Decorative brickwork at Opryland Hotel depicting Ryman Auditorium with Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff
The Grand Ole Opry started as the WSM Barn Dance in the new fifth-floor radio studio of the National Life & Accident Insurance Company in downtown Nashville on November 28, 1925. On October 18, 1925, management began a program featuring "Dr. Humphrey Bate and his string quartet of old-time musicians." On November 2, WSM hired long-time announcer and program director George D. "Judge" Hay, an enterprising pioneer from the National Barn Dance program at WLS in Chicago, who was also named the most popular radio announcer in America as a result of his radio work with both WLS and WMC in Memphis, Tennessee. Hay launched the WSM Barn Dance with 77-year-old fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson on November 28, 1925, and that date is celebrated as the birth date of the Grand Ole Opry.
Some of the bands regularly on the show during its early days included Bill Monroe, the Possum Hunters (with Dr. Humphrey Bate), the Fruit Jar Drinkers with Uncle Dave Macon, the Crook Brothers, the Binkley Brothers' Dixie Clodhoppers, Sid Harkreader, Deford Bailey, Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, and the Gully Jumpers.
Judge Hay liked the Fruit Jar Drinkers and asked them to appear last on each show because he wanted to always close each segment with "red hot fiddle playing." They were the second band accepted on Barn Dance, with the Crook Brothers being the first. When the Opry began having square dancers on the show, the Fruit Jar Drinkers always played for them. In 1926, Uncle Dave Macon, a Tennessee banjo player who had recorded several songs and toured on the vaudeville circuit became its first real star.
Signs welcoming motorists to Nashville on all major roadways include the phrase "Home Of The Grand Ole Opry".
The phrase "Grand Ole Opry" was first uttered on the air on December 10, 1927. At the time, Barn Dance followed the NBC Red Network's Music Appreciation Hour, a program with classical music and selections from grand opera presented by classical conductor Walter Damrosch. On that particular night, Damrosch remarked that "there is no place in the classics for realism." In response, Opry presenter George Hay said:
Friends, the program which just came to a close was devoted to the classics. Doctor Damrosch told us that there is no place in the classics for realism. However, from here on out for the next three hours, we will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the "earthy."
Hay then introduced DeFord Bailey, the man he had dubbed the "Harmonica Wizard", saying:
For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera. From now on, we will present the "Grand Ole Opry."
Bailey then stepped up to the mic to play "The Pan-American Blues," his song inspired by the Pan-American, a premier L&N Railroad passenger train.
As audiences for the live show increased, National Life & Accident Insurance's radio venue became too small to accommodate the hordes of fans. They built a larger studio, but it was still not large enough. After several months with no audiences, National Life decided to allow the show to move outside its home offices. In October 1934, the Opry moved into then-suburban Hillsboro Theatre (now the Belcourt) before moving to the Dixie Tabernacle in East Nashville on June 13, 1936. The Opry then moved to the War Memorial Auditorium, a downtown venue adjacent to the State Capitol, and a 25-cent admission fee was charged to try to curb the large crowds, but to no avail. On June 5, 1943, the Opry moved to Ryman Auditorium.
Top-charting country music acts performed at the Opry during the Ryman years, including Roy Acuff – called the King of Country Music – Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Martha Carson, Lefty Frizzell, and many others.
One hour of the Opry was nationally broadcast by the NBC Red Network from 1939 to 1956, and for much of its run, it aired one hour after the program that had inspired it, National Barn Dance. The NBC segment, originally known by the name of its sponsor, The Prince Albert Show, was first hosted by Acuff, who was succeeded by Red Foley from 1946 to 1954. From October 15, 1955 to September 1956, ABC-TV aired a live, hour-long television version once a month on Saturday nights (sponsored by Ralston-Purina) that pre-empted one hour of the then-90-minute Ozark Jubilee. From 1955 to 1957, Al Gannaway owned and produced both The Country Show and Stars of the Grand Ole Opry, both filmed programs syndicated by Flamingo Films. Gannaway's Stars of the Grand Ole Opry was the first television show shot in color.
On October 2, 1954, a teenage Elvis Presley had his only Opry performance. Although the audience reacted politely to his revolutionary brand of rockabilly music, Opry manager Jim Denny told Presley's producer Sam Phillips after the show that the singer's style did not suit the program.
In the 1960s, as the hippie counterculture movement spread, the Opry maintained a strait-laced, conservative image with "longhairs" not being featured on the show. The Byrds were a notable exception. Country rock pioneer Gram Parsons, who was a member of The Byrds at the time, was in Nashville to work on the band's country rock album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The band's record label, Columbia Records, had arranged for The Byrds to perform at the Ryman on March 15, 1968, a prospect that thrilled Parsons. However, when the band took the stage the audience's response was immediately hostile, resulting in derisive heckling, booing, and mocking calls of "tweet, tweet" and "cut your hair" The Byrds further outraged the Opry establishment by ignoring accepted protocol when they performed Parsons' song "Hickory Wind" instead of the Merle Haggard song "Life in Prison," as had been announced by Tompall Glaser. Two decades later, long after Parsons's death, members of The Byrds reconciled with the Opry and collaborated on the 1989 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume Two.
