- Historic Sites
Grand Ole Opry
The story of the world’s longest-running radio program and the extraordinary American music it helped make popular
February/March 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 2
The Nashville winter of 1974 was the Grand Ole Opry’s last season at the Ryman Auditorium, its home for thirty-three years. The 150 singers, pickers, comics, and doggers, who must agree to make twenty-one appearances each year to become members of the Opry company, had agreed to play down any misgivings they might have about moving out to the new Opryland, and four- and five-color brochures urged: “Come Share the Wonder of OPRYLAND , U.S.A., where the best of country music blends with the strains of Bluegrass, Dixieland, Western, Rock and all of the other exciting sounds of music from this great wide country of ours.”
Roy Acuff, the veteran “King of Country Music” whose rendition of “The Wabash Cannonball” is a country anthem, reportedly said he was glad to be moving out the nine miles on Route 40 East, that old Ryman was a firetrap, that he was worried about the walls falling down. But there were cynics like the beer drinker I talked to at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the tavern behind Ryman Hall that has acted as a watering hole for many of the stars and sidemen: “Why shouldn’t old Roy want to move?” he asked. “Ain’t they naming that roller coaster out there ‘The Wabash Cannonball’? By God, this is one old boy that ain’t setting foot inside that place. Hell, you can’t even buy a beer out there.” And a producer on Nineteenth Street, the center of the music publishing business: “Honey, Fm never going in there again. I went once and I had to leave. I began crying. Crying. That was the worst thing they could have done to country music. Oh, I just hate it. All that plastic and Astroturf. And that air conditioning is going to ruin country music. A country boy has got to sweat or he ain’t nothing.”
The final performance at Ryman Hall on March 9, 1974, in the old red-brick tabernacle, with the oak floors, the handcarved pews, the ecclesiastical windows, the tiny dressing rooms, and the galvanized steel trough in the men’s room, ended with Johnny Cash standing center stage with Maybelle Carter, Hank Snow, June Carter Cash, and fifty others singing the last number, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” During the show most of the cast had tried to make it seem like any other night at Ryman, but many wouldn’t, some couldn’t. Jean Shepard, right in the middle of her song, broke into tears and ran offstage crying. Pete Axthelm, who writes for Newsweek , was there and wrote, “I loved Jean Shepard for that burst of unconcealed emotion and I drank to her later, enthusiastically and at length in the bar [Tootsie’s] that the Opry left behind.”
The fifty-three-year-old Grand Ole Opry didn’t actually begin at Ryman Hall, but at Studio A in the National Life Building in downtown Nashville. Then it moved to the Hillsboro Theatre, then to the Dixie Tabernacle in East Nashville, then to the War Memorial building, and finally in 1941 to Ryman, whose beginnings run like a morality play. One hot summer night in 1891 Captain Tom Ryman, a hard-nosed riverboat captain whose big loves were drinking, raising hell, and breaking up revival meetings along the Cumberland River, docked his sidewheeler in Nashville. He stormed into a tent meeting with fifteen or twenty of his crewmen, intending to clear out Amen Row and drive the preacher from the pulpit. But Rev. Sam P. Jones, a leatherlunged Jesus shouter, was ready for him. As Captain Ryman started up the sawdust trail, Jones switched sermons and went into his favorite eulogy on Mother. Ryman stopped. He listened. Tears came to his eyes and he sank to the ground. When he arose, he was sanctified and reborn. And to the amazement of the congregation, and the agony of his crew, Tom Ryman announced that he would dedicate the rest of his mortal life to doing the Lord’s work, and that on the very spot where he was saved he would build the Ryman Tabernacle. Two years later the tabernacle was dedicated to the Gospel. With a seating capacity of thirty-three hundred, it eventually proved to be too large for Nashville Fundamentalism, and after years of serving as a convention hall, it finally became the home of Grand Ole Opry in 1941.
The first show at the new Opryland on March 16, 1974, began with Roy Acuff himself singing “The Wabash Cannonball.” Then he cocked his head into the mountain tenor of “You Are My Sunshine,” the song Jimmy Davis wrote and campaigned and won two terms as governor of Louisiana on in the fifties. Acuff himself had run for governor of Tennessee in the forties, and Tex Ritter, singing “High Noon” and “Boll Weevil,” had tried for the U.S. Senate in 1970. Acuff lost, as did Ritter, which may suggest something about Louisiana’s taste in music, or Tennessee politics.