Grand Ole Opry History
The Grand Ole Opry history started on the 28th of November 1925, with George D. Hay, who was its first director. The most exciting thing about this show is that it’s still running to this very day (Grand Ole Opry schedule), so it has passed many different obstacles and entertained generation after generation with pure country music.
Another great thing about this show is its hold on its rules, ethics, morals, and attitude of the performers. This way, it has managed to keep its title as a family show and keep providing people with what they actually want and love to hear.
Nashville, Tennessee, has been the home of the Grand Ole Opry House for a very long time. Nevertheless, as the show has grown, it has attracted people from all over the world to go and see the show live or tune in to the live streams to see it (Opry seating chart).
This has become even easier due to COVID-19 and the show’s decision to stay online for the time being for the safety of their audiences. Now let’s tell you a bit more about how the Grand Ole Opry show came to be what it’s today.
WSM Barn Dance
Our story begins in the year 1925, more specifically on the 28th of November when an individual from the founders of National Life And Accident Insurance company couldn’t suppress their obsession with the radio and its fantastic reach.
Their fascination went to the extent that they convinced the rest of the founders to launch the company’s own radio station known as WSM, short for ‘’We Shield Millions’’. All of that happened in October of the year 1925.
Two months down the road in November, WSM hired George D. Hay as their program director, and thanks to him, WSM Barn Dance was launched on the 28th of November, starring Uncle Jimmy Thompson, who is a 77-year-old fiddler.
This date is globally celebrated as the birthday of the Grand Ole Opry. Later on, in December of the year 1927, Hay decided to present the show by relating it to the show which preceded it, and that was selections from the Grand Opera.
Hence, it included classical music only. His words were, ‘’for the past hour, we’ve been listening to music largely from the grand opera, but from now on, we’ll present the Grand Ole Opry!”. And, just like that, the name was created, and it stuck firmly. The show was no longer WSM Barn Dance but the Grand Ole Opry for all its days.
Various Homes of the Opry
The Grand Ole Opry was an instant major hit, and people came from everywhere to attend the show and listen to it. The broadcast became their trusted venue for nourishing their country music fascination and passion.
This explains the astounding numbers of people who came to the National Life and Accident Insurance studios in order to see their favorite show. As a result, the show was moved several times from one home to the other in order to accommodate these people as safe as possible.
National Life and Accident’s Insurance Radio Venue - Studio B
When it first launched, the Grand Ole Opry or WSM Barn Dance was broadcasted from studio B from the National Life And Accident Insurance radio venue, which was a very standard studio, nothing to write home about.
Then, when numbers started to double, triple, and even quadruple, the company had to do something about it. Hence, they moved them to studio C, which was custom built for the Grand Ole Opry.
Studio C (500-seater)
As we’ve just said, studio C was built for the Grand Ole Opry; therefore, it boasted a 500-person capacity. Nevertheless, it did the job for a certain period till it was no longer enough, and at the end of today, it proved to be no match for the exponentially ever-growing numbers. This has led the founders of the National Life and Accident Insurance company to start thinking outside of the box.
This new way of thinking meant that they had to move the Grand Ole Opry to outside venues that could offer them way more seating and more accommodations.
Moving to outside venues needed a lot of renovations, not just in the seating of the audiences but in the ideology of the founders as well. When the Grand Ole Opry was moved to Hillsborough Theater or the Belcourt Theater as it is known today, the founders decided to start including advertisements in their segments.
As a result, the show was split into sponsored and non-sponsored sketches, which is still the way the show is run to this very day. Nevertheless, all good things must come to an end, and the theater proved to be small for the ever-growing audience once again.
At one point, singers had to perform twice in order to properly separate the audience and give them the experience that they originally came for, so it was incredibly plain that a change had to be done.
The next move was made in the year 1936, and it was headed for the Dixie Tabernacle. Now, this place offered so much more space and comfort for the audience.
