It's December, so it is time for the December highlights in Grand Ole Opry history. Here are the important and historical events that have taken place during this month.
December 19, 1920: The Grand Ole Opry's oldest member, Jimmy Dickens, was born in Bolt, West Virginia. Jimmy first joined the Opry in 1948 and continues to perform on the Opry.
December 26, 1925: The WSM Barn Dance was formally listed on the WSM program schedule that was printed in the Nashville Tennessean. From the Tennessean, "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."
December 8, 1928: It was on this night that the WSM Barn Dance became the Grand Ole Opry. The Barn Dance came on the air at 8:00. From 7-8, WSM broadcast a classical music show, via the NBC radio network called, "Music Appreciation Hour," which was under the direction of Dr. Walter Damrosch. At the conclusion of the Music Hour on this particular night, George D. Hay announced, "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. (As a disclaimer, I will say that a few feel that the date was actually December 10, 1927, but further research has largely discredited that date).
December 7, 1940: Minnie Pearl joined the Grand Ole Opry.
December 30, 1944: Bob Wills makes an appearance on the Opry. He was brought in to appear on the Prince Albert portion of the show that was broadcast on NBC radio. Minnie Pearl remembers that night, not only because a lady fell out of the balcony an onto the stage, but for other reasons. As Minnie later said, "That was the first time we ever put electrified fiddles on the Opry. Roy Acuff said it would ruin the Opry forever! I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard something like that." But those electric fiddles were not the first electrified instruments to have been on the Opry stage. Pee Wee King and his Golden West Cowboys and Ernest Tubb had been using electric instruments before then. Another story regarding that night was that Bob Wills brought drums with him and he had to hide them behind a curtain. That story is interesting but there is no real documentation that it happened that way. Regarding drums at the Opry, Harold "Sticks" McDonald, who was part of Pee Wee King's group, had brought drums to the Opry in the 1940s. They used the drums for a couple of weeks but were not allowed to announce on the radio that they were using them. After those couple of weeks, George D. Hay told Pee Wee to take the drums home and to leave them there. In a final comment regarding drums, Bud Wendell was quoted in 1985 as saying, "That story about hiding drums behind a curtain is just one of those tales around here. As long as we remained at the Ryman, though, we never used anything other than just a standing snare drum. But that had as much to do with space restrictions as with the purity of country music. You just couldn't fit a whole set of drums on the stage at the Ryman; it just wasn't that big."
December 8, 1945: Earl Scruggs makes his debut with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. He was the final member to join what is considered the greatest of the Blue Grass Boy's line-up and the one that is credited with creating the famous bluegrass sound. That line-up included Bill Monroe on mandolin, Earl Scruggs on banjo, Lester Flatt on guitar, Chubby Wise on fiddle and Howard Watts on bass. As great as this band was, it would not stay together for very long, with Earl leaving in the Spring of 1948. Among those who were watching on Earl's first night at the Opry was Uncle Dave Macon, who billed himself as "The World's Greatest Banjo Player." Some of the Opry's members watching were making a few comments about Earl within earshot of Dave. Dave stood in the wings watching the newcomer for a few moments, then he turned and stalked away. "He ain't one damned bit funny" he grumbled.
December 28, 1950: Lefty Frizzell makes his first appearance on the Opry. During his segment he sang two of his classic songs, "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time" and "I Love You A Thousand Ways/" Later in 1952, Lefty would return to the Opry as a regular member, but he only stayed a few months. As Lefty said, "I just didn't like the Opry. It wasn't the dream I thought it would be."
December 24, 1960: The final Prince Albert Grand Ole Opry show is broadcast on the NBC radio network. Television and the decline of radio led to the death of the show.
