Sunday, December 2, 2012

December Opry Highlights

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.


  1. I remember Marty Robbins ill helath in 1982 leading up to his death. In those days before the internet I would run to the library every morning at school and check the Indianapolis paper to see the latest report on his condition.

    I can't find any notes on this but as I recall, long time Smoky Mountain Boy Jimmie Riddle passed on the 10th and he and Marty's visitations were at the same funeral home at the same time.

    In December of 1999, Marion Worth passed at age 69 on Sunday evening the 19th just a few hours before Hank Snow passed just after midnight. You may also recall that Calvin Crawford who had played with Jimmy Dickens on the Opry until he became too ill in late 1998, passed on Thursday the 23rd.

    Just before all of this sadness hit Nashville, cowboy star Rex Allen Sr. had passed away on the 17th in Wilcox, Arizona having been run over by his care taker in his driveway. He was 78!

    Thanks for the notes Byron.

    Knightsville, IN

  2. Fred, Bismarck:

    Great reading as always, Byron.

    I still chuckle and shake my head when remembering Skeeter Davis. Her late-night babbling was the one thing that could make me turn off Ralph Emery's "Opry Star Spotlight." Little did I know that the reason for her too-frequent and overlong appearances was the budding romance between her and Ralph.

    Yes, Roy was always proclaiming the ruination of the Opry. He was finally right, but not because of electrified instruments and the like. I think Bill Malone is right, that the biggest change to country music has been in the audience, whose taste for the old sounds and sentiments has been overtaken by the numerous changes to society since World War II.

  3. Ray Price should be offered his membership back. He may not want it however?

  4. I believe that all of those who were fired in December 1964 were offered their membership back if they would agree to be there. For a few of them, it took a few years before they did come back, but some did not.

    I know that Faron Young, for example, had no thoughts of going back and Johnny Wright and Kitty Wells did not ask to come back until very late in their careers and were told no.

    The other interesting thing is that some of those who came back still need not appear at the Opry very much. Don Gibson is a perfect example of that and even George Morgan and Minnie Pearl had reduced attendance when they returned.

  5. Jim, I remember the death of Marion Worth. Thanks for pointing it out as I forgot to mention it. Marion was not one of the Opry's big stars, but I always thought she did a nice job until she decided to leave the Opry.

  6. Great stuff as always, Byron, and thanks to you all for adding comments.

    About commitment: I went on Lorrie Morgan's Facebook page and asked why she didn't care about the Opry enough to appear there often. She actually responded that she loved the Opry, etc., and I said, I'm glad to hear it I look forward to seeing you there. One appearance since.

    As for those who care about the Opry, it was Jean Shepard who went to Bud Wendell to say he needed to bring back Skeeter, and he did.

  7. Jean also worked to get Jeanne Pruett to come back to the Opry but Jeanne told me she wouldn't come back until Fisher put real country music back on the Opry.

  8. Thanks Mike for the Skeeter/Jean Shepard comments. And how nice of you to post on Lorrie's facebook page. I am impressed that you got an answer, although not the right one.

    As far as Jeanne Pruett, she still visits once in a while backstage at the Opry, especially when some of her friends are on. But I think she has pretty well called it a career. If she is waiting on Pete Fisher, it could be a long wait!!

  9. Thanks for the great blog. I am flabbergasted that the Opry would turn down Kitty & Johnnie. They were a class act and even in their final touring years put on a very entertaining show.

    Also, very sorry to read of Jack Greene's health effectively ending his career. Is it just his eyesight that hinders him or is it even more serious than that?

  10. Thanks for the positive comments. Regarding Jack Greene, sorry to say that he has alzheimers which has ended his great career.

  11. Anon, supposedly, the Opry also turned down Earl Scruggs. Now, I suppose there's something to be said for the idea that if they left the Opry before, should they be coming back essentially to retire there? I disagree with almost everything about how the Opry is run, but I could see the management thinking, if we are going to add older acts--and they have--they should be touring and still out there. That's no knock on Kitty Wells and Johnnie Wright or on Earl Scruggs, and I would have welcomed them, but that may have been the thinking.

    I wonder about another concern. I have read--maybe here!--that Roy Acuff talked to Johnny Cash about coming back to the Opry. Mr. Acuff knew that he didn't have much time left and he wanted Cash to be a kind of pillar. Cash did think about it but felt he couldn't give the Opry the time it would deserve--yes, he was still touring and all that. But I wonder if the management doesn't want another Roy Acuff. I don't mean someone who's always there--The Potato is almost always there, and so are some others. But Mr. Acuff had power that the others don't have, or at least don't think they have or don't exercise. I suspect Johnny Cash would have been similar to Mr. Acuff in that regard: if he were a member, appearing regularly, and issued an edict, his word would be law.

    1. I think as the years progress Vince Gill is turning into the "Roy Acuff" of the Opry. He is not there every weekend yet, but I think the Opry will be his permanent home someday.

