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The Grand Ole Opry
The Making of an American Icon
By Colin Escott
Foreword by Vince Gill
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Copyright © 2006 by The Grand Ole Opry®, Gaylord Entertainment
Front Cover photo: Grand Ole Opry member Trace Adkins receives a standing from the Opry audience, 2005. Copyright Grand Ole Opry®. Photo by Chris Hollo
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
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First eBook Edition: November 2006
THE AIR CASTLE OF THE SOUTH
One hundred years ago, country music as we know it today didn't exit.Depending on wher you were, you'd hear Gaelic fiddle tunes,old English pending on where you were, you'd hear Gaelic fiddle tunes, old English ballads, new American ballads, bawdy cowboy songs, hymns, or minstrel songs. Undocumented and ignored, it was called folk music because it was the music that the people of America sang and played for themselves. You'd hear it at weekend hoedowns and barn dances, when families who would rarely see another family all week would come together to share a meal and play music. The barn dance would be in someone's barn with hay bales for seating; the hoedown might be outside or in a church hall or in someone's front parlor. It would probably be on bath night, and the women would have curled their hair with curling tongs heated over the flame of the coal oil lamp.
As the nineteenth century ended, few could have foreseen the impact that two recent inventions, radio and records, would have upon the music played at rural get-togethers. When commercial radio became popular in the 1920s, local music suddenly wasn't local anymore. All the pieces of American folk music came together to make country music, and if there was one stage where it happened, it was the Grand Ole Opry.
Edwin Craig: "I just wanted everybody in this community to have access to this new medium."
The Grand Ole Opry was one of the first radio barn dances. An old idea in a new era, the radio barn dance was a Saturday night hoedown staged in such a way that folks listening at home could share the fun and excitement. A night at the Grand Ole Opry has almost always included dancers, older stars, new stars, traditional groups, and comedians. That's the way it has been for eighty years. Performers came together on the Opry stage from very different places and very different backgrounds to create a new American art form, country music, from traditional folk music. The Opry has not only come to define country music but personify the values of the millions who listen to it.
Nashville Banner, October 4, 1925: "WSM can proudly boast that it is stronger than eighty-five percent of all broadcasting stations in the United States. The National Life & Accident's field force of more than 2,500 working in as many cities and towns in twenty-one states are elated over the great station, and they are telling thousands daily of the station that is destined to put Nashville on the international radio map."
Country music was first performed on radio in 1922; the first country music recordings were made in 1923; and the Grand Ole Opry was launched in 1925. The Opry began as just another show on Nashville's WSM radio, but the station's owners, National Life and Accident Insurance Company, soon realized that it would help them reach a largely untapped rural audience. When National Life Vice President Edwin Craig launched WSM, it wasn't Nashville's first radio station, but, unlike the earliest stations, it had solid financial backing and the steadfast commitment of its owners.
left: The National Life Building. WSM was on the fifth floor and called itself the "Air Castle of the South."
right: Engineer Jack DeWitt (second from left) with a group of Scouts. DeWitt was later awarded seven patents.
Once Edwin Craig had secured the funding to start WSM, he bought state-of-the-art equipment. His love of radio and belief in its potential had already led him to engineering genius John H. "Jack" DeWitt, who would become a key part of Opry history.
PETE MONTGOMERY, WSM engineer:
Even before WSM went on the air, Jack DeWitt and I experimented with radio in Nashville. We built a transmitter for Ward Belmont College, and they gave it to us when the dean decided that it used too much electricity. Then we set up in the parlor of the DeWitt home, and anybody could come and broadcast, but DeWitt's mother decided she didn't like all those strangers traipsing through her house. We moved to First Baptist Church, where they gave us studio space in exchange for broadcasting the Sunday sermon. We joined WSM when National Life bought a commercial transmitter. I met Edwin Craig, liked him, and decided to work for him.
