A Night At The Opry: 90 Years Of A Nashville Institution

April 22, 2016
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A Night At The Opry: 90 Years Of A Nashville Institution

On 12 April 2016, Brad Paisley stepped onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry to introduce the first-ever performance at the famous establishment by a fellow giant of American roots music, John Fogerty.

The latter legend may be primarily a rock’n’roll figurehead, but he grew up steeped in country music tradition – especially the Bakersfield sound that inspired Creedence Clearwater Revival. He even namechecked Buck Owens in the lyrics of CCR’s 1970 hit ‘Lookin’ Out My Back Door’.

As Paisley pointed out with his customary eloquence while eulogising one of his heroes, Fogerty’s appearance was a measure of the all-embracing influence and the undying, unifying relevance of the Grand Ole Opry. The Nashville venue and radio show has proudly stood as a monument to country music since its inception in 1926.

“One of the great things about the Opry,” Paisley told the audience, “is how it recognises how big of an umbrella country music has become, and the people who have used country music as an influence in their music, which was not traditionally considered this format. But when you look back on what [Fogerty] did, it’s as country as just about anything.”

A list of the names booked to play the Opry in the weeks after Paisley and Fogerty’s appearance reads like a catalogue of country notables, past, present and future. 70s and 80s hitmaker Larry Gatlin is among the artists hosting the weekly Opry Country Classics showcase; the peerless Nashville ambassador Vince Gill is never far away, nor are fellow Opry members in a tradition that bridges the generations, from Little Big Town to Loretta Lynn, and from Connie Smith to Carrie Underwood.

Jenn BosticPhiladelphia-born, Nashville-based country singer-songwriter Jenn Bostic tells uDiscover: “I’ve had the honour of performing at the Grand Ole Opry on seven separate occasions, and each time has felt like the first. There’s something so magical about that circle.

“I remember being in the audience listening to Carrie Underwood sing there when I was in college. I was in tears. My heart kept whispering, ‘You’re going to sing on that stage someday.’ A few years later, I was invited to sing ‘Jealous Of The Angels’, a song about my late father, on the anniversary of his passing. The Opry is a place where dreams come true, music is appreciated, and the memories made last a lifetime.”

New hitmakers Maddie & Tae are Opry visitors alongside such rising names as Ashley Campbell and Tara Thompson. In June 2015, British breakthrough duo The Shires received the ultimate endorsement of their acceptance into the country community with what was not just their Opry debut, but their first public performance in the US.

Shires Opry.jpgThis, truly, was a pilgrimage for the English group, just as it is for the countless fans who visit the Opry ever year, from all over the world. No less a figurehead than Bill Anderson, a Grand Ole Opry member with 80 country chart entries to his name, introduced The Shires by saying: “This is Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes, and together they have done some pretty special stuff.”

“Special stuff” is also an apt description of what still emanates from the Opry itself, a phenomenon that’s as old as what we know as country music. Its location may have changed numerous times before it arrived in its latter-day home, 10 miles or so east of downtown Nashville at the purpose-built Grand Ole Opry House, on Opryland Drive, in 1974. But it remains surely the most famous address in all of country music.

Opry stage bwThe Opry is proud to call itself the show that made country music famous, and the most famous show in country music. And it’s still there, airing every Friday and Saturday night on WSM, 90 years and counting since the celebrated and indestructible AM radio station broadcast the first Opry show, founded by radio personality George D “Judge” Hay, on 28 November 1925.

That was the date on which fiddle player Uncle Jimmy Thompson became the first performer on a programme initially titled WSM Barn Dance, broadcast from the fifth-floor radio studio of the National Life & Accident Insurance Company in downtown Nashville. That remained the show’s home for nine years, with early performers including the man who became known as “The Father Of Bluegrass”, Bill Monroe.

Uncle Dave MaconOther names among the show’s early line-ups make for a colourful playbill of country’s formative days, many of them born in the last years of the 19th Century. They included “old time” stalwarts Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith and Sid Harkreader, along with splendidly named “hoedown” string bands such as The Gully Jumpers and The Binkley Brothers’ Dixie Clodhoppers.

As the show’s reputation expanded, banjo player and vaudeville veteran Uncle Dave Macon became the first performer to gain wider stardom through his association with it. Then, on 10 December 1927, came another historic moment, when the title that has been in use ever since it was uttered on air for the first time.

In its early days, the WSM Barn Dance followed NBC’s syndicated Music Appreciation Hour, a classical music show which featured grand opera. Hay, as presenter, announced the three-hour country programme by saying, “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.”

In October 1934, the Opry relocated to the Hillsborough Theatre, but was based there for less than two years before another move to the Dixie Tabernacle. Comedy acts such as Sarie & Sallie and Jamup & Honey joined the cast, but simultaneously, the show’s emphasis was switching from the “old-timey” acts of fledgling country to the forebears of today’s scene.

