Sunday, March 31, 2013

April Opry Highlights

As I do each month, here are the important and historical events that have taken place in Grand Ole Opry history during the month of April.

April 19, 1924: The WLS "National Barn Dance" was aired in Chicago for the first time. It was the first of the many weekly "Barn Dance" programs that would spring up across the country and would be copied by many country radio stations, including WSM in Nashville. Lulu Belle & Scotty, Bradley Kincaid and Gene Autry were among the successful performers who were successful on WLS. The show would last until 1960 when the station changed formats.

April 17, 1926: Uncle Dave Macon becames a regular on the WSM Barn Dance. At the age of 55, he was the first perfomer who would come to the show with a national reputation and in a way, his hiring would start the show on the path of becoming a group of professional entertainers versus those who "came down from the hills for the weekend." He would remain an Opry member until his death on March 1, 1952 at the age of 81.

April 30, 1932: The Dixieliners, which consisted of Kirk and Sam McGee, along with Arthur Smith, made their first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. Arthur Smith had been performing on the Opry for several years when he was teamed up with the McGees. Arthur played fiddle, Sam guitar and Kirk banjo. The performed well together and were popular. Within a short amount of time, they had two ten-minute segments on the show. However, Arthur had a drinking problem and was suspended from the Opry in 1938 for failing to appear for personal appearances. On January 14, 1939 the Dixieliners made their final appearance on the Opry as Arthur Smith left the Opry. After that Sam and Kirk McGee would continue with the Opry.

April 29, 1933: The Delmore Brothers, Rabon and Alton, made their first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. They stayed as regular performers until 1938. (back in those days the term members was not used). Alton would later have a book published that he wrote called "Truth is Stranger" that really details their stay at the Opry and in his view, what happened between them and George D. Hay and Harry Stone that caused them to leave the Opry. After leaving the Opry, the Delmore Brothers moved around from radio station to radio station, eventually ending up at WLW in Cincinnati, where they recorded as the Browns Ferry Four, with Grandpa Jones and Merle Travis. All 4 of these individuals would one day be elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. At the time, the Rabon and Alton were considered among the most popular acts on the Opry.

April 15, 1937: Bob Luman was born in Texas. He gained fame as a member of the Louisiana Hayride, and then came to Nashville, joining the Opry in 1965. When Bob played at the Hayride, his guitarist was James Burton, who would join up and play with Ricky Nelson. When Bob joined the Grand Ole Opry, the younger fans loved him as he had a bit of rock n' roll to him. Roy Acuff, on the other hand, did not care for the style of music. Until he died in 1978, Bob had close to 40 songs on the country charts.

April 26, 1941: Ernest Tubb records "Walking The Floor Over You". The recording took place in Dallas, Texas and was one of the first country records to feature a prominent electric guitar. The success of this record would lead to Ernest coming to Nashville and joining the Opry in 1943.

April 14, 1945: Upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a performance of "Taps" was played on the stage of the Opry, which marked the first time that a trumpet was played during an Opry performance. Let's just say that it has been written that George D. Hay was not happy about that.

April 6, 1946: Roy Acuff quit the Grand Ole Opry in a salary dispute. At the time, he was the host of "The Prince Albert Show" segment of the Opry that aired on the NBC radio network. He was making $15.00 per night on the Opry and asked for a raise to $100 per night. When WSM refused his demands, he left the show, going out to California on an extended tour. Roy never really talked about this episode in his Opry career, but there was pride involved on both sides. He was the Opry's biggest star and he knew that if he went out on the road he could make more money and also have time to appear in movies. He wanted that recognized by both the Opry and the sponsor. Roy would eventually return to the Opry, and when he returned he was paid more than the union scale.

April 13, 1946: Chet Atkins makes his first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry. He was introduced by Red Foley. Chet later told the story. "I ran into Red in his manager's office. Actually, I had gone to Chicago to try to meet Foley. Anyway, I played a tune for him and sure enough he said, 'How'd you like to go to Nashville with me, Ches?' Dreams do come true sometimes." Chet stayed with Red and "The Prince Albert Show" for about 6 months, and then he quit after a dispute with the Esty Agency, who represented R.J. Reynolds Tabacco Company.

