WSM Launches

With the start of its barn dance show, soon to be known as The Grand Ole Opry, radio station WSM brought country music to millions and helped to build Nashville into a major recording center.

Summary of Event

On November 28, 1925, WSM, a Nashville, Tennessee, radio station that was barely a month old, launched a music show that would help to revolutionize American tastes, mold a huge industry, and stimulate a sleepy southern city to become a national center for the recording of popular music. WSM had hired nationally famous radio announcer George D. Hay as program director; Hay had been successful on radio in Memphis and with WLS-Chicago’s The National Barn Dance
National Barn Dance, The (radio program) old-time music program, which had been inaugurated in 1924. Lured to Nashville, Hay wanted to set up a show similar to the one at WLS so that WSM, broadcast throughout the South, could tap the region’s rich tradition of folk song. [kw]WSM Launches The Grand Ole Opry (Nov. 28, 1925)
[kw]Grand Ole Opry, WSM Launches The (Nov. 28, 1925)
[kw]Opry, WSM Launches The Grand Ole (Nov. 28, 1925)
Grand Ole Opry, The (radio program)
WSM (radio station)
Country music
Radio programs;The Grand Ole Opry[Grand Ole Opry]
[g]United States;Nov. 28, 1925: WSM Launches The Grand Ole Opry[06560]
[c]Music;Nov. 28, 1925: WSM Launches The Grand Ole Opry[06560]
[c]Entertainment;Nov. 28, 1925: WSM Launches The Grand Ole Opry[06560]
[c]Radio and television;Nov. 28, 1925: WSM Launches The Grand Ole Opry[06560]
Hay, George D.
Thompson, Uncle Jimmy
Macon, Uncle Dave
Acuff, Roy

Hay did not have to look far for talent for that first night. The Nashville region was rich in performers of old-time and folk music: Folk music;American fiddlers, banjo players, harmonica players, and an assortment of string bands made up of part-time musicians eager to be heard over the airwaves, although they were paid nothing. Hay seized on a seventy-seven-year-old champion fiddler named Uncle Jimmy Thompson. After setting Thompson down before a single microphone, Hay let him play some of the hundreds of tunes he knew for two hours. The response was swift; phone calls and telegrams poured in, and Uncle Jimmy was back the next week.

By December, Hay had decided to expand the program with more old-time and folk musicians. The National Barn Dance had already been successful with this kind of music, although it favored some pop music in the mix. Other radio stations, such as WSB in Atlanta, had experimented with broadcasting old-time tunes and had succeeded. Old-time music—also to be called “hillbilly” and, later, “country” music—had first drawn the attention of recording company executives in 1923 and now was selling well in rural areas. New radio stations (the first had opened only in 1920) were eager to give their audiences what they liked.

Although Hay wanted to develop a full-scale show with all kinds of performers, many executives at WSM remained skeptical. The National Life and Accident Insurance Company, which owned the station, had sophisticated leaders who largely did not know this kind of music, and an insurance company putting down roots in the “Athens of the South” could hardly afford to appear too backwoodsy. After all, Nashville had an upper class that was proud of the city’s historic origins and of its many schools, colleges, churches, and financial institutions. Indeed, even late into the twentieth century, the city’s social and cultural leaders remained aloof from, and often disdainful of, its most famous product—country music.

Hay persisted, however, and the response continued to grow. People even came to the studio, in the fifth floor of the majestic stone building that housed National Life, to gaze at the performers through the broadcast booth’s window. Nothing succeeds like success; even the skeptics reconsidered. By 1928, National Life decided that by offering low-cost insurance policies to the rural poor and by having its salesmen introduce themselves as from the station that broadcast The Grand Ole Opry, they had a gold mine.

In 1925 and 1926, however, Hay still had a long way to go before the show would achieve an identity and workable format. By early 1926, with the program still known as The WSM Barn Dance, Hay started to add the variety of performers with which The National Barn Dance had succeeded. The talent was easy to find locally. Next to Uncle Jimmy Thompson in popularity were Uncle Dave Macon and the harmonica player DeFord Bailey. Bailey, DeFord Although Thompson died in 1931, Bailey stayed on until the late 1930’s, and Macon remained a favorite until his death in 1952.

Hay started to format the show into fifteen- and thirty-minute segments, and it was expanded from two hours to three and, eventually, four hours each Saturday night. The curious who flocked to the building were soon better accommodated in a larger studio. Soon the show would have to respond to the crowds by moving to several theaters in Nashville, where the program would be done as a remote broadcast. The show moved to its most famous home, the downtown Ryman Auditorium, around 1941. There it generally hosted crowds of several thousand until its move to Opryland in 1974.

In 1927, the station hooked up with the new National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company (NBC) radio network. On Saturday nights immediately before the barn dance show, WSM carried a program of classical and grand opera music from New York. On one such Saturday, Hay got a bright idea for a catchy name for the barn dance. As the listeners had just heard an hour of grand opera music, now they could hear music of the “Grand Ole Opry.” The name stuck.

In the early years and on into the 1930’s, The National Barn Dance from Chicago dominated among radio’s barn dance formats. Starting in 1924, it held the edge until the late 1930’s, when The Grand Ole Opry caught and surpassed it. Several explanations for the Opry’s eventual leadership have been suggested. Certainly, Hay’s ability to spot talent in a region rich in it was one factor in the show’s success. Chicago did not have so rich a talent pool of folk musicians in the area; in addition, The National Barn Dance tended to mix more pop music into its format than the Opry did. Yet with stars such as Gene Autry, The National Barn Dance gave the Opry stiff competition in the early 1930’s.


