Grand Ole Opry

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Not always a singer, Roy Acuff started off as a pro ballplayer for the New York Giants farm team, but sunstroke ended that career. Forced to stay indoors, he began to learn the fiddle. After traveling as a singer, picker, and comic with Dr. Howar’s Medicine Show, he organized his own band, the Crazy Tennesseans, but “Judge” George D. Hay, who ran the Opry at that time, told him the name slurred the state, so he changed it to the Smoky Mountain Boys, which it’s been since 1938. For the past forty years Roy Acuff and his sidemen have been playing at the Opry, touring the high schools of the state, the state fairs of the country, and the coliseums of the world. He is very honest about his talent. “I think I brought a different voice to the Opry,” he recalled for Jack Hurst, author of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry . “Most of the people back then were crooners. They sang soft, and they sang harmony, where I would just open my mouth and fill my lungs with air, and let it go with force. … I didn’t realize how different my singing was from the rest until my mail started coming in. The letters I got would mention how clear I was coming through and how distinct my voice was and how they could understand my words.” Hurst explains that “The mechanical equipment available was too primitive to be able to transmit a very clear sound from the undisciplined live show. In the din, Acuff’s brief and impassioned solo spots stood out like gun shots at midnight.”

Roy Acuff once told me why he sang the same songs over and over and over again. He dodged the question at first. “You know, sometimes I’ll be singing along, like on ‘The Great Speckled Bird/ and if I get the right feeling going I’ll almost cry. That’s the kind of song you can sing every week for forty years, and each time you go at it, it’s a little different. It’s from Jeremiah, twelfth chapter, ninth verse.” But then he leaned forward and handled the question beautifully: “Of course, you’re right I got me a problem now, and there just ain’t no way out of it. People say, all old Roy ever sings is ‘The Great Speckled Bird’ and ‘The Wabash Cannonball.” … Lot of them think that’s all I know. But you know something, there ain’t a day that goes by that some fellow doesn’t come in here and say, ‘Roy, me and the wife’s been listening to the Opry for thirty years, and this is our first time here. Do me a favor, Roy. It’s her birthday, and we done drove all the way down from Wisconsin. How about playing ‘The Wabash Cannonball.’ ” And Roy shook his head. “Now tell me, how’m I going to turn my back on something like that?”

Following Acuff on this, the first show from the new Opryland, in alphabetical order were Bill Anderson, Jim Ed Brown, and Jerry Glower, the Mississippi comedian, Wilma Lee and Stony Cooper with their upbeat version of “Midnight Special,” Stonewall Jackson, Hank Snow and his ageless “Movin” On,” Ernest Tubb with “I’m Walking the Floor Over You,” Dottie West doing “Country Sunshine,” and twentyfive more stars performing twenty-five more numbers.

But the high point of the evening came halfway through the program when the WSM staff band brought President Nixon down from the balcony with a bluegrass version of “Hail to the Chief.” Acuff introduced him and, together, they clowned around about moonshine and country music and even toyed with Yo-yos (an Acuff trademark) before Nixon made a solemn little speech about Middle America and Family, Religion, and Humanity. Then he sat down at the piano to play “Happy Birthday” and “My Wild Irish Rose” for his wife, Pat, and “God Bless America”—the whole Opry cast singing along—before waving his famous V-fingered salute and heading back to Washington and Watergate.

Garrison Keillor, a disc jockey out of St. Paul who was assigned to cover the opening for The New Yorker magazine, had decMed he couldn’t bear to hear the old music he was raised cnrplayed in the new auditorium. He didn’t want to sit in the “specially designed contoured pew-type benches covered in burnt orange colored carpeting,” or to lay eyes on this “vibrant and viable building that conveys a feeling of intimacy, informality, warmth and charm … yet contains the ultimate in modern electronics, acoustics, lighting and audio-visual equipment,” all as described in an Opryland brochure. Listening to the show on his radio in a downtown motel, he writes that he closed his eyes. “I could see the stage as clearly as when I was a kid lying in front of our giant Zenith console. I’d seen a photograph of the Opry stage in a magazine back then, and believe me, one is all you need.” He listened to most of the show: “And then—then—the moment I’d been waiting for. Sam and Kirk McGee from sunny Tennessee played ‘San Antonio Rose.’ It was the accoustic moment when the skies cleared and the weeping steels were silent and out of the clear blue came a little ole guitar duet. Stunning and simple, and so good after all the sound I’d heard that week—the sweetest ‘Rose’ this side of Texas. I turned out the light, turned off the radio, and went to sleep on it. In the morning, the radio was on the floor, its plastic cover cracked. I believe it would still work, but I will never play it again. It is my only Opry souvenir. Inside it the McGee Brothers are still picking and will forever, Minnie Pearl cackles, the Crooks are dancing, Jim and Jesse ascend into heavenly harmony, and the Great Acuff rides the Wabash Cannonball to the lakes of Minnesota, where the rippling waters fall.”