Where did 2016 go? I ask that question because we are now entering December, the final month of the year. In just a matter of weeks, it will be Christmas and the holiday season. As the Grand Ole Opry prepares to close out another year, here are the important dates and events that have taken place regarding the Opry, or Opry members, during the month of December:
December 2, 1989: Herman Crook was born. Herman was one of the Opry's original members, joining the show when it was still called the WSM Barn Dance. Herman's first Opry appearance was on July 24, 1926, and he was with the show until his death in June 1988, just short of 62 years. When he passed away, the Crook Brothers were the last of the originals on the Opry, and they never wavered from the traditional string band sound. 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 was another of the Opry's original members, making his first appearance on June 19, 1926. DeFord was there the night Opry founder George D. Hay changed the name of the show from the WSM Barn Dance to the Grand Ole Opry, and he played the first song on the newly named show. DeFord was with the Opry until he was fired in 1941, in a move that left DeFord very bitter. Despite repeated efforts by Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl and Bill Monroe, among others, DeFord stayed away from the Opry until returning on February 23, 1974, when he appeared for the Opry's first reunion show. DeFord would make several more Opry appearances before passing away in 1982. In 2005 he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
December 11, 1914: James Clell "Tex" Summey was born. Known professionally as Cousin Jody, he first came to the Opry with Roy Acuff in 1937, and he later worked with Pee Wee King and Lonzo & Oscar. He also performed as a solo act, until health issues forced him to retire. He passed away in 1975, and it should be noted that he was the first person to play the dobro and steel guitar on the Opry stage.
December 19, 1920: Jimmy Dickens was born in Bolt, West Virginia. Jimmy first came to the Opry in 1948. While he left the show for a period of time, Jimmy returned to the Opry in 1975 and remained an Opry member until his death in January 2015.
December 26, 1925: The WSM Barn Dance was formally listed for the first time on the WSM program schedule that was printed in the Nashville Tennessean. The listing read, "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 his 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 show that particular night, Barn Dance founder 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 that was told by George D. Hay, there seem to be no independent verification of this event. In fact, some historians who have looked back at the WSM program schedules, believe that the date was actually December 8, 1928, a year later, as the "Music Appreciation Hour" did not begin on WSM until that year. However, to back up the 1927 claim, others have pointed out that on December 11, 1927, the Nashville Tennessean used the word "Grand Ole Opry" in their editions of the paper. 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.
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 85, Bobby still appears on the Opry weekly and of course, always does "Rocky Top," sounding as good as ever.
December 30, 1944: Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys made 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, who was there that night, remembered that a lady in the balcony was so excited that she fell out of the balcony onto the Ryman stage. And after Roy Acuff heard the electrified fiddles that Bob brought, he made the statement that the Opry would be ruined forever. What is interesting, that while Bob brought electrified fiddles with him, both Pee Wee King and Ernest Tubb had been playing electric instruments on the Opry previous to that night. There is another story from that night, regarding the use of drums and Bob being told to keep his drummer behind the curtain. Much like the electric fiddles, Bob's drummer was not the first to drum on the Opry, as Harold "Sticks" McDonald, a member of Pee Wee King's Golden West Cowboys, had brought drums to the Opry several years prior. He supposedly used them for a couple of weeks until George D. Hay told Pee Wee to take the drums home and leave them there. While that may be true, within a few years, many of the Opry's acts included drums.
December 8, 1945: Earl Scruggs made his Grand Ole 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 renditions of the Blue Grass Boys, and what many feel was the greatest bluegrass band ever. That group included Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise and Harold Watts. This group would only stay together until 1948. After leaving Bill's group, Earl would team up with Lester Flatt, before moving on to play a more progressive sound with his sons.
December 12, 1959: While 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. The story goes that Carolyn was waiting for Bill outside the Opry that night and when he came out the Ryman's back door, she really laid into him.
December 24, 1960: The final Prince Albert Grand Ole Opry show was broadcast on the NBC network. The decline of radio and the rise of television led to the decision to end the Opry's broadcasts. Hank Snow was the host for that final broadcast, and I am happy to say that I have a recording of that show.
December 3, 1961: "Doctor" Lew Childre passed away. Lew, who was born in 1901, became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1945. He remained with the Opry through most of the 1950's.
