The Grand Ole Opry started out as the WSM Barn Dance in the new fifth-floor radio station 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. Hay, an enterprising pioneer from the National Barn Dance program at WLS Radio in Chicago, who was also named the most popular radio announcer in America as a result of his radio work with both WLS in Chicago and WMC in Memphis. 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 featured 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, Fiddling Arthur Smith, and the Gully Jumpers.
However, 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 the "Barn Dance", with the Crook Brothers being the first. And, 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. The name Grand Ole Opry came about on December 10, 1927. The Barn Dance followed NBC Radio Network's Music Appreciation Hour, which consisted of classical music and selections from grand opera. Their final piece that night featured a musical interpretation of an onrushing railroad locomotive. In response to this Judge Hay quipped, "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'." He then introduced the man he dubbed the Harmonica Wizard — DeFord Bailey who played his classic train song "The Pan American Blues". After Bailey's performance Hay commented, "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.'" The name stuck and has been used for the program since then.
As audiences to 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 of no audiences, National Life decided to allow the Opry to move outside its home offices. The Opry moved, in October, 1934, into then-suburban Hillsboro Theatre (now the Belcourt), 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 twenty-five cent admission began to be charged, in part an effort to curb the large crowds, but to no avail. On June 5, 1943, the Opry moved to the Ryman Auditorium.
Top-charting country music acts performed there during the Ryman years, including Roy Acuff, called the King of Country Music, and also Red Foley, Hank Williams Sr, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Martha Carson, Lefty Frizzell, and so many others.
The Opry was nationally broadcast by the NBC Radio Network from 1944 to 1956; for much of its run, it aired one hour after the program that had inspired it, National Barn Dance. From October 1955 to September 1956, ABC-V aired an 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.
On October 2, 1954, a teenage Elvis Presley made his first (and only) performance there. Although the public reacted politely to his revolutionary brand of rockabilly msic, after the show he was told by one of the organizers (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 1990s Garth Brooks was made an 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 1960s, as the hippie counterculture movement built, the Opry maintained a straight-laced, conservative image; "longhairs" were almost never featured on the show. The Byrds were a notable exception. Gram Parsons, one of the pioneers of the country rock genre, had worked with The Byrds on a country album and was allowed to perform with the band at the Ryman in March 1968. Audience response was muted.
The Ryman was home to the Opry until March 16, 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. While the theme park was closed in 1997 to be replaced by the Opry Mills mall, the Opry House itself was left intact and reincorporated into the new facility.
PBS televised the program live from 1978 to 1981. In 1985, The Nashville Network began airing a half-hour version of the program as Grand Ole Opry Live; the show moved to Country Music Television in 2001 (expanding to an hour in the process), then to Great American Country in 2003.
Today, the Opry currently plays several times a week at the Grand Ole Opry House except for an annual winter run at the Ryman Auditorium.
Impact and economics
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. Being made a member of the Grand Ole Opry, country music's longest, most endurable "Hall of Fame" is to be identified as a member of the most elite of country music. Many linked the stripping of Hank Williams' Opry membership in 1952 to his death soon afterward. His grandson, Hank Williams III is heavily fighting this, with his Reinstate Hank campaign.
The Opry's status as an elite fraternity of country music performers has created confusion about its lasting membership, particularly the controversy surrounding Hank Williams' untimely death. 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 Hank Williams III.
In the mid-1960s management decided to enforce strictly the requirement that members had to perform on at least twenty-six shows a year in order to keep their membership active. This imposed a tremendous financial hardship on members who made much of their income from touring and could not afford to be in or near Nashville every other weekend. This was aggravated by the fact that the Opry's appearance fee paid to the artist was essentially a token ($44 at the time). This requirement has been 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 generally little used. Electric amplification, then new, was regarded as the province of popular music and jazz in 1940s. Though the Opry allowed electric guitars and steel guitars by World War II, the no-drums/horns restrictions continued. They caused a conflict in 1944 when Bob Wills 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.
Management has been very conscious of the need to enforce its trademark on the term Grand Ole Opry and limit use to members of the Opry and products associated with or licensed by it. However, it lost a legal case against the owners of a small, now-defunct Nashville record label calling itself Opry Records. 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, and no more owned the word Opry in isolation than they owned Grand or Ole. It has also allowed a plethora of small-time country music shows to label themselves as Oprys of one sort or another, such as the Bell Witch Opry; Carolina Opry; Ozark Opry, Current River Opry, Kentucky Opry, etc. (Much the same thing happened when the Coca-Cola company failed to trademark the term "cola.") The Grand Ole Opry has no association with any other Opry establishment.
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