As the Grand Ole Opry prepares to close out another year, here are the important dates and historical events that have taken place involving the Opry, or it's members, during the month of December.
December 2, 1898: Herman Crook was born. Herman was an original charter member of the Opry and he performed on the Opry for the final time the week before he passed away in June 1988. Herman first performed on the WSM Barn Dance July 24, 1926 and when he passed away, the Crook Brothers were the only act left that represented the original tradition of the Opry. The band played for the cloggers and the square dancers. Roy Acuff said of Herman, "He loved country music, but he wanted it country. He didn't go for any of this rock' n' roll type stuff."
December 14, 1899: DeFord Bailey was born. DeFord first appeared on the WSM Barn Dance on June 19, 1926, and when George D. Hay changed the name of the show to the Grand Ole Opry, DeFord played the first song. He was fired from the Opry in 1941 in a move that left him very bitter. Despite repeated attempts by Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl and Bill Monroe, DeFord stayed away from the Opry until February 23, 1974, when he returned for the Opry's first "Old-Timer's Night." DeFord passed away in 1982 and in 2005 he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
December 11, 1914: Former Opry member James Clell "Tex" Summey was born. You may not recognize that name, but you would know him by his stage name of Cousin Jody. He first came to the Opry with Roy Acuff in 1937 and later worked with Pee Wee King and Lonzo & Oscar. He also performed on the Opry as a solo act and was an Opry member until health issues forced him to retire. He passed away in 1975. On a historical note, he was the first person to play the dobro and the steel guitar on the Opry.
December 19, 1920: The Grand Ole Opry's oldest member, Jimmy Dickens was born on this date in Bolt, West Virginia. Jimmy will be 94 and despite some health issues, he continues to appear most Saturday nights 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, which wrote, "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 10, 1927: While there seems to be some confusion as to the exact date, it would appear that this was the date 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." At the conclusion of the Music Hour on that 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." While this is the story as told by George D. Hay, there seems to be no independent verification of this event. Some historians actually think the date was December 8, 1928 as the "Music Appreciation Hour" did not start on WSM until that year. To back the claim of the December 1927 date, it was on December 11, 1927 that the Nashville Tennessean first used the words "Grand Ole Opry." Either way, the new name stuck.
December 13, 1930: Grand Ole Opry member Buck White was born. Along with his daughters Sharon and Cheryl, The Whites have been Opry members since 1984 and Buck is still doing a great job playing the piano at the age of 84.
December 7, 1931: Opry member Bobby Osborne was born in Leslie County, Kentucky. Along with his brother Sonny, Bobby became an Opry member in 1964. At the age of 83, Bobby still brings bluegrass and "Rocky Top" most every week to the Opry.
December 30, 1944: Bob Wills makes an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, appearing on the Prince Albert portion of the show that was broadcast on the NBC radio network. There are a couple of stories from that night. First, Minnie Pearl remembered that a lady was so excited that she fell out of the balcony onto the stage. But also Minnie also said, "That was the first time we ever put electrified fiddles on the Opry. Roy Acuff said it would ruin the Opry forever!." While it might have been the first night for electric fiddles, both Pee Wee King and his Golden West Cowboys and Ernest Tubb had been using electric instruments on the Opry before Bob Wills made his appearance. Another story from that night is that Bob Wills brought a set of drums and was told to hide them behind a curtain. However, Harold "Sticks" McDonald, a member of the Golden West Cowboys, had actually brought drums to the Opry earlier. He used them for a couple of weeks until George D. Hay told Pee Wee to take the drums home and to leave them there. However, within a few years, many acts were using a snare drum.
December 8, 1945: Earl Scruggs made his Opry debut as part of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. He was the final member to join was is considered the greatest of Bill's many groups. That group included Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise and Howard Watts and they are credited with creating the great bluegrass sound that Bill would become famous for. They only stayed together until 1948. Earl and Lester would eventually join the Opry as a duo, and after they broke up, Earl continued for a short period of time as an Opry member. Even after giving up his membership, Earl would still appear from time to time at the Opry.
December 12, 1959: While he was performing on the Opry, Bill Monroe was served with divorce papers from his wife, Carolyn Brown. She charged that Bill was having an affair with his bass player, Bessie Lee Mauldin.
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. That final show was hosted by Hank Snow.
December 3, 1961: "Doctor" Lew Childre passed away. Lew, who was born in 1901, became an Opry member in 1945 and continued as a member through most of the 1950s. He often worked with Stringbean.
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 Nashville Tennessean, "Twelve top country and western 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 were required to appear on 26 shows each year. It was later found out that Chet Atkins was not an actual 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 as members, including George Morgan, Don Gibson, Billy Grammer, Justin Tubb and Stonewall Jackson, along with Minnie Pearl. Most of those who did not rejoin would come back and make guest appearances. On Tuesday December 8, the Tennessean in an editorial wrote, "The Opry has been, and contines 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 the Opry management 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 that they come to love by radio. It must be a disappointment for these fans to arrive at the Opry an this one big night for them and find that their favorite stars have found a more profitable audience in some other state." The Tennessean put it better than I could and they were right in their comments. Of course times have changed and the Opry does not have the importance and influence in Nashville that it once had. But could you imagine what the reaction would be today if the Opry fired a dozen or so acts for not appearing on the show? I think most of us could come up with a list of 12 pretty quickly.
