Saturday, August 31, 2013

September 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 September.

September 15, 1903: Country Music Hall of Fame member and the "King of Country Music" Roy Acuff was born in Maynardville, Tennessee. Roy came to the Grand Ole Opry in 1938 and would remain an Opry member until his death in 1992. I think it is safe to say that Roy was the most influential member in the history of the Opry and the Opry hasn't been the same since he passed away.

September 13, 1911: The "Father of Bluegrass Music" Bill Monroe was born. Bill was born in Rosine, Kentucky and he came to the Opry in October 1939. He remained with the Opry until he passed away in 1996.

September 26, 1925: Marty Robbins was born near Glendale, Arizona. Marty came to the Opry for his first appearance in 1953 and he joined the show shortly after that. He would become one of the most popular members in the history of the Opry and his 11:30 shows became legendary. Marty would remain an Opry member until he passed away in December 1982.

September 26, 1926: Jerry Clower was born near Liberty, Mississippi. This great comedian practiced his skills while he was a fertilizer salesman and speaking at local banquets. Jerry joined the Opry in 1973 and he was the last member to join the cast while the show was still at the Ryman Auditorium. Jerry remained an Opry member until his death in 1998. In the history of the Opry, there have been a number of great comedians and this is something that is missing at the Opry today.

September 1, 1931: Lecil Travis Martin was born in Sterratt, Texas. He made his Grand Ole Opry debut in 1980 at the age of 49 and a year later became a member. He would remain an Opry member until his death in 1999 and was one of the first country entertainers to open a theater in Branson. By the way, in 1975 after watching John Denver and Olivia Newton John win CMA awards, Lecil decided that he needed to take country music back in a different direction and at that point in his career, he became known as "Boxcar Willie".

September 12, 1931: George Jones was born in Saratoga, Texas. There seems much confusion, even within the Opry, when George actually became an Opry member. The best guess is 1956, although he came and went, rejoining the show several different times. While he made infrequent Opry appearances, he was still proud of being an Opry member. George passed away earlier this year.

September 5, 1945: Wally Fowler joined the cast of the Opry. Wally was the founder of the Oak Ridge Quartet, which eventually became known as the Oak Ridge Boys. After he became a part of the Opry, he was frequently featured on the Prince Albert Opry shows. Wally had issues with money and in 1957, he sold the rights to the name Oak Ridge Quartet. Wally continued his career in gospel music and passed away in 1994.

September 18, 1947: On this night, and the night that followed, Ernest Tubb, Minnie Pearl, and a host of other Opry members played two shows at Carnegie Hall in New York. Here is how Ernest remembered that night: "The radio and newspaper people ignored us the first night we were there, but we turned away six thousand people and the next night, every reporter was there. " Billboard magazine also reported that, "such screaming and wild applause after each number hasn't been heard in town since Frank Sinatra brought out the bobbysoxers at the Paramount."

September 4, 1948: Eddy Arnold leaves as a cast member of the Grand Ole Opry. At the time he was the Opry's biggest star and he left to star on his own CBS network radio show. Eddy did an interview with Ralph Emery in 1991 and talked about leaving the Opry, "I thought I had done about as much as I could do there. I had two network radio programs outside the Opry." It was said that Eddy had outgrown the Opry. On his final night as an Opry member, Eddy finished his set and stood on stage looking out over the Ryman Auditorium. He thanked Harry Stone, WSM, and the Opry fans and then turned to walk away from the microphone. Harold Bradley, who backed Eddy on guitar that night said, "We went around the curtain and he and Minnie Pearl hugged and both of them cried like babies because he was leaving." Eddy created some controversy because he was the first "star" to leave the Opry. But Irving Waugh of WSM had this to say, "We hated to see Eddy leave. But, as I recall, it didn't make that much difference to the Opry. At that stage, people were lined up all the way around the block to get in. New people, including Hank (Williams), were coming all the time." Oh by the way, after Eddy left the Opry, he never came back.

September 24, 1948: WSM began the Friday Night Frolics. This program took place in Studio C at the WSM. It continued as a studio show until 1964 when the show was moved to the Ryman Auditorium and would become known as the Friday Night Opry. The show was originally started in an effort to keep Eddy Arnold, who had left the Opry several weeks earlier, on WSM radio.

September 13, 1952: Webb Pierce makes his first appearance on the Opry. He joined the show a year later to help fill the absence after Hank Williams left. Webb would remain an Opry member until February 19, 1957, after a dispute with management over the paying of booking fees and commissions.

