The Grand Ole Opry is a weekly Saturday night country music radio program broadcast live on WSM radio in Nashville, Tennessee, and televised on Great American Country (GAC) network. It is the oldest continuous radio program in the United States, having been broadcast on WSM since November 28, 1925.
The Opry acted as the performing heart of the country music industry for several decades, and many of the genre's biggest stars first hit the "big time" on its famous stage. It continues to draw significant radio and television audiences today and is a major tourist attraction in Nashville, as is its earlier home, the Ryman Auditorium.
The Grand Ole Opry made a significant contribution to American culture by acting as the premier performing arts center for country music during the genre's formative stages. For many years it included religious music in every performance, and even today features an album of classic gospel performances as one of seven live "Opry Classics" CD's available in its online store.
While the Opry also has its share of "cheatin' songs" and sex appeal, stage performances often honor traditional family values, unlike most venues in the contemporary rock and soul genres. On the other hand, it has few non-white performers, and thus represents—even if not intentionally—the continued racial divide in American culture.
The Grand Ole Opry started out as the WSM Barn Dance, in the new fifth floor radio station studio of the National Life & Accident Insurance Company in downtown Nashville. The featured performer on the first show was Uncle Jimmy Thompson, a fiddler who was then 77 years old. The announcer was program director George D. Hay, known on the air as "The Solemn Old Judge." He was only 30 at the time and was not a judge, but was an enterprising pioneer who launched the Barn Dance as a spin-off similarly-named radio show out of WLS Radio in Chicago. Some of the bands regularly featured on the show during its early days included the Possum Hunters, the Fruit Jar Drinkers, the Crook Brothers, and the Gully Jumpers. In 1926, Uncle Dave Macon, a Tennessee banjo player who had recorded several songs and toured the vaudeville circuit, became its first real star.
The name Grand Ole Opry came about in December 1927. The Barn Dance followed NBC Radio Network's Music Appreciation Hour, which consisted of classical music and selections from grand opera. Their final piece that night featured a musical interpretation of an onrushing railroad locomotive. In response to this, Judge Hay introduced the man he dubbed the "Harmonica Wizard"—DeFord Bailey, who played his classic train song, "The Pan American Blues." After Bailey's performance, Hay commented, "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.'" The name stuck and has been used for the program since then.
As audiences at the live show increased, National Life's radio venue became too small to accommodate the hordes of fans. The company built a larger studio, but it was still not large enough. The Opry moved into the suburban Hillsboro Theater, then to the Dixie Tabernacle in East Nashville and then to the War Memorial Auditorium, a downtown venue adjacent to the State Capitol. A twenty-five cent admission began to be charged, in part an effort to curb the large crowds, but to no avail.
In 1943, the Opry moved to the Ryman Auditorium. During the next decade, the Opry became the Mecca of country music performers. Country music greats from Roy Acuff to Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, Hank Williams (Senior), Ernest Tubb, and a host of others performed there regularly, and many younger stars first hit the big time on its stage.
On October 2, 1954, a teenage Elvis Presley made his first (and only) performance there. Although the public reacted politely to his revolutionary brand of rockabilly music, he was never invited back.
Regular members of the Opry during this time constituted a veritable Who's Who of country music, including such stars—in addition to those named above—as Bill Anderson, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Tennessee Ernie Ford, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Glen Campbell, Dolly Parton, Marty Robbins, Dottie West, Porter Wagoner, and Tammy Wynette. The Ryman years are seen by many as the Opry's "glory days," when the Opry served as the heart and soul of the burgeoning country music entertainment industry in Nashville.
The Ryman was home to the Opry until 1974, when the show moved to the 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House, located several miles to the east of downtown Nashville, on a former farm in the Pennington Bend of the Cumberland River. An adjacent theme park, called Opryland USA, preceded the new Opry House by two years. After National Life Insurance was purchased by another company with no interest in the entertainment industry, Gaylord Broadcasting Company of Oklahoma City stepped in and purchased the entire Opryland property, including the Grand Ole Orpy, in 1982. Gaylord launched The Nashville Network (TNN) and began broadcasting Grand Ole Opry Live live from Opryland, in 1983.
The park was shuttered and demolished by Gaylord after the 1997 season, replaced by the Opry Mills Mall. An adjacent hotel, the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, is the largest non-gambling hotel in North America and is the site of dozens of conventions annually.
