Sunday, July 31, 2011

August Opry Highlights

As I do at the start of each month, I like to review the Opry's history for that month. So here are the historical and important events that have taken place in the Opry's history in the month of August.

August 22, 1910: Former Opry member Rod Brasfield was born in Smithville, Mississippi. This Country Music Hall of Fame member was famous for his comedy routines with Minnie Pearl. Rod also appeared in several movies. But his life was short and he would pass away from a heart attack on September 12, 1958. At the time, he was living in a house trailer in Nashville. He had joined the Opry in 1947.

August 30, 1919: Muriel Ellen Deason, better known as Kitty Wells was born in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1976, she was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Kitty was an Opry member for many years, but she was fired from the Opry in December 1964, along with a number of Opry stars for failure to appear on the show the required number of times each year. I was one of those who had wished that Kitty had come back to the show. She did appear on the Opry several times after the firing, but never again expressed an interest in becoming a member. She and Jimmy Dickens are among the last stars to still be alive that were involved in country music before the 1950's.

August 8, 1921: Former Opry member Webb Pierce was born in West Monroe, Louisiana. He first appeared on the Opry in 1952, but he quickly figured out he could make much more money by not being a member of the Opry, so he left the show and proceded to have a great career in country music. At the time, this is what Webb was quoted as saying, "You had to be there every Saturday night, and that was too much, because, you see, most of our money, we made it on Saturday night. Of course, we'd be on a tour and then we'd have to turn around at the end of the week and be back at the Opry. I don't care if you was in Podunk, Canada!" He was the biggest star of the 1950's. But, he made a lot of enemies along the way, many of whom refused to vote for Webb for the Country Music Hall of Fame while he was still alive. Finally in 2001, he was inducted, after his death. He was famous for his guitar shaped swimming pool in Nashville and his feud with Ray Stevens over the pool and the tour buses who came to see it.

August 28, 1925: Grand Ole Opry member Billy Grammer was born in Benton, Illinois. Billy is still an Opry member today, although he made his last Opry appearance in February 2009, when he celebrated 50 years as an Opry member.

August 12, 1927: Opry member Porter Wagoner was born in West Plains, Missouri. Porter would join the Grand Ole Opry in 1957 and would remain an Opry member until he passed away on October 28, 2007, after celebrating 50 years as a member of the show. During his career, he had over 80 singles on the country music charts.

August 27, 1927: Jimmy C Newman was born in High Point, Louisiana. Jimmy became a member of the Grand Ole Opry on August 4, 1956. This is his 55th year as an Opry member.

August 4, 1931: Former Opry manager Hal Durham was born in McMinnville, Tennessee. After the Opry moved to Opryland and the new Opry House, Bud Wendall, who had been the Opry's manager, was promoted to general manager of both Opryland and the Grand Ole Opry, and he asked Hal to take over as manager of the Opry. In 1978, after 4 years as the Opry's manager, he was promoted to general manager, and held that position for 15 years. Hal was the one who was really responsible for the Opry relaxing its membership requirements and it was Hal who offered Opry membership to many of the popular stars of the 1980's, including Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire, The Whites and Riders In The Sky, among many others. He left the Opry in 1993 and was the President of the Opry Group until 1996, when he retired. He died in March 2009. In many ways, it was Hal who put the Opry in the position it is in today, with many of the Opry's members not appearing on the show more than several times per year.

August 20, 1935: Former Opry member Justin Tubb was born in San Antonio, Texas. Justin would follow in the footsteps of his father and become a country music singer and a songwriter. While not a superstar in either field, Justin did have some sold success. He was a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Although in his final years he rarely appeared on the Opry, he remained a member until he died on January 24, 1998. He had joine the Opry in 1955 at the age of 20.

August 14, 1941: Constance June Meador, otherwise known as Connie Smith, was born in Elkhart, Indiana. Connie has been recognized for having one of the sweetest voices in country music and has been an Opry member for many years. She is currently married to fellow Opry member Marty Stuart and has recorded a new album that is due out shortly.

August 7, 1942: Former Opry member B. J. Thomas was born in Hugo, Oklahoma. He would become a member of the Opry on August 7, 1981, his 39th birthday. He would only remain an Opry member for a short period of time. He was there such a short amount of time, he is rarely mentioned in the history of the Opry.

