The Grand Ole Opry PBS, Saturday, 9 p.m.-midnight (check local listings). You don't have to be a country boy or girl to savor the pungent, heartfelt tone of this marathon three-hour show. The songs are commercialized and sometimes seem a far cry from the original folk sentiments they celebrate. But the proceedings are like a giant family reunion - complete with ``in'' jokes, sad stories, and common roots.
For more than 60 years, this spirit has been captured on ``Grand Ole Opry'' broadcasts over a local radio show in Nashville. The show has also been aired nationally over the years, and this time around, it is being offered during public TV's August ``pledge'' period, along with several other music shows. The structure of these long pledge shows - a series of numbers with lots of built-in breaks - lets stations jump in for local fund raising.
So you can tune in and out to see and hear the likes of Roy Acuff, ``the King of Country Music'' (who is host for some of the program), as well as the Gatlin brothers, the Whites, Bill Monroe, and many others. Three or four of the performers are big national stars who have transcended the regional appeal of the Opry style - like Loretta Lynn and Barbara Mandrell. But even for them, an Opry appearance gives the feeling of being part of a family. Miss Lynn kids on stage about her world-renowned signature number - ``Coal Miner's Daughter'' - and then launches into it in a way that makes you feel she's come home. Miss Mandrell also seems warmly at home and shows no sign of the publicized accident that took her out of commission for a while.
Whether national stars or largely Opry names, these performers find a special kind of audience when they appear on this show. The audience has already decided they're going to have a good time. They embrace the familiar and sometimes elder figures of the country-music world - one of them has been on the show since it began 60 years ago - with a proprietary zeal. With comedian Minnie Pearl - still wearing her straw hat with price tag dangling from the brim - the audience laughs more at the rhythm and tone of her jokes than the lines themselves.
If there's a social philosophy that seeps through the plaintive strains and homey lyrics, it's probably a kind of gut populism. ``There's a whole lot of people looking down their noses at me ... 'cause I didn't come from a wealthy family,'' sings Whisperin' Bill Anderson. His song goes on to tell of a hard-scrabble farming childhood, with lots of kids in a small cabin. Another performer sings, ``I may look like a city slicker. Underneath, I'm just a cotton picker.'' And Loretta Lynn's signature song, of course, is a cry of proud populism and dirt-poor roots. Some of the singers and musicians have lived hard lives before hitting the financial big time. Hank Williams, one of country music's most creative and enduring figures, once said, ``The hillbilly sings more sincere than most entertainers, because he was raised tougher.''
These artists aren't all hillbillies, but you can often hear their tough lives in the elemental nature of their songs - even when the folk feeling has been forced out through commercial arrangements. Yes, you probably do have to love country music itself to sit through all three hours, but there's a lot here for anybody.