As I do each month, I like to take a look back in history at the important and historical events that have taken place involving the Opry and its members.
During the month of April, 2 members of the Grand Ole Opry joined the cast:
Diamond Rio joined the Opry on April 18, 1998 (13 years). Diamond Rio was originally known as the Tennessee River Boys and they performed at Opryland. After some reorganization and changes in membership in the late 80s, they would reemerge as Diamond Rio with Marty Roe handling the lead singing. When they joined the Opry, they were the first group to join since The Whites back in 1984.
And on April 30, 1966, Ray Pillow joined the cast of the Opry. This year will be his 45th year as on Opry member. Ray came to Nashville from Lynchburg, Virginia to enter the National Pet Milk Talent Contest. He did not win, but he continued to work in small clubs and promoting himself at local radio stations. In 1964, his manager was able to get him a record deal with Capital Records and in December 1965, his first album was released. The album was a success and Opry membership would follow. Over his long career, Ray has become more known from his work at various record and publishing companies. In fact, his publishing company owns the publishing rights to most of Lee Greenwood's songs, including "God Bless the USA."
The following events took place in the Opry's history during April:
April 21, 1924: Ira Louvin was born in Section, Alabama. His birth name was Ira Lonnie Loudermilk and he would later team with his brother Charlie as the Louvin Brothers. Ira died in a car accident on June 20, 1965. The act had broken up prior to the accident and Charlie had continued on as an Opry member. In 2001, the Louvin Brothers would be elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
April 3, 1928: Opry member Don Gibson was born in Shelby, North Carolina. Don became an Opry member on April 12, 1958. He was part of the group of Opry members that were fired in December 1964 for failure to honor their appearance commitment on the Opry. He would later rejoin the show and would remain a member until his death on November 17, 2003. In 2001, he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
April 28, 1928: One of the earliest Opry performers, Mrs. C.R. Cline, appeared on the Opry. She played the hammer dulcimer and he husband often played along with her, on his guitar.
April 15, 1933: Opry member Roy Clark was born in Meherrin, Virginia. Roy joined the Opry on August 22, 1987. At the time that he joined the Opry, he was a very busy man with his numerous television appearances, including the "Tonight Show" and of course, "Hee Haw". When Roy was asked to join, he was honest with the Opry's management and told them at the time that he could not guarantee how often he would, or could, appear on the show, but he was accepted as a member anyways. Even though his Opry appearances have averaged only a few each year, at least he was up front and honest when asked.
April 29, 1933: The Delmore Brothers, Raybon and Alton, made their first appearance as members of the Grand Ole Opry. They were the first of the brother duets to appear on the Opry and many more would follow over the years. Their influence is still felt in country music today. They would remain on the Opry until 1938, when differences with George D. Hay and Harry Stone would cause them to leave. They would spend the rest of their careers traveling from radio station to radio station until the territory was worn out. The Country Music Foundation would later publish a very nice book by Alton Delmore, "Truth is Stranger", that really gives you a great history of the brothers. They would be elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
April 30, 1933: Willie Nelson was born in Abbott, Texas. Willie made his first appearance on the Opry on November 28, 1964, and would join the Opry shortly after that. He would remain an Opry member for a very, very short time before leaving Nashville and heading back to his native Texas and taking his career in a different direction.
April 1, 1934: Grand Ole Opry member Jim Ed Brown was born in Sparkman, Arkansas. In 1965, Jim Ed Brown would become a member of the Opry.
April 14, 1935: Loretta Lynn, born Loretta Webb, was born in Butcher Holler, Kentucky.
April 15, 1937: Bob Luman was born in Nachogdoches, Texas. Bob would come to Nashville and join the Opry on September 2, 1965. At the time, he was one of the new hot, young singers in Nashville and his joining the Opry was part of the attempt of the Opry's management to appeal to the younger fans. He was a sensation on the Opry and the younger fans loved him, but his performance style caused some problems with some of the older Opry members, including Roy Acuff, who was especially critical. His career was pretty short, but productive with close to 40 country hits. Bob died at the age of 41 in 1978. As a side note, Bob was not the only new Opry member on the night he joined. That was also the night that Connie Smith became a member of the Opry.
April 1, 1939: Rachel Veach joined Roy Acuff's Smokey Mountain Boys. Although other females would tour and perform with Roy and his group, Rachel would be the only "official" female member.
April 14, 1945: For the first time in Opry history, a trumpet was played during an Opry broadcast as "Taps" was played to mark the death of President Franklin Roosevelt.
April 6, 1946: Roy Acuff quit as a member of the Grand Ole Opry after being involved in a salary dispute. He felt that as the star of the Prince Albert Show that he should be paid more than the Opry's scale. Roy's pay at the time was $15.00 per Saturday night and Opry members were required to appear every week unless specifically excused by management. In 1947, Ernest Tubb and Harry Stone would visit Roy while he was hospitalized in Nashville and ask him to return to the Opry, saying that the Opry really needed him. In fact, Harry Stone was quoted as telling Roy, "Roy, the Opry is losing many of its people and it looks like maybe we're going under if you don't come back and be with us. Please come and help us out." Roy did not realize how much he was missed and agreed to rejoin the show. When he returned on April 26, 1947, it would be as the host of the Royal Crown Cola portion of the Opry, as Red Foley was the new host of the Prince Albert Show. While never specifically discussed, it was agreed privately that Roy would receive more pay as one of the Opry's top performers and this would begin the practice of the Opry paying some of its top stars higher pay than the union scale that the majority of the Opry's members received.
