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The Grand Ole Opry 


by Graham Lees



It was the age of jazz and the "Roaring Twenties". All across America, people were buying radio sets by the thousands, eager to hear the new "miracle" that brought entertainment directly into their own living room. The creator of WSM was Edwin W. Craig, who had joined his father's company, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company as a field representative and by 1922 had risen to the level of vice-president. It was around this time that Craig began tuning into the pioneer radio stations, which were popping up around the country. In time, he was soon convinced a radio station would enhance National Life's identity while also providing a valuable public service to the community. The board of National Life readily agreed, with Craig taking charge.

It was decided that the station's call letters would be "WSM", to reflect National Life's motto: "We Shield Millions." Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy had already been assigned those letters. Undeterred, Craig successfully petitioned the Secretary of Commerce to transfer the call letters and as a result WSM Radio was born and the longest and most successful country radio program, the Grand Ole Opry started life.

George D Hay

George D. Hay of Chicago's WLS was a 30-year-old former newspaperman who worked under the pseudonym "The Solemn Old Judge". With a keen wit, George Hay was hired on as the station's first Program Director within a month, staying with the program until he retired in 1953. Hay wasted no time in creating new shows. While the station relied mostly on classical and dinner music for its programming, on the night of 28th November 1925, all that changed forever. WSM's Barn Dance (a spin-off of Hay's National Barn Dance program from his previous Chicago radio station) on Saturday night was becoming one of the most popular programs on radio. The prestigious title "Grand Ole Opry" came from Hay in 1927. The program at the time was three hours long and followed NBCs Musical Appreciation Hour of classical music, conducted by Dr. Walter Damorosch. While introducing a number in the program, Damorosch commented "while most artistes realise that there is no place in the classics for realism, I am going to break one of my rules and present a composition by a young composer from Iowa. This young man has sent us his latest number, which depicts the onrush of a locomotive." When the WSM hillbilly music came on air, Hay announced, "While there was no room for realism in the classics, the following three hours would be devoted to nothing but realism. In a good-natured jibe at Damorosch, Hay introduced one of the show's most popular performers, Deford Bailey, a black harmonica player who then played the train song 'Pan American Blues'. When the performance was over, the Solemn Old Judge announced, "for the past hour we have been listening to music taken largely from grand opera, but from now on we will present The Grand Ole Opry." So, the legend was born!

Listeners were invited to come to WSM Studio A, at the National Life Building for the live broadcast to play and, or listen and come they did. In fact within two years so many people turned up at the small National Life studio that a new auditorium Studio B soon had to be built to accommodate the overflowing crowds. "We Shield Millions" had rapidly become "We Seat Many". The Opry was moved into a succession of three venues, each larger than the next. The Hillsboro Theatre, the Dixie Tabernacle and then the War Memorial Auditorium were all home to the Opry. A 25-cent admission fee was even charge in hopes of curbing the large crowds, but it was to no avail. The numbers continued to average 3,000 or more and the move to the Ryman Auditorium in 1943 was a welcomed necessity.

Crowd outside the Ryman

The Ryman Auditorium first opened its doors in 1892 as a revival church, a vision of Captain Thomas Ryman. With the coming of the Grand Ole Opry show in 1943, the Ryman found its identity as the Mother Church of Country Music. In 1974, the Opry moved to it's current home the 4,400 seat Grand Ole Opry House, leaving the Ryman vacant. It was not until 20 years later in 1994 that the Ryman was restored to be the national showplace that it is today. Musicians ranging from Roy Acuff to Hank Williams to Trisha Yearwood have performed on the Ryman stage, making it a historical as well as a current day icon for people everywhere. The Opry announced it would return to the historic Ryman Auditorium for limited engagement during the months of January and February. For the past two years the Opry revisited its previous home, performing to sell out crowds and hosting performances by its most celebrated members and special guests.

Over the years a whose who of country artistes have joined the cast of thousands on the Grand Ole Opry stage. The King of the Opry, Roy Acuff first appeared there in 1937 performing his now famous 'Great Speckled Bird'. It wasn't as rousing as he had hoped for, but Acuff was invited back in 1938 and after his performance generated sacks full of mail he was offered a regular spot. Roy is also the only Opry member to have his own dressing room backstage at the Opry. When President Richard Nixon attended the premier performance the new Opry House in March 1974, joining the cast on the world famous stage, Roy Acuff had a little fun teaching Nixon the intricacies of the YoYo.

