NASHVILLE A host of roots and Southern gospel artists will take the stage when the Grand Ole Opry debuts OpryFest this weekend as part of its 75th anniversary celebration.
Gospel Jubilee, held Saturday and Sunday, kicks off the three-part outdoor musical series with top names in Southern gospel such as Connie Smith, the Crabb Family, the Steeles, Jack Greene, Jeff & Sherri Easter and Billy Walker.
"Our music is Southern gospel, but we have been influenced by country artists such as George Jones and Merle Haggard," Kathy Crabb said.
The Crabb Family, whose 1998 single "Please Forgive Me" became the highest-charting song in the history of Southern gospel music, recently topped the Singing News magazine Southern gospel chart for an impressive three-month span with "Through the Fire."
"Gerald [Crabb] wrote that song because we have spent the last few years listening to people [about their hardships]," Kathy Crabb explained. "Their stories can really break your heart, and we feel that it's our job to be an encouragement to these individuals."
The second installment of OpryFest features world-renowned roots artists such as bluegrass giant Ralph Stanley & His Clinch Mountain Boys, The Del McCoury Band, Jim Lauderdale and Tim O'Brien. The two-stage outdoor Bluegrass Jamboree, held in the Opry Plaza July 2223, also will include performances by Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time, Claire Lynch, the John Hartford String Band, the Seldom Scene and the Clark Family Experience.
Lauderdale, who slides effortlessly between country, blues and rock, has kept up a feverish pace this summer. "I've been touring with Ralph Stanley and finishing up my next album, which will be done by August. I've also been doing a lot of songwriting with people like Leslie Satcher and I'll be writing with Harlan Howard again soon."
Lauderdale also has penned such country hits as George Strait's "Where the Sidewalk Ends," Patty Loveless's #1 "Halfway Down," Vince Gill's "Sparkle" and Mark Chesnutt's chart-topper "Gonna Get a Life." His first collaboration with veteran tunesmith Howard, "Goodbye Song" (RealAudio excerpt), is included on his 1998 BNA debut Whisper.
Capping the three-part roots series will be the OpryFest Grand Ole Clogging & Square Dance Festival occurring July 2930, which features performances, competitions and an arts, antiques and crafts fair.
This July outdoor series is only one facet of the Opry's grand birthday celebration. A new stage was unveiled in early June and a Tuesday-matinee schedule runs through the summer.
Dale Watson and Junior Brown have played the Friday-night free concerts on the Opry Plaza, and many other artists are lined up for these summer shows. Traditional Austin, Texas, group the Derailers are set for Friday (July 14); Lauderdale will appear July 21; Western-swing pioneers Asleep at the Wheel take the stage July 28 and BR5-49 closes out the series Aug. 4.
The official Grand Ole Opry 75th Birthday Bash will be held Oct. 1315, but other celebrations will continue into next year.