Monday, November 30, 2015

December Opry Highlights

As the Grand Ole Opry prepares to close out another year, here are the important dates and events that have taken place involving the Grand Ole Opry, or with Opry members, during the month of December: 

December 2, 1898: Herman Crook was born. Herman was an original charter member of the Grand Ole Opry, first appearing on July 24, 1926. His final Opry appearance was in June 1988, just short of 62 years. When he passed, the Crook Brothers were the last act that represented the original traditional sound of the Opry. As Roy Acuff said, "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 actually appeared on the Opry prior to Herman Crook, making his first appearance on June 19, 1926. DeFord was there the night George D. Hay changed the name of the WSM Barn Dance to the Grand Ole Opry, and played the first song on the newly named show. DeFord 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 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: James Clell "Tex" Summey was born. You may not recognize that name, as when he was an Opry member he went by the name of Cousin Jody. He first came to the Opry with Roy Acuff in 1937, and he later worked with Pee Wee King and Lonzo & Oscar, where he really stood out. He also performed on the Opry as a solo act until health issues forced him to retire. He passed away in 1975. On a historical note, he was the first person to play a dobro and the steel guitar on the Opry. 

December 19, 1920: Jimmy Dickens was born in Bolt, West Virginia. Jimmy first joined the Opry in 1948. He left the show for a period of time, but returned as a member 1975. He remained an Opry member until he passed away in January of this past year. 

December 26, 1925: The WSM Barn Dance was formally listed for the first time on the WSM program schedule that appeared 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 known as the Grand Ole Opry. The Barn Dance came on the air at 8:00. In the hour prior to the start of the Barn Dance program, WSM aired a classical musical show on 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 even. Some historians believe that the date was actually December 8, 1928 as the "Music Appreciation Hour" did not start on WSM until that year. However, to back the claim of the 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: On this date 85 years ago, Grand Ole Opry member Buck White was born. Along with his daughters Sharon and Cheryl, The Whites have been Opry members since 1984.

December 7, 1931: Grand Ole 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 84, Bobby still brings bluegrass and of course Rocky Top, to the Grand Ole Opry most every week. 

December 30, 1944: Bob Wills makes a guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, appearing on the Prince Albert portion of the show that was broadcast on the NBC radio network. Minnie Pearl remembered that a lady in the balcony was so excited to see Bob on the Opry stage that she fell out of the balcony, onto the Ryman stage. And Minnie also said that it was the first time electrified fiddles were played on the Opry. Roy Acuff thought that this might ruin the Opry forever. While it may have been the first time electric fiddles were played on the Opry, both Pee Wee King and Ernest Tubb had been using electric instruments on the Opry prior to the Bob Wills appearance. There is another story from that night in which it was written that Bob Wills brought all his Texas Playboys with him, including his drummer who was told to stay hidden behind the curtains. Some say that it was the first time drums were played on the Opry, however Harold "Sticks" McDonald, a member of Pee Wee King's Golden West Cowboys had actually brought drums to the Opry years prior. He supposedly used them for a couple of weeks before George D. Hay told Pee Wee to take the drums home and to leave them there. However, within a few years, several other Opry acts were bringing drummers to the show. 

December 8, 1945: Earl Scruggs made his Opry debut as a member of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. He was the final member to join what many consider the greatest of Bill's many groups. That group included Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise and Harold Watts, and they were credited with creating the great bluegrass sound that Bill would become famous for. While the most famous of Bill's pickers, they would only stay together until 1948. Earl and Lester would eventually become Opry members and after they broke up, Earl would remain a member for a short while longer. Even after he gave up his Opry membership, Earl would continue to make guest appearances. 

December 12, 1959: While he was performing on the Opry, Bill Monroe was served divorce papers from his wife Carolyn Brown. She charged that Bill was having an affair with his bass player, Bessie Lee Mauldin. The story goes that Carolyn was waiting for Bill outside the Opry and really laid into him. 

