Tuesday, April 29, 2014

May Opry Highlights

Here are the historical and important events that have taken place in Grand Ole Opry history, or regarding Opry members, in the month of May.

May 1, 1894: Sam McGee was born. He would team with his brother Kirk and together would appear on the Opry. Sam passed away in 1975 while Kirk would remain with the Opry until he died in 1983. They made their first Opry appearance in 1926. Sam would appear individually, as a duet and as part of the Fruit Jar Drinkers and Dixieliners.

May 12, 1901: Benjamin Francis Ford was born in DeSoto, Missouri. Professionally known as Whitey Ford, the Duke of Paducah, this comedian joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1942. He was brought to the Opry specifically to appear on the Prince Albert Show. He remained an Opry member until leaving the Opry in 1959. Although he left as a member, he would continue to appear on the show, especially during the annual Old-Timer's Night. He passed away in 1986, the same year that he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

May 30, 1909: Lewis Crook of the famed Crook Brothers was born. In addition to performing as part of the Crook Brothers, in his later years Lewis played back-up for the square dancers. He passed away in 1997.

May 1, 1910: Ott Devine, who at one time was the Opry's manager, was born.

May 17, 1912: Grand Ole Opry announcer and WSM staff member Grant Turner was born. He joined the staff at WSM on June 6, 1944, D-Day. In addition to his staff duties at WSM, Grant became an announcer on the Opry. He would remain the Opry's primary announcer until his death on October 19, 1991, just hours after announcing the Friday Night Opry. He was with the Opry for 47 years and is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. In addition to his announcing of the Opry, he hosted the Opry warm-up show for a number of years.

May 30, 1912: Alcyone Bate Beasley was born. She was there at the start of the Opry in 1925, performing with her father's group, Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters. They remained a part of the Opry until Dr. Bate's death in 1936. After his death, Alcyone worked to keep the Possum Hunters together but it was a struggle as the Opry went to a more modern sound. By the 1960s, the Possum Hunters had been merged with the Crook Brothers. In the 1970s, she went into semi-retirement after over 40 years of performing on the Opry. After that, she became a fixture at the Opry's annual reunion shows. She passed away in October 1982.

May 9, 1914: The legendary Hank Snow was born in Liverpool, Nova Scotia. Hank joined the Grand Ole Opry in January 1950 and would remain an Opry member until his death in December 1999, just short of his 50th anniversary as an Opry member. In 1979, he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. At his birthplace, they are planning a big bash to honor Hank Snow on what would have been his 100th birthday.

May 1, 1926: Uncle Dave Macon joins the cast of the WSM Barn Dance, later called the Grand Ole Opry. He would remain a part of the Opry for the next quarter century, making his final Opry appearance on March 1, 1952. When he joined the Opry, he was considered the first professional performer to join that had a national reputation. He always considered himself as an old country boy. In 1966 he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

May 25, 1936: Grand Ole Opry member Tom T. Hall was born in Kentucky. Much like Abe Lincoln, also born in Kentucky, Tom T. was born in a log cabin. The Country Music Hall of Fame member joined the Opry on January 1, 1971. He left the Opry in March 1974, refusing to go with the show to the new Opry House. However, after a parking lot discussion with Ernest Tubb, Tom T. rejoined the Opry in 1980. As many of you know, even though he is still considered a member of the Opry and still active in the music business, he has not been to the Opry in decades and gives no indication of ever returning to the Opry's stage.

May 31, 1938: Donald Lytle was born in Greenfield, Ohio. While that name may not be familiar to everyone, his stage name of Johnny Paycheck is. As he was working his way up in the music business, Johnny would perform as a band member for Ray Price, Porter Wagoner, George Jones and Faron Young. In 1997, with the endorsement of his friend Johnny Russell, he became a member of the Opry. However, just a few years after joining, his health began to decline and his performing days ended. He passed away in February 2003.