JACK DEWITT, WSM engineer:
Edwin Craig was the son of one of the founders of National Life, Cornelius Craig, and got interested in radio just by listening to it. He had a good receiver and he loved to listen to distant radio stations. He wanted to leave the company and start a radio station. His father said, "You may not leave the company, but if you wish to put in a radio station, do it here." So he went ahead, and got the license for WSM, which was National Life's slogan, "We Shield Millions." Those call letters had already been assigned to a ship [the S.S. Fair Oaks], but Edwin Craig wanted "WSM" and pulled some strings. We went on air with a onekilowatt Western Electric transmitter. It had a radius of maybe one hundred or one hundred-and-fifty miles. I think Craig's goal was to reach the states that National Life operated in.
WSM Studio A. Jack DeWitt: "It was the only studio we had for a long time. There was a door from the studio to the hall and a door from the hall to the control room, and glass panels between the studio and control room."
left: "Can you hear me now?" Aaron Shelton, WSM engineer, in the station's remote broadcast truck. WSM began remote broadcasts the first day it went on the air.
right: Beasley Smith's Andrew Jackson Orchestra was one of the groups to perform during WSM's opening ceremonies. After the Opry made Nashville the country music capital, Smith jumped onto the bandwagon by cowriting Roy Acuff's hit "Night Train to Memphis."
WSM went on-air at 7:00 p.m. on October 5, 1925. It began with an announcement by Edwin Craig, followed by a prayer from Dr. George Stoves, pastor of the West End Methodist Church. The Shrine Band played the national anthem, and there was a dedication program that lasted until two o'clock in the morning. Craig didn't launch WSM with the idea of programming "folk" or country music (in fact, country music and blues were the only types of music unrepresented in the inaugural gala), but he hired a program director who'd already stumbled on the idea for the radio barn dance.
George D. Hay: November 1925
Edwin Craig and the people at National Life were first-class people, and they really understood the community. They wanted a radio station that reflected the community. That's why they brought in George Hay as station manager, and that was the middle of November 1925.
JUDGE HAY'S DAUGHTER, MARGARET:
George Hay was a Hoosier, born in Attica, Indiana, in 1895, son of a jeweler. His mother was widowed when he was ten and for the most part allowed him to grow up on his own, never managing to overcome her depression over the loss of her husband. Unable to complete high school in Chicago, where they had moved, he turned to supporting himself by way of many jobs.... He was basically democratic. A gentle man with impeccable manners.
George D. Hay: "The Opry is built to entertain that eighty-five percent of our population sometimes vulgarly referred to as 'the masses.' The whole idea behind it is one of friendliness and not of smartness."
GRANT TURNER, Opry announcer:
He told me that he wrote a column for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis called "Howdy, Judge." He'd write about all the people who'd been arrested over the weekend. Then the Commercial Appeal decided to build a radio station, and they told him, "You're the only one on staff who might be able to adapt himself to running this station." Judge knew nothing about radio, but he took it on.
I was on from eight'til nine o'clock every night. Just plain everyday talk, all ad-lib. Direct and simple and full of human interest. At first I signed off with my initials, then one day, on the spur of the moment, I decided to sign off with my childhood nickname. From that day, I closed every broadcast with "This is your Solemn Ol' Judge, George D. Hay."... I got the nickname "Judge" as a child. I was such a solemn kid, relatives would say, "He's solemn as a judge."
The Commercial Appeal sent [me] to the Ozarks to cover the funeral of one of America's World War I heroes. We rode behind a mule team thirty miles up in the mountains from Mammoth Spring, leaving very early in the morning. The neighbors came from miles around in respect to the memory of this United States Marine, who gave his life to preserve their way of life. The young man's father welcomed them as he stood on the crude platform in the country churchyard, but closed his brief remarks in this manner: "Let all those who were against the government during the war pass on down the road." We didn't see anyone leave.
