NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The venue was different, the tickets were handwritten and the gear was cobbled together. But the floodwaters that deluged Nashville couldn't stop The Grand Ole Opry.
Marty Stuart kicked off Tuesday night's show, which was moved to the city's War Memorial Auditorium after 4 to 6 feet of water from weekend storms flooded the Grand Ole Opry House east of downtown.
Stuart, an Opry veteran, said it's not surprising the show went on: "That's what we do at the Opry."
The evening was as much catharsis as it was entertainment after a harrowing three days when floodwaters killed dozens, destroyed thousands of homes and flooded some of Nashville's most well-known attractions.
Opry officials aimed for as much normalcy as possible. Hundreds of fans turned out to see the show at the auditorium, the Opry's home from 1939-43. As she has for 11½ years, Minnie Pearl impersonator Tessa Swinehart greeted fans outside with a super-sized, "Howdy!" She couldn't help but be affected by the devastation at the Opry House, though, after seeing pictures.
"It's very sad, very disheartening," she said.
Once the show got under way, Stuart was joined on stage by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who played piano on "Tennessee Waltz" and there were several poignant moments throughout the evening.
Longtime Opry member Jeannie Seely lost her house in the flooding. She said friends were surprised she was still going to perform a set, which she pulled off in borrowed shoes.
"Well," she told the crowd, "it's not like I can sit and watch TV on the couch," before adding: "You can either laugh about it or you can cry, and I don't feel like crying."
The rest of the week's Opry shows have been moved to the Ryman Auditorium, also a former site of the show and a part-time host currently. The Ryman wasn't affected by the floodwaters, but many of the city's musical landmarks and institutions were.
Country stars have expressed concern about the state of the Opry House since it was flooded Monday. Stuart, in an interview earlier Tuesday, said he'd been told of widespread devastation by those who witnessed it.
"What I understand is that as of yesterday one of my friends floated through the Opry House in a canoe and there was 4 feet of water on the stage at that time," he said. "The dressing rooms are a total loss."
It has yet to be determined if the Grand Ole Opry Museum, the Acuff instrument collection and the archives were lost. Stuart said if those things were destroyed, it would be "a profound American loss."
"I would say you lost photographs," he said. "I would say you lost film. I would say you lost audio and the costumes, instruments, manuscripts, boots. You know, just everything that goes along with the Opry and Opry stars."
Gaylord Entertainment CEO Colin Reed says it will be a minimum of three months before the massive entertainment complex that also includes the Opryland Hotel and the Opry Mills Mall hosts guests again. He said there will be thousands of workers on site within a week.
Opry General Manager Pete Fisher said it's too early to assess the damage in the Opry House. He called the evening historic because of the show's return to the auditorium and said it was a celebration of the enduring nature of the 85-year-old Opry.
"We're here to get the word out that the Grand Ole Opry is not a place, it's a show," Fisher said.
Of special concern was a 6-foot circle of wood from the old Ryman floorboards that was incorporated into the Opry House stage when it opened in 1974. Many consider it the very heart of country music.
Fittingly, the evening came to an end with the Opry's stars gathering on stage to perform "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?"
"It's done in such a way I would have to think when the water goes down it will still be there and that's what I've got my eye on," Stuart said. "That circle really is symbolic of the spirit, and so the circle will be unbroken, if you will."
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