May 2, 1948: Grand Ole Opry member Larry Gatlin was born. Larry, along with his brothers Steve and Rudy, joined the Opry on Christmas day 1976. In recent years, Larry has returned to the Opry on a more frequent basis, always doing a fine job hosting a segment. In addition, he hosts many of the Opry Country Classic shows on Thursday night.

May 13, 1950: Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters join the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. The sisters, of course, were Helen, Anita and June. When the Carters joined the Opry, they brought along their guitar player, Chet Atkins, who would continue on with a Hall of Fame career as a musician and a record company executive. Over the years, while Helen, Anita and June would come and go, Mother Maybelle would remain with the Opry. Later in her Opry careeer, much like some of the other veterans such as Sam and Kirk McGee, she would complain to the Opry's management about her poorly timed Opry spots and the limited appearances that she was scheduled. In fact, the McGees were very vocal about always having to appear after 11:00, which was after the farmers went to bed. (Sounds like some things haven't changed much over the years). Mother Maybelle would remain as an Opry member until later in the 1960s, when she left the show to travel as part of Johnny Cash's road show.

May 16, 1953: Jimmy Dean makes his debut on the Grand Ole Opry. He was introduced by Opry member Carl Smith. Although Jimmy never joined the Opry, he would make a few Opry appearances throughout his career.

May 23, 1953: Future Opry member Jim Reeves appears on the Opry for the first time, singing "Mexican Joe."

May 21, 1955: Opry member Webb Pierce quit the Opry. He was an Opry member for just about three years but realized that he could make a lot more money being out on the road on Saturday nights instead of being in Nashville.

May 11, 1957: The Everly Brothers, Phil and Don, make their first appearance on the Opry. They, along with a few others, were brought in as members in an attempt to capture the younger crowd that was turning to rock n' roll. They were only part of the Opry for about a year before moving on. In 2001, they were elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

May 18, 1957: The Kershaw Brothers, Rusty and Doug, make their first appearance on the Opry.

May 20, 1958: Don Gibson joined the Grand Ole Opry. This Country Music Hall of Fame member was part of a large group of Opry members who were fired from the show in 1964 for failing to make the required number of yearly appearances. He would eventually rejoin the cast, however his Opry appearances remained very limited.

May 1, 1960: The WLS National Barn Dance, one of the Opry's early competitors, came to an end as WLS in Chicago, changed formats. The Barn Dance had been on the air since April 19, 1924, which made it older then the Opry.

May 13, 1967: Merle Haggard makes his first appearance on the Opry. Former Opry manager Hal Durham would later say that the girls were crazy about Merle. While never joining the Opry, Merle would make several more Opry appearances over the years.

May 8, 1968: Grand Ole Opry founder George D. Hay passed away at his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He started the WSM Barn Dance in November 1925. After he started the show, he would clash with WSM management, specifically Harry and David Stone over the direction and management of the show. He wanted to keep the Opry "close to the ground" while the Stone's wanted a more professional show. We know who won that battle!! Over the years, he would suffer from various health issues and would see his influence and role at WSM and the Opry greatly reduced. By the time he retired from the Opry, his role was basically that of an announcer. On Saturday May 11, which was the next Opry show after his death, Grant Turner paid tribute to him, saying, "He called himself the Solemn Old Judge. If he was solemn, it was only in the face of those who thought to change or corrupt the purity of the barn-dance ballads he sought to preserve. We, the performers and friends of the Grand Ole Opry, salute the memory of one whose influence is felt on the stage of the Opry tonight-the Solemn Old Judge, George D. Hay." Of course, by the time of his death, Harry and David Stone were long gone from the Opry but their direction helped to make the Opry what it has turned into today.

May 10, 1969: Opry member Stonewall Jackson rejoins the cast of the show. Stonewall had been fired from the Opry in December 1964 for not fulfilling the required number of appearances on the show. Stonewall remains an Opry member to this day, however his appearances have considerably dropped. Stonewall created news several years ago when he sued the Opry for age discrimination. He refused to appear on the Opry for several years, including missing his 50 year anniversary as an Opry member. Eventually the lawsuit was settled out of court and he returned to the Opry.