August 11, 1946: Opry member John Conlee was born in Versallies, Kentucky. John would come to Nashville and join the Opry in February 1981. The former funeral director has one of the most distinctive voices in country music and continues to be a loyal member of the Opry.

August 11, 1952: Hank Williams was fired from the Grand Ole Opry. Opry manager Jim Denny made the call to Hank, with Ernest Tubb in the room with Jim when the call was made.

August 14, 1954: Ernest Tubb took a leave of absence from the Opry. He was gone from the Opry until November, on "sick leave." He did continue to host the Midnight Jamboree during this period. It was also during this period that Ernest hosted Elvis Presley on the Jamboree.

August 28, 1954: Grand Ole Opry member Stringbean left the cast of the show to join the cast of the Ramblin' Tommy Scott Show. Stringbean would eventually rejoin the show and would remain an Opry member until his death of November 10, 1973, when he and his wife, Estelle, were murdered at their home after his Opry appearance that night.

August 11, 1956: George Jones joined the Grand Ole Opry. George and his history with the Opry is very interesting. See if you can follow these dates. The August 11th date is the date listed in the current Grand Ole Opry History Picture Book. Prior to this edition, his Opry induction date was listed as January 4, 1969. In the 1979 edition of the History Picture Book, he is listed as having returned to the Opry in 1973, after a short absence. In the 1972 edition of the History Picture Book, he is not listed at all. Not that it all matters as George rarely appears on the Opry. But, if you go with the 1956 date, he will be celebrating 55 years as an Opry member this month.

August 22, 1957: Former Opry member Holly Dunn was born in San Antonio, Texas. Holly retired from the music business in 2003 and moved to New Mexico to start an art studio. She was dropped as an Opry member several years ago.

August 4, 1959: Skeeter Davis joined the Grand Ole Opry. Skeeter would remain an Opry member until her death on September 19, 2004. Skeeter was known for her religious views and at one time was suspended from the Opry for discussing those views on stage. She last appeared on the Opry in 2002, when illness caused her to no longer be able to perform.

August 12, 1963: Jim Ed Brown joined the Grand Ole Opry. Actually, it was The Browns, with Maxine and Bonnie, along with Jim Ed who joined the Opry in 1963, 48 years ago. Jim Ed would continue as a solo act after the sisters retired from the act as they began to have families in the mid 1960's. The Browns would continue to appear from time to time at the Opry until just recently. Maxine wrote a wonderful book on her career and the Browns, called, "Looking Back To See", that I highly recommend. Jim Ed has had a great career with the Browns, as a duet partner with Helen Cornelius and as a solo artist. Jim Ed still has a great voice and deserves membership to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

August 23, 1963: Former Opry member Milton Estes died. He was 49 years old.

August 27, 1963: Former Opry manager Jim Denny died at the age of 52, from cancer. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1966. Jim Denny was actually the first WSM employee who was specifically assigned the task as Opry manager. When he started at WSM, he would hang around the backstage area of the Opry at the Ryman Auditorium and become friendly with many of the artists. He also ran the concession business. During his time at the Opry, he signed many of the major stars of country music to Opry membership. Along with Webb Pierce, he started Cedarwood Music Publishing and it was this business that caused him to leave the Opry and WSM. Many of the Opry's members joined him and his new artist bureau, leaving the Opry's booking agency. He was the Opry manager who told Elvis Presley to go back to truck driving (if you believe the story), and he was famous for his feud with Ernest Tubb.

August 8, 1964: The Osborne Brothers joined the Grand Ole Opry. Bobby and Sonny would remain a duo until Sonny retired in 2005. Bobby continues as the head of his group, Rocky Top X-Press. In the list of Opry members, the Osborne Brothers are still listed and will be celebrating their 47th year as Opry members. You might want to know that Sonny is still active and involved in teaching banjo at camps around the Nashville area for students.

August 14, 1965: Bobby Bare joined the Grand Ole Opry. Bobby would remain an Opry member for a number of years, before leaving the show. Bobby did not totally break his ties to the Opry and still appears on the show once in a while. Bobby's contributions in country music have been overlooked by many, and he deserves to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

August 17, 1967: Charlie Walker joined the Grand Ole Opry. Charlie would remain a regular member of the Opry until his death on September 12, 2008. I had the opportunity to meet Charlie back in the 1990's, and I can tell you he was a fine gentleman. He started out as a DJ, and always remembered his radio fans, even after he became a big star. In 1981, he was inducted into the Country Music Radio DJ Hall of Fame, in Nashville.

