Country Music's Most Famous Stage
Roy Acuff (center) and Pap Wilson (left) with Bashful Brother Oswald on the Grand Ole Opry, early 1940s. Photo courtesy of the Grand Ole Opry Archives
On November 28, 1925, a fiddler named Uncle Jimmy Thompson was the first performer on a little radio show broadcast out of Nashville called the Barn Dance. Two years later, that radio show was re-named something a bit more familiar: the Grand Ole Opry, which is credited for single-handedly putting country music on the map. Although the Grand Ole Opry is still broadcast weekly on the same frequency as in days past, its influence long ago surpassed the radio airwaves. It was a driving force behind Nashville’s country music industry, and helped this Tennessee town earn its reputation as “Music City.” Today, it is the city’s number one attraction, and visitors can take in weekly live stage shows, tour backstage, or explore the Ryman Auditorium, the “mother church of country music” that housed the Opry radio show from 1943 to 1974. Not a fan of radio? Now you can access the show on cable television and the Internet.
To play on the Opry’s stage is still considered the ultimate badge of honor in country music. Over the years, the show’s roster has included every country star from Hank Williams and Patsy Cline to Trisha Yearwood, Johnny Cash, and Brad Paisley. Many of these performers cannot be easily contained within the realm of country music: like the Grand Ole Opry itself, they are better defined simply as American icons. To learn more about the history and influence about the Opry, the NEA spoke with Grand Ole Opry Museum Curator Brenda Colladay, whose incredible knowledge of both the Opry and country music was enough to knock your boots off.
NEA: Let’s go back to the beginning: how did the Grand Ole Opry begin?
BRENDA COLLADAY: All over the country, companies were starting radio stations to promote their own products and services. There was a Nashville-based insurance company called National Life and Accident Insurance Company. One of the young executives, whose father was a chief executive---his name was Edwin Craig---he was kind of…he would be like a tech geek of his day. He was really into radio, building his own sets. Back then, the big deal with radio was you tried to tune in broadcasts from as far away as you could and get long distance broadcasts. So he was an early radio pioneer in Nashville. He talked his father and the rest of the board at National Life and Accident Insurance Company into including a radio station as a part of their new downtown headquarters that they were planning on opening in 1925. So they built the radio station really planning to use it for public service, and to advertise their insurance product. They hired a personality from Chicago at WLS who had started a barn dance-themed show there. His name was George D. Hay, and he had been voted America’s favorite radio personality the year before. So they hired him away from WLS, and he came to Nashville and he’s the one who started featuring country music. He had featured old-timey country, folk, rural---whatever you want to call it---in Chicago, and he started doing the same thing in Nashville. The Grand Ole Opry ended up becoming bigger than all the other, smaller barn dance- or country-themed radio shows that were popping up. A lot of it had to do with the fact that National Life and Accident Insurance Company, when they started the radio station, they made a commitment to make it the best that it could be. They spent a lot of money improving the equipment, and getting a bigger broadcast range. In 1928, they became a clear-channel station, which meant that they were only ones who could broadcast at a certain frequency. In 1932, they went to 50,000 watts which would then blanket America and beyond. So basically anywhere you were you could pick up the Grand Ole Opry.
NEA: Something I was wondering about is whether the Grand Ole Opry was started in Nashville because that’s where country music was being played, or whether Nashville became a haven for country music because that’s where the Grand Ole Opry began.
COLLADAY: The Grand Ole Opry and WSM Radio are directly responsible for the country music industry becoming centered in Nashville. There was no country music industry anywhere when WSM started. Country music had really just begun to be recorded out in the field. People from the record companies in New York and based in Chicago would travel to the South and do field recordings of people. So that’s really where things were by the time that National Life and Accident started the radio station WSM in 1925.