December 6, 1964: The Grand Ole Opry fired 12 of its members for failing to meet the required number of yearly appearances on the show. The Nashville Tennessean wrote, "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 later found that Chet Atkins was not an actual Opry member, which led to some comments concerning if the Opry's management really knew what was going on at the show. At the time, Opry members were required to appear 26 times per 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 after her leave of absence. While never rejoining the cast, the remaining ones would appear on the show as guest artists.
December 23, 1967: Jack Greene became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Jack started as a member of Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadours before going on to a very successful solo career. Jack would remain an Opry member until his death in 2013.
December 14, 1973: Lorrie Morgan, age 14, made her first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. Lorrie was brought on stage by her father, Opry member George Morgan. She sang "Paper Roses." A decade later, Lorrie would become an Opry member.
December 15, 1973: Grand Ole 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 that 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: Opry member Tex Ritter made his final Grand Ole Opry appearance. Tex, who had joined the Opry in 1965, would pass away after suffering a heart attack, the following week.
December 25, 1976: Larry, Steve and Rudy, The Gatlin Brothers, became members of the Grand Ole Opry. This will be their 40th year as Opry members, and according to my records, the only members to join the cast on Christmas day.
December 27, 1978: Grand Ole Opry member Bob Luman passed away at the age of 41. Bob joined the Opry in 1965 and was known for his rockabilly sound that was very popular with many of the Opry's younger fans. While some on the Opry felt Bob's music had too much rock in it, he was a popular member of the cast and enjoyed great support. His last Grand Ole Opry appearance was on Saturday December 2, 1978, while Friday December 15 was his final Friday Night Opry appearance.
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 when he was in town, and making the last half hour of the Opry his own, often performing well past the traditional midnight sign off time. Just that 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 Randy's 30th year as an Opry member. Randy had a string of hits in the 1980s and 1990s, and helped to bring back a more traditional sound to country music. Sadly, Randy has suffered a serious of health setbacks and will probably never perform on the Opry again. However, he has visited the show several times in the past couple of years, and he always receives a great audience response when introduced on stage. Just this past year, Randy was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
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 day when they were considered one of the country's top gospel acts.
December 24, 1994: Vic Willis was scheduled to perform on the Grand Ole Opry for the final time. The Willis Brothers, originally known as the Oklahoma Wranglers, came to the Opry in 1946. After leaving in 1949 to tour with Eddy Arnold, they returned in 1957. In addition to Vic, the group included brothers Guy and Skeeter. Skeeter had passed away in 1976, while Guy retired in 1979 due to health issues. Vic continued on, forming the Vic Willis Trio, until he 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 hosted by Reverend Jimmie Snow, Hank's son, was broadcast for the final time. The show was taped on Friday night and broadcast on WSM Sunday mornings. Airing for 23 years, the show would feature a number of Grand Ole Opry performers including Connie Smith, Billy Walker and Roy Acuff, and feature such guests as Johnny Cash and Dennis Weaver.
December 19, 1999: Former Grand Ole 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 fan favorite. She left the Opry cast in 1980, when she went into semi-retirement.
December 20, 1999: The legendary Hank Snow passed away at his Rainbow Ranch in Madison, Tennessee after a period of declining health. Hank joined the Opry in January 1950 and was just weeks shy of 50 years of Opry membership. Hank last appeared on the Opry in September 1996, and is considered one of the all-time Opry greats.
December 16, 2000: Brad Paisley was surprised on stage by Jimmy Dickens and Jeannie Seely, in a segment hosted by Bill Anderson. Jimmy & Jeannie were dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus, and the reason for the surprise visit was the delivery of an invitation for Brad to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Brad tearfully accepted and the following February he would officially join the cast.
December 30, 2000: Grand Ole Opry member Skeeter Davis made her final appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. Skeeter, who had been battling various illnesses, would enter a period of declining health that made it difficult for her to continue performing. Skeeter passed away in December 2004.
December 31, 2002: Grand Ole Opry member Jim McReynolds, one half of Jim & Jesse, passed away in Gallatin, Tennessee after a long illness. Jim & Jesse, along with the Virginia Boys, became Opry members in March 1964, and are considered one of the greatest acts in bluegrass music history.
December 30, 2006: The Grand Ole Opry's 2nd Saturday night show concluded at midnight for the final time. The following week, both Saturday Grand Ole Opry shows were cut to 2 hours, with the late show ending at 11:30.
December 13, 2013: Grand Ole Opry member 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 made his final Grand Ole Opry appearance. On Christmas Day, Jimmy was admitted to a Nashville hospital and would pass away shortly after the first of the year. Jimmy's final song? "Out Behind the Barn."