After last week’s tutorial on the Ryman Auditorium, I just can’t help myself dedicating this week to the Grand Ole Opry. The two entities go hand-in-hand and their legacy is so intertwined it is nearly impossible to talk about one without the other.
While I don’t have any personal anecdotes about the Opry, the music and history of the program provided the platform for artists once idolized by millions to grow and become superstars. If you read the biographies or old interviews of old country music superstars like Hank Williams, Eddie Arnold and George Jones they all talked about wanting to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. If you made it to the Opry stage then you were part of the elite, at least back in the day.
In 1925, a radio-loving founder of National Life and Accident Insurance Company convinced the company to launch its radio station: WSM – named after their slogan “We Shield Millions.” National Life built a small studio with a window in its downtown Nashville office. WSM went live for the first time on October 5, 1925. It wasn’t long before the new station found its niche.
The Grand Ole Opry started as a Saturday evening program known as the WSM Barn Dance. WSM hired radio announcer George D. Hay to host the one-hour show. Before his move to Nashville, Hay had hosted other barn dances for WLS in Chicago. On November 28, 1925, Hay launched the WSM Barn Dance with 77-year-old fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson. Hay billed himself as “The Solemn Old Judge.”
Hay introduced the show each Saturday night with his steamboat whistle and his warm command, “Let her go, boys.” It wasn’t long before the show grew in popularity. Some of the bands regularly on the show during its early days included Bill Monroe, the Possum Hunters (with Humphrey Bate), the Fruit Jar Drinkers with Uncle Dave Macon, the Crook Brothers, the Binkley Brothers’ Dixie Clodhoppers, Sid Harkreader, DeFord Bailey, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, and the Gully Jumpers.
Judge Hay liked the Fruit Jar Drinkers and asked them to appear last on each show because he wanted to always close each segment with “red hot fiddle playing.” They were the second band accepted on Barn Dance, with the Crook Brothers being the first. When the Opry began having square dancers on the show, the Fruit Jar Drinkers always played for them. In 1926, Uncle Dave Macon, a Tennessee banjo player who had recorded several songs and toured on the vaudeville circuit became its first real star.
In December of 1927, following an NBC broadcast of Walter Damrosch’s Music Appreciation Hour, George D. Hay proclaimed on-air, “For the past hour we have been listening to the music taken largely from the Grand Opera, but from now on we will present the Grand Ole Opry.” The new name for the WSM Barn Dance stuck.
In the 1930s, the show began hiring professionals and expanded to four hours; and WSM-AM, broadcasting by then with 50,000 watts, made the program a Saturday night musical tradition in nearly 30 states. National Life built a larger studio as the show grew, but it was still not large enough. In 1934, the show moved to Hillsboro Theatre (the Belcourt) then to the Dixie Tabernacle in 1936. In 1939, the Opry called the War Memorial Auditorium home. The same year the Opry made its debut nationally on NBC Radio. Then in June 1943, the Opry moved to Ryman Auditorium
The Martha White brand is probably most associated with its long-term sponsorship of the Grand Ole Opry, a radio program featuring country music. The relationship began in 1948 and has existed continuously since then, making it one of the longest continually-running radio show sponsorships known.
As the program grew, the number of artists vying for a chance to be on the program grew as well. The Grand Ole Opry management had moments of snobbery and questionable dealings. In 1954, following Elvis Presley’s only Opry performance, Opry manager Jim Denny told Presley’s producer Sam Phillips after the show that the singer’s style did not suit the program.
Denny was fired from the Opry in September 1956, amid allegations of conflict of interest stemming from his involvement in booking and publishing, Denny formed the Jim Denny Artist Bureau and signed most of the Opry’s top acts. The same year, Hay retired from the Grand Ole Opry. In 1966, both Hay and Denny were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Electric amps and guitars were forbidden for years until the 1940s when this restriction began to relax after Ernest Tubb frequently played the show with one. All instruments were to be acoustic. As the bans were being lifted on amps they stayed in place for drums and horns as they were considered by members of management to be associated with blues and jazz music, “not country.” Drums remained discouraged until the 1970s, however, there were a few big-name artists that bucked the system. One of the most famous instances of this came in 1944 when Bob Wills had a drum set ready to go just offstage and then had his bandmates push it onto the stage for a single song. The Opry management let Wills and his band finish the song, but they were never invited back.
The Opry broadcasted its last Friday show from the Ryman on March 15, 1974. George Morgan closed out the show with Candy Kisses. After the Opry, Johnny and June Carter Cash sang “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” on the following Grand Ole Gospel Time to end the evening.
The next night, Roy Acuff opened the first show in the new 4,440-seat Grand Ole Opry House with a performance of The Wabash Cannonball. President Richard Nixon was in attendance and led the Opry audience in singing Happy Birthday to First Lady Pat Nixon.
The Opry House gave the show more space and the facilities necessary to grow and evolve. It was televised live for the first time on March 4, 1978, as part of a PBS fundraising special but the show wouldn’t start regular television broadcasts until 1985.
The 1990s brought some of the Opry’s most monumental moments: Minnie Pearl and Jimmy Dickens celebrated their 50th anniversary with the show; Roy Acuff made his final Opry performance, one month before he died.
In 2002, the Opry celebrated its 4000th consecutive Saturday Night broadcast. Making it the longest-running radio show in the United States.
In May 2010, the Opry House was flooded, along with much of Nashville. While repairs were being made, the Opry itself continued to run uninterrupted. Throughout the summer, the broadcast had alternate venues in Nashville, with Ryman Auditorium hosting the majority of the shows.
In March 2020, due to COVID-19, the Opry closed its doors to spectators and trimmed its staff but continued to air weekly episodes on radio and television. The Opry resumed allowing spectators on a limited basis in October and resumed full operations in May 2021.
While the Grand Ole Opry like most of Nashville and country music has become increasingly commercialized, they all have a deep history that will never be duplicated. Let ‘er go, boys!