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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Grand Ole Opry

Logo since 2005


Format: stage show and broadcast

Location: Grand Ole Opry House Nashville, Tennessee

Broadcast outlets: 650/WSM, WSM website, Sirius-XM Radio

First broadcast: November 28, 1925

Founder: George D. Hay

Genres: country, bluegrass, others

Predecessor: WSM Barn Dance


The Grand Ole Opry is a weekly country music stage concert in Nashville, Tennessee, that has presented the biggest stars of that genre since 1925. It is also among the longest-running broadcasts in history since its beginnings November 28, 1925, as a one-hour radio "barn dance" on WSM. Dedicated to honoring country music and its history, the Opry showcases a mix of legends and contemporary chart-toppers performing country, bluegrass, folk, gospel, and comedic performances and skits. Considered an American icon, it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world and millions of radio and Internet listeners. The Opry is "the show that made country music famous" and has been called the "home of American music" and "country’s most famous stage." The Grand Ole Opry is owned and operated by Ryman Hospitality Properties, Inc.

In the 1930's, the show began hiring professionals and expanded to four hours; and WSM, broadcasting by then with 50,000 watts, made the program a Saturday night musical tradition in nearly 30 states. In 1939, it debuted nationally on NBC Radio. The Opry moved to a permanent home, the Ryman Auditorium, in 1943. As it developed in importance, so did the city of Nashville, which became America's "country music capital".

Membership in the Opry remains one of country music's crowning achievements. Such country music legends as Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Roy Acuff, the Carter family, Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells and Minnie Pearl became regulars on the Opry's stage (although Williams was banned in 1952 due to frequent drunkenness). In recent decades, the Opry has hosted such contemporary country stars as Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Josh Turner, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts and the Dixie Chicks. Since 1974, the show has been broadcast from the Grand Ole Opry House east of downtown Nashville and performances have been sporadically televised in addition to the radio programs.



Decorative brickwork at Opryland Hotel depicting Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff

The Grand Ole Opry started as the WSM Barn Dance in the new fifth-floor radio studio of the National Life & Accident Insurance Company in downtown Nashville on November 28, 1925. On October 18, 1925, management began a program featuring "Dr. Humphrey Bate and his string quartet of old-time musicians." On November 2, WSM hired long-time announcer and program director George D. "Judge" Hay, an enterprising pioneer from the National Barn Dance program at WLS in Chicago, who was also named the most popular radio announcer in America as a result of his radio work with both WLS and WMC in Memphis, Tennessee. Hay launched the WSM Barn Dance with 77-year-old fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson on November 28, 1925, which is celebrated as the birth date of the Grand Ole Opry.

Some of the bands regularly on the show during its early days included the Possum Hunters (with Dr. Humphrey Bate), the Fruit Jar Drinkers, the Crook Brothers, the Binkley Brothers' Dixie Clodhoppers, Uncle Dave Macon, Sid Harkreader, Deford Bailey, Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, and the Gully Jumpers.

Judge Hay, however, 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 the vaudeville circuit, became its first real star.


On December 10, 1927 the phrase 'Grand Ole Opry' was first uttered on-air. That night Barn Dance followed the NBC Red Network's Music Appreciation Hour, which consisted of classical music and selections from the Grand Opera genre with Walter Damrosch as emcee. That night Damrosch remarked that “there is no place in the classics for realism,” In response Hay said

"Friends, the program which just came to a close was devoted to the classics. Doctor Damrosch told us that there is no place in the classics for realism. However, from here on out for the next three hours, we will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the 'earthy'."

Hay then introduced DeFord Bailey, the man he had dubbed the "Harmonica Wizard", with

"For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera. From now on, we will present the 'Grand Ole Opry'."

Bailey then stepped up to the mike to play "The Pan American Blues", his song inspired by the Pan American, a L&N Railroad express/passenger train.

