This is part of a series of articles commemorating the Grand Ole Opry’s 5000th weekly broadcast, which takes place Saturday, Oct. 30 on WSM and Circle TV, live from Nashville’s Opry House.
Jeannie Seely is living proof that, in country music circles, it’s possible to get hipper as you get older. At 81, she has her own SiriusXM show on Sunday nights and, between that and her frequent Opry appearances, this straight-talking live-wire is cherished by even some of the youngest country aficionados who value a touchstone that connects the genre’s glorious past to its present.
We’re meeting up in the Opry House dressing room that is named for the late Little Jimmy Dickens, and the stories she could tell about the days when the hang was right here, with Little Jimmy imbibing in the cocktails his wife wouldn’t allow at home. “I worked my way all the way up to Jimmy Dickens’ opening spot,” Seely says. “I’ve had some vocal issues because I have some esophagus issues, and I went to him and I said, ‘What do you do?’ He said, ‘Lower the keys and tell more bullshit.’”
She learned more from him as a teacher. “in my early years, I remember there was like Eddie Arnold, who was always a serious singer, and then there’d be a comedian. But it was Jimmy Dickens that was the first one that made me realize that you can do both — be a serious singer and also be funny — and that’s what I wanted to do.”
At the Opry, Seely says, there’s very little generation gap. “I try to always impress this on young artists that didn’t grow up on the Opry: It is not a normal concert venue. It’s not a normal show. There’s usually three generations represented on this stage, and you’ll see three generations in the audience, you don’t see that anywhere else. At sporting things, there might be in the crowd, but not on the field, you know? So I think that’s one thing that makes the Opry so unique.”
Seely isn’t sure how many Opry appearances she’s made. “Someone ran to the computer and it said something like 2,600, but I was a member for 30 years before we had computers, so we are trying to do some research.” She’s due for a lot more, and adores Dan Rogers and the other behind-the-scenes personalities as much as they do her. “I think they do an incredible job (booking lineups), and it is tough,” she says, maintaining a nightly balance of styles and demographics. Her style is to always welcome the chance to reappear.
“If the phone rings and I see it’s Dan, I never say ‘Hello.’ I just say, ‘Yes.’”