The Grand Ole Opry House, occupied since 1974, succeeded the historic Ryman Auditorium as the sixth home of the long-running country music show The Grand Ole Opry.
Grand Ole Opry House
2804 Opryland Drive
Nashville, TN 37214
Web site: www.grandoleopry.com
The most famous country music show in American history is The Grand Ole Opry. Moreover, inaugurated in 1925, The Grand Ole Opry is the nation’s longest-running live radio show.
Originally called The WSM Barn Dance, The Grand Ole Opry radio show premiered on November 28, 1925, in Nashville. It was the brainchild of George Dewey Hay, program director and announcer for WSM, the radio station of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. Although he had earlier broadcast a similar show over Chicago’s WLS, Hay’s trial run in Nashville, which was not yet synonymous with country music, was hardly a sure thing. Frowning on folk culture, the city prided itself as the capital of the state and the location of several colleges and universities, billing itself alternately the “Paris of the South” and the “Athens of the South”–the city was even home of an exact replica of the Greek Parthenon. It is no wonder, then, that Nashville’s high-brow cultural elite poured out scorn on Barn Dance. Nevertheless, Hay and his employers, who sold policies mainly to working people who appreciated country music, brushed aside criticism and put Barn Dance on the schedule the day after Christmas, 1925.
Hay’s daring paid off. By the 1970’s, the show would be carried by over thirteen hundred stations. From its inception, Barn Dance proved so popular that Hay, who remained with the program in some capacity until 1956, remarked that “we soon had a good-natured riot on our hands” as musicians clamored for a spot on the show. Soon a studio had to be built to satisfy the demand of a public flocking uninvited to the broadcasting booth in the National Life Building to see its favorite performers, fiddle-player Uncle Jimmy Thompson and banjo-player and singer Uncle Dave Macon, the Opry’s most popular performer for a decade. Another early attraction was “The Harmonica Wizard,” Deford Bailey, an African American who performed what he termed black hillbilly music.
Once established as a stage show as well as a radio broadcast, Barn Dance became a carefully contrived rural vaudeville show, mixing humor, dancing, music, and skits. Hay required the cast to dress in stereotypical country garb–overalls, floppy hats, and sometimes even bare feet–setting the precedent for the outlandish costuming that would become an inextricable part of country music acts. Hoe-down bands, too, affecting the demeanor of country bumpkins, gave themselves backwoods names (for example, The Dixie Clod Hoppers, The Gully Jumpers, and The Skillet Lickers) and exchanged corny homespun banter between numbers. Most worked for free until around 1930, when weekly salaries were set at five dollars for beginning acts. After two years on the air, it was also time for a name change. Eclectic in its programming, WSM carried the National Broadcasting Company’s classical music relay. In December, 1927, Hay, who styled himself “the Solemn Old Judge,” gave notice to his listeners that during the previous hour “we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera, but from now on we will present ‘the Grand Ole Opry.’”
During the Great Depression, the three-hour program added new personalities, among them Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, and in 1938 Roy Acuff, a powerful singer of authentic mountain music from East Tennessee and country music’s first real star. The Grand Ole Opry also picked up many new studio audience members and was obliged to move away from the city’s center to a larger venue, the Hillsboro Theater and later the Dixie Tabernacle. With a growing audience came prosperity from an ever-expanding list of advertisers, and in 1939, the show moved back downtown to the War Memorial Auditorium. Attempting to keep audience numbers manageable, Hay began charging admission: twenty-five cents, which failed to deter ticket-seekers. The audience continued to grow not only in Nashville but also among nationwide radio listeners when the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) picked up a thirty-minute block. In 1943, the network provided a feed of The Grand Ole Opry to 125 stations.
When World War II began in December, 1941, the Opry cast members toured military bases as the Grand Ole Opry Camel Caravan. Its members included comedian Minnie Pearl, whose drawn-out hillbilly greeting “How-dy!,” hayseed attire, and price tag dangling from her hat perfectly disguised the well-educated, sophisticated woman she actually was offstage. Another of the Caravan’s attractions was the courtly Eddy Arnold, who, like Jim Reeves after him, made few concessions to phony rusticity and crooned in the silken manner of pop singers Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
Meanwhile, in 1943, the Opry was once again finding its location too confining and moved into its fifth and most-famous home, the Ryman Auditorium, where it would remain for the next thirty-one years. Completed in 1899 by Tom Ryman and originally called the Union Gospel Tabernacle, the Ryman looked like a church and was meant to be a permanent site for religious revival services. It had been built for over a staggering $100,000, however, and to meet the mortgage, Ryman reluctantly agreed to hire out the structure for secular entertainments. In 1901, Lula Naff took on the chore of stirring up business, thus beginning a remarkable era in which the auditorium hosted many of the most famous names in classical music, film, and politics in the first half of the twentieth century. Tom Ryman would have been appalled to know that in later years parched Opry-goers would leave the performance by the side door, cross the ally, and duck into the rear entrance of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, one of Nashville’s most colorful watering holes.
As most of its performances sold out, the Opry would need all the Ryman’s 3,755 seats. During the warmer months, disappointed patrons who had futilely waited hours in line to buy tickets jostled one another for places outside the open windows. Inside, the lucky ticket-holders crowded together on wooden church pews, fanned themselves in the sweltering hall, passed notes to performers, and stood near the stage with cameras in hand on the chance that an obliging star might pause for a picture. Jammed with milling stagehands, technicians, musicians, and announcers, the stage could be chaotic and cacophonous. The good-natured riot lived on.
