Sunday, June 22, 2008

Comments Appreciated

As an occasional blogger I've come to accept that a lot of visitors drop by for a minute or less and move on when they find no pictures or rants of interest. But I've also come to treasure a few non-family fellow bloggers who regularly read this blog and sometimes offer comment. My recent paeon lamenting changes going on at my university (and effectively cancelling core English and Art Appreciation requirements I'm qualified to teach) apparently touched a nerve in two favorite readers, by the thoughtful and passionate comments they offered (read in two posts below). They are friends and I view them as colleagues, though we've never met outside our blogs. I appreciate what insights they've given me about teaching and higher education very much. Thanks, Pat and Carol Anne. I'm keeping my mind open to returning to the classroom if I get antsy, and it would probably be at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton or Broward Community College if I do. I, too, have taught and administered in four-year universities, private colleges, and community colleges; and I, too, enjoy the latter perhaps best. But for now, I'm kind of looking forward to a semester of down time this fall to try some other ideas. At 69, with gas prices making driving even across town regularly a pain in the wallet, and with SoFla drivers all but running one off the road or shooting one if he looks askance at them, I'm in no hurry to jump back into the fray.

Grand Ole Opry-- Super Show, Super Folks

On our way to Indiana to see the folks this June, we stopped in Nashville for a Grand Ole Opry show. Last year we tried to see the fabled show, but there was no performance the night we were in town. We made up for that by watching some of the regulars of the Grand Ole Opry like Jeannie Seeley perform in Nashville Nights supper and show near our campground. But this year we made it on a performance night, and we loved the experience.

On Briley Parkway the main building (there are four Grand Ole Opry sites) sits next to a huge Gaylord Grand resort hotel on one side and a big shopping mall on another, so parking was no problem, and our tickets of $39 each for Mezzanine front row seats were very reasonable, I thought. Outside before the show we posed with Minnie Pearl and Hank Williams and Roy Acuff live lookalikes, browsed the souvenir store, and listened to a warmup band on the front plaza.

Inside, the seating is surprisingly on long curving benches rather than individual armrested seats, but the padded benches were comfortable for the two-hour show. As in any broadcast studio, the wood stage had equipment strewn about everywhere, with cameras. cables, microphones, lighting and props skillfully manouvered by operators and stagehands who pirhouetted about in an intricate choreography. Talent waited in the shadows diagonally downstage left to await their call, and at eight o'clock on the dot a brief history of the Grand Ole Opry, its stars, novices, and rich traditions flashed over three jumbotron screens left, center, and right. An announcer approached the podium and introduced Jeannie Seely, hostess for the first segment (sponsored by Cracker Barrel.) Other acts whom she introduced were Jimmy C. Newman, the Whites, and Carolina Rain.

If we'd paid closer attention to past Opry broadcasts on radio and tv more, we wouldn't have been surprised. We weren't just watching a closed musical show. We were involved in a live network tv and radio broadcast, syndicated worldwide as part of the studio audience du jour. The show was in four thirty-minute segments, each with two to four different acts, commercial pauses and its own brand sponsor.

The second half-hour (sponsored by Bass Pro Shops) was headlined by the venerable pint-sized cowboy crooner Little Jimmy Dickens, all of 87 years old this month and still going strong. His only complaint: something in his ear was bothering him, and he went to the doctor, who retrieved a suppository. "Oh thank goodness," he told the doc, "Now I know where I lost my hearing aid." The Little General Cloggers from Kennesaw, Georgia clogged away onstage and Mountain Heart bluegrass band completed the segment.

9:00 to 9:30 featured Jean Shepard, Bobby Osborne and The Rocky Top X-press, hootin' and hollerin' out "Good Old Rocky Top, Tennessee," with Bobby's son on bass fiddle (sponsored by Humana.)

But the last half-hour was for me the best. The curtain rose on Riders of the Sky singing the Rawhide theme they recorded originally for the hit show, and they did Roy Rogers' "Happy Trails to You" and Gene Autry's "Back In the Saddle Again" with warm audience participation. Connie Smith and Kathy Mattea closed the evening with performances sponsored by Johnson Controls.

I have to admit that country/western isn't always my favorite style of music, but overall it is more tuneful, foot-tapping in its rhythms and listenable in its harmonies than a lot of other more popular genres. I think everyone has a little bit of country in him or her, and some of it I really enjoy. It's a national music, the closest thing we probably have to a traditional American genre. Jazz is American as well, but not perhaps as enduring and unchanging. The country/western music we heard this night was the same fifty years ago, in style and instrumentation, themes of love and heartache, patriotism and courage, religion and family. And far from its lyrics bashing the society and everything in it like rap's often trash-talking obscenities often do, country/western is unabashedly patriotic and proud to be an American. I like that--a lot.

As we left for our motel, I couldn't help but be impressed with a couple of things about Nashville's stars, and the overriding impression was one of honesty and openness, no guile, no phoniness, no pretentiousness in any of them. They seem totally at home onstage or off, willing to share their lives and talents with anyone and anxious to help newcomers make it to the top. Unlike the superstars of Broadway and Hollywood, they don't seem to have the giant egos that make them like planets in orbit, avoiding the pull of other planets and stars, isolated in their own groupies and fans and very lonely. These performers--some multimillionaires--are seemingly comfortable in their own skins with all levels of society and with each other.

And why not? After all, there are thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville, according to Lovin' Spoonful in "Nashville Cats." Everybody is a singer-songwriter, and they write about their lives and feelings. It's one of the few non-phony professional groups I've ever met, and I felt right at home. I remembered last year when we saw the Opry stars and regulars perform on their off-night, they waited on us, served us our dinners before they took to the stage to do the show. I remember the drummer bringing me my iced tea, and our waitress joining in onstage for a couple of numbers.

On our way back to South Florida we stopped in Gatlinburg for some Christmas shopping and the local ambience, and heard some more country/western local bands performing on the streets. So we had fun despite the straight line route this year, and counted ourselves fortunate. There are far fewer travellers on the roads this year than we've found in years past. People are taking "staycations," as the travel editors call them on network news.

USA Today reported Americans drove thirty billion fewer miles in the first quarter this year than during the same period last year. Yet that amount represents only 3% of our annual fossil fuel consumption, I believe it said. That is a staggering figure indeed.