Jamey Johnson officially became the newest member of the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night (May 14), receiving his official member award from his mentor Bill Anderson — the same person who'd extended him a surprise invitation to join the Opry back in March. Johnson met Anderson for the very first time at the Grand Ole Opry, too: Anderson introduced him the first night he ever played on the stage.

All those personal connections made Anderson a fitting person to officially induct Johnson into the Opry, and they're representative of the fact that Johnson's long felt like a member of the hallowed country music institution.

"My first time even as a guest at the Opry was going in through the artist entrance and watching the Opry from the side-stage," he told Taste of Country and other outlets at a virtual press event a few days before the big night. "There was something about it that just told me, 'You belong.' It always felt like I belonged at the Opry. Whether it was a guest or a member or what, it just always felt like a home away from home for me."

So much so that Johnson once jokingly invited himself to become an Opry member. "I guess five or six years ago, just out of fun," he remembers with a giggle. "I stood out there in the middle of the stage ... and said, 'I would like to announce that I'm the newest member of the Grand Ole Opry.' And then the whole room erupted. And I said, 'But I can't, they haven't invited me.'"

Johnson got to see that room light up again in the very same way when he received his actual invitation this year, but he says that even as a non-member, he always felt a large degree of ownership in the Grand Ole Opry.

"I can tell you that being a guest over the past number of years has felt like a membership to me," he points out, "Because there was a time when I didn't get invited to play the Grand Ole Opry, before anybody knew who I was. Getting to play the Opry pretty much anytime I want to, anytime I have the time available, there is a membership in that. There is an ownership in that. It already feels like it's my Grand Ole Opry."

The comfort and love Johnson feels when he's on the Opry stage was on full display on Saturday night, as he shared the stage with Ricky Skaggs, who is currently celebrating the 40th anniversary of his own Opry induction. That felt like a full-circle moment, too: More than most artists, Johnson has a powerful sensibility for how to connect the Grand Ole Opry's storied past with the chapter of country music history that lies ahead. He'll put that perspective to work as an Opry member, he explains, and continue to help foster the Opry legacy for the next generations of country music artists and fans.

"That's just about all that's been on my mind," Johnson tells press, when asked how he hopes to care for the Opry in the years ahead.

"The Opry has a really tough spot in the history of country music. The Opry, in a way, is the timekeeper of country music," he muses. "They have to honor the past, they have to amplify the present, and they have to bring in the future."

As an Opry member, Johnson sees his role as helping the institution accomplish all three things, especially when it comes to bringing in deserving new guest performers and members. "One of the things we do in my show is exactly that, we look for openers. We're always looking for new openers, because there's people out there that don't get those opportunities, the kinds of opportunities I got," he points out.

Specifically, he says he wants to provide a platform for deserving young female artists in the genre.

"Young men in our business have the ability to go and play any kind of honky tonk bar, any kind of environment where they can grow a following," Johnson continues. "The young ladies don't necessarily have the same kinds of opportunities. And so we like to incorporate female artists into our show: One, because it gives fans something else to look at beside a beard that's grayin' and growin'. But two, it gives those young ladies an active audience to perform for and get that step."

Family, community and the importance of mutual support were themes throughout the evening when Johnson officially accepted his member award on Saturday night. For the singer, it was the culmination of a dream that he's held ever since his earliest encounters with the Opry, and he reflected on the moment from the stage.

"I've been talking about this moment since I was a kid. I prayed for it every day and hoped it would come," Johnson told Anderson.

"Well, this is proof our prayers do get answered," Anderson replied.

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