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The women who made the Grand Ole Opry

Thursday 20 February 2014

I need to be honest when I say that I hadn't heard of the Grand Ole Opry before I went to Nashville. It was something that came up a few times in conversations prior to my trip, but I was still fairly in the dark about it.

To put it in fairly simple, potentially blasphemous terms - the Grand Ole Opry is the Vatican City of country music. And the Ryman Auditorium is Sistine Chapel.

In more accurate terms, the Grand Ole Opry began as a country music radio show in 1925. A lot has changed since then - venues, members, even country music itself. But the show is still broadcast live every week.

I took a tour of the Ryman a few days before the Opry performance I went to. As somewhat of a country music novice, there were things on display that went over my head, and things that didn't light a spark under me (aside from the outfits of Dolly Parton, of course)

What did strike me is the story of two women, both of whom had an integral part to play in the story of the Grand Ole Opry.

Lula C. Naff

The stage at the Ryman Auditorium

In 1920, the Ryman Auditorium hired Lula C. Naff as general manager. As I walked through the timeline displayed in the venue, it became very clear that Lula was a feisty powerhouse, who kept the troubled Ryman in the black for five decades, and ran the place with an iron fist.

In those times, it would have been unheard of for a woman to undertake this role. To avoid the sexism she would have undoubtedly encountered, Lula referred to herself in all correspondence under the name LC Naff. By the time she met those she'd been doing business with, the fact that she was a woman could not undermine the fact that she was getting the job done.

I just love the idea of a guy meeting her for the first time, and realising that LC was Lula. Had this ever been an issue, I would have loved to have seen her reaction.

Regardless of her gender, the management style and success of Naff was legendary, and her influence and power still lives on in the Ryman.

Minnie Pearl (Sarah Cannon)

A bronze statue of Minnie Pearl is one of the first things you see upon entering the Ryman. With her Sunday best on and a price tag poking out of her hat, Minnie graced the stage of the Opry for over fifty years. Something of a 'hillbilly comedian', Minnie would gently poke fun at Southern culture, her family members, and mostly herself. Each performance would begin with a raucous "Hoooowdeee!" to which the audience members would echo their response.

It scared the life out of me when a person watching a clip at the Ryman loudly did the same.

She was played by Sarah Cannon, a philanthropic Tennessee native who played two major roles in Nashville. With her generally 'hilllbilly' act yet respected place within the society of Nashville, she bridged the gap between country and elite society, at a time when the gap was fairly substantial.

Perhaps most importantly, she played an enormous role in cancer research. After recovering from breast cancer, she became a spokeswoman for the local centre where she was treated, as well as setting up the Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation. Just prior to her death, the centre became the Sarah Cannon Research Institute, and the role she played in awareness and the early detection of cancer is immeasurable.

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