Sunday, May 1, 2016

May Opry Highlights

Welcome to May. As I do each month, here are the important and historical events that have taken place regarding the Grand Ole Opry, or its members, during the month of May. 

May 1, 1894: Sam McGee was born. Sam first appeared on the WSM Barn Dance in 1926 and is considered one of the original members of the Opry. Over the years, Sam would appear with his brother Kirk, and as part of the Fruit Jar Drinkers and Dixieliners. Sam passed away in August 1975 from a tractor accident on his farm. 

May 12, 1901: Benjamin Francis Ford, known as Whitey Ford, the Duke of Paducah, was born in DeSoto, Missouri. This fine comedian joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry in 1942 and was an Opry member until 1959. Even after he gave up his Opry membership, Whitey would return and appear on the Opry, especially during the annual reunion shows. He passed away in 1986, the same year that he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. 

May 30, 1909: Lewis Crook, a member of the Crook Brothers, was born. After Herman Crook passed away, he would continue to perform with the Opry Square Dance Band, backing up the square dancers. Lewis, who was a part of the Opry for over 50 years, 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 of WSM on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Over the years, Grant would become the Opry's best known Opry announcer. He remained with the Opry until his death on October 19, 1991, just hours after finishing his work on the Friday Night Opry. He was with WSM for 47 years. He also 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 November 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 toward a more modern sound. By the 1960's, the Possum Hunters had been merged with the Crook Brothers. By the late 1970's, after over 45 years with the Opry, she went into semi-retirement, after which she became a fixture at the Opry's annual reunion shows. She passed away in October 1982. 

May 9, 1914: The legendary Singing Ranger, Hank Snow 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 Hank was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. 

May 1, 1926: Uncle Dave Macon joined the cast of the WSM Barn Dance. Uncle Dave was one considered the first professional musician to join the cast of the Barn Dance, and he would remain an Opry member until his death in March 1952. Uncle Dave was a popular Opry member and despite his stature, he always considered himself just a plain old country boy. In 1966 he was one of the first members to be elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. 

May 1, 1928: Former Grand Ole Opry member, and Country Music Hall of Fame member, James Hugh Loden, better known as Sonny James, was born. Sonny, who passed away earlier this year, was an Opry member in the 1960's. 

May 25, 1936: Grand Ole Opry member Tom T Hall was born. Much like Abe Lincoln, Tom T was born in a log cabin in Kentucky. This Country Music Hall of Fame member first joined the Opry on January 1, 1971. He left in March 1974 and returned as a member in 1980. While still an Opry member, Tom T hasn't 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, Johnny spent his early professional career as a band member for Ray Price, Porter Wagoner, George Jones and Faron Young. Once he became a star in his own right, he was one of the first country singers to adopt the outlaw image. In 1997, thanks to some help from his friend Johnny Russell, he was asked to become a member of the Opry. However, just a few years later, his health went into a period of decline and his performing ended. Johnny passed away in February 2003. 

May 2, 1948: Grand Ole Opry member Larry Gatlin was born. Along with his brothers Steve and Rudy, Larry joined the Opry on Christmas Day 1976. In recent years, Larry has become one of the Opry's most popular members and is a regular performer on the show. 

May 29, 1950: Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters, consisting of Helen, Anita and June, became members of the Grand Ole Opry. When the Carters joined, they brought along Chet Atkins as their guitar player. 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 Sam and Kirk McGee, she would complain to the Opry's management about her poorly timed and limited spots and a general lack of respect. She stayed with the Opry until the late 1960's, when she left to became a part of Johnny Cash's road show. 

May 16, 1953: Jimmy Dean made his Grand Ole Opry debut. He was introduced that night by Carl Smith. While never becoming an Opry member, Jimmy would make Opry appearances throughout his career, including appearing on the night Jimmy Dickens was honored for 50 years of Opry membership. 

May 23, 1953: Future Grand Ole Opry member Jim Reeves made his Opry debut. He sang "Mexican Joe."

May 21, 1955: Grand Ole Opry member Webb Pierce quit the Opry. He was an Opry member for just three years, but in that short amount of time he quickly figured he could make a lot more money on the road on Saturday nights instead of being at the Opry. 

May 11, 1957: The Everly Brothers, Don and Phil, made 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. They were with the Opry for only a year before moving on. In 2001, they were elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

May 18, 1957: Just a week after the Everly Brothers first appeared, the Kershaw Brothers, Rusty and Doug, made their Opry debut. 

May 20, 1958: Don Gibson became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Don was an Opry member until December 1964 when he, along with others, were fired from the cast for not making the required number of yearly appearances. Don would eventually rejoin the Opry, however even after coming back, his appearances were fairly limited. In 2001, Don 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 started on April 19, 1924, a year earlier then the Opry. 

