Wednesday, December 1, 2010

December Opry Highlights

I cannot believe that we have entered the final month of 2010. Where has the year gone? As I do at the start of each month, I want to offer the historical highlights for the Grand Ole Opry that took place during the month of December.

In December, 3 Opry members will be celebrating Opry anniversaries.

Randy Travis joined the Opry on December 20, 1986 (24 years).
Jack Greene became an Opry member of December 23, 1967 (43 years).
Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers joined the Opry on December 25, 1976 (34 years).

The following events took place at the Grand Ole Opry in December:

December 5, 1925: The Nashville Tennessean announces that WSM Radio will have a new Barn Dance program on the radio every Saturday night.

December 26, 1925: The WSM Barn Dance officially becomes a weekly radio program on Saturday nights, on WSM. As George D. Hay wrote, "Because of this recent revival in the popularity of the old familiar tunes, WSM has arranged to have an hour or two every Saturday night, starting Saturday December 26. 'Uncle' Dave Macon, the oldest banjo picker in Dixie, and who comes from Readyville, Tennessee, and 'Uncle' Jimmy Thompson of Martha, Tennessee, will answer any requests for old-time melodies. Uncle Jimmy made his first appearance a month ago and telegrams were received from all parts of the United States, encouraging him in his task of furnishing barn dance music for a million homes."

December 8, 1928: The Grand Ole Opry officially receives it's name. For the first several years, the program was called the "WSM Barn Dance." Before the Barn Dance, the NBC network carried a program called, "Music Appreciation Hour." According to George D. Hay, "It so happened on most Saturday nights, from seven to eight o'clock, WSM carried the 'Music Appreciation Hour' under the direction of the eminent conductor and composer, Dr. Walter Damrosch. Dr. Damrosch always signed off his concert a minute or two before eight o'clock, just before we hit the air with our mountain minstrels and vocal trapeze performers." On that night, Dr. Damrosch said, "While most artists realize that there is no place in the classics for realism, nevertheless I am going to break one of my rules and present a composition by a young composer from 'Ioway' who sent us his latest number, which depicts the on-rush of a locomotive." Then Hay continues, "After that announcement the good doctor directed his symphony orchestra through the number which carried many shoooses depicting an engine trying to come to a full stop. Then he closed his programme with his usual sign-off." After the sign-off and a short introduction by Hay about realism and down to earth music, he had DeFord Bailey respond with his harmonica and performed the song, "Pan American Blues", which featured Bailey doing his imitation of a fast-moving freight train. At the conclusion of that number, Hay gave his now famous reply, "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 it has been Grand Ole Opry ever since. (Some have given the date of this occurance as December 10, 1927, but the 1928 date seems to be the right one).

December 30, 1944: Bob Wills, the great western swing bandleader, makes his only appearance at the Opry. He caused a serious issue with Opry management by bringing on stage a full set of drums, which had never before happened at the Opry. He was supposed to keep the drums hidden behind a curtain. During the show, a woman who was sitting in the balcony became so excited that she fell out of the balcony and onto the Opry stage. In the early years of the Opry, George D. Hay took a hard-nosed approach about what went over the air, and that included what instruments were allowed. His saying was, "Keep it close to the ground, boys!" Hay wanted the music played with string instruments only, and horns and drums were banned from the Opry. The subject of drums would continue to be debated at the Opry for decades to come. According to Archie Campbell, in a television interview, "I remember when Grandpa Jones came on and he saw some drums on the stage. And they asked him, 'Grandpa, you want drums on your number?' And he said, 'Very little, if any.'" Bob Wills also featured an electric fiddle, which also was not allowed on the Opry. Roy Acuff's comment to that was it would ruin the Opry forever!!

December 8, 1945: Earl Scruggs makes his debut as a member of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. He would be the final addition to what is considered the greatest bluegrass band of all time, which featured Bill Monroe on the mandolin, Earl Scruggs on banjo, Lester Flatt on guitar, Chubby Wise on fiddle and Howard Watts on bass. Although Bill Monroe had other band members before this line-up, this was the group that really defined bluegrass and this group would go down in history as Bill Monroe's greatest band and the band that achieved the greatest success for Monroe. The band would remain together until the spring of 1948.