      In all reality though, some of those artists I grew up listening to in the 1980's and 1990's, on the Opry (Acuff, Minnie, Grandpa, Snow, Dickens, Bill Monroe), those acts will never be replaced. Not just the Hall of Famers either; acts like Del Reeves, Johnny Russell, Billy Walker..etc.. those guys were real entertainers. They were class acts that are so hard to find these days. The Opry made them stars and they respected the Opry. These new artists do not feel that way. Opry membership is almost an "award" to hang on your shelf anymore. I believe (for the most part) the respect is gone.

  12. Mike, as usual you are correct in what you wrote regarding Roy Acuff asking Johnny Cash to rejoin the Opry.

    As to the source of this story, it might have been George Hamilton IV. From the book, "Johnny Cash, The Life of an American Icon" by Stephen Miller, "George Hamilton IV was told that when Acuff's health was failing, he personally called Johnny. 'He asked if Johnny would come back to the Opry and pick up that mantle and be kind of the patriarch figure. Roy Acuff would have had the clout to get that done if Johnny had agreed but he turned it down because his touring commitments wouldn't allow it. I think he would have made an ideal person to replace Mr. Acuff as the father figure of the Opry, a spiritual leader to whom other artists would have deferred.'"

    As far as Earl Scruggs, late in his life, he supposedly asked to rejoin the Opry. The reason, which is the same as to why Kitty Wells wanted to rejoin, was to take advantage of the insurance benefits that an Opry member received. The story circulating is that he, much like Kitty Wells, was turned down.

    While Kitty did not play the Opry toward the end of her life, Earl did perform on the show once in a while. So while the Opry did not want Earl as a member, they had no problem asking him to be a guest artist on the show.

  13. In regards to Roy Acuff perhaps hoping to find a sort of "replacement" for after he passed on- I wonder how many performers he asked. I've heard that Johnny Cash story mentioned above, and I also read about a similar situation with Roy Clark. I believe it was in Clark's autobiography, written in the mid '90s. Clark quoted Mr. Acuff as saying something like "Roy Clark will be the perfect replacement for me..." (I forget exactly how it was worded). And Clark gave a few examples of their friendship and made it sound like Mr. Acuff was really pushing for this.

    This book came out just a few years after Mr. Acuff died, and in it, Clark seemed to express a lot of interest in taking over that role. Obviously that never happenned. Perhaps Clark found that touring and performing at his own theatre was more rewarding financially and creatively. But I recall when I read his book that he seemed to want to fall into some sort of "elder statesman" at the Opry, which never did happen.

  14. Byron, I'm not right THAT often--less often than you are.

    Anon, Roy Clark would have been great, but he isn't a Nashville resident, so I think he would have had to move. That might have been part of it.

  15. I know that Roy Acuff was always on the look-out for folks that really would be at the Opry to join the Opry.

    As far as Roy Clark, I think Roy would have said something like that to him, but as I have mentioned before, Roy Clark was not sure about joining the Opry as he knew that he would not be there that much, with his heavy touring schedule and living in Oklahoma. In fact, he told Opry management that he would really only guarantee 2 weekends a year, and that was when he knew he would be in Nashville for the Hee Haw tapings. The Opry took still wanted him as a member. As I have said before, while I wish Roy could have done the Opry more, I congratulate him for at least being honest with Opry management as far as his commitment to the show.

    Based on that, there was no way Roy Clark would have been any kind of replacement for Roy Acuff. In reality, that person became Porter Wagoner, who became the symbol of the Opry after the death of Roy. While Jimmy Dickens is at the Opry almost every show, I really don't call him the symbol of the current Opry because while he supports the show, he is past the days of being vocal and "out-front" in his support and recruiting new members.

    The best we have now is the threesome of Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill and Marty Stuart. While not in a class with Roy Acuff and Porter Wagoner, they do support the show and are active in recommending who they feel should be new Opry members.

  16. While we are commenting on Roy Acuff promoting the Opry and encouraging folks to support it I am thinking about something that Sonny Osborne told on one of the Family Reunion Video's. I don't recall the suburb of Nashville or the store but Sonny said he went to the store one day and there was Roy Acuff standing on the curb greeting people and inviting them to the Opry. I don't recall if Sonny gave a time period for this. I find that about as interesting as the quote from George Hamilton IV in the special 60th anniversary Opry book. He said he was backstage at the Opry on a weekday afternoon to get something from his locker. All the lights were out but he heard a fiddle playing and saw a light through the cracked door of Mr. Acuff's dressing room. When he entered and ask Mr. Acuff what he was doing he said "practicing". Although the Opry has had many dedicated members who promoted the show every chance they got, I don't think there will ever be anyone as vocal as Roy Acuff was the last 30 years of his life!

    David, what you said on December 4 about what Opry membership means now is dead on as far as I'm concerned. It's a different world and those who some now take a different road so the meaning is altogether different in my opinion. The award on the wall statement is great.