History of the Opry
Will The Circle Be Unbroken?
The six-foot circle of dark, oak wood in the Opry House stage is shiny but clearly well worn. Cut from the stage of the Opry's famous former home, the Ryman Auditorium, this circle gives newcomers and veterans alike the opportunity to sing on the same spot that once supported Uncle Dave Macon, Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, and others.
"That circle is the most magical thing when you're a performer," says Brad Paisley, "to stand there and get to sing on those same boards that probably still contain dust from Hank Williams' boots."
Many things about the Opry have changed over the years - its members, the sound of its music, even its home. But there's always that oak-solid center to remind every singer or musician who steps inside that they take part in something much larger than themselves, that wherever they go they have a connection to the legends and the giants who came before them.
As that wooden circle is the heart of the stage, the Opry's heart is its music and its members - a broad scope of styles by a wide range of artists.
"The Grand Ole Opry celebrates country music's diversity," says Opry general manager Pete Fisher. "In addition, the Opry presents the many generations of artists who have formed country music's legacy and continue to forge its future course."
Indeed, during any given Opry show, audiences can expect the best in country, bluegrass, comedy, gospel, and more by Country Music Hall of Famers, cast members who helped establish the Opry as the home of country music, revered superstars, and young artists just starting to make names for themselves.
The Grand Ole Opry began just five years after commercial radio was born in the United States. In 1925, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company built a radio station as a public service to the local community and with the hope that the new medium could advertise insurance policies. The station's call letters, WSM, stood for the company's motto: "We Shield Millions."
Soon after going on the air, National Life hired one of the nation's most popular announcers, George D. Hay, as WSM's first program director. Hay, a former Memphis newspaper reporter who'd most recently started a barn dance show on Chicago radio powerhouse WLS, joined the station's staff a month after it went on the air. At 8 p.m. on November 28, 1925, Hay pronounced himself "The Solemn Old Judge" (though he was actually only 30 years old) and launched, along with championship fiddler, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, what would become the WSM Barn Dance.
Hay's weekly broadcasts continued and proved enormously popular, and he renamed the show the Grand Ole Opry in 1927. Crowds soon clogged hallways as they gathered to observe the performers, prompting the National Life company to build an acoustically designed auditorium capable of holding 500 fans. When WSM radio increased broadcasting power to 50,000 watts in 1932, most of the United States and parts of Canada could tune into the Opry on Saturday nights, broadening the show's outreach.
The new space wasn't enough to keep up with the audience's increasing enthusiasm for the weekly show. The Opry went through a number of homes in several parts of Nashville before settling, in 1943, at the Ryman Auditorium, a former religious meeting house built in 1892 by riverboat shipping magnate Captain Thomas Ryman for traveling evangelist, Reverend Samuel Jones.
The Opry stayed at the Ryman for nearly 31 years. Many of the show's legends spent most of their Opry runs there. (Only in late 2004 did the Grand Ole Opry House pass the Ryman as the Opry's most enduring home.)
The popularity of the Opry shows was star driven. Until 1938, the show had emphasized instrumental performances. Any singer was subordinate to the band. All that changed when young Roy Acuff joined the cast that year. His performance of "The Great Speckled Bird" his first night forever changed the Opry.
The show's popularity also was enhanced after the NBC Radio Network began carrying the show in 1939. Sponsored by Prince Albert Tobacco, the network show featured Opry stars Uncle Dave Macon, Acuff, Deford Bailey, and Hay. In October 1943, the Prince Albert Show segment, with Acuff hosting, began airing nationally on more than 140 NBC affiliates.
Throughout the '40s, Opry stars spent weekends performing on the show in Nashville and weekdays traveling around the nation, performing first in tent shows and later in auditoriums. Artists and musicians crammed into automobiles and later buses as they became ambassadors for country music and the Grand Ole Opry.
Ernest Tubb took a group of Opry stars to New York's Carnegie Hall in 1947. Another Opry group played Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., that same year. The Opry's first European tour in 1949 took Red Foley, Acuff , Minnie Pearl, Rod Brasfield, Little Jimmy Dickens, Hank Williams, and others to U.S. military bases in England, Germany, and the Azores. And in 1961, an Opry troupe including Patsy Cline, Grandpa Jones, Bill Monroe, and Jim Reeves played Carnegie Hall a second time.
The touring tradition has continued. In 1991, the Opry conducted a 10-city Grand Ole Opry Tour to celebrate the show's 65th anniversary. In 2004, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Del McCoury, and others reprised an Opry tour. And the Opry's 80th anniversary festivities included a return trip to Carnegie Hall and a visit to Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center.
Even as it held tightly to its traditions, the Opry took advantage of new technologies and opportunities. In 1955, Ralston Purina began sponsoring an hour-long regional-network television show from the Ryman stage featuring Opry stars. And in 1974, the Opry moved from the Ryman to a new, larger facility at the heart of a multi-million-dollar entertainment complex nine miles from downtown Nashville.
The 1970s also saw the simple little radio show televised live for the first time. The national PBS Television Network televised the show on March 4, 1978, and annually through 1981. Then in April 1985, a half-hour segment of the Opry began airing each Saturday night on TNN as Grand Ole Opry Live. Opry Backstage, a live 30-minute series that aired before Grand Ole Opry Live, began in 1987. Opry Live eventually expanded to a full hour show that was featured first on Country Music Television (CMT) and later on Great American Country (GAC).
As country's popularity boomed during the 1980s, Opry management ensured the show's future by adding a new generation of stars to the roster, beginning with the induction of Ricky Skaggs, Lorrie Morgan, Reba McEntire, Ricky Van Shelton, and Holly Dunn. By the end of the 1990s, many of country's top superstars - including Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Steve Wariner, Diamond Rio, and Trisha Yearwood - could call the Opry home. The Opry's additions in the new century reflect the show's commitment to a broad range of country music. Recent inductees have included bluegrass greats Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury, second-generation singer Pam Tillis, and award-winners Trace Adkins, Brad Paisley, and Carrie Underwood.
Today, there are more ways to enjoy the Grand Ole Opry than ever before. From March through December, there are the Tuesday Night Opry shows. There's the two-hour radio program, America's Opry Weekend, syndicated nationwide. Just as country greats like Jeannie Seely and Jim Ed Brown grew up listening to the Opry on radio, future generations of Opry stars also may hear it on the Internet, on satellite radio, or via the American Forces Network.
However they hear it, and wherever they come from, those future Opry stars will one day take their place inside that famed round piece of stage. They will enter the circle that remains unbroken, and they will feel the presence of the hundreds who've come before. They will know the value of remaining genuine and honest, and they will continue to entertain millions while keeping founder George D. Hay's first commandment: "Keep 'er down to Earth, boys!”