Grand Ole Opry (Courtesy Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
The Grand Ole Opry is a weekly Saturday night country music radio program broadcast live on WSM radio in Nashville, Tennessee, and televised on Great American Country network. It is the oldest continuous radio program in the United States, having been broadcast on WSM since November 28, 1925.
The Grand Ole Opry started out as the WSM Barn Dance in the new fifth floor radio station studio of the National Life & Accident Insurance Company in downtown Nashville. The featured performer on the first show was Uncle Jimmy Thompson, a fiddler who was then 77 years old. The announcer was program director George D. Hay, known on the air as "The Solemn Old Judge." He was only 30 at the time and was not a judge, but was an enterprising pioneer who launched the Barn Dance as a spin-off of his National Barn Dance program at WLS Radio in Chicago. Some of the bands regularly featured on the show during its early days included the Possum Hunters, the Fruit Jar Drinkers, the Crook Brothers and the Gully Jumpers. They arrived in this order. However, 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 the "Barn Dance." And, 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 the vaudeville circuit, became its first real star. The name Grand Ole Opry came about in December, 1927. The Barn Dance followed NBC Radio Network's Music Appreciation Hour, which consisted of classical music and selections from grand opera. Their final piece that night featured a musical interpretation of an onrushing railroad locomotive. In response to this Judge Hay quipped, "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'." He then introduced the man he dubbed the Harmonica Wizard — DeFord Bailey who played his classic train song "The Pan American Blues". After Bailey's performance Hay commented, "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.'" The name stuck and has been used for the program since then.
As audiences to 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. The Opry then moved into then-suburban Hillsboro Theatre (now the Belcourt), then to the Dixie Tabernacle in East Nashville and then to the War Memorial Auditorium, a downtown venue adjacent to the State Capitol. A twenty-five cent admission began to be charged, in part an effort to curb the large crowds, but to no avail. In 1943, the Opry moved to the Ryman Auditorium.
On October 2, 1954, a teenage Elvis Presley made his first (and only) performance there. Although the public reacted politely to his revolutionary brand of rockabilly music, after the show he was told by one of the organizers (Opry manager Jim Denny) that he ought to return to Memphis to resume his truck-driving career, prompting him to swear never to return. Years later, Garth Brooks commented in a television interview that one of the greatest thrills of playing the Opry was that he got to play on the same stage Elvis had.
The Ryman was home to the Opry until 1974, when the show moved to the 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House, located several miles to the east of downtown Nashville on a former farm in the Pennington Bend of the Cumberland River. An adjacent theme park, called Opryland USA, preceded the new Opry House by two years. Due to sagging attendance, the park was shuttered and demolished after the 1997 season by the Opry's current owner, Gaylord Entertainment Company. The theme park was replaced by the Opry Mills Mall. An adjacent hotel, the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, is the largest non-gambling hotel in North America and is the site of hundreds of conventions annually.
Another controversy brewed in 2001 because of MTV. In 1997, CBS signed a five-year contract with the Opry to be the television broadcast home of the event, to air on The Nashville Network, as part of its acquisition of TNN and CMT from Gaylord Entertainment (which owns the Opry). The contract specifically carried a five-year requirement that TNN would be the broadcast home from October 1, 1997 until September 30, 2002.
Gaylord was very unhappy with MTV Networks after TNN was shut down and replaced with an adult-oriented (now known as Spike TV) channel in 2000, and MTV moved the Opry to CMT in 2001, technically breaking its contract. Gaylord eventually moved the Opry to a rival, GAC, in 2003. GAC continues to run one hour of the 2 1/2-hour Saturday night Opry program at 8 p.m. ET, concentrating on artists more popular with the network's younger viewers.
Still, the Opry continues, with hundreds of thousands of fans traveling from around the world to Nashville to see the music and comedy on the Opry in person.
Impact and economics
In many ways, the artists and repertoire of the Opry defined American country music. Hundreds of performers have entertained as cast members through the years, including new stars, superstars and legends. Being made a member of the Grand Ole Opry, country music's longest, most endurable "Hall of Fame" is to be identified as a member of the most elite of country music. Many linked the stripping of Hank Williams' Opry membership in 1952 to his death soon afterward.
The quality of the program has waxed and waned over the years. In the mid-1960s management decided to enforce strictly the requirement that members had to perform on at least twenty-six shows a year in order to keep their membership active. This imposed a tremendous financial hardship on members who made much of their income from touring and could not afford to be in or near Nashville every other weekend. This was aggravated by the fact that the Opry's appearance fee paid to the artist was essentially a token ($44 at the time).
The Opry management was so certain in its belief that only someone who could truthfully bill themselves as a "Member of the Grand Ole Opry could be considered to be a major country music star that it felt this rule could be enforced; however, by this point many country music artists were so established that this was really no longer true. The quality of the Opry suffered in the years following, and by the late 1970s and early 1980s the Opry was regarded by many country music fans as sort of a musical equivalent of a sports "old-timers' game," where only former stars were to be seen. Over time, this problem was largely corrected by a reduced attendance requirement and special exceptions.
Another controversy that raged for years was over allowable instrumentation, especially the use of drums and electrically amplified instruments. Some purists were appalled at the prospect; traditionally a string bass provided the rhythm component in country music and percussion instruments were generally little used. Electric amplification was regarded as the province of rock and roll, anathema to many country fans, especially older ones. These restrictions chafed many artists, such as Waylon Jennings, who were popular with the newer and younger fans. These restrictions were largely eliminated over time, alienating many older and traditionalist fans, but probably saving the Opry long-term as a viable ongoing enterprise.
Management has been very conscious of the need to enforce its trademark on the term Grand Ole Opry and limit use to members of the Opry and products associated with or licensed by it. However, it lost a legal case against the owners of a small, now-defunct Nashville record label calling itself Opry Records. The record company's attorneys successfully argued that WSM's management indeed owned the rights to the words Grand Ole Opry, but only in that order and combination, and no more owned the word Opry in isolation than they owned Grand or Ole.
This has made the management wary about the issue of licensing and trademarks. It has also allowed a plethora of small-time country music shows to label themselves as Oprys of one sort or another, such as the Bell Witch Opry; Carolina Opry; Ozark Opry, etc. (Much the same thing happened when the Coca-Cola company failed to trademark the term "cola.")
In September 2004, it was announced that the Grand Ole Opry had contracted for the first time with a "presenting sponsor" and would henceforth be known as "the Grand Ole Opry presented by Cracker Barrel." Cracker Barrel, a long-time Opry sponsor headquartered in nearby Lebanon, Tennessee, is a chain of country-themed restaurants and gift shops whose market overlaps with that of the Opry to a great extent.