May 27, 1972: Opryland opens. On the first day, it drew over 10,000 visitors to the park and by the end of the first year, over 1.4 million guests would visit. Opryland would remain one of Nashville's most popular attractions until Gaylord Entertainment made the decision to close the park in 1997.

May 22, 1977: The Grand Ole Opry held a special Sunday matinee show that was dedicated to their Canadian fans. The following day was Victoria Day in Canada, a national holiday.

May 11, 1979: Lester Flatt passed away in Nashville at the age of 64. He had been in declining health for a number of years. After he split from Earl Scruggs, Lester stayed with a more traditional bluegrass sound and formed the Nashville Grass. As Lester moved forward with his solo career, he would reach legendary status among bluegrass fans, who considered Lester the second biggest name in bluegrass music besides Bill Monore. While on the Opry, Lester would always host the Martha White segment. Toward the end of his career, Lester hired Marty Stuart as part of his band, which was Marty's first professional job.

May 15, 1982: Ricky Skaggs joined the Grand Ole Opry. This will be his 34th year as an Opry member. It was always Ricky's dream to become an Opry member and he has taken his Opry membership very seriously. As Ricky said when joining, "I don't ever-ever want to get to the point where I don't come and play the Opry, where I feel like I'm too good to play the Opry. Mr. Acuff said that I would do that. He said, 'You'll get so big you'll do like all the rest of them.' And I said, you don't know me. You just watch me and see, I'm not made that way. I didn't join the Opry for that." After that, each time Ricky would play the Opry and Roy Acuff was there, he would always make it a point of going to Roy's dressing room and telling him he was there. Yes, there have been a few bumps in the road, but Ricky has always remembered where the Opry has is at. And since the death of Bill Monroe, Ricky has worked hard to keep the sound of bluegrass music alive at the Opry.

May 26, 1984: Onie Wheeler, a member of Roy Acuff's Smoky Mountain Boys, dies of a heart attack while performing on the "Grand Ole Gospel Time" radio program that followed the Friday Night Opry.

May 3, 1986: Opry member Barbara Mandrell returns to the Opry for the first time since being involved in a near-fatal traffic accident.

May 4, 1991: Travis Tritt makes his first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry. He would eventually join the show on February 29, 1992. And I make a little joke each time I write this, which is to remind people that it is only a rumor that his induction date was his last Opry appearance. In reality, he has not appeared on the Opry since 2007, and gives no reason for his absence.

May 1, 1993: Charley Pride becomes a member of the Grand Ole Opry. This will be his 21st year as an Opry member. Charley has appeared on the Opry since the late 1960s and he was asked many times to become a member prior to finally joining. He always said that living in Dallas and having a heavy touring schedule made it difficult for him to get to the Opry on a regular basis. In 1993, he felt the time was finally right. He normally makes around 10 Opry appearances each year, which is the number asked for by Pete Fisher.

May 11, 1996: Steve Wariner becomes a member of the Grand Ole Opry. This will be his 18th year as a pretty loyal member. He has done his best to be at the Opry at least a dozen times each year. On a personal note, I had the chance to meet Steve a few years ago backstage at the Opry, and he is about the nicest guy around.

May 31, 1997: Lee Ann Womack makes her first appearance at the Opry. While never becoming an Opry member, Lee Ann has continued to make a few Opry
appearances over the years.

May 9, 1998: Grand Ole Opry member Teddy Wilburn makes his final appearance on the Opry. Teddy and his brother Doyle had first appeared on the Opry in 1940 before being forced to leave the show due to child labor laws. They would return and work as a duo before Doyle passed away in 1982. After that, Teddy continued as a solo act, although his Opry appearances were greatly reduced. Teddy passed away in November 2003.

May 15, 1998: Opry member Johnny Paycheck makes his final Opry appearance as a member. Ill health forced Johnny to retire.

