One of the most popular attractions in Tennessee, The Grand Ole Opry, made its first mark in history on November 28, 1925, when the show first aired on WSM out of Nashville. It was a Saturday night, just two short days after Thanksgiving. Families and friends gathered around the radio as the show echoed across the night. Permeating listening ears, an old time fiddle player by the name of Uncle Jimmy Thompson began strumming his strings. With that night’s performance and a few follow ups more, Thompson became a celebrity.
The show was called “WSM Barn Dance.” Letters and calls came pouring into the station, and soon folks were crowding the studio to watch the performances live. Crowds flocked in such numbers, the Opry would have to continually move just to find a larger facility. During the Opry’s tenure at the War Memorial (1939-1943), a 25 cent admission was charged in hopes to thin out the usual crowd, but the show kept growing.
In June of 1943 the broadcast moved to the Ryman Auditorium which would be the Opry’s home for the next thirty years. By the early 70’s the downtown Nashville neighborhood began to decline, but as steady as ever, the Opry was growing and in need of a larger facility. In 1974, the Grand Ole Opry opened it’s 4,000 seat house, where it resides to this day. President Richard Nixon was in attendance on opening night, and played a few songs on the piano.
Anyone who aspires to be someone in country music has performed on the Grand Ole Opry stage. It is “the show that made country music famous.” It’s stage has presented artists such as Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Lorretta Lynn, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Pam Tillis, Little Jimmy Dickens, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and my all-time favorite, Minnie Pearl.
On October 2, 1954, a not yet famous teenager named Elvis Presley, made his only performance on the stage at the Opry. His music did not suit the style the crowds the Opry drew, and Presley was never asked to return. Another to take the Opry’s stage was Jerry Lee Lewis. His performance of rock and roll and other country star’s cover songs did not go over well.
It is considered the highest honor, and every country artist’s dream, to become a member of the Grande Ole Opry. To be inducted into the privileged organization, one must be invited by another member. This is usually done on stage before a live audience. The membership is a lifetime commitment. Artists are expected to perform at the house frequently. Membership expires only upon death of the member.
The circle in the Opry’s center stage is of particular importance. The circle is a six-foot portion of oak cut from the stage at the Ryman. Tradition dictates that this circle, which is embedded into the stage of the Opry’s current venue, is where the star of the show stands as they perform.
In 2010 when the Cumberland River overflowed, the Opry House was flooded. The stage, and much of the building was submerged in four feet of water. Seats, stage, and floors had to be replaced. All except for the iconic circle, which would be removed, restored, and finally returned to centerstage, exactly where it belonged.
I’ve enjoyed watching a couple of member inductions into the Grand Ole Opry. You can check out inductions and other Grand Ole Opry events on YouTube.
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