April 13, 1946: Red Foley joined the Opry and would be the host of the Prince Albert portion of the show, that was broadcast nationally on NBC radio. Despite the objections of Edwin Craig, the head of National Life and Accident Insurance Company, the owners of WSM and the Opry, Red replaced Roy Acuff as the host when Roy left the Opry. Red would remain an Opry member and the Prince Albert host until April 18, 1953, when he decided to leave the Opry and Nashville. He relocated to Springfield, Missouri and went into television as the host of the "Ozark Jubilee". When Red left the Opry, the decision was made to use rotating hosts on the Prince Albert show, some of whom were not Opry members.
April 2, 1947: Emmylou Harris was born in Birmingham, Alabama. Her birth name was Emmy Lou.
April 26, 1947: Chet Atkins made his first appearance at the Opry. He was a guitarist who at the time played with Red Foley. Over time, Chet would appear so often at the Opry, usually with other performers, that the Opry management actually thought he was a member and he was "fired" in the mass dismissal of Opry members in December 1964. Opry manager Ott Devine said at the time, "Chet has not been officially connected with the Opry for many years." Opry management was called into question for not knowing who their members actually were.
April 9, 1953: Grand Ole Opry member Hal Ketchum was born in Greenwich, New York.
April 12, 1957: Vince Gill was born in Norman, Oklahoma. Vince would join the Opry on August 10, 1991, and in 2007, he was elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
April 22, 1967: The Four Guys became members of the Opry. The main singer and member of The Four Guys was Sam Wellington, who along with Brent Burkett, would anchor the group through most of its existence. Sam would stay with the group until retiring on June 19, 1999. Brent would retire from the group in October 1999. After that, the group reorganized and with Sam and Brent leaving the group, their Opry appearances were cut. In April 2000, after being Opry members for 33 years, Pete Fisher fired them. His reasoning was that since there were no longer any original members in the group, they were not the same group that the Opry had originally hired, so there was no reason to keep them as members.
April 6, 1968: For the first and only time in the history of the Opry, WSM was forced to cancel the live show for that night because of a city wide curfew that was imposed in Nashville following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Opry still claims that they have never missed a Saturday night performance as a previously taped show was played on WSM. Meanwhile, Roy Acuff, Sam and Kirk McGee, and several other Opry performers put on a show in a dance hall on Broadway that was located above Roy Acuff's museum and gift shop. The show took place during the afternoon as Roy felt bad that the Opry fans that came to Nashville from out of town would not have a show to attend.
April 21, 1971: Connie Smith rejoined the cast of the Opry. The former Opry member had quit the show earlier to be a stay at home mom and to spend time with her children.
April 27, 1971: Opryland opened in Nashville. With the opening of Opryland, Bud Wendell, who was the general manager of the Opry, was promoted to general manager of Opryland and the Grand Ole Opry, while Hal Durham would take over as Opry manager. It was under Hal Durham that the Opry all but dropped attendance requirements from its members and it was Hal who expanded the Opry's cast with many of the artists from the 1980s that either appear at the Opry very little or not at all.
April 2, 1977: Grand Ole Opry stage manager Vito Pellettieri worked his final Opry show. He suffered a stroke and would die on April 14. Vito was the only stage manager in the history of the Opry and many of the Opry's members would remember Vito as the person who kept the show running on a schedule and would inspire and motivate the entertainers to do their best while on stage. There are many great Vito stories around and some of them are repeated by his friend Hank Snow in his autobiography. In a note of Opry history, it was Vito that broke down the Opry into half hour and quarter hour segments with sponsors and began holding the Opry members responsible for being on time for their segments.
April 13, 1981: Guy Willis of The Willis Brothers died at the age of 65. Along with his brothers Skeeter and Vic, he joined the Opry in 1946. Along with being Opry members, The Willis Brothers did some session work in Nashville, including backing Hank Williams on his first Nashville recordings.
April 13, 1985: The Grand Ole Opry begins as a weekly televised show on The Nashville Network (TNN). It began as the half hour segment that began at 7:30pm. The first show was hosted by Roy Acuff. The show would eventually expand to an hour and then in 2001 would move to Country Music Television (CMT), and then in 2003 to Great American Country (GAC), where the live broadcasts would eventually fade away.
April 22, 1989: Clint Black makes his first appearance on the Opry. Over the years, Clint would make guest appearances on the show and he would eventually become an Opry member on January 10, 1991. While it may seem like it, that was not Clint's last Opry appearance.
April 12, 1997: Lewis Crook died at the age of 87 in Nashville. As part of the Crook Brothers, he joined the Opry in 1926, when it was still called the WSM Barn Dance. He would continue on the Opry until 1988, staying as an Opry member for 62 uninterrupted years. Herman Crook, no relation to Lewis Crook, would continue on with the Crook Brothers at the Opry and he would pass away in June 1988. When Herman died, Opry history died with him as he was the last surviving member of the original 1926 Grand Ole Opry cast.
April 27, 2003: Edward Gaylord, chairman of Gaylord Entertainment died in Oklahoma at the age of 83. His company, Gaylord Broadcasting Company bought the Grand Ole Opry on July 1, 1983. In addition to buying the entire Opryland complex, they also owned "Hee Haw". While his passing may not seem very important, over time it would have serious consequences at the Opry as his children and grandchildren would make the decision to allow Gaylord Entertainment to become a public company and they would reduce the Gaylord family involvement within the management of the company. Of course, the focus of the company would shift and the profitability of the Opry would become more the focus than the entertainment aspect of the show.
Finally, in honor of Ray Pillow's 45th anniversary as an Opry member, here is the line up from April 30, 1966, the night that he joined the Opry.
George Hamilton IV
8:00: Martha White
Flatt & Scruggs(host)
9:00: Pet Milk
Fruit Jar Drinkers
Fruit Jar Drinkers
George Hamilton IV