In addition to that, it exceeded expectations by providing them with a rustic experience that fitted the country music that they love so much. The whole place was designed with a vintage style, including dirt floors and roll-up canvas walls.
One advancement that took place while the Grand Ole Opry resided in the Dixie Tabernacle is the advance tickets system, which allowed WSM to boost competition quite a few notches and significantly improve their business.
When all of that took place, returning significant revenue to the National Life and Accident Insurance company while still maintaining prices for everyone who wanted to enjoy music.
War Memorial Auditorium
The year 1925 marked the completion of one of the most beautiful performance halls ever, the War Memorial Auditorium.
Consequently, when the Dixie Tabernacle ran out of space, it was only logical for the Grand Ole Opry to relocate to the most popular spot in Nashville, Tennessee, and broadcast from there.
Nevertheless, a significant change in the system has befallen the Grand Ole Opry, and that included a $.25 admission fee per person, which is pretty reasonable. Subsequently, audience numbers kept on rising, and the company could boost its profit a bit more.
The next move was toward the Ryman Auditorium, which is the home of the Grand Ole Opry. The moment performers stepped into the Ryman Auditorium, everything changed, and business skyrocketed.
Of course, being in Nashville, Tennessee, one of the most famous states for its love of country music, had a tremendous impact, but there were other aspects as well.
The history of the Ryman Auditorium and the fact that it was originally built for revival services always had a unique allure that brought people to it from all over the world. Eventually, the Ryman Auditorium won the name ‘’The Grand Ole Opry House.’’
Even though it comes with very few accommodations for performers, such as no dressing rooms, and no fitting rooms, the space was designed to contain humongous audiences.
At one point, the Ryman Auditorium could easily take in 6,000 people, which was precisely what the directors wanted and needed out of a place for their show.
You see, the thing is, Ryman Auditorium wasn’t designed for performances, which is something that we’ve just touched on. The place doesn’t provide proper restrooms, changing rooms, air-conditioning, and it needed a lot of work in order to be able to make efficient use of all of its seating area without loss (Ryman seating chart).
At one point, in 1966, WSM financed some renovations to restore as much of the building as possible. Yet, unfortunately, that proved to be too much of a financial waste due to the state of the Ryman Auditorium.
So, the Grand Ole Opry ended up spending 31 incredible years in the Ryman Auditorium. The last episode to air in the Mother Church of Country Music was an incredibly emotional one, with performers such as Sarah Cannon, performing as Minnie Pearl breaking down in tears. This episode was aired on the 15th of March, 1974.
Rudy’s Farm to Opryland USA
So, what the producers did is that they purchased what used to be Rudy’s farm, which was a few miles from the old Grand Ole Opry House, also known as the Ryman Auditorium. On the 16th of March 1974, they opened the new house and aired the first episode from the new place.
The new house continued to grow exponentially, adding more and more buildings and facilities to its portfolio till it became the Grand Ole Opry Entertainment Complex. The complex featured a hotel, an amusement park, and so many more facilities. This way, visitors are offered an inclusive experience whenever they decide to come, and it wasn’t exclusive to just the show.
Nonetheless, the Grand Ole Opry show could never forget its origins and where it came from. Hence, before moving into their new home, they had to take a piece of their history along with them. That piece was a circle from their stage in the Ryman Auditorium, which was cut and placed in the center of the new stage in the new Grand Ole Opry House.
The ceremony of the opening was genuinely inspiring, with incredible crowds enjoying the show. It was attended by the then President of the United States, Richard Nixon. He was so delighted with the event that he played the piano and sang a song.
That night, the program was so crowded that performers had to sing a single song each, and it was back to back so that everyone got their chance. It was indeed one of the most memorable nights of the Grand Ole Opry history.
Unfortunately, though, around 1997, the theme park was closed down, and the vacant land remained as it was. That is until the construction of the Opry Mills began. Nonetheless, the Grand Ole Opry House remains the same and as functional as ever.