We lumbered back to Mammoth Spring and filed our story, and spent a day there. In the afternoon, we sauntered around town, at the edge of which there lived a truck farmer in an old railroad car. He had seven or eight children, and his wife seemed very tired with the tremendous job of caring for them. We chatted for a few minutes and the man went to his place of abode and brought forth a fiddle and bow. He invited me to attend a hoedown the neighbors were going to put on that night until the crack of dawn in a log cabin about a mile up a muddy road. He and two other old-time musicians furnished the earthy rhythm. About twenty people came. There was a coal oil lamp in one corner of the cabin and another in the "kitty" corner. No one in the world has ever had more fun than those Ozark mountaineers did that night. It stuck with me until the idea became the Grand Ole Opry.
I never would have left the South if a Chicago station, WLS, had not offered so much more money. They asked me my price and I said, "Seventy-five dollars a week." It was so much more than I'd ever made in Memphis. That was 1924. Several weeks after the WSM launch, I was in Dallas, and [WSM treasurer] Mr. Runcie Clements and Mr. Craig asked me to come to their new station. Within a few weeks after it started, I came to WSM as director.
Edwin Craig's old-money background didn't prevent him from enjoying country music, and he shared Judge Hay's enthusiasm for preserving the old ballads. As a student at Branham-Hughes Military Academy in Spring Hill, Tennessee, Craig had played mandolin in a string band, together with several classmates and, he said later, "a young Negro boy who was the janitor in our dorm."
Uncle Jimmy Thompson: November 1925
The Grand Ole Opry is a very simple program, [and] it started in a very simple way. WSM discovered something very fundamental when it tapped the vein of American folk music, which lay smoldering in small flames for about three hundred years. Realizing the wealth of folk music material and performers in the Tennessee Hills, [I] welcomed the appearance of Uncle Jimmy Thompson, who went on the air at eight o'clock Saturday night, November 28, 1925. Uncle Jimmy told us that he had a thousand tunes. He was given a comfortable chair in front of an old carbon microphone, while his niece, Miss Eva Thompson, played his piano accompaniment.
Uncle Jimmy was about eighty years of age. He told us that he had recently come out with a blue ribbon in a big fiddlers' contest and shindig in Dallas, which had lasted about a week. WSM's studio was rather small and beautifully decorated in a quiet way with red drapes, suggesting a very dignified type of music. Uncle Jimmy was somewhat amazed, but by no means rattled or thrown for a loss. He was the p1rovert type and nothing about the radio seemed to bother him, not even the fact that it was a new proposition. After he had played for about an hour, we suggested very softly on account of the microphone that perhaps he had played enough. His reply came back not so softly: "Why shucks, a man don't get warmed up in an hour."
George D. Hay introduces Uncle Jimmy Thompson.
Uncle Jimmy was cantankerous and hard-drinking, and although he wasn't quite as old as Hay thought (seventy-seven, not eighty), he'd begun fiddling before the Civil War. He claimed that his fiddle, "Old Betsy," had come with his ancestors from Scotland. Despite his advanced years, he immediately saw the potential of radio. "I want to throw my music out all over the Americee," he told his niece. Seated in front of WSM's microphone, he'd yell out, "Tell the neighbors to send in their requests, and I'll play'em if it takes me all night." Like Judge Hay, Uncle Jimmy believed his music needed no more sophistication than it already had.
A guard at the National Life building said, "Hey, Uncle Jimmy, [classical violinist] Fritz Kreisler is in town. Would you like to hear him perform?" They gave him a ticket, and Uncle Jimmy went down to where Fritz Kreisler was performing. Anyway, Uncle Jimmy stayed down there about thirty or forty minutes, and the guard said, "How'd you like Fritz Kreisler?" Uncle Jimmy said, "Aw, he just kept practicin' and practicin'. He never did strike up a tune, so I left."
But as Hay's new barn-dance show became popular, Uncle Jimmy became more of a liability than an asset, and by 1928, he'd almost stopped appearing.
