What is the Opry?
The Story Behind The Show That Made Country Music Famous
GRAND OLE OPRY: THE SHOW THAT MADE COUNTRY MUSIC FAMOUS
By Robert K. OermannLittle by little, the national media began to notice a shift in the balance of power in America's music business during the years following World War II. New York's Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood's movie soundtracks still ruled mainstream pop music, but a network radio show beamed from Nashville was making waves with a newly popular national sound. The show was the Grand Ole Opry, and the sound was country music.
"Finding the 'pop' field unable or unwilling to supply them with new songs, country singers went ahead and wrote or searched out their own," stated a New York Times Magazine piece in 1951. "Then they sang, recorded and published them. The center for this activity inevitably became Nashville, for it is the home of a fabulous radio program called 'Grand Ole Opry.'"
"Counry Music Is Big Business, and Nashville Is Its Detroit," headlined Newsweek a year later. "Once found, the talent is almost invariably turned over to WSM and the Grand Ole Opry," stated the magazine's article. "Besides [Roy] Acuff, the other top stars at WSM include Red Foley...and Hank Williams...the king of the hillbilly composers."
In 1953, Nation's Business chimed in with "Country Music Goes to Town." It read, in part, "What brought this homely music out of the backroads and into great popularity nationally - and now internationally - was radio in general and in particular station WSM....Through country music, Nashville is now a phonograph-recording center comparable to New York and Hollywood. WSM has become the 'big time' to country musicians."
"The mecca of all country and Western music lovers is Nashville, Tennessee, where the famous radio program Grand Ole Opry originates," stated Good Housekeeping in 1954. "On this program appear the leading singers of hillbilly music," the periodical added succinctly.
Like clockwork, another national magazine offered its "news" of the Opry's prominence in 1955. This time it was The Reporter. "Sponsored by Station WSM and broadcast every Saturday night from the Ryman Auditorium, 'Grand Ole Opry' is the biggest hoedown in the history of hoedowns," read the article. "It usually plays to a packed house of three and a half thousand at the Ryman, with another one or two thousand waiting outside for vacant seats. These thousands, on the average, represent devotees from thirty-eight different states come to view their favorite artists."
With each year, it seems, came a new reporter to marvel at the business the Opry had created. In 1956, it was the mighty Life magazine, which wrote, "The primary source of Nashville's music is some 150 performers who are employed by the 'Grand Ole Opry,' started by station WSM and now the oldest continuous commercial radio show in America."
In 1961, Sponsor Magazine finally said outright what everyone else had been suggesting: "It is roughly estimated that about 70% of the country music records produced are by Grand Ole Opry artists....The Opry and WSM are credited with a large part in making the city of Nashville the Tin Pan Valley of the United States."
That last piece was written to coincide with a 1961 performance by a Grand Ole Opry troupe in Manhattan's Carnegie Hall. And what a troupe it was - Bill Monroe, Marty Robbins, Minnie Pearl, The Jordanaires, Grandpa Jones, Jim Reeves, Faron Young and Patsy Cline, superstars one and all. They were just the latest in a long line of Grand Ole Opry greats who led country music to fame.
In fact, it had been another Grand Ole Opry star who'd originally opened Carnegie Hall's doors to country music nearly 15 years earlier. In 1947, the Opry's Ernest Tubb headlined in that hallowed venue. Buoyed by the massive success of his hit "Walking the Floor Over You," Tubb had come to the Opry in 1943. During the next four decades he would be one of the Opry's "pillars," introducing such standards as "Thanks a Lot," "Blue Christmas," "Goodnight Irene" (with Red Foley) and "Waltz Across Texas."
Two years after Tubb's arrival, Opry star Bill Monroe hired Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs for his Blue Grass Band. When the new lineup premiered on the Opry at the Ryman Auditorium in late 1945, audiences went crazy for its new supercharged sound. Bluegrass music was born on the Opry stage, and most of its greatest practitioners have since been members of the cast - from Jim & Jesse, The Osborne Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs down to The Del McCoury Band, Alison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs.
Bluegrass music emerged as a revved-up version of the old-time string band sound that had been a mainstay on the Grand Ole Opry stage since the show's infancy in 1925. During the World War II era, string-band music's greatest star was the Opry's Roy Acuff. In fact, he became known as "The King of Country Music." Acuff's mountaineer delivery made hits of such enduring songs as "Great Speckled Bird," "Wabash Cannonball" and "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain."
Roy Acuff is also a key figure in the founding of Nashville's music business. In late 1942 he and WSM pianist Fred Rose formed Acuff-Rose Publishing to promote his popular Opry songs. One of the songs they published was "The Tennessee Waltz." Written by Opry stars Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart, this song's immense popularity was the initial inspiration for that rash of magazine articles in the early 1950s.
