Welcome to May!! As I do each month, here are the important and historical events that have taken place in the history of the Grand Ole Opry, or involving Opry members during the month of May.
May 1, 1894: Sam McGee was born. Sam first appeared on the WSM Barn Dance in 1926. Over the years, he would appear with his brother Kirk and as part of the Fruit Jar Drinkers and Dixieliners. Kirk would remain with the Opry until he passed away in 1983.
May 12, 1901: Benjamin Francis Ford was born in DeSoto, Missouri. Known professionally as Whitey Ford, the Duke of Paducah, this comedian joined the Opry in 1942. He remained an Opry member until 1959, when he left the show. During his time as a member, he usually appeared on the Prince Albert portion of the show. 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 Crook Brothers was born. In addition to performing as part of the Crook Brothers, in his later years he played as part of the band backing up the square dancers. Lewis passed away in 1997.
May 1, 1910: One time Grand Ole Opry manager Ott Devine was born.
May 17, 1912: Grand Ole Opry announcer and WSM staff member Grant Turner was born. He joined the staff at WSM on D-Day, June 6, 1944. In addition to his duties at WSM, Grant became an announcer at the Opry. He would remain the Opry's primary announcer until his death on October 19, 1991, just hours after finishing his work on the Friday Night Opry. He was with the Opry for 47 years and is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
May 30, 1912: Alcyone Bate Beasley was born. She was there when it all started in 1925, performing with her father's group, Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters. After Dr. Bate's death in 1936, Alcyone worked to keep the Possum Hunters together, but it was a struggle as the Opry moved 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, the Singing Ranger, was born in Liverpool, Nova Scotia. Hank joined the Opry in January 1950 and would remain an Opry member until his death in December 1999, just weeks short of his 50th anniversary as an Opry member. In 1979 he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
May 1, 1926: Uncle Dave Macon joins the cast of the WSM Barn Dance. He would remain a part of the Opry for the next quarter century, making his final Grand Ole Opry appearance on March 1, 1952. When he joined the Barn Dance, he was considered the first professional performer to join that had a national reputation. He always considered himself just an old country boy. In 1966 he was one of the early inductees into 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 originally joined the Opry on January 1, 1971. In March 1974 he left the cast when it moved to the new Grand Ole Opry House, however he rejoined the Opry in 1980. As many of you know, Tom T has not appeared on the Opry in decades.
May 31, 1938: Donald Lytle was born in Greenfield, Ohio. Better known by his stage name of Johnny Paycheck, in the early part of his career, he was a band member for Ray Price, Porter Wagoner, George Jones and Faron Young. In 1997, thanks to some help by his friend Johnny Russell, he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. However, just a few years after joining, his health went into a period of decline and his performing ended. He passed away in February 2003.
May 2, 1948: Grand Ole Opry member Larry Gatlin was born. Along with his brothers Steve and Rudy, he joined the Opry on Christmas Day 1976. In recent years, Larry has become a regular performer on the Opry, and is a regular host of the Opry Country Classics Show that takes place in the Spring and Fall.
May 13, 1950: Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters, Helen, June and Anita, became members of the Grand Ole Opry. When the Carters joined, they also brought along their guitar player, Chet Atkins, who would continue on with a Hall of Fame career as a musician and as a record company executive. Over the years, as the Carter Sisters moved on, Mother Maybelle would remain with the Opry. Later in her Opry career, and much like other veterans such as Kirk and Sam McGee, she would complain to the Opry management about her poorly timed spots, limited appearances and a general lack of respect. She stayed with the Opry until later in the 1960s, when she left to became a 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 would never become an Opry member, he would continue to make Opry appearances throughout his career, including appearing the night Jimmy Dickens was honored for 50 years of Opry membership.
May 23, 1953: Future Opry member Jim Reeves appears on the Opry for the first time. He sang "Mexican Joe."
May 21, 1955: Opry member Webb Pierce quit the Opry. He was an Opry member for just three years, but in that time he quickly realized that he could make more money on the road, rather than being in Nashville every Saturday night.
May 11, 1957: The Everly Brothers, Don and Phil, 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 with the Opry a year before moving on. In 2001, they were elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
May 18, 1957: A week after the Everly Brothers appeared, the Kershaw Brothers, Rusty and Doug, made their debut appearance on the Opry.
May 20, 1958: Don Gibson became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Don was with the Opry until December 1964 when he, along with others, was fired from the cast for not making the required number of yearly appearances. Don would eventually rejoin the Opry, however even after he came back, his appearances were limited. In 2001 he became a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
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 started a year earlier than the Opry, on April 19, 1924.
