A Track-by-Track Look at Opry’s Limited Edition Vinyl
With the June 4 release of the limited edition vinyl, we’re revisiting the performances that brought Opry fans comfort during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the Grand Ole Opry prepared to celebrate its 95th anniversary in 2020, no one expected that the year would end up looking a lot like the show’s first.
“It really felt in a strange way a throwback to 1925 when people gathered ’round to listen to this incredible music,” said Dan Rogers, executive producer of the Opry.
As with the rest of the world, the Opry had to abruptly alter its course in March of last year, suspending its live-audience shows as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Even though country music fans were unable to pack the pews of the Grand Ole Opry House, it was never in question that the Saturday night show — then 4,914 consecutive performances strong — would, must, go on.
Heeding guidelines set forth by health authorities, the Opry kept the “circle unbroken” (a nod to one of country music’s earliest hits, “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?”) by bringing its performances — and with them, much-needed comfort — into fans’ homes through WSM Radio, just as it always had. But no longer bound by the constraints of a radio signal, the show was also streamed live on the show’s Facebook page and on Circle.
“In 2020, there were no limits,” Rogers said. “You could tune in in Australia; London, England; or East Nashville.”
In a time of social distancing, the performances that took place on the Opry stage over the course of 29 weeks without an audience, ironically, brought many closer to the music.
Now, 10 of those iconic performances are immortalized on Opry Unbroken | Empty Room, Full Circle, available exclusively on vinyl starting June 4.
As shows begin to more closely resemble those before the pandemic, Rogers hopes fans “take the time to put the vinyl on their turntable, sit and enjoy, and reflect.”
“I’ll remember [the pandemic] as a time that the Opry was challenged right along with all of our friends and neighbors around the world,” he said. “The Opry’s mettle was tested. We passed, and in the process, somehow managed to find some of country music’s most talented artists to give us music that will last long, long, long after this pandemic has subsided.”
Here’s a track-by-track look at the performances featured on Unbroken:
“No Hard Times” | Marty Stuart
Written by Jimmie Rodgers
March 21, 2020 marked the 4,916th consecutive performance of the Grand Ole Opry, but only the second Saturday night show without revelers in the pews since a global pandemic had been officially declared two weeks prior. It was time to lean on old songs and the ones you love — to get back to basics. Sitting alongside fellow members Vince Gill and Brad Paisley while cradling Jimmie Rodgers’ guitar, Marty Stuart harkened back to the Father of Country Music’s “No Hard Times,” a Depression-era blues song about getting by with what you have (in Rodgers’ case: a bale of flour and a bucket of lard). Basics. The world looks a good bit different from the one Rodgers sang about, but the sentiment rang truer than ever as Stuart improvised with some of his own lines: “Hard times waitin’ for me in Nashville town, that old pandemic hit us and never even made a sound.”
“Back to God” | Reba McEntire
Written by Dallas Davidson, Randy Houser
Supported by the strings of Vince Gill’s acoustic guitar, Reba McEntire’s July 18, 2020 performance of “Back to God” was a toned-down departure from up-tempo hits like “Fancy” that brought past Opry crowds to their feet to belt right along with her. The lead single from Sing It Now: Songs of Faith & Hope — her first gospel album — brought solace to a quiet Grand Ole Opry House as McEntire sang that we’re a world “still worth saving,” even in our darkest moments. “The album really did a lot of good for me, and I hope it helped a lot of other people,” McEntire said when introducing the song.
“Coming Home” | Keith Urban
Written by Julia Cavazos, Nicolle Clawson, Merle Haggard, Jonathan Rotem, Keith Urban
Keith Urban and Julia Michaels’ “Coming Home,” had a stripped-down sound when Urban opened with the song on May 20, 2020. When performed acoustically, the lyrics behind the funky, up-tempo hit take on a deeper meaning as Urban pines for the faraway people who love him while acknowledging the similar feelings of those listening at home. The refrain, “Yeah, I know it’s only one call away, but it’s not the same,” is especially gutting, but Urban’s performance reminded fans that while we may be apart, we’re still in this together.
