Grand Ole Opry

views updated May 18 2018

Grand Ole Opry

The longest-running radio show in broadcasting history, the Grand Ole Opry has long been the symbolic center of country music. It represents the pinnacle of success for performing artists, for whom the Grand Ole Opry is the country music equivalent of playing Carnegie Hall. The Opry is, however, much more than simply a prestige performance venue. Since its inception in 1925, it has brought country music to listeners all across the United States, helping to transform the genre from a regional musical form to a national one. For its rural listeners, spread out across the vast stretches of open space, the Opry became part of the common bond that united rural folk across the country, not only providing musical entertainment, but also creating a cultural home for its many thousands of rural listeners.

In the early 1920s, radio was still a new means of communication. As its commercial potential grew, certain radio stations began to broadcast programs with special appeal to rural listeners. In 1925, George D. Hay, formerly an announcer at WLS in Chicago, which featured a country music program called The National Barn Dance, took a job as station director at the new WSM radio station in Nashville, Tennessee. Hay's first program was the WSM Barn Dance, a copy of the WLS show in Chicago which featured just two performers, 77-year old fiddle player Uncle Jimmy Thompson and his niece, pianist Eva Thompson Jones. The hour-long show consisted of nothing more than fiddle tunes with piano accompaniment, but the show drew such a favorable response that the format was continued for several weeks. Soon, however, the roster and the repertoire broadened, as other local musicians, including banjo and guitar players, came to perform on the show. Most were amateurs and none were paid. The image of Barn Dance as a rural program was important, and Hay made sure his performers kept things "down to earth."

The show's success continued, and in 1927 George D. Hay changed the name of the show to the Grand Ole Opry. The name "Opry" was an intentional jibe at the world of classical music, often perceived as pretentious, and the Grand Ole Opry followed NBC's national Musical Appreciation Hour, a show devoted to classical music and opera. Hay announced one evening that although listeners had spent the last hour hearing grand opera, he would now present what he called the "Grand Ole Opry." The name proved popular, and it became the official name of the show that year. Hay, who called himself the "Solemn Old Judge," opened the show every Saturday night with the words "Let her go, boys." And off they went. Among the early popular favorites were banjo player and singer Uncle Dave Macon, African-American harmonica player Deford Bailey (the only African-American performer until Charley Pride in the mid-1960s), and Dr. Humphrey Bate, who hosted one of the many string bands featured on the early Opry. As the show grew in popularity, the station's power grew as well. By the early 1930s, the station's signal could reach 30 states and parts of Canada.

In the 1930s, the emphasis of the Grand Ole Opry shifted away from its rough rural edge and moved more in the direction of modern country music. The Opry had proved that country music had a wide appeal, and the potential of that appeal to turn profits for country musicians and for the corporate sponsors of radio programs like the Opry, moved the show in a new direction—toward the creation and marketing of country music "stars." In 1928, Harry Stone joined WSM as an announcer and quickly assumed supervisory duties, replacing George Hay who was relegated to announcing duties on the Grand Ole Opry. With his brother David Stone, and stage manager Vito Pellettieri, Harry Stone furthered the commercial potential of the Opry. In 1934 Pellettieri began dividing the show into sponsored segments as a way of increasing revenue. Commercial sponsorship of the Grand Ole Opry was still very inexpensive in the mid-1930s; a 15-minute segment cost a sponsor only $100. Promoting new star talent, however, was where the real money could be made. Stone moved the Opry away from the amateur string band sound favored during the 1920s, and began promoting new individual stars such as singer Roy Acuff. Stone also managed WSM's Artist Service, which booked Opry stars for personal appearances within the territory reached by WSM's radio signal. Stone used the Opry as an avenue to promote individual stars, whose personal appearances could make good money, of which the Opry got a cut as manager. Performers were paid very little for their appearances on the show, but the exposure was invaluable in providing opportunities for stardom, while ensuring that the artists made a living from concert appearances.