May 28, 1999: Brad Paisley makes his Grand Ole Opry debut. Brad would make numerous Opry appearances before finally becoming an Opry member on February 17, 2001. Sadly, he made more Opry appearances prior to becoming an actual Opry member.

May 5, 2001: Blake Shelton makes his Grand Ole Opry debut. Blake would become an Opry member late in 2010.

May 21, 2006: Grand Ole Opry member Billy Walker, along with his wife Bettie and two members of his band, were killed in a traffic accident on their way back to Nashville after making an appearance in Alabama. Billy had been an Opry member since 1960 and had one of the best country voices around.

May 19, 2007: Porter Wagoner celebrated his 50th anniversary as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. He was joined on the special show by Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless, Buck Trent and Marty Stuart, who hosted the televised segment. Sadly, Porter was in declining health and would pass away in October of that year. This was the last time that Porter and Dolly shared the stage together.

May 10, 2008: Carrie Underwood joins the Opry. This will be her 6th year as an Opry member and Carrie will be at the Opry for 2 shows on Saturday May 10. Even with her career as big as it has been, Carrie has always found time to appear on the Opry. While 10 appearances a year may not seem like a lot, it is a lot more then most of her fellow, younger Opry members make. And if each of those younger Opry members would appear 10 times per year on the Opry, each week the Opry would have a pretty dynamic show. On an additional note, on the night that Carrie joined the Opry, Garth Brooks did the honors.

May 30, 2009: Comedian and banjo player Steve Martin makes his first Opry appearance. He led an all-star band in playing, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." If you have never heard or seen Steve with the banjo, you should. He is oustanding and takes his banjo playing very seriously.

May 1, 2010: The Grand Ole Opry House sustains major damage as the Cumberland River overflows its banks after heavy rain hit Nashville. The Opry House, Acuff Theater, Opry Museum and Opry Mills Mall all were closed as a result of the damage. It was not until September that the Opry was able to return to the Opry House. The Acuff Theater was torn down and the Museum has not reopened. That summer, the Opry moved around town, playing at various buildings. When the Opry returned in September to the Opry House, Bill Anderson was the first artist on stage. He was also the last artist to appear at the Opry House the night of the flood.

May 3, 2011: Alabama makes a guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. It had been 29 years since they last performed on the show. They were joined on stage by Brad Paisley and sang, "Old Alabama", and "Tennessee River." They have been back several times since.

May 18, 2013: Retired Opry member Barbara Mandrell made a surprise appearance on the Opry. She did not sing, but she came out on stage and waved to the audience.


  1. Fred, Bismarck:

    Sam McGee "passed away" in a tractor rollover, or some such. Another stamp of authenticity on the kind of Opry artist whose like we won't see again, unfortunately.

    The Johnny Paycheck outcome was most unfortunate. He had just cleaned up -- and then the emphysema, left over from his druggie days, got him. I think Paycheck, despite his excesses, was one of the really good ones, especially on his Little Darling tracks. "Everything You Touch Turns to Hurt" -- it'll make you holler and drink beer!

  2. Fred, it was a tractor accident and he was 81, which tells you he was still doing pretty well. What a guitar player Sam McGee was!

    I'd also note that May 1 is the birthday--this year, the 85th--of the Southern Gentleman, Sonny James, who was a member for about five years in the 1960s. I had the pleasure of speaking one time with two of his classic lineup of Southern Gentlemen, and they confirmed that he is the nicest guy you could ever hope to meet.

  3. Mike, every year to remind me of the birthday of the great Sonny James and every year I forget to add it to the important dates. Please forgive me!!! He truly was one of the greatest entertainers of his generation. And he had the nickname of the "Southern Gentleman" for a reason.

  4. Byron, to be fair, one of the reasons we don't mention him is not just that he wasn't at the Opry long, but because he has lived such a quiet life. He's one of the few people who really did retire from the business--30 years ago!