December 6, 1964: The Grand Ole Opry fired 12 of its members for not making the required number of appearances on the Opry. From the 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, it was learned yesterday. 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 her present contracts, a WSM spokeman said. "Those who were dismissed 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. At the time, Opry members had to appear on 26 shows each year. It was later found out that Chet Atkins was not actually an Opry member, which led to some comments concerning if Opry management really knew what was going on at the show. Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright would later say that they quit and were not fired. Faron Young would say that it was a money issue. Many of those who were fired would later return to the show, including George Morgan, Don Gibson, Billy Grammer, Justin Tubb and Stonewall Jackson. Most of those who did not rejoin would later come back and make guest appearances on the show. On Tuesday December 8, the Nashville Tennessean, in an editorial, put it this way, "The Opry has been, and continues to be, the nucleus of Nashville's $40 million music industry. There is hardly a successful music enterprise in the city that does not owe its orgin and its longevity to the Opry. Thus, it seems that Opry has a responsibility to compel observance of reasonable restrictions for its own protection and for the protection of the rest of the music industry in Nashville. Most of the thousands of people who line up at the Opry House every Friday and Saturday night have traveled long distances to see in person the stars they have come to love by radio. It must be a disappointment for these fans to arrive at the Opry on this one big night for them and find that their favorite stars have found a more profitable audience in some other state." The Tennessean said it better than I could and could you imagine what would happen today if the Opry fired those who did not meet their attendance requirements, which is 10 for the new members. Let's see for a moment if the Opry would fire 10 members for not appearing on the Opry. The 10 I would come up with pretty quickly are Clint Black, Garth Brooks, Tom T Hall, Alan Jackson, George Jones, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Blake Shelton, Randy Travis and Travis Tritt. That was pretty easy and I could have easily added another 10 more.
December 23, 1967: Jack Greene becomes a member of the Grand Ole Opry. This will be his 45th year as an Opry member and sorry to say but Jack is too ill to appear on the Opry any longer. Jack was a member of Ernest Tubb's band and left after his solo career took off. He always said he owed his success to Ernest.
December 15, 1973: Skeeter Davis was suspended by the Grand Ole Opry. As Skeeter said, "Hank Williams got kicked off the Opry for drinkin' too much old wine. Me? I got kicked off for singing about the new wine." What actually happened was that Skeeter was on her way to the Ryman for an Opry performance when she witnessed the arrest of what were known as "Jesus freaks", which was another name for the young people who were protesting not only in Nashville, but around the country. (If you grew up in the 1960's, you probably are familiar with them). The arrests enraged Skeeter and on the Opry that night, she expressed her rage by talking about it, singing about it, and weeping about it. When she came off the stage after her performance, she was dismissed from the Opry. Later a newspaper account of it said, "Her support of the 'Jesus loves you' street people made headlines, made enemies, made for a quick review of the unwritten rules against editorial comments on the Opry. She was stunned when told she was no longer a member." 18 months later, she was invited back to return to the Opry.
December 28, 1973: Tex Ritter made his final Grand Ole Opry appearance. He would die less than a week later, on January 2, 1974, of a heart attack. He joined the Opry in 1965, which was rather late in his career, but he was a very popular and loyal member of the show.
December 25, 1976: Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers joined the Grand Ole Opry. This will be their 36th year as Opry members. After making few appearances for the majority of their membership, over the past several years Larry has been making more appearances and has been hosting the Opry Country Classics show.
December 27, 1978: Grand Ole Opry member Bob Luman passed away. He was just 41 when he died. He joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1965 and was known for his rockabilly music. When he joined the Opry, several of the Opry's more traditional members, including Roy Acuff, felt that Bob's music had no place at the Opry.
December 8, 1982-Marty Robbins died in a Nashville hospital. He had been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in October of that year. On the night of his Hall of Fame induction, he said, "I never had any idea this would happen because I feel there are other people who deserve it before I should get in. But I think possibily it might not happen again, so I'm gonna take it tonight!" Marty's 11:30 Opry shows were legendary in the history of the Opry and have never been repeated. The clock meant nothing to Marty as he would sometimes perform for more than an hour in that final Opry segment. Marty was just 57 when he died.
December 20, 1986: Randy Travis joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. Randy will be celebrating 26 years as an Opry member. Randy is a fine country music singer who some day will be elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, but to be honest, he has not been much of an Opry member.
December 17, 1993: Herman Harper, the famous and very popular bass singer for the Carol Lee Singers, passed away.
December 20, 1999: The legendary Hank Snow passed away at his Rainbow Ranch in Madison, Tennessee. Hank was just 2 weeks away from celebrating his 50th anniversary as an Opry member. He last appeared on the Opry in September 1996 and had been in declining health. Hank was a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
December 16, 2000: Brad Paisley was surprised on the Opry stage by Jimmy Dickens and Jeannie Seely, who were dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus, with an invitation to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Brad would be formally inducted in February 2001.
December 14, 2002: Toby Keith makes his first appearance on the Opry stage. Also appearing that night were Keith Urban and Trace Adkins.
December 31, 2002: Jim McReynolds, who performed with his brother Jesse McReynolds as Jim & Jesse, passed away in Gallatin, Tennessee after a long illness. Jim & Jesse had joined the Grand Ole Opry in March 1964 and Jesse is still a part of the Grand Ole Opry.