This star system, very much akin to the system used to promote Hollywood movie stars at the time, brought new talent to the Opry in the 1930s and 1940s. Notable among them were the Delmore Brothers, Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, Pee Wee King, Ernest Tubb, Minnie Pearl, Bill Monroe, and others, all of whom were among the biggest names in country music. The biggest newcomer to the Opry in the 1930s was Roy Acuff, who joined it in 1938. Acuff had worked earlier in his life as a musician with a traveling medicine show. He recorded his first songs in 1936, and had an early hit with "The Great Speckled Bird." With his band the Tennessee Crackerjacks (later renamed the Crazy Tennesseans and, later still, the Smoky Mountain Boys), Acuff soon became the leading performer on the Grand Ole Opry. At a time when cowboy music was sweeping country music, Acuff managed to prosper under the Opry's new star system, while still keeping close ties to his own southern rural roots, which he had in common with his listeners. Those rural roots were also kept alive by the emerging bluegrass sound of Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, who were developing a new, hard-driving, string-band sound that combined virtuoso musicianship with close harmony vocals. Among the Opry's biggest female stars in the 1940s and beyond was Minnie Pearl, one of country music's greatest comediennes, known for her flower hats with the price tag attached, her high-pitched "Howdeee!" greeting, and her routines that lovingly chronicled rural life. In the late 1940s, one of country music's biggest stars, Hank Williams, became an Opry regular, thrilling audiences with his honky-tonk sound until his unreliable appearance schedule led to his dismissal in 1952, followed shortly thereafter by his death in 1953.

The Opry continued to grow during these years, playing to a continually expanding audience. In October 1939, the Opry went national when a half-hour of the show was featured on NBC's national Saturday night line-up. This was known as the Prince Albert Show, sponsored by Prince Albert Tobacco. The Opry was also the subject of a motion picture in 1940, called simply Grand Ole Opry, and featuring Uncle Dave Macon, Roy Acuff, George Hay, and others. In 1943, the show moved its location to Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium in order to accommodate the increased demand among fans to attend the live performances. In 1948, the Opry expanded to include a spin-off show on Friday nights on WSM called Friday Night Frolics.

During the 1950s, the Opry's sound moved further and further away from its rural origins. New Opry managers Jim Denny and Jack Stapp attempted to modernize the show, and although old-timers like Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, and Hank Snow still made appearances, often hosting their own segments, the Opry continued to use its star system approach, promoting younger stars to add to the roster of older, established stars. The Opry in the 1950s remained a crucial stepping stone for country talent, hosting such emerging stars as George Jones, Johnny Cash, Webb Pierce, Stonewall Jackson, Little Jimmy Dickens, Porter Wagoner, and others. These trends continued in the 1960s, a decade that saw the emergence of Loretta Lynn, Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, and Dolly Parton.

By the late 1960s, however, even though the Grand Ole Opry remained a prestige performance venue for country musicians, it no longer had the same star-making power. This was a reflection of the declining influence of Nashville, brought about by the realization that it was not the nation's sole preserve of country music. In the 1960s, California country artists such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard had demonstrated that country music talent could come from anywhere, and often with a more authentic sound than the more commercial country-pop Nashville had been offering since the late 1950s. Other factors also reduced the Opry's influence. It refused to acknowledge the growing popularity of rockabilly and rock 'n' roll music in the 1950s, both of which had country influences, and as a result the show lost a portion of its younger audience. Also, early in the 1960s, the Opry lost two major stars with the deaths of Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves. Matters were not made any easier by the fact that the Opry paid its performers poorly. Contracts with musicians stipulated a certain number of appearances each year, but the high number of appearances at union scale wages made touring for some of the stars difficult. Consequently, staying close to Nashville in order to fulfill their contractual obligations cut into their income potential from concert performances.

In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the Opry largely redefined itself as a repository for country music's historic traditions. The show moved out of the Ryman Auditorium in 1974 and into more modern and spacious accommodations in the new Opryland amusement park outside Nashville. There, it continued to draw huge crowds each week, an indication that many were hungry for a taste of this country past. By the end of the 1990s, the Opry was still a prestige venue for both established and up-and-coming stars. The relaxation of contractual obligations, put in place by Opry manager Hal Durham during the 1970s and 1980s, allowed such younger stars as Clint Black, Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Alison Krauss, and Garth Brooks, among others, to make occasional appearances on the show without cutting too heavily into their concert schedules. Despite the rarity of appearances by country stars of this stature, and the fact that the Opry has become home more regularly to older or lesser stars who are no longer making hit records, the Grand Ole Opry remains one of the greatest of country music traditions. Most importantly, it has preserved the old-time radio show format that began entertaining country music audiences back in the 1920s.

