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Grand Ole Opry goes uptown for 80th birthday

Longest running radio show to mark anniversary with Carnegie Hall show
/ Source: The Associated Press

His Grand Ole Opry debut? Charley Pride remembers it well.

“It was 1967, January 1,” Pride snaps. “Ernest Tubb brought me on, and I was more nervous than a cat on a hot tin roof.”

That’s how most performers feel about the Opry, the folksy live radio show that’s helped define country music for eight decades. The stage with the red barn backdrop is hallowed ground in Nashville, and entertainers still consider their first performance there a milestone.

The show turns 80 this year, and while the anniversary doesn’t have the bang of a 75th or a 100th, the Opry is planning a big to-do, including a rare broadcast from New York’s Carnegie Hall in November.

Like a classic country song, the Grand Ole Opry has endured despite changes in technology, musical tastes, ownership and location.

It’s the longest continuously running radio show in the country, and though at times it’s been derided as stale and antiquated, there’s a certain charm when the house band begins to play and the burgundy curtain rises.

The feeling is one of seeing something authentic, down to the vintage microphone stands, live advertisements and corny jokes.

The homespun feel, however, belies the elaborate production. The show is marketed nationwide, streamed over Internet and satellite radio, shown on cable TV, broadcast on regular radio and reaches more than 2 million people a week.

The hayseed image has always been there, since Dr. Humphrey Bate, a physician, donned overalls and led his band, the Possum Hunters. Later, comedian Sarah Cannon recreated herself as Minnie Pearl — a character from the mythical small town of Grinder’s Switch who wore a straw hat with the price tag dangling.

But most credit the Opry’s longevity to the music. Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe and Elvis Presley are among the thousands who have performed and become stars there.

The show was broadcast coast-to-coast during its heyday in the 1940s and ’50s and is a main reason Nashville became the commercial center of country music. It’s the last surviving big country music show from radio’s golden age, outlasting competitors like the Chicago Barn Dance and the Louisiana Hayride.

Yet beginning in the 1960s and continuing into the ’90s, fewer big stars joined the permanent cast because of the show’s low wages and waning power to build careers. The Opry acquired the reputation as a home for aging acts who no longer have hit records.

“It’s no secret that the heyday of the Grand Ole Opry was when it was the best thing you could do for your career,” said Pete Fisher, Opry vice president and general manager.

Pride, for example, declined the Opry’s first invitation in 1968.

“My manager pointed out the criteria wasn’t suitable for what we were trying to do,” said Pride, who finally accepted in 1993. “It was the beginning of my career, and they required me to be there 26 Saturdays of each year. For an artist just starting out, those were the best dates to get your money.”

In recent years, management relaxed the appearance requirements and made other changes to make it easier for contemporary stars to join. Today, there are about 70 cast members ranging from Little Jimmy Dickens, Porter Wagoner and Connie Smith to Alan Jackson, Martina McBride and Trace Adkins.

For Adkins, 43, the decision to join wasn’t even a question.

“Growing up around Shreveport we had the Louisiana Hayride and that was an institution for many years, but everyone knew the Grand Ole Opry was the big deal,” he said. “It’s like ball players going to the major leagues saying they’re going to the big show. When I was a kid the Grand Ole Opry was the big show.”

The format of the two-and-a-half hour program has changed little over the years. A parade of performers march on and off stage, doing two or three songs apiece, with different hosts.

At a recent show, newcomer Jeff Bates performed his hit “Long Slow Kisses,” singer Suzy Bogguss did “I Want to Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” from 1988 and veteran Bill Anderson sang “But You Know I Love You” from 1969. A country rock act called Hilljack also performed, as did the bluegrass picker Jesse McReynolds and a clogging group.

“It broadens our audience to have multiple generations on stage and multiple styles,” Fisher said. “The fans can see where country music is, where it has been and where it is going.”

The Opry has been broadcast on the same AM station, WSM, all these years. The National Life & Accident Insurance Company started the station to sell insurance. The call letters were an abbreviation for “We Shield Millions.”

The show began almost by accident, according to “A Good-Natured Riot,” a history of the Grand Ole Opry’s early years by Charles K. Wolfe.

The station wanted to cater to those who considered their city “The Athens of the South” by playing light classical and dance band music. But one of the announcers, a former newspaper man named George Hay, asked a country fiddler to come to the studio and play requests.

The switchboard lit up, and soon Hay was inviting other pickers and fiddlers and calling the segment the WSM Barn Dance, a spinoff of the National Barn Dance radio program he once had in Chicago. A couple years later he changed the name to the Grand Ole Opry, a play on a Grand Opera segment that preceded the show.

Today, performers still cite the Opry as an influence and link to country’s roots.

Pride remembers his father tuning in from the family’s Mississippi cotton farm, exposing his son to key figures like Tubb, Acuff and Pee Wee King.

Even now, after all these years, Pride is sentimental.

“When I do the Opry I dress in the same room that Mr. Acuff had,” he said. “And when you walk down the hall and see all the pictures on the wall, you’re going to see somebody that takes you back to the memories when you were listening as a kid. Sure, you get all kinds of goosebumps. There’s no way you could not feel something.”