August 5, 1968: Opry member Terri Clark was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

August 21, 1975: Former Opry member Sam McGee died in a tractor accident on his farm in Tennessee. He was 81. He performed at the Opry along with his brother Kirk. They first appeared on the Opry in 1926. During their time on the Opry, they appeared with different groups, including the "Dixieliners". Sam was also the first performer to play an electric guitar at the Opry, after which George D. Hay politely told him to put it away and not bring it back.

August 14, 1982: Former Opry member Ernest Tubb made his final appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. He was suffering from emphysema that made it too difficult for him to tour or to make public appearances, and he did not want to be seen in public with his oxygen tank. He would spend his last days rotating between his home and the hospital, and would pass away on September 6, 1984.

August 22, 1987: Roy Clark joined the Grand Ole Opry. I know that since Roy joined the Opry, he has not made very many Opry appearances, usually only a couple each year. But in the case of Roy, he told Opry management that he was very busy with Hee Haw and his concert appearances, so he could not guarantee how often he could appear on the Opry. Even with that, the Opry still accepted Roy as a member.

August 29, 1987: Former Grand Ole Opry member Archie Campbell died in Knoxville, Tennessee from a heart attack. Archie had joined the Opry in 1958 and he was one of the main writers of Hee Haw. I thought that it was interesting that fellow Hee Haw star Roy Clark had been inducted as a new Opry member just a week before Archie died. And, I would make the case that Archie deserves election to the Country Music Hall of Fame, but I am not sure it will ever happen.

August 10, 1991: Vince Gill joined the Grand Ole Opry. In 2 weeks, the Opry will be celebrating his 20 year as an Opry member. He has been a solid member and has strongly supported the show since he joined. On the night he joined, Roy Acuff introduced him as an Opry member.

August 30, 1991: Opry member Dottie West was critically injured in a car accident while on her way to the Friday Night Opry. On September 4, 1991, she would die from her injuries.

August 24, 1998: Opry member Jerry Clower died in Jackson, Mississippi, after heart surgery. He was 71 years old. He joined the Grand Ole Opry in November 1973. He was the last member to join while the Opry was still at the Ryman Auditorium, before moving to the Grand Ole Opry House. As with many members, Jerry was emotional when he joined the Opry. Over the years, here is how he remembered the experience, "It's undescribable, because, you see, I had prayed as a little boy that at the end of a crop year we'd clear enough money for us to go see the Grand Ole Opry. And we never did make it. Now, here I was on it! Grand Ole Opry star Jerry Clower! Woooo!" Jerry was certainly one of the greatest story tellers of all time.

August 26, 2000: Pam Tillis joined the Grand Ole Opry. This will be her 11th year as an Opry member.

August 18, 2001: The Grand Ole Opry moved their televised portion of the show from TNN to CMT. The first show on CMT was highlighted by Vince Gill, who was celebrating his 10th anniversary as an Opry member. He hosted the show and was joined by Steve Wariner, Sonya Isaacs, Jimmy C Newman, Brad Paisley, Elizabeth Cook and Loretta Lynn.

August 10, 2002: It was announced that Porter Wagoner and Bill Carlisle had been elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. The announcement was made by the Dixie Chicks during the televised portion of the Opry that night on CMT. No, Porter and Bill were not on that portion, but were called out on stage for the announcement. I know that the Dixie Chicks were on top of the music world at that time, but I think that the Hall of Fame did a great injustice in having them making the announcement. Also, Porter especially, should have been elected years before, especially before Dolly Parton. On a final note, if you ever get a chance to watch a video from that night, watch the expression on Porter's face during the announcement and right after it. I think he was thinking, "It's about time", and he looked like he would have rather been somewhere else at that moment.

August 23, 2003: Trace Adkins joined the Grand Ole Opry.

Finally, it was in August 1948, that Jimmy Dickens first became a member of the Opry. The exact date is lost to history. In 1957, after 9 years as an Opry member, Jimmy left the show. He accepted an offer to head a major road show sponsored by Philip Morris company, which was a rival to R.J. Reynolds company, a long time Opry sponsor. R.J. Reynolds prohibited an Opry member from working with a competing company, so Jimmy left the Opry, although as he said, there were no hard feelings. Jimmy rejoined the Opry on February 8, 1975. He was gone for 18 years. So while it is accurate to say that Jimmy first joined the Opry in 1948, he has not been an Opry member consecutively since 1948. Technically, he has been an Opry member for a total of 45 years, not 63 as he is sometimes introduced. Jean Shepard has been the Opry member with the longest tenure of the current cast. As in the case of George Jones, it is important to be accurate in the telling of the Opry's history.