September 26, 1953: Skeeter Davis made her first appearance on the Opry. Skeeter joined the Opry in 1959 and remained an Opry member until she passed away in 2004.

September 10, 1955: Justin Tubb joined the Grand Ole Opry. At the time he was the Opry's youngest member. Justin, the son of Ernest Tubb, was an Opry member until his death in 1998 at the age of 62.

September 24, 1956: WSM radio fired Opry manager Jim Denny. He was replaced the next day by Dee Kilpatrick. Jim owned Cedarwood Publishing Company, which was becoming a major force in the music publishing business in Nashville. Jack Stapp, another WSM executive who was also dismissed, owned Tree Publishing. Irving Waugh said, "The Board of Directors had indicated that Denny and Stapp should be given the option of resigning or giving up their publishing interests." In Denny's case, WSM decided to make their own decision instead of waiting. Jim Denny had started at the Opry in the early days of the show and was involved behind the scenes. He was not only the Opry's manager, but a powerful force at WSM and the Opry, and with many of the Opry's members, who were signed with his publishing company.

September 25, 1956: Dee Kilpatrick was named the Grand Ole Opry's "general director." He not only took over for Jim Denny at the Opry, but he also was named the radio station's Artists' Service Bureau's manager. This was a fancy name for the Opry's own in-house booking agency. He was a former record company executive and he said at the time, "They asked me what I thought was wrong. We'll, back when I was working with Mercury Records I was at the Opry almost every Saturday night I was in town, and I could look at the audience and see what was wrong. The Opry didn't appeal to the younger audiences that you have to have if you're going to keep growing. All I could see there were older people and little tweeny kids. There wasn't any teenagers." Kilpatrick would begin to add younger acts to the Opry's cast including the Everly Brothers and Porter Wagoner. When you read that quote from 1956 about the Opry's aging audience, it sounds like Dee was dealing with many of the same issues that Pete Fisher is dealing with today.

September 29, 1956: Rose Maddox joined the Grand Ole Opry. Rose did not stay at the Opry for very long as many of the Opry's members, Roy Acuff in particular, didn't particuarly care for her.

September 13, 1958: Ben Smathers and the Stoney Mountain Cloggers joined the Grand Ole Opry. Ben Smathers passed away in 1990, while the Stoney Mountain Cloggers would remain a part of the Opry until 1993.

September 30, 1958: Grand Ole Opry member Marty Stuart was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Last year Marty celebrated 20 years as an Opry member. His RFD-TV show is reported to be the highest rated show on the network.

September 25, 1962: Loretta Lynn joins the Grand Ole Opry. This will be her 51st year as an Opry member. Loretta remains an Opry member although her appearances are very infrequent.

September 27, 1963: The National Life and Accident Insurance Company purchased the Ryman Auditorium from the City of Nashville for about $200,000. WSM, which operated the building, changed the name to the Grand Ole Opry House, but it would always be known as the Ryman. With ownership, WSM was able to make much needed repairs to the building that the city was unable to do, while also controlling the bookings at the facility.

September 15, 1965: In some of the Opry's historical records and publications, this is one of the dates listed for Connie Smith's Opry induction. Other dates have her joining in June 1965, which seems the "official" date. From what I can find, she might have been asked to join the Opry in June, but the September date seems to be the first date that Connie appeared on the show as an actual Opry member.

September 16, 1967: Jeannie Seely joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. This will be her 46th year as an Opry member. When Jeannie first joined the Opry, females never hosted segments. But over time, that has changed and today Jeannie is one of the Opry's primary segment hosts, appearing most weeks at the Opry.

September 19, 1968: Former Grand Ole Opry member Red Foley passed away in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Red came to the Opry in 1946, replacing Roy Acuff as the host of the Prince Albert Show. He would stay with the Opry for about a decade, when he left the show to go to Springfield, Missouri to work in television. At the time, Red was having many personal issues and the Opry felt it was best that Red left. Red is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and is one of the all time great gospel singers in country music history.

September 17, 1977: Reba McEntire made her first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. She would later join the Opry. This is just a rumor, but this was not Reba's final Opry appearance, although it seems like decades since she was last on the show.

September 6, 1984: Ernest Tubb passed away in a Nashville hospital. Ernest had been in declining health for a number of years and had made his last Opry appearance on August 14, 1982. That was also the last night that he hosted his Midnight Jamboree. He was 70 at the time of his death. He joined the Opry in 1943 and in 1965, Ernest was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Along with Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, he is considered one of the greatest stars in Grand Ole Opry history.