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 cast, Merle would make a few 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 had started the WSM Barn Dance in November 1925 and it grew into the Grand Ole Opry. 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 had always 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 the Opry and WSM greatly reduced. By the time he retired from WSM, he was basically just an Opry announcer. On Saturday May 11, which was the next Opry show following 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."
May 10, 1969: Stonewall Jackson rejoined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. Stonewall had been fired in December 1964 for failing to make the required number of Opry appearances. Stonewall remains an Opry member to this day, however he rarely appears on the show. A few years ago, Stonewall sued the Opry management for age discrimination, a case that was eventually settled out of court.
May 1, 1971: Grand Ole Opry member Cousin Jody made his final appearance on the Opry. Performing for many years as Tex Summey, he came to the Opry in 1937 with Roy Acuff. He later performed with Pee Wee King and his Golden West Cowboys and with Lonzo and Oscar.
May 13, 1972: Gene Watson made his first guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. While never becoming an Opry member, Gene has made regular appearances over the years, so many in fact that many ask why he isn't a member.
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, a national holiday in Canada.
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 with 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 second only to Bill Monroe. While on the Opry, he would always host the Martha White segment, who was a long time sponsor for Flatt & Scruggs.
May 15, 1982: Ricky Skaggs joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. This will be his 33rd year as a member. It was always Ricky's dream to become a member of the Opry and he has taken his Opry membership seriously. As Ricky said, "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." Yes, there have been a few bumps in the road but overall, Ricky has done a great job at the Opry. 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, died of a heart attack while performing on the "Grand Ole Gospel Time" radio progam that followed the Friday Night Opry.
May 3, 1986: Opry member Barbara Mandrell returned to the Opry for the first time since being involved in a near-fatal traffic accident.
May 4, 1991: Travis Tritt made his first guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. He would eventually join the cast in February 1992. Sorry to say, but Travis seems to have lost his way to the Opry House as the last time he performed on the Opry was in 2007.
May 1, 1993: Charley Pride became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. This will be his 22nd year as an Opry member. Charley has appeared on the Opry since the late 1960s and he had been asked several times to become a member prior to him finally accepting the invitation. He always said that living in the Dallas area and having a heavy touring schedule made it difficult to be on the Opry on a regular basis. In 1993 he finally felt that the time was right and on the night he joined, he was very emotional.
May 11, 1996: Steve Wariner became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. This will be his 19th year as an Opry member.
May 31, 1997: Lee Ann Womack made her first appearance on the Opry. While never becoming an Opry member, Lee Ann has continued to make Opry guest appearances over the years.
May 9, 1998: Grand Ole Opry member Teddy Wilburn made 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 join the cast, performing as a duo until Doyle died in 1982. After that, Teddy would continue as a solo act, although his Opry appearances would reduce over time. Health issues forced Teddy to retire from the Opry and he passed away in November 2003.
May 15, 1998: Opry member Johnny Paycheck made his final appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, as health issues forced Johnny to retire from performing.
May 28, 1999: Future Opry member Brad Paisley made his Opry debut. Brad would make numerous guest appearances until finally becoming an Opry member on February 17, 2001.
May 5, 2001: Blake Shelton made his debut as a guest on the Opry. In the fall of 2010, Blake would join the cast.
May 21, 2006: 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.
May 19, 2007: Porter Wagoner celebrated his 50th anniversary as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. He was joined on that night by Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless, Buck Trent and Marty Stuart, who hosted the televised segment. Sadly, Porter was already in declining health and he would pass away in October of that year. This was also the last time Porter and Dolly would share the stage together.
May 10, 2008: Carrie Underwood joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. This will be her 7th year as an Opry member. Even with her career as big as it has become, she has always found time for the Opry and usually can be counted on to fulfill her 10 appearances each year. While 10 may not seem like a lot, it is more than many of fellow Opry members make. On the night that Carrie joined the cast, Garth Brooks flew in and did the honors.
May 30, 2009: Comedian, actor and banjo player Steve Martin made his debut on the Opry. He led an all-star band in playing, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." If you have never heard or seen Steve playing the banjo, he is outstanding and takes it very seriously.
May 1, 2010: The Grand Ole Opry House sustained major damage when the Cumberland River flooded after heavy rains hit the Nashville area. The Opry House, Acuff Theater, Opry Museum and Opry Mills Mall were all closed due to the damage. It was not until September that the Opry was able to return to the Opry House and the Acuff Theater was torn down. The Museum has ever reopened and it took years for the Mall to be repaired. When the Opry returned to the Opry House, Bill Anderson was the first one to be back on the stage. That was fitting as he was the last to perform on the final Saturday night prior to the flood.
May 3, 2011: Alabama made a guest appearance on the Opry, 29 years after 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 at the Opry. She did not sing, but she came out on stage and waved to the audience.