Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974, is commonly known as the "Church of Country Music." The Carter Family, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs — they've all stood on that stage, along with so many more. Whether you're religious or not, after you see a show there, you'll agree the place is holy. And it just so happens that the show I saw there is about the nicest thing I've seen in a long time. I captured the last song of the night on video.
Here's who's in it:
- You probably know who Chris Stapleton is. In case you don't, I'll explain that he's an award-winning singer-songwriter and guitarist who's on the front lines of trying to keep country music from being the radio drivel too many people seem to believe it should be. In Marty Stuart's words that night, "He's carrying the ball for us right now." He's the one with the sweet beard.
- You may know who Marty Stuart is. A country child prodigy and singer-songwriter in his own right, Stuart played with Lester Flatt starting at age 14, later playing in Johnny Cash's backing band. He's married to country legend Connie Smith. He's been a key connector in country music for decades. He's the one with the sweet (white) hair.
- You don't know who Dale Jett is. He's the humble, plain-spoken son of Janette Carter, grandson to A.P. and Sara Carter of the original Carter Family — the very first vocal group to become country music stars way back in the 1920s and 30s — and second cousin to June Carter Cash. Before this day, Jett had never before played on the Ryman stage. And even though that night he shared the stage with the likes of stars like Stapleton, Stuart, John Prine, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman of the Byrds, and Margo Price, he's the one some of us in the audience will remember best. There's an honesty and authenticity in his voice you just don't hear much anymore. He's the one in the baseball hat and vest.
So let's set that stage: Stapleton, being the show's biggest player, had just played the show's final set, knocking the crowd down and so far out with renditions of "Whiskey and You" (solo acoustic), "Broken Halos," and "Tennessee Whiskey." As Stapleton took his bow, ostensibly closing the show, Stuart whispered to him, in the same moment handing his guitar back to him. A moment later, Dale Jett joined them onstage.
Stapleton hadn't yet met Jett. They met at that moment, onstage in front of a sold-out venue. Then, Stuart launched them all into "Keep on the Sunny Side," an old Carter Family tune.
They hadn't rehearsed. I couldn't help wondering if Stapleton might be learning the song on the spot. But somehow it couldn't have been more perfect, this deliberate union of the old and new guard of country music.
Yes, you can hear the audience singing along toward the end. No, we're not all on key. Yes, that makes me like it even more.