SAM KIRKPATRICK, Uncle Jimmy's neighbor:
I'll never forget the last night Uncle Jimmy played. He kinda liked his bottle pretty well. He was playin', and before he finished, there was this stopping, and we didn't hear nothin' for a minute. Then George Hay come on, and said Uncle Jimmy was sick tonight. Come to find out he'd just keeled over and passed out.
The unpolished performers led to unrelenting criticism of Hay's Barn Dance, and the fact that it stayed on the air infuriated Craig's country club friends. WSM, they argued, should enhance Nashville's reputation as the "Athens of the South," a place of commerce, culture, and learning. If anything, WSM should try to educate the "hillbillies," not pander to them. Craig, though, stood his ground.
Edwin Craig saved the Opry. He's the man who kept me from being run out of town and the Opry with me during those early days when we didn't know from week to week whether this community would let the Opry live. Every Monday morning brought a crisis. Conservative elements of Nashville's population railed against hillbilly music taking such a prominent place in the programming of this new station. Every week, I'd take my troubles to Mr. Edwin Craig, and he handled them in some way unknown to me. All I know is that the Barn Dance, as it was called then, stayed on the air.
Dr. Humphrey Bate: 3333
Almost as soon as it went on the air, WSM's Barn Dance attracted performers from in and around Nashville. They weren't paid, but didn't care because music was a pastime, not a profession. One of the show's early mainstays was a genial country physician from Sumner County, Tennessee, Dr. Humphrey Bate.
Dr. Humphrey Bate (left) led his band on WSM before the Opry started and was on one of Nashville's first stations, WDAD, before that.
Just a dozen or so long-unavailable recordings are the only tangible reminders of Dr. Bate, but his importance to the Opry in its early days was inestimable. He traveled widely and had a good ear. If he heard someone he liked, he'd recommend them to Judge Hay. Bate himself played the harmonica, and, as soon as he heard DeFord Bailey, he knew he'd found one of the instrument's finest practitioners.
DeFord Bailey: 1925
Dr. Bate wouldn't take no for an answer. They had a hard time getting me to go down there. I was ashamed of my little cheap harp and them with all them fine, expensive guitars, fiddles, and banjos. But Dr. Bate told me, "We're going to take you with us if we have to tote you." He told the Judge, "I will stake my reputation on the ability of this boy." The Judge knew at once he wanted me. He give me twodollars and told me to come back np1 week.
You can't x-ray it or do blueprints like a doctor or engineer to understand my style. It's just in me. I can't help it. I don't ask nobody to help me or show me how to do it. I just do it. You hear something all the time with my music. Other people's music is good, but it's missing something. I add time to vacant space.
DeFord Bailey had two showstoppers: an imitation of a railroad train and "The Fox Chase."
A letter to WSM's magazine, Our Shield, dated February 7, 1928, from MR. AND MRS. HOLLOWAY SMITH in Jefferson City, Missouri:
Needless to say, we thoroughly enjoy your Saturday night program. I have one request to make, and that is when your harmonica artist puts on the "Fox Hunt," that we are given some advance notice as to what to expect. Last night my old Irish Setter bird dog was laying in front of the fireplace when your artist reached the point in his playing where he repeated the words, "Get him, sic him," before anyone could interfere my old dog had turned over two floor lamps and a smoking stand.
DeFord Bailey. Hay dubbed him "the harmonica wizard." On show dates, few of which had amplification, he played through the megaphone seen here. To his right is a rack to create train effects.
Even with the beginning of a regular cast and steadily growing listener-ship, the future of WSM's Barn Dance remained uncertain. It was moved around various time slots until it became a fixture on Saturday night. Then, in 1927, it faced another threat when WSM joined the newly launched NBC network. NBC supplied networked shows from New York and Chicago during prime time, and the understanding was that its affiliates would fill in with locally produced shows at other times. Once again, Edwin Craig stepped in to defend the Barn Dance.
We almost lost our NBC affiliation at one point. The network reserved the right to preempt Saturday night time on all its stations, but we refused to go along with this. We felt that we were acting in the public interest by bringing good entertainment to people in our own community, so we took a firm stand. We became the only station in the whole network not obligated to give the network prime Saturday time.