April 13, 1946: The same night that Chet came to the Opry, Red Foley debuted as the host of "The Prince Albert Show" segment of the Opry, that was broadcast on the NBC radio network. He also became a member of the Opry on that night. After Roy Acuff quit as a member of the Opry and as host of the show, William Esty and Company, which was the advertising agency that represented R.J. Reynolds Tabacco Company, the makers of Prince Albert, undertook a broadly based survey to determine how best to replace Roy. Most listeners wanted the Opry to continue without changes. But it came clear after all the questioning that a large percentage of Opry fans really wanted more music on the show, suggesting the need to replace Roy with an entertainer who was basically a singer. Esty checked all the available data, which included record sales, jukebox plays and radio favorites, and it all came down to Red Foley. Red would later say, "I guess I was never more scared than I was that night I replaced Roy Acuff. The people thought I was a Chicago slicker who had come to pass himself off as a country boy and bump Roy out of his job." Red of course was from Kentucky and he had a solid career as a country singer. He would be elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Minnie Pearl would call Red, "the best looking thing she had ever seen."

April 26, 1947: After leaving the Opry the previous year due to a contract dispute, Roy Acuff returned to the Opry as the host of the Royal Crown Cola Show. As the story goes, Ernest Tubb and Harry Stone visited Roy in a Nashville hospital and Harry told him, "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, you mean everything. We wish that you would change your mind and come back." While there is no evidence that the Opry was going to go under, the speech to Roy accomplished what it meant to do and Roy rejoined the show, where he would stay for the remainder of his life.

April 3, 1948: The Louisiana Hayride starts with its 1st performance on KWKH in Shreveport. Over the next decade, a large number of the Opry's new members would come from this show, earning it the reputation as a farm club for the Opry. Those stars included David Houston, Billy Walker, Webb Pierce, Jim Reeves, Faron Young and Hank Williams, among many others. And of course, the Hayride played an early influence on the careers of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.

April 26, 1952: Martha Carson joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. She came to the Opry on the strength of her hit, "Satisfied." She remained with the Opry until her first child was born in 1957 and then took a sabbatical, which also included a year of working in New York. According to Martha, "I got a leave of absence from the Opry. I didn't quit and I wasn't fired. When I cam back to Nashville, Opry manager Ott Devine said they had no openings. I never did go back. I never even got to be a guest."

April 15, 1953: Red Foley made his last Grand Ole Opry appearance as the host of the "Prince Albert Show." He would leave Nashville to work in televison, eventually hosting the Ozark Jubilee. Red had numerous personal issues and when he decided to leave the Opry, management had no objections. While many wondered about Red when he joined the Opry, he was one of the Opry's biggest and most popular stars during his time there. Nobody ever sang "Peace In The Valley" better than Red.

April 12, 1958: Don Gibson joined the Grand Ole Opry. Don would be a member of the cast until being fired in December 1964 for failing to make the required number of appearances per year. In 1975 he would rejoin the show and remain a member until his death of November 17, 2003. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2001 and I am told that after he was elected, he never went to the Hall to see his plaque. Although he rejoined the Opry, he never really made that many appearances on the show after coming back.

April 30, 1960: The WLS "National Barn Dance", which was based out of Chicago, aired its final show. At one time, this was a major competitor for the Grand Ole Opry, and much like the Opry was, it was broadcast nationally.

April 30, 1966: Ray Pillow joined the Grand Ole Opry. This will be Ray's 47th year as an Opry member. On the night he was inducted, he was introduced by Ernest Tubb. Though he is now on senior status and his Opry appearances are reduced, he still does a great job hosting a segment and is one of the smoothest singers at the Opry.

April 22, 1967: The 4 Guys joined the Grand Ole Opry. They would remain Opry members until being fired by new Opry General Manager Pete Fisher in April 2000. They spent 33 years as Opry members and also operated a dinner theater in Nashville. The reason given for their termination was the fact that all of the original members were no longer current members of the group.

April 6, 1968: Following the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, the city of Nashville imposed a curfew that forced the Opry to cancel its live performance for the first and only time in the history of the show (or so they say). WSM and the Opry aired a previously taped show. However, Roy Acuff, Sam and Kirk McGee, and a few others put on a makeshift show at a nearby sqaure dance hall for Opry fans that afternoon.

April 6, 1968: On the same date as the cancelled show, Bud Wendall takes over as the General Manager of the Opry replacing Ott Devine, who had been at the Opry since 1959.

April 21, 1971: After taking a break to raise her children, Connie Smith rejoins the Opry.

April 27, 1971: Opryland opens for the 1st time. The park was an immediate hit. 3 years later, the Opry House would be completed and the Grand Ole Opry would move out there.

April 12, 1972: The first "Fan Fair" was held in Nashville. It was so successful that it would become an annual event that still takes place today, although it is now called the "CMA Music Festival" and takes place in June.

