"If home is where you feel comfortable, where your friends are, where you can have a laugh or two, then I guess I'd have to say that every time I get on the Grand Ole Opry stage, I feel like I've come home." Loretta Lynn says that early in "The 60th Anniversary of the Grand Ole Opry" (Channel 9 at 9 p.m.). She must really have felt at home during the taping, because the two-hour show, like the Nashville stage where it was made in November, is crowded with more than 100 current, would-be and faded country stars.
Aside from its historical implications -- the Opry is the world's longest running radio show, as well as the major vehicle for developing country artists and fostering the mystique of the music -- the only difference between this program and the various country music awards shows is that no awards are given. The cast of characters, the character of the music and the dread award-show disease, medley-itis, are all virtually the same (from Alabama, the Gatlin Brothers and Willie Nelson to Roy Acuff, singing "Wabash Cannonball" and "Great Speckled Bird" one more time).
As a central country music institution, the Opry certainly has a grand history and, fortunately, some of it is well celebrated here. For instance, there's a poignant "Sisters of the Grand Ole Opry" segment featuring various faded '50s and early '60s stars (Jan Howard, Skeeter Davis, Jeane Shepard, Wilma Lee Cooper, Connie Smith, Jeanne Pruett, Jeannie Seely) in a smooth montage that culminates with Kitty Wells singing "(It Wasn't God Who Made) Honky Tonk Angels." Also nice are a mini-portrait of Dolly Parton, who then materializes live, sounding as good as ever and looking better than ever, and a piece on Ricky Skaggs' European tour that ends in Dublin with some informal explorations of the Celtic roots of bluegrass and country.
Then again, a tribute to the music of Hank Williams sounds as if it's been run through the same Muzak blender that has seized control of many Nashville studios, and a segment that tries to re-create the backstage atmosphere at the old Ryman Auditorium is not only awkward, but unimaginative as well. And the plugs for Opryland and the annual Fan Fair, where country stars come to stand by their fans, are shameless.
Of course, even if you can go home again, the current Opry seems unwilling to do so on a meaningful level. It's not just the tuxes that define the immense distance between Roy Acuff's Smoky Mountain Boys of the '30s and the Oak Ridge Boys of the '80s. There are too many times when the Opry, like Nashville itself, seems all too willing to keep its nose to the rhinestone, happy with its arriviste image. From snatches of old film clips and kinescopes, including Marty Robbins singing "El Paso" in the '50s, you realize there's some great history here that deserves being told at length rather than in brief references. But producer Robert Precht disregards the good advice Judge George D. Hay gave his fledgling Opry 60 years ago: "Keep it down to earth, boys."
The most engaging musical moments come, not surprisingly, from Ricky Skaggs and Reba McEntire, two of the roots-oriented performers who have liberated country from its own accommodations. McEntire, the Opry's newest member, comes through on "Somebody Should Leave," a mournful honky-tonk ballad about love's end, while Skaggs performs an a cappella bluegrass gospel tune, "Talk About Suffering." Skaggs' searing tenor provokes not just an exhilarating spiritual affirmation, but the kind of revealing, solitary moment that television, as well as Nashville and the Opry, usually shies away from.