“Six Feet Apart” | Luke Combs
Written by Brent Cobb, Luke Combs, Rob Snyder
Holding the distinction as the only song on Unbroken that was written during the pandemic — one week before he performed it on the Opry stage on April 25, 2020 — Luke Combs’ “Six Feet Apart” recognizes the sadness and loneliness of a historical moment in the making while also giving reasons to hope: one day being able to once again watch a ballgame in the stands, take the family out to dinner, and perform in front of a live audience. If there were ever a song to serve as a time capsule for the COVID-19 pandemic, “Six Feet Apart” is it.
“Uncle Pen” | Dailey & Vincent and Ricky Skaggs
Written by Bill Monroe
While acoustic in-the-round style performances provided comfort in the first month of Opry shows without an audience, the bouncy big-band sounds that defined many Saturday nights over the Opry’s 95 years were noticeably absent. But that changed on April 18, 2020 as Dailey & Vincent and Ricky Skaggs delivered a rousing holler, wallop, and performance of the beloved bluegrass standard “Uncle Pen.” The fiddle took its rightful place on the stage once again, bringing with it some much-needed lightness and prompting Skaggs to remark, “Somebody ought to be here to see this,” as Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent broke into hearty laughter.
“Leavin’ Louisiana In The Broad Daylight” | Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, and Emmylou Harris
Written by Rodney Crowell, Donivan Cowart
While the pandemic made gathering with old friends harder to do, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, and Vince Gill invited Opry and Circle livestream viewers, as well as WSM listeners, into their own tight-knit but distanced circle with a performance of “Leavin’ Louisiana In The Broad Daylight,” during their August 1, 2020 Opry appearance. Swapping songs and stories, the longtime buddies offered a bit of magic to those at home. “I think I was the first person to hear this song,” Harris said of the 1978 tune written by Crowell and Donivan Cowart which she ultimately recorded. (She enjoyed the enviable position of being one of the first people to know Crowell in the early days of his now iconic career.) Inspired by Crowell’s youthful escapades across the state line, the song offers a wistful escape all these years later.
“Tough People Do” | Trace Adkins
Written by Chris DuBois, Jason Matthews, Joel Shewmake
When Trace Adkins originally cut “Tough People Do” in 2012, he had no idea that the song would take on a whole new life in 2020. As Adkins found himself spending all his days at home just like the rest of us, he and his bandmates wondered if the song could offer up hope in an unprecedented time, inspiring them to record a new arrangement. “I just wanted to do this song because everybody needs to be reminded of what’s in our DNA, where we’ve come from and who we are,” Adkins said when he sang the song live on the Opry on May 9, 2020. “We’re tough and this too shall pass.”
“Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” | Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood
Written by Becki Bluefield, Jim Owen
Through thick and thin, what’s country music without a love song or two? Opry members Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood throw it back with Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty’s 1973 hit “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” on this track recorded live on September 5, 2020. A playful song about a couple who won’t let the Mississippi River — or alligators, for that matter — get in the way of their love, it’s got a metaphor for social distancing tucked in there somewhere, Underwood said. “We could rewrite it for that,” Paisley quipped. We’re all for it.
“It Won’t Be Like This for Long” | Darius Rucker
Written by Darius Rucker, Ashley Gorley, Chris DuBois
With canceled plans and nowhere to go, the pandemic left artists and fans alike taking stock of their lives. Through it all, music helped as we all sought deeper understanding. On its own, Darius Rucker’s second no. 1 country hit “It Won’t Be Like This for Long” is a tender song about watching a child growing up before your eyes. On Father’s Day weekend 2020, as many were left missing their loved ones, the Opry member’s performance served as an important reminder to never take for granted the people and the moments that give meaning to your life.
“Mama Don’t Allow It” | “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” | Old Crow Medicine Show, Dom Flemons, Billy Strings, and Molly Tuttle
Written by Charles Davenport, AP Carter
Unbroken’s final track showcases the Opry in all its glory: organized chaos, an abundance of talent on one stage, old and new in perfect harmony. The talents of Old Crow Medicine Show, Dom Flemons, Billy Strings, and Molly Tuttle collide in a 6-minute, barn-burning performance that mashes up — get this — a devil-may-care boogie woogie track and one of country music’s most beloved hymns. While it’d be another two months until fans would be invited back to the Opry House and longer still until the venue would be able to return to its pre-pandemic occupancy, the August 8, 2020, performance perfectly captures why we hold country music so dear and why the circle — come flood, war, or a global pandemic — can never be broken.
The Music Keeps Playing
Get your limited edition copy of Opry Unbroken | Empty Room, Full Circle now at the Opry shop.