Another artist that ran afoul of the Opry's stringent standards was Jerry Lee Lewis, who made his first and only appearance on the show on January 20, 1973, after several years of success on the country charts. Lewis was given two conditions for his appearance – no rock and roll and no profanity – and he proceeded to disregard both, even referring to himself as a certain unairable maternal insult at one point. In a continuous 40-minute set, Lewis played a mixture of his rock and roll hits and covers of other singers' country songs. It has been said that he was bitter about how he was treated when he first arrived in Nashville in 1955, and he supposedly used his Opry appearance to exact revenge on the Nashville music industry.
Grand Ole Opry House
Ryman Auditorium was home to the Opry until 1974. By the late 1960s, National Life & Accident desired a new, larger, more modern home for the long-running radio show. Already 51 years old at the time the Opry moved there, the Ryman was beginning to suffer from disrepair as the downtown neighborhood around it fell victim to increasing urban decay. Despite these shortcomings, the show's popularity continued to increase, and its weekly crowds were outgrowing the 3,000-seat venue. The Opry's operators wanted to build a new air-conditioned theater, with greater seating capacity, ample parking, and the ability to serve as a television production facility. The ideal location would be in a less urbanized part of town to provide visitors with a safer, more controlled, and more enjoyable experience.
National Life & Accident purchased farmland owned by a local sausage manufacturer (Rudy's Farm) in the Pennington Bend area of Nashville, nine miles east of downtown and adjacent to the newly constructed Briley Parkway. The new Opry venue was the centerpiece of a grand entertainment complex at that location, which later included Opryland USA Theme Park and Opryland Hotel. The theme park opened to the public on June 30, 1972, well ahead of the 4,000-seat Opry House, which debuted nearly two years later, on Saturday, March 16, 1974.
Opening night was attended by sitting U.S. President Richard Nixon, who played a few songs on the piano. To carry on the tradition of the show's run at the Ryman, a six-foot circle of oak was cut from the corner of the Ryman's stage and inlaid into center stage at the new venue. Artists on stage usually stood on the circle as they performed, and most modern performers still follow this tradition.
The theme park was closed and demolished following the 1997 season, but the Grand Ole Opry House remains in use. The immediate area around it was left intact, even throughout the construction of Opry Mills, which opened in May 2000.
The Grand Ole Opry continues to be performed every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday at the Grand Ole Opry House from March through November each year, and the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places on January 27, 2015..
Grand Ole Opry logo used from 2005 to 2015
Return to Ryman Auditorium
Following the departure of the Opry, Ryman Auditorium sat mostly vacant and decaying for 20 years. An initial effort by National Life & Accident to tear down the Ryman and use its bricks to build a chapel at Opryland USA was met with resounding resistance from the public, including many influential musicians of the time. The plans were abandoned, and the building remained standing with an uncertain future. Despite the absence of performances, the building remained a tourist attraction with tours.
In 1991 and 1992, Emmylou Harris performed a series of concerts there and released some of the recordings as an album entitled At the Ryman. The concert and album's high acclaim renewed interest in reviving Ryman Auditorium as an active venue. Beginning in September 1993, Gaylord Entertainment initiated a full renovation of the Ryman, restoring it to a world-class concert hall that reopened with a broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion on June 4, 1994.
On Sunday, October 18, 1998, the Opry held a benefit show at Ryman Auditorium, marking its return to the venue for the first time since its final show on March 15, 1974. The show was well received by fans, performers, and management alike, and the decision was made to host the Opry's regular shows there on January 15 & 16, 1999, as part of the celebration to commemorate 25 years at the new venue.
Beginning in November 1999, the Opry was held at Ryman Auditorium for three months, partly due to the ongoing construction of Opry Mills. The Opry has returned to the Ryman for the three winter months every year since then, allowing the show to acknowledge its roots while also taking advantage of a smaller venue during an off-peak season for tourism. While still officially the Grand Ole Opry, the shows there are billed as Opry at the Ryman. From 2002 to 2014, a traveling version of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular took up residence at the Grand Ole Opry House each holiday season while the Opry was away. It was replaced by Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical beginning in 2015.
In May 2010, the Opry House was flooded, along with much of Nashville, when the Cumberland River overflowed its banks. Repairs were made, and the Opry itself remained uninterrupted. Over the course of the summer of 2010, the broadcast temporarily originated from alternate venues in Nashville, with Ryman Auditorium hosting the majority of the shows. Other venues included TPAC War Memorial Auditorium, another former Opry home; TPAC's Andrew Jackson Hall; Nashville Municipal Auditorium; Allen Arena at Lipscomb University; and Two Rivers Baptist Church.
Much of the auditorium's main floor seating, the backstage areas, and the entire stage – including the inlaid circle of wood from Ryman's stage – was underwater during the flood. While the Grand Ole Opry House's stage was replaced, the Ryman circle was restored and again placed at center stage in the Grand Ole Opry House before shows resumed. The renovations following the flood also resulted in an updated backstage area, including the construction of more dressing rooms and a performer's lounge.
The Opry returned to the Grand Ole Opry House on September 28, 2010, in a special edition of the Opry entitled Country Comes Home that was televised live on Great American Country. The evening was filled with one-of-a-kind Opry moments. Martina McBride and Connie Smith sang Smith's signature hit "Once a Day" together, and other collaborations included Dierks Bentley and Del McCoury ("Roll On Buddy, Roll On"), Josh Turner and Lorrie Morgan ("Golden Ring"), and Montgomery Gentry and Charlie Daniels Band ("Devil Went Down To Georgia"), among others. The show closed with an all-star guitar jam featuring Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, Steve Wariner, Ricky Skaggs, and Marty Stuart.