finally turned back into Nashville's best music venue — with the church pews intact.

As a gesture to tradition, when the Opry moved from the Ryman to Opryland, they cut out a circular piece of the auditorium stage where the center microphone was placed. That piece of floor was inset at the center microphone location on the Opryland stage. When Two Tons of Steel's Kevin Geil takes the stage next week at the Opry, he will be standing on the same piece of floor that was used by Ray Price, Patsy Cline, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, and George Strait — when those singers made country music history. That piece of floor, and the old Ryman, stands, perhaps as a reminder that memories are a lot easier to keep than traditions. •

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