Grand Ole Opry Turns 80

Americana, On the Road, Traditions
on October 9, 2005

On any given Grand Ole Opry weekend show, hundreds of years of collective membership walk on and off the Opry House stage in Nashville, Tenn., keeping alive one of the most important traditions in both broadcasting and country music.

Over the course of more than 4,000 shows, some of the biggest names in country music—from Hank Williams and Patsy Cline in earlier decades, to Trace Adkins and Dierks Bentley in recent years—have taken center stage.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the nation’s longest-running radio show, and the official Birthday Bash Weekend is scheduled Oct. 14 and 15 in Nashville. TV weatherman Willard Scott plans to serve as guest announcer, and the weekend includes two shows each night, the annual Bill Monroe Bluegrass Celebration, backstage tours, autograph signings and a pie auction. The milestone will be celebrated again Nov. 14 with a special evening at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, where Grand Ole Opry stars first went to perform in 1947.

A nine-month national anniversary tour currently is underway with artists such as Patty Loveless, Craig Morgan and Marty Stuart. The tour is scheduled to conclude in Winter Haven, Fla., on Feb. 18, after stops in Missouri, Virginia and Georgia. The Opry began touring with traveling tent shows in the 1930s, and during World War II, Opry stars toured military bases in the United States and Central America.

The show began Nov. 28, 1925, when George D. Hay, a young announcer on Nashville’s WSM radio station, introduced Uncle Jimmy Thompson, a 77-year-old fiddle player, as the first performer on a new show called The WSM Barn Dance, later renamed the Grand Ole Opry. The broadcast, which originally featured mostly amateur performers, became the most popular country music radio show by 1945, a designation it held through the mid-1960s.

Modern technology now allows the show to be broadcast not only on its flagship home, WSM 650-AM, but also on the Great American Country cable TV network, satellite radio and the Internet. The Opry’s format of inviting performers from every niche of country music to be a part of the evening has remained unchanged.

“The best Opry show is the show that presents the past, present and future of country music,” says Vice President and General Manager Pete Fisher. “We want to have the new stars, the future stars, and the legends, all of them encompassing the diverse spectrum of country music styles.”

Outside the dressing rooms hang framed large color photographs of Porter Wagoner with Willie Nelson, and Vince Gill bowing over the extended hand of Loretta Lynn. Dressing Room No. 1 still is marked as Roy Acuff’s.

Acuff, who died in 1992, was known as the King of Country Music and the Opry’s biggest personality. But he is remembered by nearly every living Opry member. Little Jimmie Dickens recalls being introduced onstage by Acuff in 1945. “I had been in radio for about 10 years, so I felt pretty experienced,” Dickens says. “But when I was standing there in the wings getting ready to go on and I saw all my idols, I was so nervous, I felt like an amateur. There is no place else on earth like this.”

Acuff also welcomed singer Alan Jackson onto the Opry stage 45 years later. Jackson’s first Nashville job was in the mailroom next door at The Nashville Network. “When I would bring mail over, I would sometimes just go stand out on that stage, and wonder how it would be to sing there,” Jackson says. When his time came, Acuff invited Jackson to use his dressing room before introducing the rising star and his song Here in the Real World.

Fifteen years later, Jackson returned the favor by inviting the married duo of Adam and Shannon Wright to perform one of their songs in his time slot. “We sang On the Rocks, which Adam wrote about us,” Shannon says, laughing. “But our official debut was on May 3, 2005.”

“We felt like the real deal that night,” Adam says. “This place just overwhelms and moves us every time we’re here.”

Thanks to the reverence that new artists like the Wrights hold for the Grand Ole Opry, Fisher sees no reason why the show won’t be celebrating its centennial in 2025. “While the Opry has a rich history and legacy, it remains very much a vital part of what is happening in country music today,” he says. “In 20 years, the Opry will have a different face, but that’s not any different than the way it has always been.”