Hope you enjoy this look back.


  1. Byron, I could have sworn you talked to my mother about some of this. She used to complain that someone was elected to the Hall of Fame before the person who started that inductee's career. She made the point about Marty Robbins going in a year ahead of Jimmy Dickens, who discovered him, although she also thought Marty's career had been bigger and, since Marty died just a couple of months later, she was glad he got it while he could enjoy it (I loved Eddy Arnold inducting him and Marty saying others were more deserving but he was taking it!). Anyway, I also thought of what you said about Porter because of the night Buck Owens and Ray Price went in. Both of them said, about time! And they were right.

  2. Fred here, in Bismarck.

    Byron, you're right that it's unfortunate that Kitty Wells -- and Johnnie Wright -- never found their way back to Opry membership.

    But what road warriors they were! We were really lucky up here in Bismarck-Mandan, as a nightclub owner here just loved our old C&W and regularly booked people like Kitty & Johnnie, E.T. & Jimmie Dickens.

    What a show the Wright Family put on! Johnnie, as the beter showman, actually came on SECOND, in later years. That is, Kitty was his opening act!

    In my favorite show, about 1985, there were about 9-10 Wright family members on the stage, singing their hearts out.

    Your Webb Pierce quote, Byron, is a succinct explanation of why people like the Wrights just had to give up the Opry. And why we can't get today's members to show up.

    It seems to me that Gaylord is already charging concert prices to see the Opry, but paying the stars union scale. I can see how this would not be sustainable.

    But thanks for the memories!

  3. I was lucky enough to see Kitty perform live once and that was at the Tower Records store at Opry Mills. When that store was open, they had a stage area and presented live music from time to time.

    It had to have been about 10 years ago that Kitty performed there, and it was just her and a small band. Even at her age, which must have been close to 80 at the time, she put on a very good show and her voice was still solid. Wish I could have seen her in her prime.

  4. Fred again. Revisiting the thread, I can see I got a little carried away last night. On that epic night in 1985, at which we were lucky enough to have a stageside table, there were probably 5 family members onstage, including two grandsons, along with other band members, adding up to 8 or 9 altogether.

    Didn't that sound like something on some of the gospel numbers! The Wrights were all gracious to a fault, and seemed genuinely pleased to be asked for numbers that weren't always part of their regular sets.

    My requests always included, by Kitty, "Will Your Lawyer Talk to God?" and, by Johnnie, the rousing "Nickles, Quarters and Dimes."

    "Nickles tip the waitress, dimes play the jukebox, and quarters buy me wine, wine, wine." Dang! If it weren't so early in the morning, I believe I'd crank up the phonograph and pop myself a beer!

  5. Fred, I got a surprise the other night. WSM plays classic 1960s transcriptions of the Opry, and they had Kitty and Johnny. Johnny sang his "new" song--"Walkin', Talkin', Cryin', Barely Beating Broken Heart." I knew Roger and Justin wrote it and Highway 101 recorded it, but I'd never known he had the original.

  6. Thanks, Michael -- Fred here. You bet, that was one of several hits he scored as a solo after Jack died. None was really big, tho, after the first, the No. 1 "Hello, Vietnam," in 1965.

    I always just loved Johnnie & Jack, and was thrilled when Bear Family reissued its 5-CD complete J&J a couple of years ago. (Still married to my phonograph, I had missed it the first time around, in the 1990s.)

  7. I take a back seat to both of you as you both have some great stories and memories with Kitty Wells. One of the reasons I love my Sirius radio is that on the classic country channel, you get to hear some good Kitty Wells songs.

  8. Doesn't seem to matter what I do, Google won't let me log in under my own name any more.

    Anyway, this might be of interest from yesterday's Tennessean:


  9. Great reading, Barry,and thanks. First I've seen on Kitty and Johnnie since Kitty's 90th birthday. Her 92nd is, I think, this month.


  10. The longest Opry membership has to be Herman Crook & Sid Herkreader.They were on the Opry most of the time from 1926-1988.I love to see somebody break that record.