December 30, 1950: Lefty Frizzell makes his debut on the Opry. It was Hank Williams that pushed to get Lefty on at the Opry. At the time, Lefty had the #1 and #2 records in the country with "Always Late" and "Mom and Dad Waltz". According to Lefty, "I forget where we were at the time, but one day Williams says 'You need to join the Opry.' I looked at him an' said, 'Look, I got the number-one song, the number-two song, the number-seven song, and the number-eight song on the charts. An' you tell me I need to join the Opry?" Hank thought about it awhile, then he laughed an' said, 'Darned if you ain't got a heck of an arguement.'" Lefty would join the Opry in 1952, but it would not work out. He left after a couple of months.

December 6, 1964: The Grand Ole Opry fired 12 of its members for failing to meet the Opry's appearance requirements. According to the Nashville Tennessean, "Twelve top country and western music stars will not appear on the Grand Ole Opry in 1965, and have been prohibited from using the Opry name in their outside billings. Another entertainer, long-time favorite Minnie Pearl, has been given a leave of absence from the show for the coming year, but will continue to use the Opry billing in in her present contracts, a WSM spokesman said." Fired from the Opry were George Morgan, Don Gibson, Billy Grammer, Johnny Wright, Kitty Wells, the Jordanaires, Faron Young, Ferlin Husky, Chet Atkins, Justin Tubb, Stonewall Jackson and Ray Price. Opry officials had insisted on strict adherence to a rule that said Opry performers had to appear on 26 shows in a year. It was later reported that Chet Atkins was not actually an Opry member and his name was removed from the list. According to Faron Young, money was the issue. "When they insisted on the twenty-six week thing, I put a pen to it and figured it out. I was gonna lose $180,000 a year to work the Opry for twenty-six weeks out of the year." Johnny Wright, husband of Kitty Wells, had a different explanation and it involved percentages paid by the artists to the WSM Artists' Service Bureau, the Opry's booking agency. "They booked some of our dates, and then some of the dates were booked by our personal managers and booking agents. They were charging us fifteen percent on the dates they booked, and then if they didn't book a date you still had to pay them five percent of the dates that you booked yourself." According to Wright, he and Wells were not fired, they quit. Regardless, a number of those who did leave the Opry did eventually rejoin as members, including George Morgan, Don Gibson, Billy Grammer, Justin Tubb and Stonewall Jackson. Others, such as Ray Price and Faron Young, would play the Opry on a very infrequent basis. Opry manager Ott Devine put it this way, "The 11 released stars will me missed. And they will be. But there is a feeling that such a lose would be more keenly felt if the stars had not already been missed too often at the Opry." That statement could be said about many of the Opry's members today!!

December 8, 1982: Marty Robbins passed away from heart disease at the age of 57. Earlier that year, he had been elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was one of the Opry's most popular members and often performed on the 11:30pm segment, a segment that over the years became famous as being his own personal show, and often running up to an hour over the usual ending time of the Opry.

December 20, 1999: Country Music Hall of Famer and 49 year Grand Ole Opry member Hank Snow dies at the age of 85. He was just weeks away from celebrating his 50th anniversary as an Opry member. Due to declining health, Hank had now appeared on the Opry since 1996.

December 14, 2002: Toby Keith makes his debut on the Opry. Also appearing on the Opry that night were Keith Urban and Trace Adkins.

Hope you enjoy the look back!!!


  1. Great info! To add to the list, Faron Young died December 10, 1996. He'd shot himself in the head 24 hours earlier.

  2. Diane, you are so right. I am so sorry I missed that and so sorry that Faron is no longer with us.

  3. Diane, I'm glad you're here so I can say how much I enjoyed your book on Faron and look forward to your book on Marty.

    And thank you, Great Blogger, for a great list. And amen to those who don't meet the membership requirements now. I should note that Don Gibson didn't come back as a member until 1976, but the rest of the members who did rejoin, if I recall, all came back pretty much right away.