During the Great Depression, The Grand Ole Opry changed from its initial studio-bound format to a combination radio and live-audience entertainment variety show. Show business values began to alter things. Hay costumed his performers for visual excitement; pseudorustic wear became a norm. Rustic comedians were added to provide visual humor suited to the crowds in attendance. An artists’ bureau was instituted to help Opry acts tour the region and to travel into other regions where the clear-channel WSM could reach. WSM expanded from 1,000 to 50,000 watts in 1932, giving it an enormous reach across most of the country.

The greatest change in the Opry’s direction, however, was the shift to a singing star system. Roy Acuff’s arrival as a member of the Opry cast in 1938 signaled the change dramatically. With his intense and piercing East Tennessee mountain voice, Acuff quickly took over as the Opry’s greatest favorite. His repertoire of love songs, old ballads, and hymns was delivered with great emotion and sincerity. Still performing on the Opry as he neared ninety, Acuff became known as the “king of country music.” He was joined in 1939 by another seminal figure, Bill Monroe Monroe, Bill from Kentucky. Monroe also sang with great intensity and, like Acuff, wrote songs and arranged old folk songs. In addition, he was an accomplished mandolin player, and he developed a style of hard-driven string-band music later to be called bluegrass. With bands such as Pee Wee King’s western-flavored group also added to the Opry, a new era opened.

By the time of World War II, recordings began to dominate musical performers’ careers. Nashville became a recording and publishing center in its own right, in large part because of The Grand Ole Opry’s contingent of singers, musicians, and support personnel. In the late 1940’s and into the 1950’s, Nashville became the center of the growing country music industry.

With the arrival of Texan Ernest Tubb Tubb, Ernest on the Opry in 1943, another historic shift occurred. Tubb became the leading exponent of “honky-tonk,” or hard country, music. Songs of failed love and marriages, adultery, divorce, and hard times soon became the norm for country music. Tubb’s use of an electric lead guitar in his band—and his later use of a steel guitar with prominent string bass and drums—set the pattern for modern country music.

When Hank Williams Williams, Hank joined the Opry in 1949, the show in a sense reached its artistic peak. This enormously talented singer and songwriter was a member of the Opry only until late 1952, and he died at the age of thirty in January, 1953, but his legacy of songs still haunts country music. No one has ever rivaled his intense style, inspired by Acuff and Tubb but influenced by his rural roots in the pinewoods of south Alabama.

After Williams’s death, the Opry took on honky-tonk singers who began to put the older styles in the shadows. Rock and roll offered a threat, too. By the early 1960’s, the Opry started to feel the pinch, and audiences declined. With the new interstates and touring buses, stars could make more money touring than by playing the Opry, with its minimum pay scale and its rule that performers appear twenty-six Saturday nights in a year. Those performers who could succeed on the basis of record sales, concert dates, and syndicated country shows on television either quit the Opry after a short membership or found they could bypass it entirely.

New female superstars such as Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton were members of the Opry cast for a time in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but the field had grown so large and diverse that the Opry simply ceased being the “only show in town.” Furthermore, the recording studios in Nashville met the challenge of rock and roll by developing the “Nashville sound,” which reached out toward pop music audiences with smooth choral and string arrangements and by eschewing fiddles and steel guitars. It was a manufactured sound, and the Opry as a live show could hardly duplicate it. The Opry had to move from the increasingly archaic Ryman to more modern and technically sophisticated quarters.

In 1974, the program moved to the Opryland complex twenty miles outside downtown Nashville. The new Opry House, which seats 4,400, was a marvel of modern entertainment technology, and its location on the same site as the Opryland theme park gave the show access to tourists who might have avoided the old downtown location of the show, which was in an increasingly seedy area of Nashville. In one sense, the Opry had indeed gone “uptown” to the suburbs.

It took a while for it all to come together, but in the 1980’s The Grand Ole Opry witnessed a rebirth. Young, fresh performers, male and female, managed by the early 1990’s to put country music on the popular music charts in an unprecedented way. The Opry was quick to make many of these singers cast members.

Perhaps just as significant in the revitalization of the Opry was the formation of The Nashville Network (TNN) cable television operation in 1983. Located on the grounds of Opryland, the network began broadcasting half an hour of the Saturday night Opry show live and featured Opry stars on its other live shows. TNN and the Opry showcased live country music through various channels of communication, including the Internet and the always-popular radio vehicles, until TNN’s corporate owner changed the network’s programming and its name in the early 2000’s. Grand Ole Opry, The (radio program)
WSM (radio station)
Country music
Radio programs;The Grand Ole Opry[Grand Ole Opry]

Further Reading

  • Daniel, Wayne W. Pickin’ on Peachtree: A History of Country Music in Atlanta, Georgia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990. A good introduction to country radio and its relation to local talent and tradition.
  • Evans, James F. Prairie Farmer and WLS: The Burridge D. Butler Years. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1969. Study of the context for barn dance shows explains well the commercial and business aspects of these programs. Includes discussion of The National Barn Dance as well as of its different focus in comparison with The Grand Ole Opry.
  • Hagan, Chet. Grand Ole Opry. New York: Henry Holt, 1989. A full history of the show, generously illustrated with informative captions.
  • Malone, Bill C. Country Music, U.S.A. 2d rev. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. Excellent history puts the barn dance shows in context succinctly and accurately. Includes a few illustrations, bibliography, and indexes.
  • Malone, Bill C., and Judith McCulloh, eds. Stars of Country Music. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975. Collection of essays on early country music pioneers includes discussion of several key members of the Opry cast. Features individual chapter bibliographies and index.
  • Wolfe, Charles K. A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of “The Grand Ole Opry.” Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1999. Comprehensive history covers all the program’s ups and downs and offers interesting portraits of many cast members. Includes many photographs, discography, and index.

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