Road Trip Memories - Opryland

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 - by Harmon Jolley
Opryland opened in 1972 in Nashville.  Click to enlarge.
Opryland opened in 1972 in Nashville. Click to enlarge.

It could have happened like this. A presenter stands beside a story board in a meeting at the National Life and Accident Insurance Company in Nashville. As he points to each illustration, he tells the executives huddled around the table of his vision for a new music-themed amusement park. The venture will be called “Opryland,” in homage to the popular country music show on the insurer’s radio station WSM (“We Shield Millions” – National Life’s motto).

Through whatever sales method, the idea for Opryland sold, and thousands of Chattanoogans were glad that it did. Opryland opened in 1972, as the “Home of American Music.” Sandwiched between the Cumberland River and Briley Parkway, Opryland blended live music with modern amusement park rides.

Similar to other theme parks, Opryland was divided into sections. Its “you are here” map showed the visitor how to navigate to the Hill Country and its Appalachian music, or to the New Orleans section and jazz. Rides included the Flume Zoom, the Tin Lizzies antique cars, and the Sky Ride.

The May 28, 1972 Chattanooga News-Free Press profiled the new park. With a headline of “Tennessee Woods are Alive with Music,” the article noted the now incredibly low prices of $5.25 for adults, and $3.50 for children. The stars of Music Row and the Opry often performed at the park. Johnny Cash was on stage with his 26-month old son, John Carter Cash, when the News-Free Press writer visited Opryland.

My wife was among those at Opryland in its debut year. She remembers seeing such Nashville cats as Roy Acuff, Brother Oswald, and Porter Waggoner. There were roving costumed musical instruments with names like Johnny Guitar, Barney Bass (a real walking bass), and Jose Mandolin. The music instrument theme was carried into the gift shops, which sold varieties of dulcimers.

On March 16, 1974 the seemingly unthinkable occurred with the relocation of the Grand Ole Opry from the Ryman Auditorium to a new venue at Opryland. President and Mrs. Richard Nixon came to Nashville for the historic event. Archie Campbell said that it was time for the Opry to move, for he had been having trouble finding parking near the Ryman.

I first visited Opryland in 1975, the year that the park added the double corkscrew-designed Wabash Cannonball roller coaster. It was thrilling just to stand and watch the coaster go through its loops, and even more so to experience it. We must have gone there during a summer holiday, for I remember being in a crowd of wall-to-wall people.

The lavish Opryland Hotel opened in 1977.. By then, Opryland had become a major tourist destination. Its leading ambassador was Roy Acuff, who lived in a home on the Opryland grounds. Listeners of the Grand Ole Opry often heard Mr. Acuff telling folks to come visit Opryland. In the off-season, he would count down the days until the park opened.

Opryland, as well as Six Flags Over Georgia, provided summer employment for several musical youths from Chattanooga. It was common to see “help wanted” advertisements for them in late winter, when they announced auditions for the coming season. One of their longest-running shows was “I Hear America Singing” which took the audience on a tour of changing musical styles through the years.

In 1983, my wife and I visited Opryland, primarily to attend an in-park outdoor concert by Chuck Berry. It was a day when our admission paid for a day of being mostly waterlogged. It all began with a ride on the Grizzly River Rampage, when we happened to get the unlucky seats where the riders really get soaked. Nothing like wearing khaki pants to show that off.

Afterwards, our athletic shoes squished through the park as we made our way to the concert when one of Nashville’s frequent summer thunderstorms hit. We were dripping from head to toe as we sat down in the Opry House, where Mr. Berry played “Johnny B. Goode” and other hits in the now indoor concert. The air conditioning was really cranked up, and I believe that I saw icicles forming on us.

The next visit to Opryland was much better. In 1994, we went to Opryland as part of a Saturn owner homecoming festival at their Spring Hill, Tennessee factory. Banjo-playing comedian Mike Snider paused during his show to say “Yonder he goes!” as our young son climbed down from his stroller and ran towards the stage. The middle Tennessee rains haunted us again the next day, when a severe line of thunderstorms hit the Spring Hill homecoming site, and cancelled the evening concert by Winonna.

We noticed during our 1994 visit that Opryland wasn’t as crowded as we had remembered it from years past. It wasn’t long before Chattanoogans read of the demise of the theme park. Its last day of operation was December 31, 1997 following the Christmas season. The property was redeveloped as the Opry Mills shopping center, while many of the former Opryland rides were sold to other amusement parks.

If you have memories of Opryland, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.


Opryland had several live music stage shows.  Click to enlarge.
Opryland had several live music stage shows. Click to enlarge.

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