Return to Ryman Auditorium
The first return was following the success of Emmylou Harris‘s album ‘’At The Ryman’’, which brought a lot of attention back to Ryman Auditorium, although it has sat empty and decaying for so many years.
This historic building was in a lot of feuds and wars to stay where it is. Nevertheless, the Grand Ole Opry decided to host a benefit show at the Ryman Auditorium in recognition of its home and ongoing success and fame.
Still, that wasn’t the last time that the Grand Ole Opry returned to Ryman Auditorium, as later on, they will be forced to seek aid at the hands of their former homes.
As we’ve said before, all good things must come to an end. However, the ending here wasn’t a finality but rather a way to cope with some temporary changes that we’ll discuss later on. There were some events that transpired in 2010 which unfortunately put a brief end to life at the Grand Ole Opry Entertainment complex.
As a result, the show couldn’t be aired from the Grand Ole Opry House, and it had to be moved back to its previous homes, mainly the Ryman Auditorium and the War Memorial Auditorium.
Both of these places welcomed the show and all of its performers back with open arms. That genuinely helped eliminate as much pressure as possible from the producers and directors of the show. For around five months, the Grand Ole Opry was being broadcast from these two unique houses of country music.
Still, the Grand Ole Opry returns to the Ryman’s a few times per year for seasonal shows that are aired in the spring, autumn, and winter (Ryman Auditorium schedule). These events are always fully booked and impatiently waited for by the loyal citizens of Nashville, Tennessee.
We’ve mentioned before that due to some events that happened in the year 2010, the Grand Ole Opry was forced to seek shelter in its former homes. The event that we speak about is mainly the flood of the Cumberland River.
This flood didn’t just affect the Grand Ole Opry Complex, but most of Nashville, Tennessee, which unfortunately included most of the complex. The backstage areas, the entire stage, the main floor seating, and even the circle of the stage that was brought from Ryman’s Auditorium to the new Grand Ole Opry stage in order to acknowledge the roots were completely submerged underwater.
Thankfully though, the Grand Ole Opry House was saved, and after around five months of non-stop building and renovations, the Grand Ole Opry team was able to return to their main house on September 28 of the year 2010.
The episode that aired that night was televised live on the Great American Country, and it featured a lot of celebrities welcoming the show back, such as Coney Smith, Martina McBride, Josh Turner, and so many more.
Everywhere and everyone was affected by the pandemic. All places were shutting down, and all businesses turned to work from home to save the day.
One of the most places that were affected by COVID-19 will have to be entertainment centers, theaters, and places that relied on crowds and gathering a lot of people in one place.
As a result, just like all other theaters, the Grand Ole Opry House had to close down in March 2020 due to COVID-19 complications. Nevertheless, the producers and directors of the show were used to these kinds of catastrophes, and they knew how to handle them well enough.
Consequently, they resorted, as quickly as possible, to switching their show to live streaming, radio, and television. That way, they still kept their fan base as tight as possible, and the live streams were incredibly successful.
Since everyone was in lockdown, people were looking for a way to entertain themselves; hence, the fans of country music returned to the Grand Ole Opry show since it was now at an arm’s reach for them.
The show even gained more fans as people worldwide were able to see the shows live, which wasn’t really available for everyone.
The reaction to the live streams was incredible to the extent that some of them received more than 50 million viewers from everywhere in the world.
Some of these episodes ranked in the top 10. In the end, 2020 wasn’t a bad year for the Grand Ole Opry.
The Grand Ole Opry show has always maintained very strict rules and regulations for its performers, members, and even audience. They had a particular image for country music that they wanted to export to the entire world, and anyone who defied that picture was immediately unwelcomed by the producers of the show.
That happened with a lot of performers who became celebrities later on. Still, they had to face refusal for the very first time at the hands of the Grand Ole Opry show.
The first soon-to-be-celebrity shut down by the Grand Ole Opry show producers was a teenage Elvis Presley.
The audience thought that his music was way too futuristic for them, and it wasn’t what they wanted. As a result, he was met with a rough welcome on the stage and was later told that his music wasn’t what the show was looking for, at least at the moment.