Larger Venues

As audiences for the live show increased, National Life & Accident Insurance's radio venue became too small to accommodate the hordes of fans. They built a larger studio, but it was still not large enough. After several months with no audiences, National Life decided to allow the show to move outside its home offices. In October, 1934, the Opry moved into then-suburban Hillsboro Theatre (now the Belcourt); and then on June 13, 1936, to the Dixie Tabernacle in East Nashville. The Opry then moved to the War Memorial Auditorium, a downtown venue adjacent to the State Capitol. A 25-cent admission was charged in an effort to curb the large crowds, but to no avail. On June 5, 1943, the Opry moved to the Ryman Auditorium.

Roy Acuff

Ryman Auditorium, the "Mother Church of Country Music"

Top-charting country music acts performed there during the Ryman years, including Roy Acuff, called the King of Country Music, Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Martha Carson, Lefty Frizzell, and many others.

One hour of the Opry was nationally-broadcast by the NBC Red Network from 1939 to 1956; for much of its run, it aired one hour after the program that had inspired it, National Barn Dance. The NBC segment, originally known by the name of its sponsor, The Prince Albert Show, was first hosted by Acuff, who was succeeded by Red Foley from 1946 to 1954. From October 15, 1955 to September 1956, ABC-TV aired a live, hour-long television version once a month on Saturday nights (sponsored by Ralston-Purina), pre-empting one hour of the then-90-minute Ozark Jubilee. From 1955–57, Al Gannaway produced both The Country Show and Stars of the Grand Ole Opry, filmed programs syndicated by Flamingo Films.

On October 2, 1954, a teenage Elvis Presley made his only Opry performance. Although the audience reacted politely to his revolutionary brand of rockabilly music, after the show he was told by Opry manager Jim Denny that he ought to return to Memphis to resume his truck-driving career, prompting him to swear never to return. In an era when the Grand Ole Opry represented solely country music, audiences did not accept Elvis on the Opry because of his infusion of rhythm and blues as well as his infamous body gyrations, which many viewed as vulgar. In the 1990's, Garth Brooks was made a member of the Opry and was credited with selling more records than any other singer since Presley. Brooks commented that one of the best parts of playing on the Opry was that he appeared on the same stage as Presley.


In the 1960's, as the hippie counterculture movement spread, the Opry maintained a strait-laced, conservative image with "longhairs" not being featured on the show. The Byrds were a notable exception. Country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, who at that time was a member of The Byrds, was in Nashville to work on the band's country-rock album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The band's record label, Columbia Records, had arranged for The Byrds to be allowed to perform at the Ryman on March 15, 1968, a prospect that thrilled Parsons. However, when the band took the stage the audience's response was immediately hostile, resulting in derisive heckling, booing and mocking calls of "tweet, tweet." The Byrds further outraged the Opry establishment by breaking with accepted protocol when they performed Parsons' song "Hickory Wind" instead of the Merle Haggard song "Life in Prison", as had been announced by Tompall Glaser.

Opry House

Grand Ole Opry House

The Ryman was home to the Opry until 1974, when the show moved to the 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House, located nine miles east of downtown Nashville on a new site that was part of the Opryland USA theme park. Opening night, March 16, was attended by President Nixon, who played a few songs on the piano. When the new Opry opened, a six-foot circle of oak was cut from the original stage at the Ryman and inlaid into the stage at the new venue.

While the theme park was closed in 1997 and replaced by the Opry Mills mall, Opry House itself was left intact and incorporated into the new facility. Currently the Opry plays several times a week at the Grand Ole Opry House, except for an annual winter run at the Ryman Auditorium.

2010 Flooding

In May 2010, the Opry House was flooded, along with much of Nashville, due to the Cumberland River overflowing its banks. While repairs were made, the Opry was temporarily housed at alternate venues in Nashville, with the Ryman Auditorium hosting the majority of the shows. Other venues included the TPAC War Memorial Auditorium, another former Opry home; TPAC's Andrew Jackson Hall; Nashville Municipal Auditorium; Allen Arena at Lipscomb University; and the Two Rivers Baptist Church. The Opry returned to the Grand Ole Opry House on September 28, 2010 in a special edition of the Opry entitled Country Comes Home that was televised live on Great American Country. The evening was filled with one-of-a-kind Opry moments. Martina McBride and Connie Smith dueted on Smith's signature hit "Once a Day," and other collaborations included Dierks Bentley and Del McCoury ("Roll On Buddy, Roll On"), Josh Turner and Lorrie Morgan ("Golden Ring"), and Montgomery Gentry and Charlie Daniels Band ("Devil Went Down To Georgia"), among others. The show closed with an all-star guitar jam featuring Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, Steve Wariner, Ricky Skaggs, and Marty Stuart.


