There are very few times – if any – when you can say you were in a room the day a star was born. As I write this on the plane back from Nashville I have no doubt that last night in a reception room at the Grand Ole Opry during Rainey Qualley’s Opry debut, I got that chance.

After spending a week in Nashville filming our next Masters of Sound installment, my trip culminated at a reception at the Grand Ole Opry hosted by Cingle Records for industry players, family and friends, and audio blogger marketing-types who had spent the previous week hanging around the office.

Just like a punk band wasn’t worth paying attention to if they hadn’t stormed CBGB’s, an opera singer needs to perform at the Met,  an ascending roots rocker needs to play at the Stone Pony and a metal band needs to sell-out the Whiskey A-Go-Go. Take all of that and multiply by a factor of 1000 or so and you get the idea of the importance of a country artist’s debut at the Opry. Standing ovations are reserved for favorite sons and daughters or artists who make a particular statement during their two-song sojourn and it’s not uncommon for formerly up-and-coming artists to lay an egg in front of an extremely demanding audience.

Performers who have frozen on the center stage “circle” – a 5’ foot or so circle of wood made up of flooring from the original Opry – are legend. This is a tough gig. About an hour before show time I got to stand backstage with a guy who has been working in and out of the Opry for the past twenty years, and even this jaded denizen of New Jersey’s worst traffic jams and Soprano-esque ennui found himself experiencing a fairly strong case of goosebumps and shivers. Most of my mental storage capacity is filled with bits and pieces of musical history, and it all came rushing into my consciousness the moment I stood behind the curtain on that stage listening to the gentle murmur of the crowd as they found their seats.

Mindful of that, at the pre-show reception the first thing I said to one of Rainey’s musicians who was getting ready to make his own Opry debut with the exquisite house band was “How nervous are you? You must be getting terrified.”

This my friends, is a dumb thing to say to a guy who is about to make his Opry debut.

“Yeah, I’m trying not to think about that so I don’t lock up.”

Being acceptably quick on the uptake, I quickly changed course and mentioned how awesome the mini-chicken and waffle hors d’oeuvre was and then asked him if he liked the beer he was drinking.

Over the course of the next two hours I spoke with the most powerful record promoter in Nashville, a movie star, a guy who wrote songs with Pitbull, the Opry host, a guy with a 7 times Platinum record to his credit, a guy of unknown origin who pointed out that the room we were standing in was where they filmed Hee-Haw, and a whole bunch of people in-between. No matter how cool a privilege that was, the eight or 9 minute performance by Rainey was the most memorable experience of the evening, and then some.

Watching a performer expose themselves as the perfectly vulnerable and accessibly brilliant person we all wish we could be while delivering an emotionally powerful performance is stunning. During the first two verses of Me and Johnny Cash you could tell her nerves were raging. Short of breath because of the enormity of the moment, the first thirty seconds of Rainey’s performance was a study in control and muscle memory. Midway through the song Rainey and her writing partner/guitarist John Ramey met eyes and smiled at each other, and suddenly all of the hype of the Opry melted away and the music took over. The energy was palpable. Rainey’s second song, Never Mine, then caught everyone’s attention because of its naked emotion. At that moment, she held the audience in the palm of her hand.

But to me, it was Rainey’s heartfelt and joyful thank you to her team, the house band, her family, and her label that was the perfect ending to a near-perfect performance. It is the rare artist who can at once be masterful and the kid next door. The sweetness with which Rainey left the stage made this cynic a fan for life.

As I was leaving for some late night tacos at a restaurant in the Gulch, I spent several minutes talking to an usher who works the Opry every week (who would know better?) and she confirmed that standing ovations were indeed rare, especially for premiering artists.

After Rainey’s second song, the audience stood up. We’ll leave it at that.

 Backstage, pre-show at one of the most iconic stages in American music.

 A look toward the curtain from the rear of the stage. Even empty the stage is full of energy.

 Rainey Qualley on the streaming screen in the reception room. Most of the attendees went out to the theater to catch Rainey's set in person, but even on the simulcast screen the emotion of the performance could not be denied.

Jack Sharkey for KEF