An Update to Willie Nelson’s Opry House and Saloon

It’s on a movie set originally called “Willieville,” built in the early 1980s for a 1985 film called “Red Headed Stranger.”

The movie was based on a song by Willie Nelson, and starred him. The set was built on his ranch. It was to be temporary, and to be burned down after the filming.

That never happened. Instead, Nelson transformed it into an event venue. And at its heart stood its seemingly run-down Opry House and Saloon, soon found to be perfect for performances – with a small stage, dance floor, bar and support space.

By 2018 it was in need of an upgrade. And the Austin office of Cushing Terrell was tasked with rethinking that space – and the rest of the town – for future generations.

“We did a master plan for the next five to 10 years,” says Alex Bingham, architect at the firm. “It’s about repairing existing buildings, providing infrastructure and creating a timeline for future construction.”

They came in with an historic preservation architect and structural engineer, then provided recommendations for what needed to be done. The pandemic hit just as they completed it. “That put a damper on music festivals and funding for future phases,” he says.

They did make changes to the Opry House and Saloon exterior, but you’d have to look pretty hard to find them. The fact is, the building still appears to be near collapse. “It looks like we didn’t touch it,” he says. “We replaced the roof and exterior finishes, but it looks pretty much the same.”

The interior underwent a more significant renovation. It had multiple balconies, but they weren’t meant to stand a crowd and didn’t have necessary head clearance – so some were removed. “We kept bits and pieces – as much as possible,” he says. “It’s not a historic preservation project, but it keeps as much character as possible.”

In total, five other structures from the original “Willieville” set still exist. It’s got a market, street buildings, a chapel and a few others. Left untouched from the film’s production, they remain reminiscent of the classic Old West.

But the 2,000-square-foot Opry House and Saloon is meant for concerts, though it’s pretty small for that, even with the improved balconies. “There are swinging doors, a bar on the right-hand side, a performance stage and then the balcony above for private tickets or general admission overflow,” he says. “And backstage, there’s a sound booth for Willie and his wife, Annie.”

So what more could a “Red Headed Stranger” want – except for his 1985 set totally restored?

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