Inside the Music | The Grand Ole Opry | War Years | Country

Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry is the oldest continuously broadcast live music programme in the world. Since it hit the airways in 1926, it has served as a springboard for dozens of key artists’ rise to national fame. Its presence in Nashville was central to the growth of the city’s music industry.

Opry Origins

The Opry started almost by accident one day in 1926 when George D. Hay – station director at Radio WSM – made a last-minute decision to substitute Uncle Jimmy Thompson, a local fiddle player, for a preacher who failed to show up for his daily programme. Listener response was immediate and favourable. Soon Hay expanded the programme with other local musicians, including banjo player and raconteur Uncle Dave Macon (1870–1952), a string band called The Possum Hunters and a gifted black harmonica player named DeFord Bailey.

The Opry was actually pre-dated by other popular radio ‘barn-dance’-style shows with a country format. Foremost among these were Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride, Chicago’s National Barndance and Wheeling, West Virginia’s Wheeling Jamboree. But the Opry soon took on a personality all its own and gradually achieved a national popularity that eclipsed all its radio rivals. By the early 1930s, WSM had boosted its signal to a powerful 50,000 watts that by night was heard in 30 states and parts of Canada. The Saturday evening live music and comedy presentation was gradually expanded to three hours.

The Ryman Auditorium

In the early 1940s, the Opry began broadcasting from what is still called ‘The Mother Church Of Country Music’: the c. 1889, 3,000-seat Ryman Auditorium, in downtown Nashville. By the early 1940s, the Opry – by then in its second decade – had also dramatically expanded and diversified its artist roster to include everything from comedy and old-time string-band music to early honky-tonk and western swing.

By the late 1940s, the Opry had begun to overtake in popularity similar regional country radio shows in Chicago, Wheeling, Shreveport and elsewhere. Gradually it was becoming a musical institution whose name was almost synonymous with country music. As a result, the Opry became a magnet and a springboard for many of the era’s most talented and original young artists, ranging from smooth, middle-of-the-road singers like Red Foley (1910–68) and hardcore country singers like Roy Acuff (1903–92) to bluegrass music king Bill Monroe (1911–96). Some, like Hank Snow (1914–99), came from as far away as Canada’s Maritime Provinces to be part of the show.

Nashville’s Finest

The rise of the Opry was also a major factor in the gradual concentration and growth of the Nashville music industry, as more and more record labels, publishing companies, managements and booking agencies began to set up operations in the city. Thus, by the early 1960s, Tennessee’s state capital had also become a worldwide music capital, known far and wide as ‘Music City’.

Over the years, a host of country greats – Acuff, Hank Williams and Snow among them – have parlayed their status as Opry...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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