Linda Tankersley has worked at the Grand Ole Opry for 45 years, developing her own loyal fan base along the way.
Meet The Opry’s Longest-Serving Usher
In March, it will be 45 years since the Grand Ole Opry House opened its doors, and Linda Tankersley has been with the venue through it all — well, except for those initial two months and one day after “the show that made country music famous” relocated from Ryman Auditorium. But who’s counting?
Tankersley, affectionately known as “Brady” (her maiden name) by coworkers and Opry guests alike, certainly lost track of time when she took the job as an Opry usher on May 15, 1974.
“I said I’d maybe just do it a year,” Tankersley says with an amused grin. “You love it so much, you just stay with it.”
She might not have been at that very first show on March 16, 1974, during which seminal cast member Roy Acuff taught President Richard Nixon yo-yo tricks, but she listened to the show on the radio that night, just as she did growing up in small-town Pulaski, Tennessee. Her story, one of loyalty and graciousness, mirrors that of the show she’s been a part of for nearly five decades, the one she loves with her whole heart. To be the longest serving usher for the longest running radio show in the country, you’ve got to.
“Two things that keep you coming back: People you work with and the people that keep coming to the Grand Ole Opry,” Tankersley says. “And of course, the show is great, too.”
Her Opry gig — if that’s what you call 45 years of service— was born out of her day job as a supervisor at National Life and Accident Insurance Company, the same institution that gave birth to WSM radio station and ultimately the Grand Ole Opry. She started there in 1963, making a habit out of attending Friday Night Frolics, a sister show to the Opry. National Life gave its employees free tickets.
As the Opry prepared to move in 1974, a friend mentioned to Tankersley that the show was looking for part-time ushers. Tankersley, who says she has struggled with shyness, saw the job as a welcome opportunity to open herself up to people. But those who know her best say that people have always been her strong suit.
“She could tell somebody the meanest thing ever, and they would just want to hug her and thank her for it,” says Laura Leigh Jones, Opry tour operations manager.
An unfaltering optimist, Tankersley’s enthusiasm and warmth is infectious.
“It is not an uncommon thing to have a guest who’s been here before to come back and ask where Brady is,” says Michelle Mittiga, Opry guest services manager.
If a showgoer can’t find her in her usual spot — stage right, just behind the front section of pews — they’ll ask another usher where they can find her to say hi.
Young ushers who are just starting out in their careers will ask to shadow her. Tankersley has got the history of the Opry down pat. She’s been a witness to nearly half of it.
She fondly remembers her first days as an usher, when Acuff ruled as the “King of Country Music” and Minnie Pearl as the “Queen of Country Comedy.” Marty Robbins closed out most Opry shows so he could squeeze in a race at Nashville Speedway beforehand. (He once gave Tankersley his racing jacket.) Back then, all the ushers were smitten with fresh-on-the-scene Larry Gatlin.
“He was young, and we just thought he was so cute. Of course, we were young and cute, too,” she chuckles.
More than 30 artists have become members in her tenure, from Ronnie Milsap to Reba McEntire to Alison Krauss to Carrie Underwood. Garth Brooks and Brad Paisley were mere pups when she saw them perform for the first time.
Because you never know when something will be for the last time, Tankersley cherishes her memory of Merle Haggard’s final performance on the Opry, when the legend surprised the crowd with an appearance in October 2015. He died in April 2016.
“We were sold out and the people were just so happy. They had tears in their eyes,” Tankersley says. “He got a standing ovation on just about every song.”
Resonant, too, are the memories of the 2010 flood that ravaged the Opry House. Though the staff was given six week’s paid leave during the repair process, Tankersley along with a few other ushers decided they should follow the Opry wherever it went. They volunteered to keep working as the show took place in other venues around town. It wasn’t even a question.
“We just felt like we should go with them, and we did,” says Judy Frye, who joined the Opry as a host in 1981 and remains one of Tankersley’s closest friends.
The outspoken Laverne to Tankersley’s Shirley, Frye says, “There’s not a negative thing about [Tankersley] except she doesn’t like onions.” Tankersley loathes the smell of them and will make you sit away from her when you eat them.
Come hell or high water, literally, Tankersley devotes her life to spreading joy. To the outsider, it looks effortless. She doesn’t owe anything to anyone, but she does it because, well, that’s what she’s always done.
“It’s just a joy to come out here. I’m just passionate about it,” Tankersley says. “It’s hard to show you on paper how passionate I am about it.” Perhaps — but here are 895 words just for good measure.
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