Carrie Underwood led an all-star bill of some of the top talent in country music at the Grand Ole Opry Saturday night (Sept. 3), marking the 90th birthday of the venerable country music institution in Nashville.

Underwood was on hand to perform as part of a lineup that included Trace Adkins, the cast of Nashville, the legendary Oak Ridge Boys and more, delivering stellar versions of "Jesus, Take the Wheel," "Smoke Break" and Dolly Parton's "Nine to Five" for the more than 4400 fans who had traveled from all over the country to celebrate nine decades of country music history.

"It's about the staying power and the tradition of country music," Underwood tells a group of reporters backstage between sets. "Country music is a place where an artist can have a long career, and the fans can grow with the artist. They're loyal, and they stick with us. It's really amazing that people can come to the Opry to see the Oak Ridge Boys, and get a little Carrie Underwood thrown in there, or vice versa. It loves what country music is now, but it loves the past as well."

Underwood looked back fondly on her own early experiences at the Opry, where she appeared not long after winning American Idol. "I felt very unworthy, and still do, to a certain extent," she acknowledges. "I felt like that was definitely a step to make toward feeling accepted. They wouldn't have asked me if they didn't want me here, so I felt like that was kinda like step one," she adds with a laugh."They let me in the door! They let me on the stage. They let me sing. And maybe other people followed suit afterward, because of that."

Adkins was among the artists who recounted fond memories of Little Jimmy Dickens. The diminutive Opry mainstay famously invited the towering singer to join the Opry while standing on a step ladder. "My membership in the Grand Ole Opry is the thing I'm most proud of in my whole career," Adkins says. "I take it very seriously. I know when I'm out there, I'm a representative of the Grand Ole Opry. I'm very cognizant of that all the time."

Like many other artists, Adkins points to the relaxed backstage atmosphere, with open dressing rooms and a general sense of easy camaraderie, as one of the best parts about the Opry.

"I love to hang out in the dressing rooms with all these legendary entertainers. It just never gets old ... I've never had a bad experience performing on the Grand Ole Opry. It's an institution. I just think it's important for the Opry to always be here."

The Oak Ridge Boys were at the Opry unexpectedly for a second night of the 90th birthday celebration, after severe rains forced the cancellation of a tour date scheduled for Saturday night. Singer Joe Bonsall also shared fun memories of Dickens. "I think people like that, when they've left us, they've left a great hole," he says. "Backstage at the Opry has not been the same since Little Jimmy's gone. Everybody was surrounding Jimmy Dickens all the time. It was just fun to watch. When he left ... wow. But that's the circle of life. I think the Opry is all about music, tradition and magic."

Nashville stars Charles Esten, Sam Palladio, Chris Carmack and Aubrey Peeples were also on hand, performing a 30-minute set on the Opry stage and expressing their gratitude to the institution for embracing the show and its cast.

"I'm just amazed to be along for this ride," Esten says. "It still doesn't seem real, but here we are, and nobody's kicked us out yet ... When we were starting out [on the show], that was the thing. It's one thing to have the show go on, but whatever you did, we all wanted to do it justice. If the people around town said, 'That's kind of it, they're onto something, there's a truth in there,' that's all you can ask for ... you sure didn't want to be on Nashville, living in a town called Nashville, but the town called Nashville didn't like the show called Nashville. We were embraced not only by the city, but really the heart of the city, which I consider to be the Grand Ole Opry and the Ryman."

Esten mentioned Dickens, along with Vince Gill, as being particularly instrumental in helping the show gain respect in the Music City community. "When they walk across that stage and they welcome you to this building, who's gonna say otherwise?" he reflects.

The main theme of the evening was the historic role that the Opry has always played, and will continue to play in country music. "It's the heart of country music,' Underwood affirms. "The first time that I came here, I knew what a special place that it was, and that I wanted to be a part of it."

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