Exclusive: Willi Carlisle Discusses His Complicated Feelings About Making His Grand Ole Opry Debut

Willi Carlisle released his acclaimed new album Critterland in January, kicking off one of the biggest years in his career. A scant two years ago, Carlisle was living in his van and playing to small but passionate crowds in cities across the country. This year, he’ll play to stadium crowds when he opens for Tyler Childers. This Friday (March 22), he’ll stand in the Circle for the first time as he makes his Grand Ole Opry debut.

Videos by American Songwriter

Carlisle is a poet, songwriter, amateur folklorist, and former educator. More importantly, openly shares his feelings and beliefs about the world both in his music and in his life. It seems that his core philosophy is one of inclusion. As he sang on the opener to his 2022 album Peculiar, Missouri, your heart’s a big tent, you’ve got to let everybody in.

[RELATED: Willi Carlisle Releases Beautifully Heartbreaking Music Video for “When the Pills Wear Off”]

Ahead of his Opry debut, Carlisle sat down with American Songwriter to share his thoughts on the occasion and his hopes for the future of folk and country music in America.

Willi Carlisle’s Feelings on His Grand Ole Opry Debut

Most artists would feel excitement tinged with nervousness to stand on the stage at the Opry. Carlisle, with his deep understanding of the institution’s history and his unique approach to life felt differently. “Honestly, my life is not guided by accomplishments in that regard and I felt complicated about it pretty much immediately,” he said when asked how he felt about his Opry debut.

“I’m really excited about doing it now. But, initially, I was like one, did they get the wrong Willi? And then, two, how would I feel about being in the fold of contemporary country music which isn’t really a place that I have aspired to be all that much but is a place that I’m excited to dip my toe into a little bit,” he continued.

[RELATED: Willi Carlisle to Donate Proceeds from New Single “When the Pills Wear Off” to Hope in the Hills]

An artist like Carlisle playing the Grand Ole Opry signals a shift in the institution. He sees the shift but on a wider scale. “A crazy thing about the new Americana and folk movements in America is that the outsider is becoming the insider. In that transition from outside to inside, we have to be careful how we do it. We have to try to do it differently,” he explained. “It’s fascinating to me to think about institutions like the Opry choosing to have somebody like me on says to me that the whole industry is trying to pivot. We’re all trying to figure out where home is.”

Expanding on Complicated Feelings

“I do feel complicated about the Opry. It is one of those places where people came to have ideas about what America was and its musical history. What it chose to present left a lot of voices out. We’re still dealing with the repercussions of that in our popular media,” Carlisle explained.

 “As an amateur folklorist, the country and folk music that has been made here has been so wildly immigrant-oriented, so eastern European, so indigenous, so impoverished, so based around sheet music, so sellable from a Sears & Roebuck catalog, and also so invented by children and old folks to entertain each other that there’s no way we can always get it right,” he added.

Carlisle pointed out the impact that the Grand Ole Opry had in its early days. Today, people from across the globe can log on to a live stream and have a shared experience. It’s so common that we’ve come to take it for granted. However, that wasn’t the case when the Opry first began broadcasting in the early 20th century. It gave people across the country the opportunity to tune in and share the experience of live performances from the beating heart of Nashville.

Willi Carlisle on Looking at the Past with Reverence, Revision, and Revulsion

“I believe that, as a folk singer, we should look at the past with three things—reverence, revision, and revulsion. All three at the same time, coexisting,” Carlisle explained. “I think that when you make stuff as a folk or country artist nowadays, that’s what a lot of Americana artists are trying to do. They want to say, ‘I did come from somewhere. That place is complex,’” he added.

“The Opry has a long and storied history of ignoring people that it does not like. I know that they’re dedicated to making changes. I want to make sure that I do it with a little grit in my oyster. With a little bit of edge. And with a little bit of that sensibility of reverence, reverence, and revulsion at the same time.”

Willi Carlisle will continue his commitment to getting it right with sets of songs about love, acceptance, and the secretive lives of closeted queer individuals long after he stands in the Circle at the Opry. At the same time, the invitation for him to stand on that stage shows that he’s not alone in the pursuit of making the tent big enough for everyone to come in, get comfortable, and feel love and joy, even for a fleeting moment.

Featured Image by Jackie Clarkson

Leave a Reply

Remember When: The Clash Broke Through with a Hidden Track