Later on, the Grand Ole Opry show continued its strictness by refusing a bunch of styles either of the performers themselves, their style of singing and lyrics, and even instruments.
So, despite the amazing ongoing success of the band ‘’The Byrdz’’, when they got on stage at the Ryman Auditorium, the audience’s reaction to them was the same as it was to Elvis Presley. The music simply wasn’t what they were looking for, and their style was all that was threatening to the image of country music that they loved.
That reaction was mainly due to their long hairstyles. Sadly, The Byrds didn’t take kindly to the refusal and went on to defy the rules of the Grand Ole Opry show another time by performing a different song than the one that was announced by Tompall Glaser.
We’ve also mentioned that the Opry show had strict restrictions on the instruments that were allowed inside of the building.
And although later on, they would start allowing electric guitars, anything that, to the directors of the Grand Ole Opry show, ruined the rhythm of country music, such as drums and horns, was strictly out of bounds.
So, when Bob Wells and PeeWee King defied that by performing using all of their instruments, including their drums, the show didn’t take very kindly to it.
Morale and attitude are also essential aspects in regards to the Grand Ole Opry show. At the end of the day, it‘s a family show, and they wouldn’t want anyone to be offended by their performers.
Hence, when Johnny Cash himself made a scene in 1965 by appearing drunk on stage and causing a hassle by smashing his stage lights and microphones, he was immediately banned from the entire show.
He wasn’t welcomed back until 1968, and the show was very clear about never allowing such behavior to take place on their stage ever again.
We’ve just mentioned that attitude is of major importance to the Grand Ole Opry show, and that standard caused a feud with another celebrity, Jerry Lee Lewis.
As contrary to all of the rules in the contract that he was given, he decided to perform songs that included a lot of profanities, curses, and an alarming level of rock and roll for 40 minutes straight. Consequently, this was his only appearance on the show in 1973, and he wasn’t welcomed back ever again, till this day.
Other Roles, Honors, and Credits
Such a huge place like the Grand Ole Opry House must’ve been used for other events. Additionally, there are so many amazing people who have had a hand in the development of this place, and just like they honored the Ryman Auditorium in each and every episode, the family of the Grand Ole Opry show didn’t forget to pay credits where they were due to other individuals as well.
In the year 2018, more specifically, on December 21tst, the backstage band room was given the honor of the title Jimmy Capps Music Room. This was done in honor of Jimmy Capps’ 60th anniversary on the Opry, which is pretty impressive.
Another incredible honor that was bestowed on the Grand Ole Opry House was its addition to the National Register Of Historic Places that took place on January 27th, 2015.
This was to acknowledge the history of the place, its importance to Nashville, Tennessee, and the entirety of the world, and overall, celebrating its existence.
As we’ve previously said, such a grande place must’ve been home to other extraordinary events. One of the most prominent events in the Grand Ole Opry House was the Country Music Association Awards, which was held there for around 30 years from 1974 to 2004.
Still, this wasn’t the only awards event that was held at the Grand Ole Opry House as the GMA Dove Awards found its way to the Grand Ole Opry House several times and was hosted beautifully there.
Last but certainly not least, we honestly don’t think that there is anyone who hasn’t heard before about one of the longest-running game shows, the ‘’Wheel of Fortune’’. The exciting bit is that the Grand Ole Opry House was lucky enough to host not one, not two, but three weeks of tapings for the Wheel of Fortune in 2003.
This will be a wrap-up of our Grand Ole Opry history article. Still, a show that has been running for so long will undoubtedly have too much history, trivia, incidents, events, and honors to be able to collect in just one article.
Yet, the outcome remains the same; the Grand Ole Opry show is genuinely a stunning program that has gone through so many changes, whether in regards to its staff, its homes, or the circumstances surrounding it.
It has also gone through floods, pandemics, and so much more, yet it still stands, entertaining people to this very day, and finding solutions to keep going no matter what!