May 13, 1967: Merle Haggard made his first appearance on the Opry. While never becoming an Opry member, Merle would make a few Opry appearances throughout his career, including his final appearance in October 2015. 

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 of the show. He had always wanted to keep the Opry "close to the ground" while the Stone's wanted a more professional cast. Over the years, he would suffer from various health issues and by the time he retired from WSM, he was primarily an announcer and had little control over the show. On Saturday May 11, the first 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 meet the appearance requirement. Stonewall originally joined the Opry in November 1956.

May 1, 1971: Cousin Jody made his final appearance as a member of the Grand Ole 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. He left the Opry due to declining health. 

May 13, 1972: Gene Watson made his first guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. While never becoming an Opry member, Gene has made many Opry appearances over the years, so many in fact that I am often asked why Gene is not an Opry member, a question for which I have no answer. 

May 22, 1977: The Grand Ole Opry held a special Sunday matinee show that was dedicated to the fans of the Opry from Canada. 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. Lester first came to the Opry as a member of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys, later joining up with Earl Scruggs to form Flatt & Scruggs. After splitting with Earl, Lester continued with his traditional bluegrass sound. When ever he appeared on the Opry, Lester would always host the Martha White segment. 

May 15, 1982: Ricky Skaggs became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. This is his 34th year as an Opry member, something that Ricky always dreamed of. Ricky has taken his Opry membership seriously and he 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 with 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 program that followed the Friday Night Opry. 

May 3, 1986: Barbara Mandrell returned to the Opry for the first time since being involved in a near fatal car accident. 

May 4, 1991: Travis Tritt made his first guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. In February 1992, he would become an Opry member. 

May 1, 1993: Charley Pride became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. This will be his 23rd year as an Opry member. Charley first appeared on the Opry in the late 1960's and had been asked several times if he wanted to become an Opry member. Charlie always declined due to his heavy touring schedule., and the fact that he lived in the Dallas area, and did not come up to Nashville very often. In 1993 he finally felt the time was right to become a member. 

May 11, 1996: Steve Wariner became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. This will be Steve's 20th year as an Opry member. 

May 31, 1997: Lee Ann Womack made her first guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. While never becoming an Opry member, Lee Ann has continued to support the show 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 due to child labor laws. They would return to the cast and performed as a duo until the passing of Doyle in 1982. Teddy continued as a solo member of the Opry, although his Opry appearances would reduce over time. Health issues forced Teddy to retire from the Opry and he would pass away in November 2003. 

May 15, 1998: Opry member Johnny Paycheck made his final appearance on the Opry. Health issues forced Johnny into retirement. 

May 5, 2001: Blake Shelton made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry. Over the next decade, he would continue to make guest appearances, eventually joining the cast in the fall of 2010.

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 an appearance in Alabama. Billy had been an Opry member since 1960. 

May 19, 2007: Porter Wagoner celebrated 50 years as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. He was joined that night by Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless, Buck Trent and Marty Stuart, who hosted the televised segment. Porter was already in declining health and would pass away in October of 2007. This was the last time that Porter and Dolly shared the stage together and Dolly sang a very emotional "I Will Always Love You" which was a song she wrote dedicated to Porter. 

May 10, 2008: Carrie Underwood became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. This will be her 8th year as an Opry member. Even with a career as big as it is, Carrie has always found time for the Opry and can usually be counted on to fulfill the goal of 10 appearances per year. On the night she joined, Garth Brooks made a surprise appearance and did the induction. 

May 30, 2009: Comedian, actor and banjo player Steve Martin made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry, leading an all-star band in performing "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." If you have never seen or heard Steve playing the banjo, he is outstanding. 

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 all closed due to heavy damage. It was not until September that the Opry was able to return to the Opry House. The Acuff Theater would later be torn down due to the damage and the Opry Museum would never reopen, used now for storage. When the Opry returned to the Opry House, Bill Anderson was the first one back on the stage. That was fitting as he was the last to perform on the final Saturday night before 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 did come out on stage an wave to the audience. 

There you have it for May. 


  1. Fred, Bismarck:

    Lots of good memory refreshers in here. Am I wrong, or did Webb Pierce quit the Opry twice? I have a distinct memory, from my radio listening 60 years ago, that Webb quit again in the Spring of 1957, about the time "Honky Tonk Song" announced the start of his try at pop stardom.

    (His poor cover of "Bye Bye, Love" that summer was one of his first real chart duds.)

    You help us remember we haven't seen much of Gene Watson lately. It seems to me that the variety of music on the Opry is much less than it was even earlier-on in
    the Fisher era. Seems we never see anybody in the more folky way anymore, such as Gillian Welch.

  2. Byron,
    Thanks again for posting all of this wonderful information regarding the Opry, especially the mention about Judge Hay. - Frank Apperson