In 1997, CBS signed a five-year contract with the Opry to be the television broadcast home of the event, to air on TNN, as part of CBS's acquisition of the network from Gaylord. The contract carried a five-year requirement that TNN would be the Opry's broadcast home from October 1997 until the end of September 2002. Gaylord become unhappy with the CBS-owned MTV Networks after TNN was shut down and replaced with an adult-oriented channel (known as Spike TV) in 2000, and MTV moved the Opry to TNN's competitor, CMT, in 2001. Alleging a breach of contract, Gaylord eventually moved the Opry to CMT's rival, GAC, in 2003.
In May 2010, the Opry House was flooded, along with much of Nashville, due to the Cumberland River overflowing its banks. While repairs were made, the Opry was temporarily housed at alternate venues in Nashville, with the Ryman Auditorium hosting the majority of the shows. Other venues included the TPAC War Memorial Auditorium, another former Opry home; TPAC's Andrew Jackson Hall; Nashville Municipal Auditorium; Allen Arena at Lipscomb University; and the Two Rivers Baptist Church. The Opry returned to the Grand Ole Opry House on September 28, 2010 in a special edition of the Opry entitled Country Comes Home that was televised live on Great American Country.
The Opry continues to operate successfully today, with hundreds of thousands of fans traveling from around the world to Nashville, to see the music and comedy of the Opry in person.
In many ways, the artists and repertoire of the Opry defined American country music. Hundreds of performers have entertained as cast members through the years, including new stars, superstars, and legends. Being made a member of the Grand Ole Opry is to be identified as a member of the elite of country music.
In contrast to the movement of popular music toward increasingly suggestive lyrics and performances following the rock and roll revolution of the mid fifties, Grand Ole Opry entertainers often stressed traditional values, family, patriotism, faith, and sentimental reflections on rural life. Some stars, notably Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and Loretta Lynn, mixed these themes with songs that dwelt on betrayal, emotional upheaval, and sensuality.
Rock and roll borrowed from rhythm and blues, frequently covering music written and performed by black artists and enabling black stars like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and others to launch mainstream music careers. In contrast, the Opry, and country music entertainers, with some exceptions, remained overwhelmingly white. Although the music was largely marketed to whites, Grand Ole Opry broadcasts reached deep into the South and were enjoyed by both blacks and whites. Some black artists, notably Ray Charles, acknowledged their debt to the Opry and recorded country hits, including "I Can't Stop Loving You." Charlie Pride has been the most prominent African American to make a career in country music, becoming a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1993.
The quality of the Opry program has waxed and waned over the years. In the mid-1960s, management decided to enforce strictly the requirement that members had to perform on at least 26 shows a year in order to keep their membership active. This imposed a tremendous financial hardship on members who made much of their income from touring and could not afford to be in or near Nashville every other weekend. This was aggravated by the fact that the Opry's appearance fee paid to the artist was essentially a token ($44 at the time).
The quality of the Opry suffered in the years following, and by the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Opry was regarded by many country music fans as sort of a musical equivalent of a sports "old-timers' game," where only former stars were to be seen. Over time, this problem was largely corrected by a reduced attendance requirement for performers and various special exceptions.
Another controversy that raged for years was over allowable instrumentation, especially the use of drums and electrically amplified instruments. Some purists were appalled at the prospect, as traditionally a string bass and guitar provided the rhythm component in country music and purely percussion instruments were little used. Electric amplification was regarded as the province of rock and roll, anathema to many country fans, especially older ones. These restrictions chafed many artists who were popular with the newer and younger fans, and largely eliminated over time. The new policy alienated many older and traditionalist fans, but probably saved the Opry, long-term, as a viable ongoing enterprise.
Management has been very conscious of the need to enforce its trademark on the term Grand Ole Opry and limit use to members of the Opry and products associated with or licensed by it. However, it lost a legal case against the owners of a small, now-defunct Nashville record label calling itself Opry Records. The record company's attorneys successfully argued that WSM's management indeed owned the rights to the words Grand Ole Opry, but only in that order and combination, and no more owned the word Opry in isolation than they owned Grand or Ole. This has allowed a plethora of small-time country music shows to label themselves as Oprys of one sort or another.
In September 2004, it was announced that the Grand Ole Opry had contracted for the first time with a "presenting sponsor" and would henceforth be known as "the Grand Ole Opry presented by Cracker Barrel." Cracker Barrel, a long-time Opry sponsor headquartered in nearby Lebanon, Tennessee, is a chain of country-themed restaurants and gift shops, whose market overlaps with that of the Opry to a great extent.
(Partial list of both current and former members)
All links retrieved July 10, 2017.
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