The reopening of the Grand Ole Opry just a few weeks ago has brought the history of the country music icon to the forefront of Nashville’s mind. Its evolution from small advertising platform to syndicated radio and television show, to the pinnacle of country culture it is today, is a story worth revisiting.
To help promote its business, National Life Insurance purchased a radio station in 1925. With the motto “We Shield Millions,” they took the call letters WSM and brought in legendary radio announcer George D. Hay to host a Nashville version of Chicago’s National Barn Dance. Hay announced the beginning of every show with a blow to his famous steamboat whistle. Following a DeFord Bailey show, Hay commented, “For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from the Grand Opera, but from now on we will present the Grand Ole Opry!” The show took on so many listeners it had to move to several different locations to accommodate an ever-growing live audience. It was eventually syndicated by the NBC radio network in 1939 and brought to television by PBS in 1971.
The Opry began its thirty-year stint at the Ryman Auditorium in 1943, but even outgrew that venue at a time when National Life was looking for land for its next big project: A Nashville-themed amusement park and hotel. The current home of the Grand Ole Opry was built with this project and Opryland was born. National Life was bought by another company and the amusement park shut down, but the new Opry House has become legendary in country music. In trying to maintain the historic journey of “Country’s Most Famous Stage,” a solid-oak circle was taken from the stage at the Ryman and brought to the new Opry House, with the motto “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” This song has become a significant part of country music history, bringing together generations of country singers in different compilation versions and reflecting the family feeling of the Grand Ole Opry members.
On Sunday, May 2, 2010, the most devastating floods in over 100 years hit Middle Tennessee and came pouring into the Opry House. Workers waded through ever-growing water levels to save artifacts such as the copy of the Nashville Banner announcing WSM radio’s first broadcast, Hay’s steamboat whistle, singer Roy Acuff’s fiddle used in his first performance, and a pair of country comedian Minnie Pearl’s shoes. As 46 inches of water covered the stage and speculations were made about the fate of the iconic oak circle from the Ryman in the center of the stage, reporters streamed in to take pictures of a ruined stage door that would turn up in magazines, newspapers, and on news shows all over the world to symbolize the severity of the Nashville flood.
Today, that now-infamous door has been preserved with the watermark still on it as a symbol of what the Opry went through, sure to become part of country music history. The entire Opry House stage was destroyed by the standing water except for one piece: the oak circle. After a $20 million renovation, the Opry reopened its doors on Tuesday, September 28, with a show entitled “Country Comes Home.” It opened with an emotional rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” sung on the historic oak circle by Opry’s oldest living member, Little Jimmy Dickens, side by side with today’s great country artists including Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, and Martina McBride, and ended with Trace Adkins calling Blake Shelton from the stage to announce his invitation to become the next member of the Grand Ole Opry. This was a perfect way to christen the new hall in the spirit of the old Opry, reflecting the values of uniting country music generations, respecting history, and looking toward the future.
Upcoming Opry Events:
October 23- Blake Shelton Opry Induction, Trace Adkins
October 26- Little Big Town, Chris Young, Lorrie Morgan, Love & Theft
October 29- Oak Ridge Boys, Rodney Atkins, Craig Morgan, Joe Diffle
October 30- Rascal Flatts, Laura Bell Bundy, Josh Thompson
November 2- Josh Turner, Vince Gill, Craig Morgan
More info and upcoming events found here.