December 23, 1967: Jack Greene became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Jack remained an Opry member until his death in 2013. Jack started as a member of Ernest Tubb's band before going on to a successful solo career.
December 14, 1973: Lorrie Morgan, age 14, made her first appearance on the Opry. She was brought on stage by her father, George Morgan, and sang "Paper Roses." A decade later, Lorrie would become an Opry member.
December 15, 1973: Skeeter Davis was suspended by the Grand Ole Opry for comments that she had made the previous Saturday night while performing on the 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 appearance 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. The arrests enraged Skeeter and on the Opry she expressed her rage by talking about it, singing about it, and weeping about it. When she came off the stage, she faced an angry Opry manager. She was told that she was no longer considered an Opry member, Happily for all, and for Skeeter, she was invited back to the Opry, 18 months later.
December 29, 1973: Tex Ritter made his final Grand Ole Opry appearance. This member of the Opry, who joined in 1965, and of the Country Music Hall of Fame would pass away several days later, on January 2, 1974.
December 25, 1976: Larry Gatlin, along with his brothers Steve and Rudy, became members of the Opry. This will be their 38th year as Opry members. While making few Opry appearances during their hit making careers, the Gatlin's, and Larry in particular, have really increased their Opry appearances over the past several years.
December 27, 1978: Grand Ole Opry member Bob Luman passed away at the age of 41. He joined the Opry in 1965 and was known for his rockabilly sound. When he joined the Opry, several of the Opry's members, which included Roy Acuff, felt that Bob's music had a little too much rock in it for the Opry, but Bob proved to be a very popular member of the cast. His last Grand Ole Opry appearance was on December 2, 1978, while his last Friday Night Opry appearance was December 15.
December 8, 1982: Marty Robbins died in a Nashville hospital at the age of 57. Probably the Opry's most popular member in it's history, he was famous for hosting the 11:30 segment and making it his own. The previous October, Marty had been elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
December 20, 1986: Randy Travis joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. This will be his 28th year as an Opry member. Randy is a fine country music singer with many hits and I am sure it will be just a matter of time until he is elected to the Hall of Fame. Sadly, Randy suffered a heart attack and stroke last year and has been unable to perform since. He continues his recover in Texas.
December 17, 1993: Herman Harper, the famous and very popular bass singer for the Carol Lee Singers, passed away. Herman had been a member of the Oak Ridge Boys, back in the days when they were considered a gospel quartet.
December 24, 1994: Grand Ole Opry member Vic Willis performed on the Opry for the final time. The Willis Brothers originally came to the Opry in 1946 and were known as the Oklahoma Wranglers. They left in 1949 to tour with Eddy Arnold. After they finished working with Eddy, they returned to the Opry in 1957 under the name Willis Brothers. In addition to Vic, the group included his brothers Guy and Skeeter. Skeeter passed away in 1976 and Guy stayed until 1979 when ill health forced his retirement. Guy continued on, under the name Vic Willis Trio until his death from an automobile accident in 1995.
December 30, 1994: Grand Ole Gospel Time, which followed the Friday Night Opry and was hosted by Hank Snow's son, Jimmie Snow, was broadcast for the final time. The show, which was taped and broadcast on WSM Sunday mornings, was on the air for 23 years.
December 19, 1999: Former Grand Ole Opry member Marion Worth passed away at the age of 69. Marion had joined the Opry in 1963 and while not a superstar, she was a very entertaining and crowd favorite on the Opry. Her final Opry show was in March 1980, when she left the cast and went into semi-retirement.
December 20, 1999: The legendary Hank Snow passed away at his Rainbow Ranch in Madison, Tennessee. He was just 2 weeks shy of celebrating 50 years as an Opry member. Hank had last appeared at the Opry in September 1996 and had been in declining health since. In the history of the Opry and country music, Hank is one of the all time greats.
December 16, 2000: Brad Paisley was surprised while performing at the Opry by Jimmy Dickens and Jeannie Seely, dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus, with an invitation to became a member of the Opry. Brad accepted the invitation and would be inducted as a member in February 2001.
December 14, 2002: Toby Keith makes his first appearance at the Opry. Also appearing at the Opry that night were Keith Urban and Trace Adkins.
December 31, 2002: Jim McReynolds, who performed with his brother Jesse as Jim & Jesse, passed away in Gallatin, Tennessee after a long illness. Jim & Jesse had joined the Opry in March 1964 and along with their Virginia Boys, were very popular in bluegrass circles. After Jim passed away, Jesse continued as an Opry member and this year he celebrated 50 years as an Opry member.
December 13, 2013: Joe Diffie is honored for 20 years as a member of the Opry. Joining Joe that evening was Opry member Carrie Underwood, along with Brad Paisley.