It’s a long way between Nashville and Whitehorse. The two capital cities are separated by 5,354 kilometres of Rockies, Great Plains and Appalachians – a geographical distance that means a difference of four hours of daylight on the winter solstice, Dec. 21.
However, organizers of the Second Annual Grand Ole Northern Opry, taking place over two nights at the Yukon Arts Centre this weekend, are hoping that attendees will feel, at least for a moment, like they’re in the front row of the country music capital’s most prestigious institution.
Featuring some 48 musicians, dancers, and visual artists from across the North, the Grand Ole Northern Opry is the brainchild of musician Kim Beggs and chef Dale Harnish, two Whitehorse-based dreamers who cooked up a vision of a Yukon variety show almost two years ago.
“We were sitting around over coffee, solving the problems of the universe, as we always do,” says Beggs, who acts as producer and artistic director for the event. “The idea of the Opry came up, I think partly because both of us have been involved in music festivals and events and as performers and volunteers. I decided I was going to apply to the Yukon Arts Fund, and when I was creating the application, I started thinking about creating something that really benefits people – not just a performance, but a real opportunity for artists.”
The resulting event turned out to resemble the original but also something more musically ambitious. While the Grand Ole Northern Opry will have many aspects of its Nashville counterpart, including a multi-act country music revue, elaborate stage, two-stepping dancers, a house band, and a whimsical MC, it will also have original songs created just for the event by Yukon songwriters paired up in teams of two.
“When I was in Nashville I was going out to see songwriter showcases, and I saw this performer that I’d never heard of performing one song that really hit me and struck me as really powerful,” says Beggs, explaining her reverence for the tradition of passing on songs in country music. “A few days later I was at the Opry, and the headlining act did the same song. They don’t explain that it’s by another songwriter or anything, they just played it. And I thought, ‘How cool is that?’”
The five songs commissioned by Grand Ole Northern Opry, including Let the River Give Back, which Beggs co-wrote with Whitehorse’s Michael Brooks, will not be performed by their authors, but rather assigned to another Yukon performer who will interpret the work for the audience.
“We wanted to include as many artists as possible, and also to have new faces on the stage, especially faces from the communities who aren’t seen as often,” says Beggs, who adds that the evening will see performers taking on both well-known country favourites and lesser-known tunes. “(It’s) something old, something new, something borrowed (and) something blue.”
In addition to the shared songwriting experience, performers will also have a chance to collaborate and network at a two-day camp happening in the days leading up to event. There, they’ll rehearse, exchange ideas, attend workshops and hopefully strengthen their ties as a community of northern musicians.
“Part of being an artist is building your community, beyond just your physical community,” says Beggs. “When artists are well connected to each other, it can help them set new standards for each other.”
By the time the audience is in its seats, Beggs is hopeful her performers will have gelled as a group, making for a magical two nights’ of music.
As with last year, the evening will be emceed by author Jerome Stueart, who is making a special trip from a writing retreat in Ohio just for the occasion. Stueart will be joined throughout the evening by comic performer Sharon Shorty, who is reportedly cooking up a “First Nations version” of Minnie Pearl, the original Grand Ole Opry’s iconic comic reporter.
Performers include Nadine Landry, Margaret Freeland, Ryan McCord, Gordie Tentrees, Steve Slade, Noosa, Diyet Van Lieshout and dozens more. Yukon legend Hank Karr will headline the event, marking his first performance after a long illness. The show begins at 7 p.m. both nights. Tickets are available at the Yukon Arts Centre or yukontickets.com.