- 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
Despite the controversy over the old and the new auditoriums and the fact that over 2,000,000 of the faithful drive their lives out (average distance 470 miles one way to come to Nashville) every year to be with the stars and tour the homes and buy the souvenirs, and that another 20,000,000 see the Opry on syndicated TV, the show, regardless of its trappings, began as a radio program and is still conducted like one. It’s been described as “organized chaos,” with groups tuning up, friends visiting friends, agents arranging dates, songwriters plugging songs, and an occasional subpoena server standing in the wings waiting for the star to finish to get him back on his alimony payments. But while it’s bedlam onstage, the only sound that goes out to the audience and the radio listeners is the sound from the microphones up front and center stage.
While there are several versions of the program’s exact birthday, the consensus seems to be that it first took to the air on November 28, 1925, at the National Life and Accident Insurance Company’s station WSM (We Shield Millions). The story runs how Uncle Jimmy Thompson, an eighty-year-old dirt farmer, was introduced by Judge Hay, the announcer and originator of the show, and how the old gentleman claimed he knew more than one thousand fiddle songs. After his hour was up he complained, “Fiddlesticks! A man can’t get warmed up in no one hour. This show has got to be longer.” The show became longer, much longer, and finally expanded to four hours on Friday and four on Saturday, which brings it in as not only the world’s oldest radio program but also its longest.
Judge Hay was responsible for its name. He opened the program one night following Walter Damrosch’s “Music Appreciation Hour” from New York City. “Well, folks,” he said, “for the past hour we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera, but from now on we will present the Grand Ole Opry. …” The name stuck, the show grew, and today, over fifty years later, it is broadcast and relayed to every state in the country.
When Uncle Jimmy Thompson requested that they make the show longer for him, he had no idea of the competition that was waiting in the wings. Such high-powered groups as the Possum Hunters, the Crook Brothers, with Sam and Kirk McGee, the Gulley Jumpers, and the Fruit Jar Drinkers leaped onto the stage and stayed for twenty, thirty, forty years; the Fruit Jar Drinkers, the Crook Brothers, and Sam and Kirk McGee are still with us. But the big star in the first fifteen years was the banjo-playing, singing, dancing jokester, “The Dixie Dew Drop,” Uncle Dave Macon. He was introduced as the “struttingest strutter that ever strutted a strut with a banjo or guitar,” and his “Turkey in the Straw,” “Sugar Walks Down the Street,” “Ain’t Going to Rain No More,” and “Go Away, Mule” would set the whole audience to stomping and screaming. Uncle Dave’s following was enormous. Fred Ritchie, who died in the electric chair at the Tennessee State Prison on Tuesday, August 10, 1937, for slaying his wife, had warden Joe Pope call up WSM the preceding Saturday night. This was Ritchie’s last chance to hear the Grand Ole Opry and he had only one final request: he wanted Uncle Dave Macon to play “When I Take My Vacation in Heaven.” Uncle Dave didn’t let him down.
I once asked Grandpa Jones, a singer and comic for Martha White Flour on the Opry, if he had heard a recent song. His reply was candid: “What’s it the tune to?” Country music writers have always allowed their lyrics to override the melody, and when a song’s lyrics are good enough, no one complains. The seventies hit “I Didn’t Know God Made Honky Tonk Angels” sounds (because it is exactly) the same as Acuff’s “The Great Speckled Bird,” which sounds (because it is exactly) the same as A.P. Carter’s “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.” But then a lot of songs go back to A.P. Carter and the Carter Family. In my copy of the Encyclopedia Americana there is a Don Carter, an American bowler who for seven years was the key member of the renowned Budweiser team of St. Louis. There are also twelve more Carters, including Nick, the fictional detective, but there is no mention of Maybelle Carter, no Sara Carter, and not one word about the man who probably had more influence on country music than anyone—Alvin Pleasant “A.P.” Carter.