Radio, Fans Miss Opryland USA Amusement Park

Ever since the May 2010 floods, Opry Mills shopping center has been a ghost town except for the one store that has bravely reopened, Bass Pro Shops.

With that, exception, the gigantic shopping mall is now a fenced-in eyesore, which, depending on the outcome of a slew of lawsuits which will likely not be resolved for years, may or may not ever reopen.

 That has led many fans, radio pros and Music Row to fondly recall how much they loved Opryland USA, the theme park and concert venue which was shut down in 1997 and replaced by Opry Mills, originally a joint venture between Gaylord and the Mills Corporation, a shopping mall developer.

Gaylord has since sold its interest in Opry Mills, and it turns out that even
before the flood there was a move inside the company to revive Opryland USA.

 In late January 2010, more than three months BEFORE the May flood, WSMV-TV in Nashville reported: “For everyone who missed the Opryland theme park, there is news that might cheer you up. There is talk (of) Gaylord Entertainment expanding its business, especially since Nashville’s new convention center just received approval. According to the City Paper, a theme park might be part of the plan. A spokesperson for Gaylord on Monday did not deny the possibility.”

 One leading country radio consultant told us that “the previous management of Gaylord made that bonehead decision to shutter the amusement park. Current management knows it was a mistake. Would not shock me if they rebuilt a newer, bigger and better Opryland. It would be HUGE.”

 It remains to be seen if that will ever happen, but longtime Nashvillians know that Opryland USA had a major impact on Music Row and country radio.

 Dozens of future stars honed their skills there, playing shows at the park’s numerous music venues and also working day jobs in the park that allowed them to develop their musical chops.

 There was talk when Opry Mills opened that a classy, upscale mall like that would attract families with young kids to Nashville. That always seemed an absurd argument. The only mall I know of which is also a tourist attraction is Minnesota’s enclosed Mall of America, and almost everybody in Nashville knows that the loss of Opryland USA was a body blow to Music City tourism for years. 

Loudilla Johnson, co-founder of the International Fan Club Organization (IFCO)
Loudilla Johnson, co-founder of the International Fan Club Organization(IFCO), has been one of country fans’ best friends for decades as host of the famed IFCO Show which opened Fan Fair week (CMA Music Festival) at the Ryman for many years.

“Tickets to the park on the Sunday after Fan Fair ended were included in the book of tickets all event registrants got,” Loudilla recalls. “Kids – and some adults – loved the rides too, attended concerts in the pavilion with Gary Morris, Ronnie

Milsap, and the Oak Ridge Boys at different times thru the years. Oaks even had their fan club ‘open house’ there. Personally, I believe that Gaylord’s decision to close the park and build a mall was a major mistake and dealt a catastrophic blow not only to the area, but to the entire city!”
 Venues, like radio stations and country artists, come and go all the time. Starwood Amphitheater was also a popular concert venue in the late 1990s, but its closure didn’t attract anywhere near the anger that Opryland USA’s demise did.
Somehow certain places – like Opryland USA and the Tennessee State Fairgrounds – have forged a deeper tie with the community and with fans.

 Recently, Nashville mayor Karl Dean and other politicians moved to close the Fairgrounds and move the State Fair somewhere else. But to the surprise of many, the grass-roots campaign called “Save The Fairgrounds” led Dean to rethink that decision, at least for now.

Like Opryland USA, the Fairgrounds has many advocates, including NASCAR legends, such as Sterling Marlin who competed at the Fairgrounds racetrack. That track used to host Winston Cup races, then NASCAR’s highest classification, where Marty Robbins raced several times after playing the Grand Ole Opry earlier in the evening.

Marty, of “El Paso” and “A White Sport Coat And A Pink Carnation” fame, is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame who passed in 1982.

In 1981, Marty was interviewed by the music journalist Bob Allen. The interview appears in Barbara Pruett’s 1990 book, Marty Robbins: Fast Cars And Country Music.

 “I never cared about winning. I just loved to drive,” Marty told Bob Allen. “I want to race to see the guys, because man, I love them all. I respect and admire anybody who can strap himself into a car – and I was never trying to be ONE of them. I just wanted to be AMONG them.”

 As Bob Allen notes, “Marty was popular at the races for another reason: He would hold impromptu concerts around the motel swimming pool for all the drivers and mechanics.”

 Nashville was hardly the only track where Marty raced. He competed several times in California, and at least once in NASCAR’s signature event, the Daytona 500.

It’s that type of magic and memories that places like Opryland USA and the Fairgrounds provided to millions of country fans from all over the world. At long last, Nashville folks are trying to bring one of those venues back from the dead and keep the other one alive.

 By Phil Sweetland

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