  4. Interesting that you mention the Bob Wills appearance. I was rummaging through the archives last night and came across an album from around 1976 that consisted mostly of interviews of various Opry stars including Minnie Pearl. Among the 10 minutes or so of her recollections is this account of the night Bob Wills came to the Opry (it helps if you imagine Minnie's voice as she tells the story):

    "I remember the night Bob Wills came…oh mercy! And he was the first one that brought a whole band in in a bus. That was about 1942 or 3. Had ‘em all dressed up…they looked great. And when they plugged in those twin fiddles…electric, AMPLIFIED twin fiddles…and brought that set of drums on there I wish you could have seen Judge Hay’s face. He looked like they’d brought in bunch of tarantulas and boa constrictors. He was absolutely INCENSED. But he couldn’t stop ‘em. Because they didn’t set up until…we didn’t have rehearsals then to amount to anything…and he didn’t know they were gonna do it. And they rushed in there and plugged those things in and took off on San Antonio Rose. And a woman got so excited she fell out of the balcony! Back there where the old Opry was the balcony ran back…it ran around backstage and a lot of the real dyed-in-the wool fans love to sit in there because they could look and see what was happening backstage as well as onstage…I mean out in front. And, so… oh this woman got so carried away… it didn’t hurt her it wasn’t a very long fall…but she WAS carried away. I mean CARRIED away. They had to carry her away as a matter of fact."

    Minnie was not only a great comic but also a wonderful storyteller.

    I also remember the days surrounding the passing of Marty Robbins. I was working for the Opry at the time and had just spent my first summer out of college working for a production company that did a lot of shows with Marty and his band at the county fairs around the Midwest and on a couple of occasions I ran into Marty in the hotel coffee shop...he was usually there alone in the early afternoon...and he invited me to join him at his booth. He was still at the top of his game, very much in demand and selling out all of his shows and placing singles at the top of the charts and yet treated everyone with a kindness and respect that you rarely ever see from "stars" of that calibre. I was fortunate enough to see him on both sides of the spotlight and both he and the guys in his band were always a pleasure to work for.

    So, when Marty passed, a pall almost seemed to fall all over the city of Nashville...especially at the Opryland offices. The day he was buried at Woodlawn was the first show of the season that year...a cold, wet, sad snow. I can still remember it like it was yesterday even though it's been 28 years now. The Opry went on but 11:30 on Saturday night was never the same again. When Marty was on the show, that last half hour (or hour, mostly) just crackled with an energy that's really hard to describe but if you ever experienced it you know what I mean. Johnny Russell kind of took over that late night slot later on but it was a different vibe. And now, of course, the 11:30 portion no longer me it often seems as though the Opry is over before it ever begins.

    Just my Saturday night back to our regularly scheduled programming.

  5. Barry, I really enjoyed reading your comments. Thanks for sharing those memories. I'll always remember Eddy Arnold inducting Marty into the Hall of Fame and how excited both of them were, and Marty saying that others were more deserving but he was going to take it--and, of course, it turned out, he got it in the nick of time.

  6. Barry, thanks so much, as always, for sharing your comments and the Minnie Pearl story. I agree with your comments regarding Marty and the 11:30 segment on the Opry. It was always something to stay up for and to listen to and the Opry just never seemed complete on the Saturday nights that Marty was not on.

    I know Johnny Russell really tried to make that 11:30 segment special again, but you are right, it just didn't seem the same, no matter how hard Johnny tried. That special feeling was just gone.

    The Opry now just seems to be over before it starts, especially when there is only 1 show on Saturday night. Some of the joy growing up was listening to the transistor radio late at night in bed, and if it was Saturday night, picking up the Opry and the Midnight Jamboree, or if it was the other nights in the summer, picking up the west coast baseball games. The joys and simpliness of youth!!

    Thanks again Barry!!!

  7. I remember when Marty Robbins was inducted to the Hall of Fame,saying other people were more deserving,but he took it anyway.2 months later Marty passed away.Marty is not the only one who died in the same year as their hall of fame induction.Marty Robbins [1982],Duke of Paducah [1986],Patsy Montana [1996],Tammy Wynette [1998],Jimmy Dean [2010],Bob Nolan & Hugh Farr [1980]