December 24, 1960: The final Prince Albert Grand Ole Opry show is broadcast on the NBC radio network. The decline of radio and the rise of television led to the death of the show. Hank Snow was the host for that final broadcast. 

December 3, 1961: "Doctor" Lew Childre passed away. Lew, who was born in 1901, became a member of the Opry in 1945, remaining with the show through most of the 1950s. 

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 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 spokesman 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. It was found out later that Chet Atkins was not actually an Opry member, which led to some comments concerning if Opry management really knew what was going on down at the show. At the time, Opry members were required to appear 26 times each year. Many of those fired would later return to the show as members including George Morgan, Don Gibson, Billy Grammer, Justin Tubb and Stonewall Jackson, while Minnie Pearl would return from her leave of absence. The rest would come back to make guest appearances. 

December 23, 1967: Jack Greene became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Jack, who would remain an Opry member until his death in 2013, started as a member of Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadours before going on to have 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: Opry member Skeeter Davis was suspended by the Opry's management for comments 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 the Skeeter was on her way to the Ryman Auditorium 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 after performing, she faced an angry Opry management. She was told that she was no longer considered an Opry member. Happily for all, and especially for Skeeter, she was invited back to the Opry 18 months later. 

December 29, 1973: Tex Ritter made his final Grand Ole Opry appearance. Tex had joined the Opry in 1965 and would pass away the following week. 

December 25, 1976: Larry, Steve and Rudy, The Gatlin Brothers, became members of the Grand Ole Opry. This will be their 39th anniversary as Opry members. While they made few appearances during their hit making days, the Gatlins, and Larry in particular, have really increased their appearances over the past several years.

December 27, 1978: Grand Ole Opry member Bob Luman passed away at the age of 41. Bob had joined the Opry in 1965 and was known for his rockabilly sound. When he joined, 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 popular member of the Opry's cast. His last Grand Ole Opry appearance was on December 2, 1978, while December 15 was his final Friday Night Opry show. 

December 8, 1982: Marty Robbins passed away in a Nashville hospital at the age of 57. Probably the Opry's most popular member, 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 became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. This will be his 29th year as an Opry member. Randy is a fine country music singer with many hits and I am sure it is just a matter of time until he will be elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Sadly, Randy suffered a heart attack and stroke several years ago and has been unable to perform since. However, over the past year, Randy did make several appearances back stage at the Opry. 

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 act. 

December 24, 1994: Grand Ole Opry member Vic Willis performed on the Opry for the final time. The Willis Brothers were originally known as the Oklahoma Wranglers and they first came to the Opry in 1946. They left in 1949 to tour with Eddy Arnold, before returning to the Opry again in 1957. 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 him to retire. Vic continued on, forming the Vic Willis Trio. Vic passed away early in 1995 from injuries suffered in an automobile accident. 

December 30, 1994: Grand Ole Gospel Time, which followed the Friday Night Opry and was hosted by Hank Snow's son, Reverend Jimmy Snow, was broadcast for the final time. The show was taped after the Friday Night Opry and broadcast on WSM Sunday morning. It had been on the air for 23 years. 

December 19, 1999: Former Opry member Marion Worth passed away at the age of 69. Marion joined the Opry in 1963 and while never a superstar, she was very entertaining and a crowd favorite while on the Opry. She left the Opry's cast in March 1980 when she went into semi-retirement. 

December 20, 1999: The legendary Hank Snow passed away at his Rainbow Ranch in Madison, Tennessee, just 2 weeks short of celebrating 50 years as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Hank had last appeared on the Opry in September 1996 before retiring due to his declining health. In the history of the Opry, and of country music, Hank is considered one of the all time greats. 

December 16, 2000: Brad Paisley was surprised on stage while making a guest appearance on the Opry by Jimmy Dickens and Jeannie Seely, dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus. The reason for the interruption was for Jimmy and Jeannie to ask Brad if he would like to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Brad accepted the invitation and would officially join the cast the following February. 

