Opry Influencers: Some of the Legendary Stars Who Shaped Country Music
When you think of influencers, you likely think of the latest viral star on social media, but these influencers are artists who brought their raw talent to the stage to help form what we know as country music and the Opry today.
These legendary stars are just a few who shaped the show that we all know as the Grand Ole Opry.
Uncle Dave Macon
A natural showman, Uncle Dave Macon combined gregarious, folksy wit with skillful banjo work, blending musicianship and humor in a way that remains an Opry hallmark to this day. Macon was well into his 50s when he first played what was then known as the WSM Barn Dance, and he became one of the Opry’s earliest regulars and biggest draws. That little bit of vaudeville that still shows up on the Opry stage, that’s a remnant of the Dixie Dewdrop’s legacy nearly 70 years after he strummed his final chord.
Harmonica wizard DeFord Bailey wasn’t merely one of the Grand Ole Opry’s first stars — he was the first musician to perform the Saturday that announcer George D. Hay coined the name of the world’s longest-running radio show that would become famous. Bailey, whose tunes helped popularize his instrument in the United States, boasted another first, as well: He was the first musician to hold a recording session in Nashville, setting the stage for a scene that would change the world.
When Acuff joined the Opry in 1938, he was one of the few cast members who made his living entirely from music. Fortunately, he was an astute businessman: He and wife Mildred co-founded the Acuff-Rose publishing company that built the foundation for Nashville’s reputation as a songwriters’ town. During an Opry career that spanned 54 years, the singer of “Wabash Cannonball” and “The Great Speckled Bird” was largely responsible for the show’s shift from a stringband barn-dance focus into a vehicle for star voices. Acuff’s name was so synonymous with the Opry that he spent his final years living in a house on the Opry plaza, where he often would greet fans.
Bill Monroe created bluegrass on the Opry stage. It’s really that simple. He’d come close to that sound even before joining the show in 1939, but when he debuted a band that included guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo player Earl Scruggs in 1945, everything clicked into place. More than 20 years after his passing, any bluegrass band worth its salt can rip through Monroe-penned classics like “Uncle Pen,” “Raw Hide” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Through the years, the Opry’s cast has included several alumnae of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys — Flatt, Scruggs, Stringbean, Del McCoury — and the musical giant nicknamed Big Mon made an indelible impact on subsequent Opry ‘grassers like Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent.
When Minnie Pearl debuted on the Opry stage in 1940, she was one of the earliest female stand-up comedians, preceding the likes of Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers by more than a decade. The small-town spinster with a price tag hanging from her wide-brimmed hat was an Opry fixture for 50 years. Offstage, Miss Minnie was known as Sarah Cannon, a beloved woman who bridged the worlds of the Opry and Nashville social life, living for years next to the Tennessee governor’s mansion and eventually lending her name to the nationally recognized Sarah Cannon Cancer Center. A National Medal of Arts winner, she influenced Southern and rural humorists ranging from Jerry Clower and Chonda Pierce to Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Engvall. Garth Brooks and Amy Grant named daughters after her. To paraphrase one of Minnie’s favorite greetings, we’re just so proud she could be here.
The Texas Troubadour, an Opry member from 1943-1984, pioneered what became known as honky-tonk music with classics like “Walking the Floor Over You.” Tubb also was responsible for spreading country music’s popularity and giving a leg up to young artists. He launched one of country’s first fan clubs and also started a record store that still operates in downtown Nashville, around the corner from the Ryman Auditorium. In 1947, the same year he led the Opry’s first venture to New York’s Carnegie Hall, he started the “Midnight Jamboree,” a long-running radio show that aired after the Opry and gave an early platform to future stars including Opry members Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn.
“Little” Jimmy Dickens
“Little” Jimmy Dickens may have stood on 4’11”, but his impact on the Opry was massive. One of the most-loved performers in show’s long history, his Opry career spanned nearly 70 years, serving as a direct link from the days of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb and Bill Monroe to those of Carrie Underwood, Trace Adkins and Brad Paisley, in whose videos he frequently appeared. Dickens also was the first Opry star to wear a rhinestone-studded suit designed by famed Los Angeles tailor Nudie Cohn, forever changing the way the Opry looked.
