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Country Music's Grand Ole Opry Celebrates 90 Years in Nashville

Reba McEntire and Dierks Bentley share their memories of performing at the Grand Ole Opry, one of country music’s famed institutions.

The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville is more than just a music venue. Country music performers and fans know it as an establishment, a national treasure, a cathedral of country music.

And on Nov. 28 the Grand Ole Opry will reach the ripe old age of 90. The show is credited with making country music famous, and first premiered as a radio show called the WSM Barn Dance in 1925.

In its near-century long history, the Grand Ole Opry has seen six different homes and the launch of countless careers — including legends like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, and Barbara Mandrell.

It was these performers that Reba McEntire, a 40-year veteran of country music with multiple CMA and Grammy Awards, grew up watching. Reba remembers everything about her own first performance at the Opry in 1977.

"I had ten million butterflies. I was scared to death,” she recalls. As she nervously waited backstage, ready to sing two songs, one of the Opry staff approached her: "Reba, I hate to tell you this, but we’re going to have to take one of your songs. Dolly Parton just pulled in the parking lot and we’re going to take one of your songs."

Reba’s response? "She can have both of them! Can I just meet her?"

While Reba may have been initially starstruck, by 1986 she was inducted into Grand Ole Opry. For her, it’s always been more than just a concert hall: "The Grand Ole Opry means heritage, tradition, knowledge, school. Country music 101."

Dierks Bentley backstage at the Grand Ole Opry.Chris Hollo / Hollo Photographics Inc.

Country music star Dierks Bentley was inducted as a member in 2005, but had a very different start at the Opry.

"I used to kind of sneak in backstage and kind of just watch," Bentley says. "I snuck in so much they actually sent an email out to where I work saying, 'He can’t come every week.'"

A Dierks Bentley performance can easily fill football stadiums, but Bentley insists he is "way more nervous playing the Opry than playing in front of 50,000."

Therein lies the power of the Grand Ole Opry. It’s a fairly small and humble show that can seat between 2,300 and 4,400, but Bentley says, "you just think about all the people that have played this stage ... I have such reverence for the music and for the Opry itself."

The staying power of the Opry can be attributed to "its ability to change with the times," said Pete Fisher, vice president and general manager of the Grand Ole Opry.

The Opry focuses on "reflecting what country music is, instead of dictating what country music is and what it isn’t," he said.

It’s not only country music greats that have graced the Opry stage. NBC’s own Lester Holt was invited to perform in 2011, and reflects that, "it was later that evening when I had the chance to meet some of the other performers backstage and walk the dressing rooms halls that it hit me ... I was suddenly struck by the weight of the history of the Opry.”

Lester Holt on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in 2011Chris Hollo