December 30, 2000: Grand Ole Opry member Skeeter Davis made her final appearance on the Opry. Skeeter, who had been battling various illnesses, would enter a period of declining health, making it difficult for her to continue performing. Skeeter would pass away in December 2004.

December 14, 2002: Toby Keith made his first guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. Also appearing on the Opry that night were Keith Urban and Trace Adkins. 

December 31, 2002: Opry member Jim McReynolds, one half of Jim & Jesse, passed away in Gallatin, Tennessee after a long illness. Jim & Jesse had joined the Grand Ole Opry in March 1964, and along with the Virginia Boys, were bluegrass legends. 

December 30, 2006: The Grand Ole Opry's second show concluded at midnight for the final time. The following week, the Saturday Grand Ole Opry shows would be cut to 2 hours each, with the second show ending at 11:30 pm. 

December 13, 2013: Joe Diffie was honored for 20 years of Opry membership. Joining Joe on the Opry that evening were Opry members Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley. 

December 20, 2014: Grand Ole Opry member Jimmy Dickens performed on the Opry for the final time. On Christmas Day, Jimmy was admitted to a Nashville hospital and would pass away shortly after the first of the year. His final song? "Out Behind the Barn."


  1. Byron, this is great as always, and somewhere in heaven, George D. Hay and Herman Crook are insisting that drums are the devil's work. Maybe they are!

    This may be something you can answer, but I've always been curious. Stonewall Jackson didn't rejoin the Opry until 1969, and Don Gibson until 1976. Near as I can tell, George Morgan, Justin Tubb, and Billy Grammer continued immediately and never really "left." Am I right or wrong on this?

    1. I agree 100% about the drums! The square dance portion of the show was always my favorite but with the passing of Earl White who did his best to maintain the original sound, the drums have really taken over and now it sounds more like some kind of voodoo dance ritual with bongos. I usually just reach for the off switch now.

  2. I agree, Byron. Thank you for the detailed report and history lesson!

    To piggyback off Michael's comments, I had a question about the Opry's policy of required performances. It is well documented that at least up until 1965 the artists were expected to perform at the show 26 times per year. When was that appearance requirement relaxed or ignored? We know that, under Hal Durham, there was really no set number of appearances for Opry members per year. But, did the lack of enforcement begin earlier than that? Many of the stars added during the 1970s certainly did not meet the old requirement of 26 appearances per year. So, was the annual number of appearances actually decreased or did the Opry management simply stop enforcing the "rule"? And, if so, do you have an idea when that happened?

  3. Chris, after Hal Durham became the Opry's manager, he began adding members with no commitments as far as a set number of Opry appearances. There are several different explanations for that, but the main one is that he was having a very hard time adding members. If you look at the 1970s, particularly after the Opry moved to the new Opry House. and the first half of the 1980s, very few members were added, and two of those who were, Don Williams and BJ Thomas, left after figuring out what was expected of them. Bob Whittaker followed the same policy has Hal. Since Pete Fisher became the Opry's general manager in 1999, he has asked for 10 appearance per year for each new member that he has brought on board. The results have been mixed as some have honored the request and some have not.

    Here are the current members who joined in that period:

    Ronnie Milsap-1976
    Gatlin Brothers-1976
    John Conlee-1981
    Riders In The Sky-1982
    Ricky Skaggs-1982
    Lorrie Morgan-1984
    The Whites-1984
    Reba McEntire-1985

    Of course, you also have Mel McDaniel, Don Williams and BJ Thomas and if you want to get technical, Tom T Hall rejoined in 1980. None of those artists had a stellar number of Opry appearances when they were in the peak of their careers, but at least most of them have come back and are making regular appearances on the Opry, Milsap being the major exception. It really was the addition of Reba McEntire that opened the floodgates for those who followed.

    1. Wasn't Boxcar Willie in there about 1981 or 82.

      Knightsville, IN

  4. I might also add that this was the period of time when the Opry's management was getting very concerned as to the Opry's members as some of the older acts that the Opry was built upon, such as Marty Robbins and Ernest Tubb, were passing away, while others such as Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Herman Crook, Hank Snow, Bill Monroe....the list goes on, were not getting any younger. They needed replacements.