RymanAfter three years at the Hillsborough, the Opry spent most of the war years at the War Memorial Auditorium. Then came the move to the hallowed building that was expanding its own reputation as the “Mother Church Of Country Music”, the Ryman Auditorium, which played host to the Opry from 1943 until its move to its present location, 41 years later.

Such was the show’s popularity that in the 30s, it expanded to four hours on air, and became so coveted among advertisers that it was later divided into sponsored time slots, each with its own star. The Prince Albert Opry made a star of Roy Acuff, who joined in 1937 and started to have national country hits in 1944. In the same era, the show also helped to make national celebrities of Bill Monroe, Minnie Pearl, Eddy Arnold and Ernest Tubb.

By the late 40s, the Opry show was accounting for two-thirds of WSM’s advertising revenue. Admission cost 80 cents, eagerly paid each week by the 3,000-strong audiences who attended in person. Acuff quit the show in 1946, to be replaced by Red Foley, the Kentucky native who became the next artist to bask in the Opry’s golden glow.

Hank Williams Opry albumThat same year, when he was about to turn 23, Hank Williams auditioned for the Opry, but was rejected. He gained his place three years later, and raised the roof with a debut performance that included his No.1 of the time, ‘Lovesick Blues’. It ensured that he would be invited back a week later, this time in the networked, half-hour Prince Albert portion of the broadcast, introduced by Foley.

“Contrary to myth,” wrote Colin Escott in Hank Williams: The Biography, “there were no encores, but as Hank indicated to Foley, he had now been accepted for membership in the most exclusive club in country music.”

Opry ticketAdmission to the Opry was, and still is, decided by the show’s management, who consider all of the benchmarks of success, from sales, airplay and touring, to the artist’s overall standing in country music. As the Opry website explains: “The Opry Member Gallery located at the artists’ entrance to the Grand Ole Opry House recognises the more than 200 artists and groups who are either current members of the Opry cast, or have been Opry members at some point in the show’s rich past.

“The gallery begins with the Opry’s very first featured performer, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, and continues chronologically with names of such past members as Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner, Patsy Cline, and Tammy Wynette.

Opry performance“Blake Shelton started a new Opry tradition in October 2010, when after his formal Opry induction he took it upon himself to personally add his name to the area. Every new member since then has followed Shelton’s example, including Keith Urban, who made use of a pocket knife Marty Stuart had given him earlier that night to affix his plaque to the gallery.”

By the 40s, the show was breaking out of its Nashville boundaries in a physical sense. Tubb led a collective of Opry performers on a performing trip to New York’s Carnegie Hall, after which came an inaugural European tour. During the 50s, the aura of an association with the show was a huge stepping stone to stardom for many newcomers, including Kitty Wells, George Jones, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, the Everly Brothers and Porter Wagoner. October 1954 brought the one and only appearance on the show of a young hopeful called Elvis Presley.

Patsy Cline Opry.jpgPatsy Cline had been performing at the Opry as a guest since 1955, two years before her national emergence with ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’. In 1960, she asked the show’s general manager, Ott Devine, if she could become a member. He replied: “Patsy, if that’s all you want, you are on the Opry.”

During that decade, other additions to the distinguished body included Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn. In the 70s, the Opry recognised Tammy Wynette, and the new country traditionalism of the 80s brought such names as Randy Travis and Patty Loveless into the fold.

Enduring stars of today such as Alison Krauss, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill and Garth Brooks were among those who became members in the 90s. “I’ve said it for the record a thousand times, I’ll state it again a thousand times,” enthused Brooks. “This is the pinnacle of what I do. Nothing has ever touched being a member of the Grand Ole Opry.”


Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum during his solo debut at the Grand Ole Opry in March 2016

That honour has since been enjoyed by the likes of Paisley, Underwood and Urban, as well as Dierks Bentley, Rascal Flatts and Darius Rucker. The venue even survived the 2010 flood that ravaged Nashville and left the Grand Ole Opry House stage under water. After temporary relocation, the building was restored to its longtime glory, and more.

grand-ole-opry-house-frontIn the hands of its members and its adoring audiences, the Opry will thrive as long as country music does – and that is, of course, forever. Not for the first time, Dolly Parton expresses it best. “It was always my dream to be on the Opry,” she says. “I actually got to sing on the Grand Ole Opry when I was about 10 years old. I became a member in the late 60s.

“They call it the ‘Mother Church’, because the old Ryman was a church, but it’s sacred to me, wherever it goes – the church of my heart. For me, the Opry is like the song ‘New York, New York’ – if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”

Listen to uDiscover's A Night At The Opry playlist, featuring live recordings as well as studio tracks by key Opry artists, on Spotify here

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