Today marks the end of our ADoor Nashville blog series, in which we’ve spent the last 12 weeks telling the stories of some of Nashville most’s prominent, historical, and interesting landmarks through the eyes of their front doors. Click here to see a recap of all of the Nashville places we have covered in this series.
We can think of no better way to wrap up this fun fall series than by sharing the story of the place that helped mold Nashville into the place its known for worldwide, Music City. That’s why we saved this landmark for last.
The story of the Grand Ole Opry begins almost exactly 87 years ago (next month!) here in Nashville, on Nov. 28, 1925. The Opry began just five years after commercial radio was born in the U.S. as the WSM Barn Dance in the then-new fifth-floor radio studio of the National Life & Accident Insurance Company in downtown Nashville. If we back up just a few weeks, we learn that on Oct. 18, 1925, management began a radio program featuring “Dr. Humphrey Bate and his string quartet of old-time musicians.” A couple of weeks later, on Nov. 2, WSM hired long-time announcer and program director George “Judge” Hay, a pioneer from the National Barn Dance program in Chicago who had been named the most popular radio announcer in America. It was Hay, then, that launched the WSM Barn Dance with one of those old-time fiddlers on Nov. 28, 1925.
Hay’s weekly broadcasts continued, growing in popularity by the day. It wasn’t until 1927 that the phrase “Grand Ole Opry” was first muttered on air, and it stuck. Crowds would soon be overflowing the hallways to watch the performers, a problem which was solved by National Life constructing an acoustically designed auditorium with a capacity of 500.
A few years later in 1932, WSM Radio increased its broadcasting power to 50,000 watts, making the station accessible to folks in most everyone in the U.S. and even parts of Canada. The show’s popularity continued to grow.
It wasn’t long before the 500-seat auditorium was much too small to accommodate the crowd of fans that enthusiastically gathered each week to hear the live performances. So, a larger studio was built, but it was not enough. It was then that the Opry went through a series of moves in an attempt to find just the right place to call home. In October 1934, the Opry moved into Hillsboro Theatre (now the Belcourt); followed by a movie to Dixie Tabernacle in East Nashville in 1936;followed by a move to the War Memorial Auditorium; followed by a movie to the State Capitol; followed by an unsuccessful attempt to charge a fee to be in attendance to curb the oversized crowds… It wasn’t until June 5, 1943 that the Opry moved to the Ryman Auditorium (which we covered just a few weeks ago in this same blog series.)
The Ryman was able to meet the needs held by the Opry, so it remained its home for nearly 31 years. In fact, many of the show’s legends spent most of their Opry runs there. An interesting fact is that it was not until 2004 that the Grand Ole Opry House passed the Ryman as the Opry’s most enduring home!
The stark popularity of the Opry was star driven. Until 1938, the show had put great emphasis on instrumental performances, but that quickly changed when a young Roy Acuff joined the cast that year. It is said that his performance of “The Great Speckled Bird” changed the Opry from that night forth.
Performances and shows continued weekly throughout the ’40s, with Nashville shows happening on the weekends and traveling shows happening during the week. Opry artists and musicians crammed into cars (and later buses) as they performed as ambassadors for the Grand Ole Opry, and ultimately, for country music.
Ernest Tubb took a group of Opry stars to New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1947. Another Opry group played Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., that same year. The Opry’s first European tour in 1949 took Red Foley, Acuff , Minnie Pearl, Rod Brasfield, Little Jimmy Dickens, Hank Williams, and others to U.S. military bases in England, Germany, and the Azores. And in 1961, an Opry troupe including Patsy Cline, Grandpa Jones, Bill Monroe, and Jim Reeves played Carnegie Hall a second time.
While all the while holding on to its traditions, the Opry did have to be flexible with new technologies and opportunities, which is partly why in 1974, the Opry made yet another move from the Ryman to a new, larger home, at the heart of a multi-million dollar entertainment complex nine miles from downtown Nashville.
The 1970s also saw the simple little radio show televised live for the first time. PBS televised the show on March 4, 1978, and annually through 1981. Then in April 1985, a half-hour segment of the Opry began airing each Saturday night on TNN as Grand Ole Opry Live. Opry Backstage, a live 30-minute series that aired before Grand Ole Opry Live, began in 1987. Opry Live eventually expanded to a full hour show that was featured first on Country Music Television (CMT) and later on Great American Country (GAC).
Today, artists perform at the Opry on Tuesdays and Saturdays. It remains an important part of Nashville and country music history, the heartbeat of Music City and a place that many country music artists will always think of as home.
To learn more about the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. or to see its show schedule to plan a visit, head to its website at www.opry.com