  5. Michael, according to an old magazine that I have from 1966 (an insert to the Nashville Tennessean), Billy Grammer and George Morgan (pictured on the magazine's cover) returned to the Opry after 1 year. The article called it a "1 year leave of absence." I recall listening the night that Justin Tubb returned, which was a year or 2 later. Justin is not in the 1965 Opry History-Picture book. but Morgan and Grammer are included. I seem to remember his return being close to the time that Stu Phillips and Del Reeves joined. The other thing in my memory, as unreliable as it might be, was that in 68 or 69, the required number of appearances was reduced from 26 to 20.

    1. Danny, thanks. I appreciate that a lot. I know they did announce during the 1964 purge that they were cutting the appearances from 26 to 20. I've also seen some of those group photos Les Leverett would cobble together, and I think the three you mentioned were all in it, and it would have been around 1965 or 1966. But I'm trusting my memory, and that's dangerous!

  6. I have also heard Jean Shepard tell a story about how she gave up a New Year's eve booking in the late 60s because Bud Wendell told her she hadn't met her required number of Opry appearances. Today's lax requirement for bookings makes the 64 purge look ridiculous, meaning people like Kitty Wells, Faron Young, Ferlin Huskey, etc. should have still been considered Opry members at the time of their deaths when you consider people like Reba & Dolly go years and years without appearing on the Opry. Also says something about the dedication of people like Jean Shepard. (oldtimeopry)

  7. I have also heard Jean Shepard tell a story about how she gave up a New Year's eve booking in the late 60s because Bud Wendell told her she hadn't met her required number of Opry appearances. Today's lax requirement for bookings makes the 64 purge look ridiculous, meaning people like Kitty Wells, Faron Young, Ferlin Huskey, etc. should have still been considered Opry members at the time of their deaths when you consider people like Reba & Dolly go years and years without appearing on the Opry. Also says something about the dedication of people like Jean Shepard. (oldtimeopry)

  8. I always enjoyed Christmas in Nashville. Lots of get-togethers with cider and hot chocolate, going out caroling for the neighbors, checking out the Christmas lights all over town. On a cold December night, the Opryland Hotel provided a warm and inviting place to meet friends or take guests (it was much smaller back then and December wasn't a particularly busy time). Mr. Bell would get me on "the list" around the first of December and, for several years, I always managed to find a twig that had fallen off the Christmas tree on the Opry House stage to take home. I didn't have room (or the money) for a Christmas tree in my apartment but a "Christmas Twig" (in a Coke bottle with a single red ball hanging on it) was just what the doctor ordered. I have room for a tree these days but after 30 years or so, the Christmas Twig has managed to become an annual tradition at my house. Of course, the Opry shows at that time of the years were some of the best of the year and the audiences were some of the it wasn't unusual for Saturday night's first show crowd to be invited back for the second show!

    I also well remember the week of Marty Robbins' passing. The entire city was in a bit of a funk and the day he was laid to rest at Woodlawn was a cold, grey, rainy day and it almost seemed like even the weather was in mourning. The Opry lost a lot of its "spark" when it lost Marty.

    1. Barry, thanks for sharing that. For what it's worth, Ralph Emery was close to Marty and said that when it rained, he would go outside to shampoo his hair because he liked how rain water affected his hair. Maybe that rain was saying something. Or maybe it was all about Ray Price's song where he says soft rain was falling because the angels all cried.

  9. From Anonymous in Kingman: Here's an interesting tidbit regarding Bob Wills' appearance at the Opry:
    Charles Townsend's book San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills says in a footnote:
    The story has been told that Wills agreed to hide his drums behind the curtain before the Opry officials would allow him to use them. According to Bob and Betty Wills and every musician I have interviewed who was present that night, the story is not true: the drums and horns were "out in the open."