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Country's grand ole institution turns 75, October 14, 2000

The building started out as a church. Born in a time when Christian ministers were out in fervent force to bring the stray sheep closer to the doors of heaven. The building known as the Mother Church of Country Music began life as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. Built by Captain Thomas G. Ryman, owner of a riverboat fleet headquartered in Nashville, through the inspiration of evangelist Sam Jones. In May of 1892 the auditorium opened its doors for religious services and events. It was able to seat a crowd of over 2500 people after a second floor was added to honor Confederate veterans in 1897. As an institution though, the actual site of the Grand Ole Opry has been moved several times before it found its way to the building on Fifth Avenue North in Nashville. In fact, the Ryman didn't become a show to this country showcase until 1943. The Grand Ole Opry and the legends known for enhancing its stature in the entertainment world began a few blocks and worlds away from where it is now.
The parent station of the Grand Ole Opry, radio station WSM, signed on October 5, 1925. The first radio director at WSM, George D. Hathaway from WLS radio in Chicago, began putting local people with a folk music flair into the station's programming. The stories that explain the actual beginnings of the Opry vary from who tells the tale. There are many, though, that believe the true inspiration for the Grand Ole Opry came on November 28, 1925 when Uncle Jimmy Thompson began fiddling tunes for the world to hear through the airwaves. The musical inspiration left by this 77 year old fiddler prompted many listeners to write WSM for more features like his to be aired. As a result, radio director Hay decided to make country music a regular part of the Saturday night broadcast. Besides Uncle Jimmy Thompson, many of the legends of country music began their journey at this time. People like Deford Bailey, Uncle Dave Macon, The Gully Jumpers, the Fruit Jar Drinkers and the Binkley Brothers' Dixie Clodhoppers were hired to be regulars during the WSM Barn Dance, which is what this country performance troupe was called in the early years.

The WSM Barn Dance began its life a short distance from the Ryman Auditorium on the fifth floor of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company in Studio A. As the audience grew, the show moved to the expanded Studio B which seated around 200 people.

Harry Stone came to WSM in 1928 as an announcer. His management and communication talents took him toward management quickly at WSM. By 1930, Stone had taken up the role of supervisor of the Opry. Hay was moved to the role of artist services, which developed and booked acts for the Opry. Harry and his brother David began to institute a more reliable way to develop talent in what many consider to be a 'star system'. During the time of the Stones influence, such artists like Pee Wee King, Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Minnie Pearl, Eddy Arnold, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Hank Snow and the Delmore Brothers began their Opry careers. The Opry moved from Studio B to Studio C in 1934. Then it made another move from there to the Hillsboro Theater later in 1934. From there, the Opry went to the Dixie Tabernacle on Fatherland Street in 1936. After that, the Opry moved to the War Memorial Auditorium in July of 1939. In October of 1939, the Opry became a regular feature on the NBC Radio Network. Prince Albert Smoking Tobacco was the sponsor, and the show was known as 'The Prince Albert Show'. With this major broadcast network arrangment, the Opry became the most listened country radio show in America. In fact, a movie called 'The Grand Ole Opry' was produced by Republic Pictures in 1940 which featured many of the talent on the show like Uncle Dave Macon, Roy Acuff and Judge Hay. June, 1943 the Opry made its way to the Ryman Auditorium. In 1948, the Opry began its Friday show, and from there the Opry became a regular weekend event.

Through the 1950s, the Opry was buffetted by several major challenges. Rock and roll attracted more of the youth market which the Opry was appealing toward early in its life. The Opry was also dropped as a regular television feature, only seeing brief exposure between 1955 to 1956 on ABC television. Another bombshell was losing Elvis Presley to the Louisiana Hayride after he was invited to play the Opry October, 1954. Even though the Opry did manage to sign the Everly Brothers, attracting more rock and roll artists to play the Opry met with failure. With falling attendance, the Opry met with even more problems when some of its biggest stars, like Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves, perished in accidents. The Opry asked 12 members of its cast to leave in 1964 for making too few appearances on the show. Some of these artists returned later, but only about half of them. The 1960s and early 1970s didn't see much real development of new talent on the Opry. But in 1974, the stringent requirements for Opry appearances were relaxed. From 1974 to the early 1990s, the Opry attracted a lot of new talent like Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Vince Gill, Ronnie Milsaps and a host of other artists known for their contribution to country music's development.

In 1985, the Nashville Network began televising a half hour of the Opry every weekend. This was the Opry's first exposure on television since the 1960s. Even with the new exposure to larger markets, the Opry has somehow remained the same reliable entertainment for the past 75 years. The Nashville Network was bought and moved to New York in 2000 by Viacom. But still, the Opry as an institution will survive and move ahead propelled by artists who believe in the simple clear idea that was broadcasted from WSM Studio A long ago.

Visit the Grand Ole Opry's website at:

www.grandoleopry.com

Or the Ryman Auditorium at:

www.ryman.com