September 4, 1991: Grand Ole Opry member Dottie West died in a Nashville hospital as a result of injuries suffered earlier in a car accident on her way to a performance on the Friday Night Opry. Dottie had been a member of the Opry since 1964.

September 4, 1992: Former Opry member Carl Butler died in Franklin, Tennessee. Along with his wife Pearl, they had joined the Opry in 1962. Carl first appeared on the Opry in 1948 and along with being a fine singer, was also a good songwriter. Dolly Parton would say that Carl and Pearl were instrumental in helping her out when she first came to Nashville and later in her life, Dolly returned the favor. After they left the Opry, they continued to tour and after Pearl passed away, Carl would occasionally play the Opry.

September 11, 1993: The Stoney Mountain Cloggers made their final Grand Ole Opry appearance. Ben Smathers, the leader of the group, had passed away on September 13, 1990 at the age of 62, and the group led by his wife Margaret, would continue on the Opry for three more years.

September 9, 1996: Grand Ole Opry member Bill Monroe passed away after being in declining health after suffering a stroke earlier in the year. Bill brought bluegrass music to the Opry and was one of the Opry's greatest members.

September 20, 2004: Grand Ole Opry member Skeeter Davis passed away in Nashville at the age of 72. Skeeter had battled cancer and other health related issues for a number of years. Skeeter was known for her bright outfits and her big smile while at the Opry. She brought joy to the show.

September 23, 2004: It was not a good week at the Opry as Roy Drusky passed away after a period of declining health. Roy had been a member of the Grand Ole Opry since the 1950s and was a great ballad singer.

September 1, 2006: Taylor Swift made her first appearance on the Opry. She would make several more over the next several years.

September 13, 2011: Grand Ole Opry member Wilma Lee Cooper passed away. Wilma, along with her husband Stoney Cooper, joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1957 after coming to Nashville from the Wheeling Jamboree. After Stoney's death, Wilma Lee continued as a solo artist, keeping her mountain music going. Her last Opry singing performance was in February 2001, when she suffered a stroke while performing on the show. She did return to the Opry stage to be honored for 50 years of Opry membership, and her last appearance at the Opry House was in September 2010 as part of the reopening of the Opry House.

September 27, 2011: Rascal Flatts were invited to become the newest members of the Opry. They would officially be inducted as members in October, as part of the Opry's birthday celebration.

September 27, 2011: Johnny Wright passed away in Nashville. He was the husband of Kitty Wells and was a former Grand Ole Opry member, first coming to the show in 1948. Along with Kitty, who would join the show with him in the 1950s, they would remain as Opry members until the early 1960s, after which they would continue to make appearances on the show.

There you have it for this month. Enjoy!!


  1. Fred, Bismarck:

    Re. Dee Kilpatrick and problems at the Opry in 1956:

    Yes, it was an anxious time for country music, but the overreaction by the industry looks more and more odd as one thinks about it.

    Yes, the kids -- former fans included -- went hoorahing after rock and roll -- some forever, some only for a while, as it turned out.

    But the Nashville Sound as a response to the likes of Elvis and Little Richard? A musical non sequitur, surely ... but it somehow worked.
    I never missed an Opry Saturday night in those days, and the same crowds -- including, presumably, a lot of grayheads -- that sat on their hands for Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff cheered wildly for the latest pop (not rock) styling by Jim Reeves and others.

    Go figure.

    The low point was the spring and summer of 1957, when everybody -- Faron Young, Carl Smith, Webb Pierce, Ray Price and about everybody else -- tried on their pop wings.

    Most of those wings fell off, however, and it didn't take most of them long to scurry back into the fold. Ray Price followed his one pop, the second "I'll Be There," with one of the landmark anthems of the country comeback, "My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You."

    Bobby Helms' producer fearlessly led off "Fraulein" with that memorable fiddle; George Jones got tuned up; Ernest Tubb hired Buddy Emmons as his first pedal steel man; and the counter revolution was underway.

    Of course, the Nashville Sound stuff never went away; nor did it need to. Country had always been a big tent. (Listen to some of the wonderful pop-ish stuff from the 1940s.)

    Logic tells you that a lot of those kids Kilpatrick missed back in the '50s are among the faithful who troop to the Opry House today. Maybe you've got to reach a certain age before you put away childish things and develop an appetite for good ol' country music? I dunno.

    I do think the old art form is an endangered species today, at least on the radio, the major record labels and, yes, on the Opry. Elsewhere ... it simply thrives. As with other treasure, you simply have to look in the right places.

