I’ve always loved country music. Western, too! As a kid growing up in the rural farmlands of Colquitt County, Georgia, I have vivid memories of drifting off to sleep with a small, scratchy transistor radio crackling in my ear, only to be awakened at midnight by the blaring of the National Anthem as the station went off the air. Yes, I grew up in the “old days,” a by-gone era all but vanished from the planet we live in today.
In the 60’s, Joey Jackson was a classmate at Hamilton Elementary School. He used to brag that country singer Stonewall Jackson was a relative. I would gasp in amazement every time he’d tell me, and some kids actually got to go to concerts and see these legends perform live and in-person! (Yes, this was decades before MTV, CMT, or even the concept of a music video had even been conceptualized). Seeing a concert featuring a country music star was about as likely for me as watching astronauts walk around on the moon on my family’s living room TV! It simply was never going to happen!
So while I was watching the few TV shows of the 60’s that allowed me to actually see many of these stars (The Buck Owens Show, Porter Waggoner Show, etc), my real friend of music was that little radio. My Mom would buy a country album from time to time (Charley Pride comes to mind) and some of my buddies would as well (Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, obviously). But most of my friends and all my sisters went the rock-n-roll route. Thus, it was me and that little radio. And nothing proclaimed country music like the Grand Ole Opry!
The Grand Ole Opry! For fans of country music, musical history, or just the history of American culture, the name says it all! Home of the longest continuously running live-music show in the world, the Opry continues bringing the best of the old along with the brightest of the new to music audiences courtesy of WSM-AM radio, Nashville, Tennessee. Sometimes back in the 60’s, the stars would be aligned just right and I could pick up a faint relay from the Opry stage in Nashville. I felt like a king! And this year, the Opry turns 85!
In celebration of this historic occasion, the Opry began a year-long celebration in May. Opry stars Vince Gill, Brad Paisley, Ricky Skaggs, and Steve Wariner took the stage Tuesday, May 25 to officially launch the Opry’s 85th birthday with an all-star guitar jam. Each Opry member took the stage individually, followed by a guitar jam finale that featured the group’s take on some of the most popular songs in Opry history.
Over the course of the coming year, the Opry will feature a who’s-who of celebrities who will appear as guest announcers while the show will also launch an I’m With The Band series. I’m With The Band will invite personalities from outside the country world who have an interest in music to sit in with the Opry band for a song on country music’s most revered stage. It promises to be a great year for this historic music program and American icon.
So what’s the story here? The Opry began in 1901 when C.A. Craig, (at the time the Tennessee deputy insurance commissioner) won at auction ($17,250) the National Sick Accident and Insurance Company and re-named it the National Life And Accident Insurance Company. With emblems being a tradition in the insurance industry, National Life took on a shield as its emblem and “We Shield Millions” as its logo. This logo would become the call letters (WSM) to their first venture into radio (1923) when C.A. Craig’s son, Edwin convinced the National Life board that it would be a good advertising tool.
WSM went live in October of 1925 from the 5th floor offices of National Life with a simple announcement:
“This is WSM, We shield millions. The National Life & Accident insurance Company.”
Over the next few years, the show was known as the WSM Barndance until one Saturday night in 1927, announcer George Hay made this famous statement:
“For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from the Grand Opera, but from now on we will present the Grand Ole Opry.”
The name took hold and the show has been called the Grand Ole Opry ever since.
As the popularity of the radio show increased, so did its audiences who had been showing up by the masses. As the need for a larger venue increased, the Grand Ole Opry took its show to several different Nashville venues before finally moving into the Ryman Auditorium (formally the Union Tabernacle) in 1943. In the spring of 1974, the Opry moved to its new residence, a brand new building officially named the “Grand Old Opry House.” And that’s where it’s been ever since.
Readers of Dogwoods Blush know all about the lovely and talented Angel Andrews, the ill-fated lady love of hero Jeremiah Bronson. Described as a multi-talented young star who could have made her own ticket in the music industry, Bronson recalls his beloved Angel as described below in chapter #2:
“In the years to come he would return here many times to see her acting in the various stage plays and local drama ensembles that became not only the highlight of Timmons County, but the entire region. Her name rose to the top of the entertainment pages of various southern newspapers. Talent scouts from as far away as Nashville came to see her play piano, sing, and perform on stage. She was offered multiple scholarships to myriad universities. It was her sure ticket out of the trash heap of Timmonsville. But she turned it all down. She did it for him because she loved him. And now? Where did her choices take her? Where was she now?”
Well, the Opry is very much part of the inspiration for that character. Let it be known that the actual inspiration for the beloved Angel Andrews is none other than Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame member, Barbara Mandrell. Beautiful, multi-talented, singer, musician, entertainer … Barbara was and is all of that. From her childhood stints to her long-running hit TV show to her courage in recovering from a horrendous automobile accident, Barbara is the exact image I see when I think of Dogwood’s “Angel.”
Visiting the Opry is like visiting a church … it’s a sacred event. In fact, the Ryman Auditorium (where the Opry still performs during winter months) is called the “Mother Church” of country music. To the far right on stage, standing alone in a place of honor and basking in the soft glow of a moderate spotlight, stands Old Glory. In the center stage is a circle of wood from the floor of the original Opry house stage … the same circle where legends like Hank Williams, Roy Acuff and Patsy Cline once stood. Their ghosts seem to still preside over every performance.
Over the years, I have been honored to slip backstage several times to meet and talk to these legendary stars. (And I eventually watched astronauts walk around on the moon, too!) Several of them are my friends, quite a thrill for a rural farm boy who grew up singing the songs of Roy Clark and Little Jimmy Dickens from the bathtub! You drift down the halls and pause for a moment before the still open dressing room of legendary Opry star Roy Acuff, almost as if he will emerge any moment to welcome everyone to the show. From there, you are made to feel welcome and at home, whether it’s Jack Greene asking which song I’d like for him to sing when he goes on or “Little” Jimmy Dickens shaking my hand or me flirting with Patsy Lynn (Loretta’s daughter … yep, I’m a player) these legendary performers don’t act like stars performing for adoration. They treat you like a friend and make you feel at home. And when they take the stage? They may be a tad older than they were yesterday, and the voice may not be quite the same, but no one cares! They sing and in so doing, share a small piece of their soul. It’s an experience you feel down deep, in the recesses of your heart that remind you what music is all about. And in that sharing … you change!
So forgive me if my mind always goes back to my youth and that little AM radio, straining to hear the latest song from Conway, Merle, Loretta, or Tammy or an old classic from Hank, Patsy or Marty (in country music, all you need is a first name … it’s all one big family, another reason I always loved to listen). And this year, my old time friend turns 85! Happy birthday, Grand Ole Opry! I can’t imagine my life without you!
Plan your Nashville/Opry trip today. Go to www.opry.com And tell them Billy sent you!