Hank Williams’ first Opry performances in 1949 acted like a country music shot heard ‘round the world. Williams and the Opry were part of each other’s lives for barely three troubled years, but together they created a legend that would last forever. Williams changed the kinds of songs country stars sang with hits like “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Lone Gone Lonesome Blues” and “Cold, Cold Heart” — which all topped the charts during his Opry tenure — and posthumously released records like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” considered classics to this day. There’s not a country artist that has come along since who doesn’t owe Williams a great debt.
Known for his sequined and rhinestoned suits and his bright, toothy smile, Porter Wagoner was a trailblazer during his 50 years as an Opry member. He loved to push boundaries, taking his syndicated television show throughout the country during the ‘60s and ‘70s, as well as inviting James Brown on the Opry in 1979. He was a great talent scout, too: Dolly Parton came to the Opry and national renown via that TV show. But most of all, Wagoner was welcoming, someone who’d open his jacket to reveal the word “HI” stitched into the lining in letters a foot hi so even the people in the back could see. Wagoner became the Opry’s unofficial ambassador after Roy Acuff’s passing in 1992 and, like Acuff, had his own backstage dressing room (Marty Stuart has that room now) — and being invited in was rightly recognized as a great honor.
Two Tennessee icons: Dolly Parton and the Grand Ole Opry. Parton — who made her first Opry appearance at age 13 and joined the cast in 1969 — never loses sight of her East Tennessee roots, whether she’s on the Opry stage, making a movie or accepting a Living Legend Award from the Library of Congress. With decades of classic songs like “Jolene,” “My Tennessee Mountain Home” and, of course, “I Will Always Love You,” she’s a worldwide icon who takes a little bit of the Opry with her everywhere she goes. Like the Opry, Parton warmly accepts everyone into her circle. As a songwriter, businessperson and entertainer, she’s a role model for all country artists. Plus, here’s 50 more reasons we love Dolly.
“The only reason any of us learned to play was to collaborate and play with someone else,” Vince Gill once said, and that camaraderie is a hallmark of his time at the Opry. Gill’s Opry tenure has been marked by his willingness to step into any role, not just the man behind the mic but segment host, spokesperson and sideman as well. With his unparalleled musicianship and generosity, he serves as an ambassador and elder statesman for the current generation of Opry stars the way artists like Roy Acuff and Porter Wagoner once did. Gill possesses deep devotion to the Opry and respect for the members who came before him; in fact, he’s sung many of them home with his “Go Rest High on That Mountain” at their memorial services.
Marty Stuart is a tradition-bearer, a keeper of the flame. As a 13-year-old, he was a member of Opry great Lester Flatt’s band and later toured with Johnny Cash for many years. Two of his biggest hits, “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’” and “This One’s Gonna Hurt You (For a Long, Long Time),” came as collaborations with fellow Opry star Travis Tritt. Five years after joining the Opry cast, he married one of the show’s legends, Connie Smith. Stuart produced Porter Wagoner’s final album and hosted an RFD-TV show that featured many Opry members as guests and Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs as his sidekick. The past, the present and the future of the Grand Ole Opry all pass through Stuart.
For years, Charley Pride had a standing offer to join the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. He made his debut on the show in January 1967, not long after releasing his first single, “Just Between You and Me.” Though he declined membership the first time the Opry offered, knowing that since he lived in Texas he wouldn’t be able to make the commitment, he often toured in packages presented by the Opry. By finally joining the cast in 1993, he’d become one of country’s true superstars, with dozens of chart-topping hits, including “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” and “All I Have to Offer You Is Me.” He also was the show’s first African American member since DeFord Bailey.
Within weeks of winning American Idol in 2005 — the first country singer to take the Idol title — she was singing on the Opry stage. She came back again and again, as her fame grew and songs like “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats” topped the charts. Less than three years after making her debut, Randy Travis invited her to become an Opry member — then Garth Brooks showed up to induct her. In the years since, the Oklahoma native has shown she deserves her place with the giants of the past as she paves the way for a new generation of Opry stars.