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If there’s a rock star at the Grand Ole Opry, the mother church of country music, it’s Gina Keltner, director of talent logistics and scheduling. The almost 22-year Opry veteran is the woman who helps make dreams come true, whether it’s making someone’s Opry debut, helping create a wedding proposal, charitable outreach or nights of music that merge bluegrass with today’s hitmakers, Americana stalwarts and country legends.
Despite the obvious challenges of 2020, Keltner helped preserve the Opry’s annual Salute the Troops to celebrate our military and Opry Goes Pink to raise breast cancer awareness, as well as an Opry show dedicated to providing funds for Feeding America to help ease food insecurity during these uncertain times. Along with the Opry Trust Fund, which has been helping industry people since lockdown, the Missouri State grad embodies the Opry’s mission of giving back.
“Giving back and raising awareness to worthy causes is important to us at the Opry. Despite our production challenges, we continued to present significant shows… It feels good to make a difference.”
Making a difference is underselling the impact of the Opry, which became Pollstar’s #1 Livestream of 2020. When the pandemic hit and lockdown began, the powers that be were faced with the sobering reality. The Grand Ole Opry, tied to WSM’s weekly Saturday night broadcasts, had not missed a show in 95 years. Not the floods, not the tornadoes had caused the Opry to pause, and they were determined to maintain continuity.
“As we prepared to present the first show without a live audience last March,” she recalls, “I said it was the easiest and most difficult show we had ever done – so necessarily simple with only Brad Paisley, Vince Gill and Marty Stuart performing acoustically, yet so demanding to pull off with the many restrictions we had to enforce.”
Making safety their complete focus, Keltner and the Opry teams worked to make an environment that artists felt comfortable in.
“From the beginning, we adopted a strict protocol for a very limited number of performers, crew and transitions on stage and backstage,” she said. “The pre-COVID Opry backstage atmosphere of everyone socializing in the halls and hanging in each other’s dressing rooms had to be paused with all the artists being asked to distance themselves and leave immediately after their performance. With the exception of the vocalists, and only when they were actually singing, every person has been required to wear a mask throughout their time in the building.”
At a time when the nation was starved for something to feel “normal,” the Opry weekly broadcasts saw people turning in from the UK, Canada, Japan and New Zealand. It also created a new sense of purpose for Opry members, whether it was Connie Smith and a single steel guitar performing Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to close the final show without people, or Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell offering songs drawn from their friendship on the fringe of the late ‘70s California Country to cast a light on the genre’s many tributaries.
Keltner realizes that from the quarantining, an opportunity to bring people together emerged. With the Opry teams, they gave people — as the Opry always has — a place to come on Saturday night for sustenance.
“Overall, the process has run smoothly, and everyone has been understanding and cooperative,” she says. “All of the work has resulted in some truly historic Opry performances from a variety of country music superstars, a few new artists whose first-ever-Opry performance was for no live audience or a very limited one, and legendary stars who’ve weathered hard times with the Opry in the past and assured us we would survive these difficult days as well.”
As normal slowly returns, Keltner is optimistic. “I believe it is crucial to keep safety as the top priority for live shows and touring start up again. Yes, it takes more planning and resources, but it will be worth it. There’s so much anticipation amongst the industry as well as the fans – our current 25% capacity live audience shows such appreciation to be there. No doubt the return of live music will be a huge healer.”
That positivity defines Keltner, Opry General Manager Dan Rogers and the rest of the Opry family. Having faced floods and tornadoes, they’re ready for life to get back to multiple shows and hugs backstage. Laughing, she admits, “I want to see the Grand Ole Opry, of course, with a full capacity of 4400 smiling faces.”
— Holly Gleason