Grand Ole Opry
The Grand Ole Opry is a weekly Saturday night country music radio program that is broadcast live on WSM Radio in Nashville, Tennessee. It is also televised and promotes live performances both in Nashville and on the road.
The oldest continuing radio program in the United States, the Grand Ole Opry has been broadcast on WSM since November 28, 1925. It started out as the WSM Barn Dance in the new fifth floor radio station studio of the National Life & Accident Insurance Company. The featured performer on the first show was Uncle Jimmy Thompson, a fiddler who was eighty years of age. The announcer was producer George D. Hay, who was known on the air as "The Solemn Old Judge." He was only thirty 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, Illinois.
The name Grand Ole Opry came about on December 8, 1928. The Barn Dance followed the Music Appreciation Hour, which consisted of classical music and selections from grand opera. When the program signed off that night and it was time for the WSM Barn Dance to sign on, Judge Hay stepped up to the microphone and said, "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. The Ryman was home to the Opry until 1974, when the show moved to its new 4,400 seat Grand Ole Opry House.
Annually, hundreds of thousands of fans travel from all fifty states and from other countries to Nashville, which is known as "Music City, USA," to see the music and comedy performances on the Opry in person.
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 is to be identified as a member of the 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 many of the members who made much of their income from touring and could not afford to arrange their tours in such a way as 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 only a token ($44.00 at the time the above action was taken).
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 that this rule could be enforceable; however, by this point many country music artists were so established that that this was really no longer true. The quality of the Opry suffered in the years following this; by the late 1970s and early 1980s the Opry was regarded by many more sophisticated 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 huge 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, ananthema to many country fans, especially older ones. These restrictions chafed many artists, such as Waylon Jennings, who were then 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 copyright on the term Grand Ole Opry and limit its usage only 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 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; they 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; Ozark Opry, etc. (Much the same thing happened when the Coca-Cola company failed to copyright 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 Grand Ole Opry to a great extent.