The Opry was more than a popular radio show and a profitable business. Just as Ryman Auditorium became known as the Mother Church of Country Music, Opry membership became the union card of country music stardom, the necessary endorsement for virtually all successful country music performers. After World War II, country music’s popularity grew dramatically with the infusion of innovative young musicians launched to stardom after Ryman appearances. Membership in the Opry ballooned to over 120 in the early 1950’s, and with this expansion of its cast came an expanding vision of what necessarily constituted “country music.” Hank Williams was arguably the greatest and certainly the most influential of the new breed of singer-songwriters of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. A white blues singer of prodigious talent, Williams first appeared at the Opry in 1949 promoting his hit song “Lovesick Blues.” With his untimely death in 1953 at age twenty-nine, he became the patron saint of country music and was thereafter widely venerated and imitated. To the growing mix of country styles, Ernest Tubb added honky-tonk, Marty Robbins western sophistication, and Chet Atkins virtuoso solo guitar. Gospel music had always been featured at the Opry, but no group ever sang it better than the Jordanaires, who recorded and toured with Elvis Presley, a brilliant rock-a-billy singer and visitor to the Opry stage in September, 1954. (Afterward, an Opry official told him his future lay in truck driving rather than singing.)
Because of country music’s financial success, Nashville in the 1950’s embraced the Opry. Recording studios, publishers, and agents congregated between Vanderbilt University and downtown in an area known as “Music Row,” and soon the “Paris of the South” was nicknamed “Music City,” country music’s hometown. With success, however, came the temptations of complacency and unconscious self-parody. In the late 1960’s, country music was ill-prepared for the seismic shift in American popular culture that threatened to shake down the entire edifice of country music, the Opry included. In the era of rock and roll and social protest, avaricious promoters and self-satisfied performers appeared at best irrelevant, at worst reactionary. Fortunately, singers from outside country, like Bob Dylan and the Byrds, created a hybrid called country rock, converting a new generation of young fans. Adding considerably to country’s rehabilitation in 1972, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, in conjunction with old-time country singers and instrumentalists, paid tribute to the Opry with an acclaimed triple-record album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The album’s first number, “The Grand Old Opry Song,” was a blazing three-minute tribute to forty-seven years of Opry history.
At the moment of country music’s renaissance, the long-standing need for a large and comfortable home for the Opry became pressing. The venerable Ryman Auditorium was greatly loved, but its declining surroundings in downtown Nashville had become unsavory and sometimes unsafe by the early 1970’s. Moreover, the Ryman itself remained as cramped and stifling as always just when the demand for tickets far exceeded its capacity. The Opry’s manager, E. W. Wendell, prodded the National Life and Accident Insurance Company to move the show to a new facility. Consequently, March 15, 1974, marked the Opry’s valedictory performance at the Ryman Auditorium. Tourists still went on pilgrimage to the auditorium for nearly two decades until its owner, the Gaylord Entertainment Company, spent over eight million dollars to restore the shrine in 1994. In January, 2000, the Opry returned to the Ryman for four celebratory, worshipful performances.
The Opry’s new home in the Pennington Bend of the Cumberland River northeast of Nashville was not just a music hall but a 442-acre conglomerate called Opryland USA, comprising an amusement park, gift shops, a golf course, the General Jackson riverboat, a museum, and a three-thousand room hotel and convention center, in addition to the auditorium. (In 2000, the amusement park would be replaced by a 1.2 million-square-foot mall called Opry Mills as a result of declining attendance.) Although lacking the nostalgic charm of the Ryman Auditorium, the air-conditioned and acoustically remarkable Grand Ole Opry House accommodated 4,400 ticket-holders in plush seats and treated them to a show enhanced by the finest sound and light system available. On opening night in 1974, President Richard Nixon pounded out “God Bless America” on the piano to initiate a new day in the Opry’s history.
In the last quarter of the twentieth century, The Grand Ole Opry changed along with the nation and took country music into diverse and promising directions. One of its most popular artists in the 1970’s was Charlie Pride, an African American, and over the next three decades a legion of its best-selling musicians were women building on the pioneering work of Maybelle Carter in the 1930’s, Kitty Wells in the 1940’s, and Patsy Cline in the 1950’s. Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, and many more women took country music into a new millennium.
Bedwell, Randall, ed. Unbroken Circle: A Quotable History of the Grand Ole Opry. Nashville: Cumberland House, 1999. Delightful anecdotes and quotations from Opry stars and others describing events and personalities from the show’s past. Douglas, Susan. Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination. New York: Random House, 1999. Argues for the influence of radio in the formation of the American national identity. Doyle, Don H. Nashville Since the 1920’s. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985. First-rate history of Nashville in the period of the Opry’s birth and maturity. Hagan, Chet. Grand Ole Opry: The Complete Story of a Great American Institution. New York: Henry Holt, 1989. The story of the Opry from its founding to the late 1980’s. Over one hundred impressive photographs. Kingsbury, Paul. Grand Ole Opry. New York: Random House, 1995. Narrative history of the Opry carrying the story into the 1990’s. Wolfe, Charles. A Good Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry. Nashville: Vanderbilt University and the Country Music Foundation Press, 1999. Detailed and definitive study of the Opry’s origins and quest to gain a national audience in the 1930’s.