April 2, 1977: Vito Pellettieri worked his final show as the Opry's stage manager. He suffered a stroke several days later and on April 14 he passed away at the age of 87. While very few have heard of Vito, he was probably one of the most influential people in the history of the Opry. So much so that he was never really replaced as the stage manager. Years after his death, one veteran Opry member was quoted as saying, "I miss Vito. You know, we don't have a marshall anymore. What we have out there is a piece of paper in a box, with a list of the acts and when they're supposed to go on. But we don't have anybody encouraging us, goading us, giving us advice on how to do better. Nobody to jack us up." One of Vito's closest friends was Hank Snow and Hank writes about Vito extensively in his autobiography. For those who do not know, Vito was the WSM librarian and started as the Opry's stage manager in 1934. Here is what Vito said of his first night at the Opry. "I went home, took me a big drink, and told my wife there wasn't enough devils in Hell to drag me back there." But he did go back, because as he later said, he needed the money. Vito was the one who set the Opry up on a schedule and assigned times and slots to the performers. He broke the show into segments with hosts and sponsors. Before he did that, the show was a free-for-all, with the performers coming and going when they pleased. To show what the Opry's members thought of Vito, in 1959, it was announced that he faced mandatory retirement from both of his positions at WSM (music librarian and Opry stage manager). Immediately, the Opry's members, every one of them, signed a petition demanding that he be allowed to continue at the Opry. WSM officials relented. Vito stayed with the radio show but retired as the station's librarian. That November during the annual disc jockey convention hosted by WSM, Opry performers staged a surprise program in Vito's honor. Roy Acuff made a lengthy, off-the-cuff speech. "He is one of the men who made the Opry what it is today." That was followed by a five minute standing ovation. Vito, with tears in his eyes said, "This is the most impressive moment in my life."

April 13, 1985: The Grand Ole Opry begins regular television broadcasts on The Nashville Network, (TNN). The original shows were a half-hour and would eventually expand to one hour. In 2001, the broadcast moved to Country Music Television (CMT) and in 2003 moved to Great American Country (GAC). The first televised show was a special one hour show and featured Roy Acuff as host, along with Connie Smith, 4 Guys and Minnie Pearl during the first half hour. The 2nd half hour was hosted by Porter Wagoner and he had Dottie West, Jack Greene, the Crook Brothers and the Melvin Sloan Dancers as his guests.

April 13, 1981: Guy Willis of the Willis Brothers, died at the age of 65. The Willis Brothers consisted of Guy, Skeeter and Vic, and they joined the Opry in 1946. They were originally called the Oklahoma Wranglers and backed Hank Williams.

April 20, 1991: Emmylou Harris begins a 3 night run at the Ryman Auditorium, where the recording of her "At The Ryman" album takes place. It marked one of the first uses of the Ryman for a performance since the Opry moved out in 1974. They were only able to use a portion of the seating for these shows due to the poor condition of the Hall. These performances helped to spark the idea of renovating and reopening the Ryman.

April 2, 1994: On TNN's telecast of the Grand Ole Opry that night, an all-star bluegrass jam took place featuring Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Roy Husky, Jr., Marty Stuart, Alison Krauss and the great Earl Scruggs. Vince said that night, "That's what this place is all about. Night that are like that."

April 12, 1997: Lewis Crook passed away in Nashville at the age of 87. The Crook Brothers joined the Opry on July 24, 1926, and remained at the Opry until 1988, a total of 62 years. Lewis was not with the Crook Brothers when they originally joined the Opry. He came aboard in 1928 and after Herman Crook passed away, Lewis would continue for a few more years to make appearances with the Opry's Square Dance Band.

April 6, 1998: Former Opry member Tammy Wynette passed away in Nashville at the age of 55. She had been having some serious health issues for a number of years.

April 18, 1998: Diamond Rio joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. This will be their 15th year as Opry members and they remain a crowd favorite whenever playing the Opry. Since joining the show, they have generally done a good job, making at least the "asked for" 10 appearances each year.

April 12, 1999: Lecil Martin, known as "Boxcar Willie" passed away in Branson, Missouri at the age of 67. He joined the Opry in 1981, at the personal invitation of Roy Acuff.

April 17, 2004: The Judds made their first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry.

April 30, 2004: The Grand Ole Opry took to the road and sponsored the Grand Ole Opry American Road Show, which took place in York, Pennsylvania. Those who were a part of the show included Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Del McCoury Band and Rebecca Lynn Howard.

There you have the highlights for this month!!


  1. GREAT stuff as usual, Byron. I had to make a couple of comments:

    --Weren't Sam and Kirk McGee already appearing regularly on the Opry, but reconstituted themselves with Arthur Smith as the Dixieliners?

