Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



U.S. country music programme; one of the first radio Barn Dance shows, started in late 1925 and still going strong. George Dewey Hay (b 9 November 1895, Attica IN; d 9 May 1968, Virginia Beach VA); was a journalist on the Memphis Courier, then announcer on the paper's station WMC, where he scooped the fledgling industry with the first announcement of the death of President Harding. At WLS in Chicago in 1924 he was announcer for the new Chicago Barn Dance (later National Barn Dance), and voted the nation's most popular announcer by Radio Digest magazine; then he was hired by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company as director of their new station WSM in Nashville. He broadcast an hour of 85-year-old fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson in November 1925, the audience response justifying the first WSM Barn Dance 27 December 1925 with Hay as MC: he dubbed himself 'The Solemn Old Judge' though he was just 30. An offhand remark '27 dubbed the show Grand Ole Opry (see Deford Bailey).

Hay allowed only string bands for many years (no drums or horns; a Bob Wills guest shot '44 had a snare drum hidden behind a curtain); the first string band was Dr Humphrey Bate and his Possum Hunters (Bate d '36; he played harmonica, actually was a physician and also enjoyed classical music). The band's repertoire included ragtime and Sousa marches; daughter Alcyone Bate played piano age 13 on the first programmes and was still at the Opry 50 years later. Other early Opry stars were Uncle Dave Macon; influential guitarist Sam McGee and his fiddler brother Kirk. Bands included the Crook Brothers, Gully Jumpers, Fruit Jar Drinkers, Binkley Brothers, Dixie Clodhoppers, etc with singing incidental; but Roy Acuff from '38, although leading a traditional band, became a huge singing star, soon joined by Eddy Arnold, Red Foley and many others: singers were soon the biggest stars in country music.

Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys represented traditional string band (as well as Acuff's Smoky Mountain Boys); The bluegrass genre was kept going by Opry until an explosion of interest in '60s-70s. Ernest Tubb brought electric guitars '43; his popularity could not be denied, though the Opry remained suspicious of the honky tonk genre: Hay was adamant about basic country values, posing Bate and the others in pastures wearing overalls for publicity photos, while many had little rural connection. A sensational guest shot by Hank Williams '49 led to a contract though he was known to be unreliable; he had to be fired '52.

Meanwhile WSM's studio audience soon outgrew progressively larger rooms; the show was first networked on NBC '39, sponsored by Prince Albert tobacco, with Hay, Acuff, Macon, Little Rachel, the Weaver Brothers and Elviry; the same crew made the first Opry film '40; Opry stars toured USA in the Camel Caravan during WWII, helping keep up wartime morale. The Opry took over the local Ryman Auditorium '43, a country music shrine for 30 years. Records were made in WSM's studio late '20s for Victor field trips (Victor came back '44 to record Arnold); WSM engineers operated Castle Studios from '47, Nashville's first transcription studio; ex-Opry announcer Jim Bulleit started Bullet, the first Nashville record label '45; Owen Bradley, the true father of Music Row's recording industry, began as a WSM music director; Chet Atkins first came to Nashville to play on the Opry with the Carter Family. Francis Craig, Snooky Lanson, Kitty Kallen, Dinah Shore, Phil Harris, many others not solely identified with country music had links with WSM, which was one of the last radio stations in USA still maintaining a studio staff orchestra; also operated the first USA FM station '41 (a brave venture: few bought new receivers to get WNV47; WSMFM opened '68 when interest revived); also first Nashville TV station '50, etc. Hay finally left '53; Jim Denny ran the Opry's booking agency, encouraging growth of Nashville music business by making it home base for so many stars. Opryland USA park (369 acres) opened 16 March 1974, with new 4,400-seat auditorium at its centre: the Opry looks like going on for ever. For more details on other radio 'barn dances' see Country Music.