The Grand Ole Opry
The Start of Country Music . . . .
The Grand Ole Opry started as the WSM Barn Dance in the new fifth-floor radio studio of the National Life & Accident Insurance Company in downtown Nashville on November 28, 1925. On October 18, 1925, management began a program featuring "Dr. Humphrey Bate and his string quartet of old-time musicians." On November 2, WSM hired long-time announcer and program director George D. "Judge" Hay, an enterprising pioneer from the National Barn Dance program at WLS in Chicago, who was also named the most popular radio announcer in America as a result of his radio work with both WLS and WMC in Memphis, Tennessee. Hay launched the WSM Barn Dance with 77-year-old fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson on November 28, 1925, which is celebrated as the birth date of the Grand Ole Opry.
Some of the bands regularly on the show during its early days included Bill Monroe, the Possum Hunters (with Dr. Humphrey Bate), the Fruit Jar Drinkers with Uncle Dave Macon, the Crook Brothers, the Binkley Brothers' Dixie Clodhoppers, Sid Harkreader, Deford Bailey, Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, and the Gully Jumpers.
Judge Hay, however, liked the Fruit Jar Drinkers and asked them to appear last on each show because he wanted to always close each segment with "red hot fiddle playing". They were the second band accepted on Barn Dance, with the Crook Brothers being the first. When the Opry began having square dancers on the show, the Fruit Jar Drinkers always played for them. 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 Grand Ole Opry - Six Different Locations
More than 90 years after the first Grand Ole Opry show was broadcast live on the radio, people in every corner of the globe recognize the Grand Ole Opry as the show that made country music famous.
Location #1: National Life & Accident Insurance Company
This is where the Grand Ole Opry got its start.
Location #2: Hillsboro Theatre (1934 – June 1936)
On October 3, 1934, the Opry moved into its first home outside the WSM studios - a small community playhouse near Vanderbilt that still operates today as the Belcourt Theatre. It was here that the Opry began selling advertising on the broadcast, and the show was divided into the sponsored segments that are still heard on the show today.
Location #3: Dixie Tabernacle (June 1936 – July 1939)
Beginning June 13, 1936, the Opry held court at a religious meeting hall on Fatherland Street in East Nashville called the Dixie Tabernacle. It was a rustic venue With a dirt floor, wooden plank benches and roll-up canvas walls. Here, advance tickets were first available –distributed to customers by National Life and Accident Insurance Company salesmen.
Pee Wee King & His Golden West Cowboys (Redd Stewart) debuted in the Grand Ole Opry in 1937-1947.
They were an unorthodox selection that made traditionalists uncomfortable: not just for their wardrobe(they wore sharply tailored, Western-style Nudie suits,) but also for their flashy, professional showmanship and for the polka and waltz rhythms that drove some of their songs. They remained regulars over the next ten years, during which time King also hosted his own radio show in Knoxville; they also evolved into more of a Western swing band.
King first used an amplified electric guitar on-stage at the Opry in 1940, and introduced drums to the Opry stage in 1947. During that run, several prominent vocalists passed through the ranks of the Golden West Cowboys, including Eddy Arnold, Cowboy Copas, Milton Estes, Tommy Sosebee, and Becky Barfield. The Golden West Cowboys recorded and toured as Minnie Pearl's backing band over 1941-1942, and worked with Ernest Tubb as well.
Location #4: War Memorial Auditorium (June 1939 – June 1943)
Completed in 1925, the War Memorial Auditorium was perhaps Nashville’s most elegant performance hall. It was during this time that an admission charge was first instituted – 25 cents. However, rowdy Opry fans eventually wore out their welcome and the Opry was forced to find a new venue.
(Pee Wee King & His Golden West Cowboys (Redd Stewart) debuted in the Grand Ole Opry in 1937-1947)
Location #5: Ryman Auditorium (June 1943 - March 1974)
Used today for 'Opry at the Ryman' and 'Opry Country Classics Shows.' The Ryman opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, Ryman Auditorium was built through the efforts of steamboat shipping magnate, Thomas G. Ryman. The Victorian tabernacle had no air conditioning or dressing rooms, but the Opry fit the Ryman beautifully. The show broadcast from the venue, which came to be known as the “Mother Church of Country Music,” until March 15, 1974.
Location #6: Grand Ole Opry House (March 1974 - Present)
The first venue built specifically as a home to the Grand Ole Opry, the Grand Ole Opry House opened on March 16, 1974 with a ceremony attended by President Richard M. Nixon, who played piano and sang on the show that night.
The venue was temporarily closed after receiving substantial damage in the historic flooding of May, 2010, but after five months of around-the-clock restoration work, the house was ready for the show to return. In March, 2014, the Grand Ole Opry House celebrated 40 years as home of the show that made country music famous.