Dolly Parton at the Opry in 2005

The Grand Ole Opry is broadcast live on 650/WSM at 7 p.m. Central Time on Saturday nights. A similar program, the Friday Night Opry, airs live on Friday nights. From March through December, the Tuesday Night Opry is also aired live.

The Opry can also be heard live on Willie's Roadhouse (XM Satellite Radio channel 56, and Sirius channel 64). A condensed radio program, America's Opry Weekend, is syndicated to stations around the United States. The program is also streamed on WSM's website.

PBS televised annual live performances from 1978 to 1981. In 1985, The Nashville Network began airing an edited half-hour version of the program as Grand Ole Opry Live; the show moved to Country Music Television (expanding to an hour in the process), and then to the Great American Country (GAC) cable network with their Opry Live show currently being on hiatus.


Little Jimmy Dickens, at the time, the second-oldest living Opry member, now the oldest, at Opry House in 2004. The circle of wood is from the Ryman Auditorium's stage.

Being made a member of the Grand Ole Opry, country music's big house, the oldest, most enduring "hall of fame," is to be identified as a member of the elite of country music. In many ways, the artists and repertoire of the Opry defined American country music. Hundreds of performers have entertained as cast members through the years, including new stars, superstars and legends.

Opry membership is not only earned, but must be maintained throughout the artist's career. After artists die, they are no longer considered standing members of the Grand Ole Opry. However, their impact is often celebrated at special events, such as the 50th anniversary commemorating the death of Hank Williams in 2003, which featured performances from Hank Williams Jr. and his grandson, Hank Williams III.


In April 1963 Opry management came out with a rule that members had to perform on at least 26 shows a year to keep their membership active. WSM dropped the number of required performances to 20 in January 1964, in 2000 the minimum number of Opry performances was at 12. The minimum number of performances has lessened over the years, but artists offered membership are expected to show a dedication to the Opry with frequent attendance.

Another controversy that raged for years was over allowable instrumentation, especially the use of drums and electrically amplified instruments. Some purists were appalled at the prospect; traditionally a string bass provided the rhythm component in country music and percussion instruments were seldom used. Electric amplification, then new, was regarded as the province of popular music and jazz in 1940's. Though the Opry allowed electric guitars and steel guitars by World War II, the no-drums/horns restrictions continued. They caused a conflict when Bob Wills and Pee Wee King defied the show's ban on drums. The restrictions chafed many artists, such as Waylon Jennings, who were popular with the newer and younger fans. These restrictions were largely eliminated over time, alienating many older and traditionalist fans, but probably saving the Opry long-term as a viable ongoing enterprise.


June Carter Cash at the Opry in 1999

The company has enforced its trademark on the name "Grand Ole Opry" and attempted to limit use to members of the Opry and products associated with or licensed by it. In late 1968, for instance, WSM sued Opry Records, a record label that was independent of WSM, and initially won a preliminary injunction. WSM ultimately lost its legal case against the record company's owners. The record company's attorneys successfully argued that WSM's management indeed owned the rights to the words Grand Ole Opry, but only in that order and combination, but no more owned the word "opry" in isolation than they owned "grand" or "ole". It allowed other music shows to label themselves as Oprys of one sort or another.

In 2004, it was announced that the Grand Ole Opry had contracted for the first time with a "presenting sponsor", Cracker Barrel, and the sponsoring company's name would be associated with Grand Ole Opry in all its advertising. Humana, Inc., Cracker Barrel, and Dollar General are the present sponsors of the Opry.


Peabody Award, 1983

National Radio Hall of Fame induction, 1992

External Links:

Library of Congress Local Legacies Project: Grand Ole Opry

American Radio Works history of the Opry

Good Ole Days of the Grand Ole Opry - slideshow by Life magazine (archived link)

The Ryman Auditorium

28 April 1956 Live Feed

Source: Wikipedia