Very early on, WSM started featuring “old timey” music---[which] is how they referred to it then---on Saturday nights. That was just a few months after WSM went on the air in October of 1925. So early on, there started being opportunities for people to play on the radio on the Grand Ole Opry. It first started with amateur musicians who had day jobs, and it grew into more professional musicians who played full-time. They would perform on WSM on Saturday nights, and would spend the rest of the week playing live performances in theaters and high school auditoriums, and anywhere else they could play. So from WSM came the Grand Ole Opry, and also from WSM came professionals who started important parts of the industry. The first country music publishing company in Nashville was started by Roy Acuff and a WSM staffer named Fred Rose. Jim Denny and David Stone at WSM started booking artists before anyone else did. And so all of the components of what would become the core country music industry grew directly from the Opry and WSM.
George D. Hay, the founder of the Grand Ole Opry in 1925. Photo courtesy of the Grand Ole Opry Archives
NEA: So Nashville is the heart of the country music industry because a particular insurance company happened to be based there?
COLLADAY: Yes, and it happened to be an insurance company who was committed to constantly improving the quality of the radio station they had started.
NEA: That’s incredible. Something else I’ve always been curious about is where the name Grand Ole Opry came from.
COLLADAY: Well, according to George D. Hay, who is the person who named the Grand Ole Opry, up until the first two or three years it had just been referred to as the Barn Dance. One night, they were getting ready to go on the air with the regular Barn Dance. They were in the studio, and had NBC tuned on. WSM carried NBC programming, so they would carry it up to 8 o’clock and then the Grand Ole Opry would start locally. There was a classical music program featuring NBC’s Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Damrosch, who was a famous conductor in New York. What happened was that he featured a classical composition being performed by a large orchestra that was meant to imitate the sounds of a train. And in the WSM studio, George D. Hay had this harmonica virtuoso, an early star of the Opry named DeFord Bailey, who happened to have a song called “Pan American Blues,” where he on his harmonica created the sound of a freight train going by, including the Doppler effect of the whistle as it passes. Walter Damrosch had said that there’s no room for realism in the classics, and then played the train song. So then it goes to WSM, where George D. Hay announced to the people who just heard that, that now we’re switching to the Opry, and for the next hour it’s nothing but realism. He has DeFord Bailey play his train song, “Pan American Blues” and then quips after that’s songs over that, “For the last hour you’ve been hearing music taken largely from grand opera. From now on we present the Grand Ole Opry.” So it was just a colloquial little riff on grand opera and the two train songs, one done by an orchestra and one done by a guy with a harmonica as a blues song. It was just a little play on words.
NEA: That’s a great commentary on the music itself, that it’s based on realism, and situations and feelings that pretty much anyone can relate to.
COLLADAY: To quote the great country songwriter Harlan Howard, country music is “three chords and the truth.”
NEA: Do you think that’s its appeal?
COLLADAY: I do think that’s its appeal. I think that’s when it’s at its best. To me, what country music does when it’s at its best is it speaks for people whose voices wouldn’t normally be heard. Whether it be people in rural areas, or working-class people---[these groups are] not always reflected in larger popular culture.
NEA: The tagline of the Grand Ole Opry is that it’s “the show that made country music famous.” Now that country music is well-known throughout the world, what is the Opry’s role today?
COLLADAY: The Opry has had a dual role since its creation. It has always simultaneously honored the traditions of the music while embracing the latest trends in the music. The Grand Ole Opry started with one 77-year-old guy playing old-timey fiddle tunes. So obviously it moved on from there. But it’s always been reverent towards the past and towards former Grand Ole Opry members, towards classic country music and performers. But at the same time, it’s always been changing and always embraced what comes next. Whether it be the early days where it was mostly instrumental string band, to then moving on to feature vocalists, from the days when it was traditional music that had folk music roots to featuring original compositions. There’s always some of everything. It’s always had this really cool balance of tradition and what’s next.
NEA: Let’s talk a little bit about the influences of country music. You mentioned that it started off as barn dances and “old-timey” fiddlers. How did this come together to create what we now consider to be country music?