  2. "Maybe you've got to reach a certain age before you put away childish things and develop an appetite for good ol' country music?"

    I agree with that statement. I'm 25. Kid me loved Shania, Tim, Faith, Kenny, etc. 25 year old me loves Connie Smith, Buck Owens & The Buckaroos, Lorrie Morgan, Marty Stuart, George Jones and the list goes on. My parents took me to Opryland in 96 or 97 and I wasn't impressed with meeting Tater, Porter, & Johnny Russell. I was bored and just wanted to go on the rides. I'd love to slap some sense into kid me.

    It takes time.


  3. We just went to a fair that had Oak Ridge Boys (attendance 3000); Little Big Town (6000) and Lynerd Skynerd (SOLD OUT);
    LS spanned all ages. We saw the Oaks and they were great, as always :-)

  4. Wow, I was just looking at the ticket availability for the GOO Anniversary weekend; we always buy ours a year in advance. They have really expanded the "gold circle" area - you know what that means, MORE $$$$$$; advantage of paying a little more gave you an opportunity to be closer - now the whole Section 4, most of Sections 3 and 5 are
    also "gold" seats; plus part of the balcony. Checked the Ryman for the Classic Ctry show that week and same thing; the "gold" seats have been greatly expanded. The irony of all that is you have NO IDEA who will be performing. Depending on how this year goes, will decide if we ever go back.

  5. Fred, you bring up the rock and roll influence at the Opry in the 1960's, but I bet a lot of the younger Opry fans don't know or forget that the Opry almost went out of business in the 1950's and early 1960's because of rock and roll music. People were turning away from country and anything associated with it. Bill Monroe went through a period of time where he let go all of his bluegrass boys and was playing with local musicians at shows. The thing that saved others out on the road were the package shows that developed, allowing the fans to see 4 or more acts at a single show.

    At the Opry, in addition to the Everly Brothers and Porter, Kilpatrick added Ferlin Husky, the Kershaws, Stonewall Jackson, among others, and in one of his more controversial moves, he consolidated the string bands, taking the Opry further away from the rural roots that the show was built upon.

    Why did he do this? There are several articles that state that Opry attendance was falling like a rock. One report had Opry attendance in 1957 at under 200,000 for the year. Many of Kilpatrick's new acts did not stay at the Opry for long and neither did he, as Ott Devine came aboard and he continued the trend toward the Nashville sound by adding Patsy Cline, George Hamilton IV, Bill Anderson, Loretta Lynn and others.

    It's hard to believe that the Opry was performing before crowds that filled half of the Ryman on many nights, especially when you keep seeing the pictures of all the fans lined up the block waiting to get in as others left the show.

    As far as the Grand Ole Opry birthday weekend and the ticket prices, I am not sure when the Opry actually dropped the "gold circle" designation on the seats, changing some of the wording to Price Tier 1 and 2. And yes, they have expanded the high price ticket area. And it is that way each show. As I have mentioned before, some shows are just not worth the $59 you are paying for the ticket, plus the service charges. I know there are others, including me, who each year say after the birthday bash that we won't be back the next year, yet keep going. I guess it is the hope that there will be a good birthday weekend. But we are now just a month away and outside of Steve Wariner and Kathy Mattea, nothing has been announced. It either means that there is really nothing to announce or the Opry has actually booked a couple of big names and will make a grand announcement.

  6. Fred, Bismarck:

    On the Opry's 1950s problem again:

    Ironic that this period is now remembered, for its star power and the quality of the music, as the Golden Age of Country Music. Recent additions to the Opry cast -- before we even get to new faces by Kilpatrick and Devine -- included Webb Pierce, Carl Smith, Faron Young, Kitty Wells, Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins and others. Not exactly chopped liver.

    Yet, the financial floor did drop out from under it all for a while, as described by Byron. I was the beneficiary of many of those package shows by which future Hall of Famers tried to keep the wolf from the door.

    It turned out to be just one of those musical spasms from which country emerged quite healthy, thank you ... and no thanks to flashes in the pan (and short-lived Opry members) such as the Everly Brothers. By 1958-59, gut-bucket country was back on the charts big-time; and by the time I finally made the Opry in 1969, it was line-up-around-the-block time again.

  7. I have been mulling one that Byron didn't include. Hank Williams was born on September 17, 1923. Do you all realize that within a week, who celebrated birthdays? George Jones, Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, and Hank Williams. One could argue that these were the four most important performers in the history of country music, and all born in the same week, albeit years apart.