Graham & Marlene With bronze likeness of 
Roy Acuff & Minnie Pearl in The Ryman Auditorium

The Queen of the Grand Ole Opry was 'Cousin' Minnie Pearl, one of country music's most beloved and prominent hicks. Born Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon, and dressed in her calico dress and flowered straw hat with the famous price tag of $1-99 dangling from it, Minnie Pearl joined the Opry in 1940. Developing her character as the girl from Grinder's Switch who was forever trying to "ketch a feller", she would walk on stage with a loud "Howdee! I'm just so proud to be here." Sadly Minnie Pearl suffered a stroke and passed away in March 1996 a few short months before being inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame. Today a young woman dressed in similar cloths to Minnie Pearl greets and howdies the crowd as they patiently wait outside for the doors of the Grand Ole Opry to open for the evening shows.

As the Grand Ole Opry grew in popularity even Hollywood took notice, and in 1940 Republic Pictures produced The Grand Ole Opry, a full-length feature film starring Judge Hay, Uncle Dave Macon and Roy Acuff along with other members of the Opry cast.

From Ernest Tubb, to Eddie Arnold, to Hank Williams Snr, to Garth Brooks to Reba McEntire, country music stars have at one time or another all played the Grand Ole Opry. Hank Williams made his first appearance in June 1949, being such a great hit that he received an unprecedented six encores after singing 'Lovesick Blues'. Unfortunately Elvis Presley wasn't as lucky. After auditioning, he was told by Opry Manager Jim Denny, to go back to driving trucks, as he would never make an Opry artiste.

Marlene with Ernie & Bettye Ashworth 

Today the Grand Ole Opry is still broadcasted as radio program on Saturday nights. There are two shows on Saturday and one on Friday evening. Both of the Saturday programs are broadcast live with the Friday recorded show slotted in between first house and second house performances. Sponsorship comes from companies such as Coca-Cola, Martha White flour, Physicians Mutual Insurance, Cracker Barrel restaurant chain and many other national and local companies, with the announcements made live right on stage, just as they were in the early days of The Grand Ole Opry. A fine book is on sale at the Opry - "Grand Ole Opry Picture History Book", containing photos of all the current Opry members, plus yesterday's stars.

It is a tradition and an honour for artistes to be asked to join the Opry cast. Many artistes still see

Little Jimmy Dickens with
Marlene & Graham  

the Grand Ole Opry as the home of country music and many of today's country stars such as Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, George Jones, Alan Jackson, Martina McBride, Steve Wariner, Travis Tritt, Charley Pride, are pleased to appear on the Grand Ole Opry stage. Porter Wagoner is still one of the biggest supporters along with Bill Anderson, Little Jimmy Dickens, Jan Howard, Jeannie Seely and Jean Shepard. Other regulars on the Opry stage include John Conlee, The Whites, Jim Ed Brown, Jimmy C. Newman, Mel McDaniel and Ernie Ashworth, remember 'Talk Back Trembling Lips' from 1963…Ernie is still gaining considerable success on Europe's EMS charts at present. In March there was featured An Opry Tribute - The Women In Country featuring Lorrie Morgan, Tammy Cochran, Pam Tillis, Martina McBride and Loretta Lynn which was recorded for CMT who aired the TV program over the following days. The Grand Ole Opry can also be heard on the Internet at www.opry.com on Friday and Saturday nights.

Connie Smith with Marlene

Early 2002 Gaylord Entertainment Company the current owners of the Grand Ole Opry announced that they intended to make WSM an all sports program, therefore after 77 years of broadcasting every week, the Grand Ole Opry as we know it would be drawn to a close. During my time in Nashville recently, several comments were made regarding the negative response received by Gaylord from people all over the world, protesting that the Grand Ole Opry was being taken off air. I understand they received over 10,000 emails protesting about the format change, plus thousands of telephone calls encouraged this multi million-dollar company to change their minds.

While talking to Opry newcomer Brad Paisley early in 2000, he told me "I've played the Grand Ole Opry 25 times in the last 9 months. I'm very very committed to the Opry and I'm there every weekend that I'm off. If I'm at home on a Friday or Saturday I will play the Opry. I never don't play it, unless they are over booked or it is a last minute thing. They have been very wonderful to me and the Opry members have treated me like a son and taken me under their wing. I've become very good friends with Bill Anderson, Little Jimmy Dickens and Porter Wagoner, Del Reeves, Jean Shepard and Jeannie Seely. I think it's because they revere me and see a little of themselves in what I do, because of their influences. Incidentally I cut a Bill Anderson number last week on my new album that we're working on. I take it really serious that I pay homage to those folk."

With this sort of sentiment from the new breed of artistes, hopefully the Grand Ole Opry and WSM will live on for many years to come!