WSM and the Grand Ole Opry officially recognize Saturday November 28, 1925 as the birth of the Grand Ole Opry. It was on that night at 8:00 that George D. Hay introduced Uncle Jimmy Thompson, with his niece Mrs. Eva Thompson Jones playing the piano, and the "WSM Barn Dance" was underway. Of course the Grand Ole Opry name would come later.
Here is George D. Hay's version of how the Opry got started, which he wrote in 1945:
"Because the Grand Ole Opry is a very simple program it started in a very simple way. Your reporter, who was the first program director of WSM, had considerable experience in the field of folk music when the station opened in October 1925. Realizing the wealth of folk music material and performers in the Tennessee Hills he welcomed the appearance of Uncle Jimmy Thompson and his blue ribbon fiddle who went on the air at eight o'clock, Saturday night, November 28, 1925. Uncle Jimmy told us that he had a thousand tunes. Past eighty years of age, he was given a comfortable chair in front of an old carbon microphone. While his niece, Mrs. Eva Thompson Jones, played his piano accompaniment your reporter presented Uncle Jimmy and announced that he would be glad to answer requests for old time tunes. Immediately telegrams started to our into WSM. One hour later at nine o'clock we asked Uncle Jimmy if he hadn't done enough fiddling to which he replied, 'Why shucks, a man don't get warmed up in an hour. I just won an eight-day fiddling contest down in Dallas, Texas, and here's my blue ribbon to prove it.' Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Mrs Jones and The Solemn Old Judge carried on for several weeks for an hour each Saturday night."
George D. Hay finished up by writing, "To the best of our recollection the first old time band we presented on the Saturday night show, which at that time we called the WSM Barn Dance, was headed by a very genial country physician from Sumner County, Tennessee, named Dr. Humprey Bate."
Like everything else with the Opry, nobody is sure exactly when the WSM Barn Dance/Grand Ole Opry exactly started. There is a difference of opinion regarding the November 28, 1925 date and one of the individuals who felt that the date was not correct was Dr. Bate's daughter, Mrs. Alcyone Bate Beasley, who at the time challenged George D. Hay's version of events. According to Mrs. Beasley, it was not George D. Hay that originated the first barn dance program on WSM, but that it was her father and he should have received the credit for starting what has become the Grand Ole Opry.
According to Mrs. Beasley, who at the time was a thirteen year old piano player in her father's group, they did the first Saturday night barn dance on WSM at the end of October 1925, within a month of WSM radio going on the air. Many years later, she was quoted by a reporter on her version of the events: "I remember that night after it was all over, we drove back home in the old Ford car and Daddy, who always called me 'Booger,' said, 'Booger, we might've started something down there tonight, you just don't know."
She then went on to say, "We played there for about four or five weeks before Mr. Hay came. We would drive into Nashville and perform on WDAD in the afternoon, then we would walk up the hill and play on WSM later in the evening. I remember we would give Jack Keefe, who was the WSM announcer then, a list of the numbers we were going to play during the hour we would be on the air. And within just two weeks or so, bands from everywhere began to come up to be put on the air. One of the first of them was Mr. Ed Poplin's band from Lewisburg, Tennessee. I never felt badly about it toward Mr. Hay, because he wasn't well, but the fact remains that nothing was ever said about Uncle Jimmy Thompson being the first one on the show until long after my Daddy died in 1936. How that came to be the story has been the puzzle of my life."
In the 1960s, Norm Cohen, a researcher with the John Edwards Memorial Foundation, a research center at UCLA devoted to the study of American folk music, did some research and examined records of the Nashville Tennessean, specifically looking for country music broadcasts on Nashville radio stations for a three-month period, from October 18, 1925 thru January 17, 1926. His research showed that Mrs. Beasley's story might be the right one.
In the Sunday October 18, 1925 edition of the Nashville Tennessean was an item under the heading "WSM Announces Week's Program": Saturday....10-11 (p.m.) Studio program featuring Dr. Humprey Bate and his string quartet of old-time musicians, from Castalian Springs." That would have meant they appeared on Saturday October 24, exactly when Mrs. Beasley said that had appeared. Cohen's research also showed that Dr. Bate and his group also made regular appearances on WDAD, and were also featured on WSM again on Saturday November 14.
Uncle Jimmy Thompson wasn't mentioned in the newspaper's radio listings until December 20, when it was reported, "Station WSM--Saturday (Dec. 26), 8:00 p.m.--Uncle Jimmy Thompson, the South's champion barn dance fiddler, and Eva Thompson Jones, controlto, will present programs of old-fashioned tunes."
A week later, in the Sunday December 27 edition of the Nashville Tennessean, under the heading "WSM To Feature Old-Time Tunes," the following was printed:
"Old tunes like old lovers are the best, at least judging from the applause which the new Saturday night feature at Station WSM receives from its listeners in all parts of the country: jazz has not completely turned the tables on such tunes as 'Pop Goes the Weasel' and 'Turkey In the Straw.' America may not be swinging its partners at a neighbor's barn dance but it seems to have the habit of clamping on its ear phones and patting its feet as gaily as it ever did when the old-time fiddlers got to swing. Because of this 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 Thompson 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 million homes."
In those days, it was standard policy for many newspapers to print articles that had been sent in my publicists to promote their companies or programs, and many historians feel that the Tennessean article had actually been written by George D. Hay. Based on the article and the comments by George D. Hay and Mrs. Alcyone Bate Beasley, the following conclusions can be drawn:
First, it would appear that from a scheduling standpoint, WSM did not offically put the barn dance program on their schedule until December 26, 1925, so a case can be made that December 26 was the "official" start date of the WSM Barn Dance/Grand Ole Opry. 2nd, with the comment in the article that Uncle Jimmy Thompson made his first appearance on WSM a month before, a month before that article would have been November 28, which is the date that George D. Hay wrote in his 1945 memoirs as the start of the show. And finally, it also means that Dr. Humphrey Bate and his group were the first "country" musicians to play on WSM, appearing in October 1925, but not as part of any formal radio program.
While this can be debated, WSM and the Grand Ole Opry many years ago decided that November 28, 1925 was the official birth of what has become of the Grand Ole Opry. And so it is. At the time of the Opry's birth, it was one of many barn dance programs on the radio, some of which have included the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree, the WLS Barn Dance, Renfro Valley, along with shows in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Richmond and just about every city in the country, big and small. But for various reasons, there is only one of the original barn dance programs left and that is the Grand Ole Opry. Time will only tell if the Opry continues to survive. Times have been tough and the world of country music has changed. I have talked to people who have told me that they will be surprised if the Opry makes it to it's 100th anniversary. I hope they are wrong. For all the reasons that we are concerned about the modern day Opry, we still listen and attend. The Opry is a one of a kind piece of American history. Enjoy it!!
(For those who want to know more about the early days of the Opry, a book that I highly recommend is Charles Wolfe's excellent book, "A Good-Natured Riot--The Birth of The Grand Ole Opry." It is probably the best book he has ever written and it covers in great detail the early days of the Opry, from its start, up until about 1940. I still use it as a reference tool today.)