Although Judge Hay was in charge of all local programming on WSM, the Barn Dance was the show closest to his heart. From its inception, he'd been on the lookout for a new name.
For the first two years, our Saturday night show was called the WSM Barn Dance, which, as a name, was a "dead head," as we would say in the newspaper game. But with the organization of NBC, and WSM's association with it, we carried practically full network service. It so happened that on Saturday nights from seven to eight o'clock WSM carried the Music Appreciation Hour, under the direction of the eminent composer and conductor Dr. Walter Damrosch. Dr. Damrosch always signed off his concert a minute or so before eight o'clock, just before we hit the air with our mountain minstrels. The change in pace and quality was immense, but that is part of America. The members of our radio audience who loved Dr. Damrosch and his symphony orchestra thought we should be shot at sunrise and did not hesitate to tell us so.
The monitor in our Studio B was turned on so that we would have a rough idea of the time which was fast approaching. At about five minutes to eight, [I] called for silence in the studio. Out of the loudspeaker came the very correct but accented voice of Dr. Damrosch: "While most artists realize that there is no place in the classics for realism, nevertheless I am going to break one of my own rules and present a composition by a young composer from 'Ioway,' who sent us his latest number, which depicts the onrush of a locomotive...." After which, the good doctor directed his symphony orchestra through the number, which carried many "shooses," depicting an engine trying to come to a full stop. Then he closed his program with his usual sign-off.
Our control operator gave us the signal which indicated we were on the air. [I] said something like this, "Friends, the program which has just come to a close was devoted to the classics. Dr. Damrosch told us that there is no place for realism in classical music. However, for the np1 three hours we will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the earthy. In respectful contrast to Dr. Damrosch's presentation which presents the onrush of a locomotive, we will call on one of our performers, DeFord Bailey, to give us his version of his 'Pan American Blues.'" At the close of it, [I] said, "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 earliest Grand Ole Opry souvenir folio, circa 1928.
No one is completely sure when the name change took place. National Life's in-house magazine, Our Shield, is the best guide. On December 27, 1927, the show was still billed as "Regular barn-dance program," but it was "The Grand Old Op'ry" one week later. According to Judge Hay's daughter, Margaret, he renamed it on December 10, 1927.
In later years, many artists would claim that they were there the night that WSM's Barn Dance became the Grand Ole Opry, but the lineup wasn't published. In fact, the casting was so informal that Judge Hay probably didn't have a good idea of who would be on the show until Satur-day evening came around.
FIDDLIN' SID HARKREADER, early Opry performer:
I played two tunes on my fiddle the night the Opry was named. The others who were in the studio that night were Dr. Humphrey Bate and his Possum Hunters, Burt Hutcherson, and DeFord Bailey, George Wilkerson and his Fruit Jar Drinkers, and the Binkley Brothers. [But at that time] everyone who could play an instrument or sing old-time country music was welcome. No one at any particular time. All they needed to do was just go by the station, and it was almost certain that they would get on the air.
Fiddlin' Sid Harkreader.
Grand Ole Opry cast, circa 1928.
Sam and Kirk McGee from Sunny Tennessee. Sam McGee: "Just as soon as word circulated about the Opry, the Barn Dance it was then, everybody got excited about it. Uncle Dave Macon and me were down in Alabama. He says, 'Let's go and play on that Barn Dance.' It wasn't any trouble to get on then because it was so new and they didn't have the people they needed."
SAM MCGEE, early Opry performer:
The Opry came down here and said they wanted players who were outstanding in the field—and that's where they found us, out standing in the field.
Although the Opry claims to have been on-air every Saturday night since November 28, 1925, the station itself was off the air from some point in December 1926 until January 7, 1927, as the wattage was increased. Then, in September 1928, the Opry was preempted by a political debate.
- On Sale
- Feb 28, 2009
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Center Street