Playing to America's Heart - the Grand Ole Opry at 75

By Henkin, Stephen | The World and I, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Playing to America's Heart - the Grand Ole Opry at 75


Henkin, Stephen, The World and I


Who would have guessed that an eighty-year-old fiddler would start America's longest-running radio show and set the stage for the Grand Ole Opry?

The sturdy pioneers who crossed the Appalachians and settled in what is now Tennessee brought with them fiddles, stories, music, and something more--a love of freedom and a deep respect for the meaning of family. The eastern seaboard was becoming too crowded for their tastes, and there was still a need for adventure among these free spirits. When evening fell at the campsites and homesteads, the fiddles came out, a jig was danced--re-creating a scene that harkened back to the British Isles.

Today, this lively, "down-home" musical tradition lives on in the form of American country music, which still centers its themes on family, patriotism, and a firm belief that the common man will do good, no matter how trying the circumstances. The shrine embodying these values is none other than Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, the world's longest- running live radio show (Nashville station WSM, 650 on the AM dial). Last October, the Opry celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary with a bash that brought out country music's brightest stars, from current and past generations.

The celebration was a memorable one, including performances by cast members Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Little Jimmy Dickens, Loretta Lynn, Trisha Yearwood, Porter Wagoner, and many others. (The Opry kicked off its birthday last June by unveiling a new, million- dollar set and its worldwide debut via Internet audio-streaming. Festivities will continue through this spring.)

"This landmark birthday celebrates the artists and fans who have contributed to the Opry's seventy-five-year legacy," said Pete Fisher, the Opry's general manager. "Looking onto a stage filled with generations of performers and into a house packed with fans, we can't help but be excited about the possibilities of the next seventy-five years."

Synonymous with country music, the Grand Ole Opry has played at eight venues over the years. Its story began on November 28, 1925, when an announcer on Nashville station WSM introduced an eighty-year-old fiddle player, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, as the first performer on a new show called The WSM Barn Dance. For the Opry's first song, Thompson, who claimed he could "fiddle the taters off the vine," played "Tennessee Wagoner" on his fiddle, "Old Betsy." Afterward, Thompson jested: "Why shucks, a man don't get warmed up in an hour. I just won an eight-day fiddling contest in Dallas."

'Solemn Old Judge'

The show's announcer was George Hay, a former newspaperman who labeled himself "the Solemn Old Judge" but in actuality was neither old nor a judge. Hay always opened the Opry by blowing a wooden steamboat whistle (which he called "Hushpuckena"), followed by the refrain "Let 'er go, boys." According to Hay, the Opry would "be down to earth for the earthy." The first show lasted an hour, and fans requested songs by sending telegrams to the station.

"Each Saturday night brought more than its quota of people who wanted to watch our broadcast," Hay noted. "They milled around for several hours, and most of them stuck to the finish. They were hungry for the rhythm of the soil and the heart songs, plus the rural flavor and humor which spiced it." Indeed, country-music fans weren't just hungry, they were starving. In fact, "WSM had a good-natured riot on its hands," Hay remarked on the rapid growth in popularity of The WSM Barn Dance.

DeFord Bailey joined the Opry in 1926 as its first black member, becoming nationally known as the "Harmonica Wizard," and was a regular until 1941. Uncle Dave Macon, who carried three banjos tuned in different keys, made his debut at age 55; he joined the cast as a regular in April 1926. Uncle Dave entertained Opry fans with his no- holds-barred playing until just three weeks before he died in 1952.

The station was owned by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company--its slogan being "We Shield Millions" (thus, WSM)--and the studio where Hay and Thompson started everything was on the fifth floor of the insurance company's building in downtown Nashville. …

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