Acuff-Rose also signed "The Hillbilly Shakespeare," Grand Ole Opry superstar Hank Williams. The most influential singer-songwriter in country-music history, Williams left behind such melody monuments as "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Jambalya," "Cold, Cold Heart," "Mansion on the Hill," "Hey Good Lookin,'" "Kaw-Liga" and "Take These Chains from My Heart." And along with Ernest Tubb, he was the patriarch of a long honky-tonk singing tradition at the Opry that includes Lefty Frizzell, George Jones, Charley Pride, Randy Travis and Josh Turner.
Fred Rose wasn't the only WSM graduate who became a founder of Nashville's music business. Pianist Owen Bradley was on the staff at the station, too. Guitarist Chet Atkins performed regularly on the Opry, both in solo instrumental slots and backing everyone from Hank Williams to The Carter Sisters. Bradley and Atkins built the first recording studios on what became known worldwide as Music Row.
The path to Music Row was laid by yet another Grand Ole Opry performer. In late 1944, Eddy Arnold became the first modern country star to record in Nashville. His sessions mark the birth of the city as a recording center. Arnold would go on to become the biggest selling country superstar of his era and the voice behind such timeless songs as "Anytime," "You Don't Know Me," "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye," "Bouquet of Roses," "I Really Don't Want to Know" and "Make the World Go Away."
In addition to bringing "The King of Country Music" to prominence, the Grand Ole Opry also provided the style with its "Queen of Country Music." Kitty Wells sang "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels" at the Opry, inaugurating a hit streak that also included "Making Believe," "Release Me" and "I Can't Stop Loving You." The only other prominent female Opry cast member of the early 1950s was comedian Minnie Pearl, who had costarred at both of the Opry's Carnegie Hall shows. She went on to become a beloved Nashville institution, a guest on virtually every network TV variety show and a costar of the annual Comic Relief national benefit shows for the homeless.
As musical tastes shifted, the Grand Ole Opry shifted with them. Johnny Cash arrived at the show in 1956 and graduated from its cast in 1965 to become a superstar and a national icon. The Everly Brothers also brought the new sounds of youth to the show in 1957-1959. Cash and the Everlys (plus Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and Chet Atkins in "Influence" categories) are unique as Opry stars who became members of both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.
When the pop flavored songs of The Nashville Sound came into vogue, the Opry promoted most of their greatest vocalists. Master showman Marty Robbins was a member of the show's cast throughout his professional life, which spanned such classic performances as "El Paso," "Don't Worry," "Singing the Blues" "You Gave Me a Mountain" and "My Woman, My Woman, My Wife." Like Robbins, Nashville Sound song stylist Jim Reeves had his music accepted on the pop as well as country charts. "He'll Have to Go," "Four Walls," "Welcome to My World" and "Am I Losing You" are among the Reeves standards. Patsy Cline's records are the ultimate Nashville Sound creations, and she remains the all-time benchmark for female country singing. This Opry superstar's greatest moments on disc include "I Fall to Pieces," "Crazy," "Sweet Dreams" and "Walkin' After Midnight."
Cline paved the way for a whole generation of female stars on the Grand Ole Opry. During her lifetime, she befriended Dottie West, Loretta Lynn, Jan Howard and Barbara Mandrell, all of whom succeeded her as Opry stars. Then Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and Connie Smith ushered in an era that brought Emmylou Harris and Reba McEntire into the Opry fold. They have since been joined by greats such as Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood.
Through the years, the Opry has promoted these country stars and their songs via a series of technological advancements. When WSM was founded in 1925, it was one of the strongest radio signals in the South. In 1932, its power was boosted to 50,000 watts of clear-channel broadcasting, meaning the Opry could easily be heard by anyone within a 750-mile radius of Nashville. The Opry was broadcast weekly over NBC national-network radio in 1943-1960. It was an ABC TV network show in 1955-56. PBS began broadcasting the Opry live in 1978. In 1985, the Opry commenced its run as a weekly cable television show. In 2000, it was launched on the Internet.
The Opry continued to evolve musically as well. Before he was a country-music "outlaw," Willie Nelson was in the Grand Ole Opry cast in 1964-1970. Willie's fellow renegade Charlie Daniels remains in the show's cast today. The Opry has been musically flexible enough to embrace traditionalist Porter Wagoner in the 1950s, pop-country superstar Ronnie Milsap in the 1970s and "young country" stylists Diamond Rio in the 1990s. Bill Anderson, Mel Tillis and Tom T. Hall stand tall as Grand Ole Opry stars who are members of both The Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
The other current Opry star who can claim this distinction is Vince Gill. He is part of a remarkable group of artists who rose to fame in 1989-90 and lifted country music sales to unprecedented heights. Gill's peers in this regard are Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt and Garth Brooks. All are songwriters. All are distinctive vocal stylists. And all five men are Opry cast members.
The Grand Ole Opry promotes the music of everyone from senior citizens Jimmy Dickens and Jean Shepard to hotshot youngsters Dierks Bentley, Trace Adkins and Brad Paisley. This multi-generational approach has served the show well for more than 80 years. It is one reason why the Opry can say with pride that it is "The Show That Made Country Music Famous."