    --I always thought that any "feud" between Mr. Acuff and Bob Luman was good for business. There's a You Tube clip of Luman, and his harmonica player is Jimmy Riddle, which suggests that Mr. Acuff didn't mind him TOO much, even if his music bugged him.

    --Had Guy Willis already retired or been too ill to perform? The Vic Willis Trio is listed as joining the Opry in 1979.

    --I've wondered which artist said that about Vito, and there are stories, not just by Hank Snow, about how profane he could be--Bill Anderson called him the most profane old man he ever knew and added that he said that with more love than he thought it possible to express, and Jeannie Seely, I think, said lovingly that he was a dirty old man. But Jan Howard, I believe, said that he would ask for her choice of song and when she would tell him, he would say, no, that isn't one of YOUR hits. You need to sing YOUR hits. I thought, yes, we do need someone to kick some butt around there!

  2. Byron,

    Great information about Vitto Pellettieri. Few people would recognize that name today other than the most loyal Opry fan and those members or musicians left form his era.

    I think you missed one important birthday......Jim Ed Brown on April 1, 1934.

    Great stuff as always, makes me want to learn more.


    Knightsville, IN

  3. From what I can determine, Sam McGee first appeared on the Barn Dance in early 1926. Kirk made his first appearance shortly after that and many times they appeared with other string bands or with Uncle Dave Macon. Sam played for a time with the Fruit Jar Drinkers and Kirk was a part of the Crook Brothers group. The first documented show, when they were listed on the program, was December 23, 1927 for Sam and May 4, 1929 for Kirk. The one thing you can say about the early performers on the Barn Dance, later the Opry, was that they all played or were part of different groups at various times. They mixed it up a lot.

    As far as the Willis Brothers, in my opinion, they are really underrated as performers. They recorded and played with Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold and Ernest Tubb. They were great players of the western music. The Willis Brothers first came to the Opry in June 1946. They left the Opry in 1948 to go on the road with Eddy Arnold, and they were with him until 1957. In 1960 the rejoined the Opry. (obviously the Opry thought better of them then they did Martha Carson). Skeeter died in 1976, Guy in 1981 and Vic in 1995.

    After Skeeter died in 1976, Vic and Guy continued on, until Guy had to retire from performing in 1979 due to illness. In 1979, Vic formed the Vic Willis Trio and they performed on the Opry for the first time in November of that year. The sound that Vic Willis created was different than that of the Willis Brothers and they were pretty popular at the Opry.

    A fact that some may not know is that for the last 13 years of his life he was the secretary-treasurer of the Nashville chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, which means that he was involved negotiations of many of the Opry's union contracts. His company was also involved in a lot of commercial work for various products. He died as a result of a car accident in January 1995.

  4. Thanks, Byron. As the late, great Charles Wolfe called his book, the early Opry was a good-natured riot. I think Sam and Kirk were considered "original" members, although technically, I guess, Uncle Jimmy Thompson or Dr. Humphrey Bate or both should be considered the only original--I remember Herman Crook was always called the last surviving original member.

    Sad that Guy was ill for so long. All three Willises died far too young. Vic clearly had a very droll sense of humor, and I know that he was active in the union even before serving as secretary-treasurer. I believe Billy Linneman of the staff and Nashville Now bands was also big in the local. I think the Willises sang the Kellogg's jingle at 9:30. I remember reading that they also did one at 11:30 and it used to drive them nuts that they had to stay until Marty finished ... whenever he finished.

  5. The Willis Brothers also did the Acme Boot commercials "Acme Boots have Country Roots". I'm sure that Byron can elaborate on this but at one point the Vic Willis Trio was Vic, C.W. Mitchel and Curtis Young. Curtis Young is part of what is now the last formation of the Jordanaires.

    Anyone remember two ladies working with Vic around 1989?

    Vic was one of those people who could come out on Hank Snow's show and get Hank so tickled by squeezing the acordian and cutting up as Hank tried to introduce them. Bet Byron remembers that.

    I agree that the Willis Brothers are overlooked and underated. There were a few things they did that did not appeal to me but most of those Starday cuts were great and as with so many acts, there is much more to them than just "Give Me 40 Acres". with most of the Starday LP covers, they had some great ones.

    Knightsville, IN

  6. I also seem to remember reading somewhere that Vic Willis had no problem reminding Opry management that he was a union official. I think it helped to make sure that he got his spots on the show each week.

  7. Jim, the first time they all did the TNN Opry Live, Hank Snow was introducing Lonzo & Oscar, and they were cutting up. He said they were very versatile and Oscar bellowed, "VERY versatile." He said what they can do and concluded by saying, "They can play the fiddle on the piano."