—Timothy Berg

Further Reading:

Hagan, Chet. Grand Ole Opry. New York, Owl Books, 1989.

Malone, Bill C. Country Music U.S.A.: A Fifty Year History. Austin American Folklore Society, University of Texas Press, 1968.

Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon. Country Music: The Encyclopedia. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Grand Ole Opry

views updated May 21 2018

Grand Ole Opry

The longest-running radio (see entry under 1920s—TV and Radio in volume 2) show in broadcasting history, the Grand Ole Opry has long been the symbolic heart of country music (see entry under 1940s—Music in volume 3). For a long time, it represented the pinnacle of success in country music; musicians who were invited to play on the Grand Ole Opry radio show knew they were on their way to becoming stars. The Opry was important to country musicians, but it played an even more important role in American cultural life by bringing country music to a national audience.

In 1925, George D. Hay (1895–1968) began a show called the WSM Barn Dance in Nashville, Tennessee. The show featured local folk musicians. In 1927, Hay changed the name of the show to the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry was to be serious music for ordinary country people, just like opera was for the rich. Every Saturday night, Hay began the show by saying, "Let her go, boys," and off they went. As the show grew in popularity during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, it featured some of the biggest names in country music, including Roy Acuff (1903–1992), Bill Monroe (1911–1996), Eddy Arnold (1918–), Hank Williams (1923–1953), George Jones (1931–), Johnny Cash (1932–), Patsy Cline (1932–1963), Loretta Lynn (1934–), and many, many others. Performers were paid very little, but they played for national exposure and the honor of being on the Opry.

The Opry truly made country music into a national phenomenon. Because the Opry's radio signal could reach far from Nashville, even as far north as Canada, country music, which before the Opry was largely a musical style from the southern United States, now reached people well beyond the south. As a result, country music became popular across the United States. Although the influence of the Grand Ole Opry diminished over the years as performers found concerts and regular radio a better way to attract fans, the show still stands as one of the most powerful forces in the history of American popular music.

—Timothy Berg

For More Information

Hagan, Chet. Grand Ole Opry. New York: Owl Books, 1989.

The Official Website of the Grand Ole Opry. (accessed January 23, 2002).

Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon. Country Music: The Encyclopedia. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Wolfe, Charles K. A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry. Nashville: Country Music Foundation and Vanderbilt University Press, 1999.

Grand Ole Opry

views updated May 18 2018


GRAND OLE OPRY began in Nashville, Tennessee, in November 1925 as weekly radio broadcasts playing old time, or hillbilly (later called country and western), music from the fifth floor of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company building. Founded by George Dewey Hay, known on air as "the Solemn Ol' Judge," who had helped organize a similar program in Chicago, the program was originally called the WSM ("We Shield Millions") Barn Dance and became the enduring Grand Ole Opry in 1928. The show thrived during the radio era of the 1920s and grew with the emerging recording industry and the advent of television. The popularity and expanded exposure of Opry performers gave birth to live tours and Opry films. Many bluegrass and country and western performers were launched or promoted by the Opry, including Hank Williams Sr., the Carter Family, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and the comedienne Minnie Pearl. One of the most enduring Opry careers was that of Roy Acuff, who was with the Opry from the 1930s until his death in 1992. In 1943, the Opry, after moving to successively larger venues, became a live stage show at the Ryman Theater Auditorium in Nashville. It remained there until 1974, when it moved to the 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House at Opryland Amusement Park, an entertainment center on the outskirts of Nashville.


Dawidoff, Nicholas. In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Malone, Bill C. Country Music U.S.A. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985

Deirdre Sheets

See also Music: Bluegrass ; Music: Country and Western .