COLLADAY: Being located in the South, there were an awful lot of people looking for any kind of livelihood that did not involve picking cotton. So that encouraged a lot of people [to play music.] And when you marry that to a very strong musical tradition, or storytelling tradition, you get people who sit around and play, or play for square dances on the weekends. For people who live a little way from cities, there’s not a lot of entertainment available. So you’ve got acoustic instruments as what provides entertainment. It just kind of grew from people seeing other people be successful and getting out of the hardscrabble farm life, the sharecropping life that so many pioneers in country music grew up with. I think that was part of it. Those kinds of beginnings where you have people who are isolated and have to entertain themselves and are also looking to make a living and not have to do the back-breaking labor a lot of people had to do when country music was first starting---that’s key to it.
NEA: What have been your personal favorite performances at the Opry?
COLLADAY: Well, I will always come out to see Ray Price. He is an amazing performer. He is in his 80s and still sings as well as he always did. I love seeing some of the newer artists come along and pair up with some of the older artists. There was one great night when Martina McBride had done an album of classic country songs and some of the original artists came out and sang with her. Lynn Anderson came out and sang “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” with her. So when someone from new generation gets to perform with someone they admire and has influenced their decision to play country music, that’s always a really powerful thing. I also loved it when Jack White and [NEA National Heritage Fellow] Wanda Jackson played.
Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner performing at the Opry on March 2, 1974. Photo courtesy of the Grand Ole Opry Archives
NEA: What have been some other watershed moments or performances in the Opry’s history?
COLLADAY: One important moment was when Roy Acuff came to the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. He was the first kind of superstar vocalist in country music, really. When he came and started singing in a very heartfelt manner, and reached people with vocals as opposed to largely instrumental music, that was a very important transition for the Opry. From then on, it kind of moved to a star system where big individual performers would come on and lead bands and have big careers.
NEA: Something else in the more recent history that I want to talk about was when the Opry flooded in 2010. How was it able to bounce back after being submerged in four to six feet of water?
COLLADAY: It was through the efforts of a lot of people and a huge commitment from everyone in the company and in the country. There was such an outpouring of support from everyone who was worried about us and wanted to make sure the Opry was going to be back. Everyone worked incredibly long hours. The Opry is very important to everybody that has anything to do with it in this town---and a lot of people that don’t---and so we just made sure it happened.
NEA: This is another personal opinion question, but what do you consider to be five of the most essential country music songs?
COLLADAY: I would say [one of the] five to six really important songs would be “Great Speckled Bird,” which was the song that launched Roy Acuff’s career, and kind of made that change at the Grand Ole Opry [to superstar vocalists]. It’s a weird song. It’s not a gospel song, but it’s a religious song. It’s based on an old, old melody that was actually first recorded by the Carter family, and then later it became the melody for other songs: “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” and “The Wild Side of Life.” These two songs were also important, so [“Great Speckled Bird”] represents a lot of things, [including] the way that tunes are recycled and go back to England and Ireland. It’s also a song that was seminal to the career of one of country music’s most important figures.
I would say the Hank Williams song “So Lonesome I Could Cry,” just because that song sets such a high standard for the singer-songwriter aspect of country music where people are singing songs that relate to their own experiences. In that same vein but in a totally different direction, “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’” by Loretta Lynn. That’s the first time a woman ever wrote a song about her life that was a huge hit. Country music had not really spoken very much for or to women before that. It gave people something to relate to.
I would say Merle Haggard’s “Hungry Eyes.” Merle is kind of the quintessential “speaking for the working man” artist who combines that working-class mindset and ethic with amazing art. I would also throw in “Golden Ring” by George Jones and Tammy Wynette because [it’s a] classic country duet. It’s two of the greatest singers, and you’ve got to have a good male and female duet in there. On a more contemporary note, I would say Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” I would pick that because it is a time in recent history when a country song really expressed something probably better than any art did that was coming along at the time of the September 11th terrorist attacks. So those are today’s choices.
Click here to see NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman's picks for favorite country songs.