When you get to the Nashville city limits sign coming from any direction it says “Music City Metropolitan Nashville Davidson County, Home of the Grand Ole Opry”. See Nashville is proud of its country music heritage these days but that hasn’t always been the case. Back in 1925 when Edwin Craig first started WSM radio, Nashville’s “old money” didn’t want anything here that portrayed the city as back ward or hickish. The early years brought endless battles with Nashville’s conservative establishment who were very protective of Nashville’s image as the “Athens of the South”. They told Craig “you should be educating those hillbillys, not pandering to them”.
At its very beginning WSM had it studios on the top floor of the National Life and Causality building. They chose the moniker “Air Castle of the South” because they were on the top floor of the building, all 5 stories of it. They built a large one room studio with a grand piano and very elaborate red curtains making it seem a fairly formal place and intended mainly for the big dance bands and operatic artist of the day.
The fate of WSM changed in early November, 1925 when they hired a young announcer, George D. Hay, away from powerful WLS in Chicago as its manager. George Hay had built a name for himself and was known on the air as the “Solemn Ole Judge” even though he was a mere 30 years old at the time. He had gained the nick name in his child hood when relatives would say about the serious natured Hay, “He’s as solemn as a judge”. Hay had heard and liked an array of local folk music earlier in life and felt it would be a good draw to the “masses” for the new medium of radio. He hired a 78 year old fiddler, Uncle Jimmy Thompson to play one night when a regular act failed to show. The listener reaction was so strong that Hay announced the following month WSM would broadcast a and hour or two of old time music every Saturday night and call the show the WSM Barn Dance. Hay, as the “Solemn Ole Judge” would be the original announcer.
In December of 1927 following a Saturday night performance of the ‘Music Appreciation Hour”, which featured the classics, the “WSM Barn Dance” opened with Deford Bailey, whom Hay referred to as “The Harmonica Wizard”. Following Bailey’s rendition of “The Pan American Blues” Hay announced “for the past hour we have been listening to music taken largely from the Grand Opera. From now on we will present the Grand Ole Opry.
Seventy years later in 1997 I stepped back stage at the now infamous Grand Ole Opry for the 1st time. Over the next several years I would become a regular back stage attending the Saturday night Grand Ole Opry performance countless times. My children grew up in felling a Saturday night back stage at the Opry was normal but it was not. Every single attendance was an opportunity to view history in the making.
One such event happened in 1998 to the best of my recollection. It was a typical night at the Opry except for one thing. Johnny Paycheck had been sick for a while and in Ohio. This night would mark his return to the Opry. Now typically back stage at the opry is very lively with folks visiting and doing what the old timers referred to as “shake and howdy”, greeting each other and everyone else back stage. Sometimes it’s hard to even hear what is happening out front. But this night when Paycheck walked to the microphone and his fiddler played that signature lick you could have heard a pin drop. Paycheck leaned into that famous mic with the triangular stand cover marked WSM Grand Ole Opry and sang. “I can’t recall, one time in my life, I felt as lonely as I do tonight, I feel like I could lay down and get up no more, It’s the damndest feeling, I never felt it before. Tonight I feel, like and Old Violin, soon to be put away and never played again.
I wonder if the reverence was a kind of proxy feeling of the older generation of Country Music acknowledging that their time had passed. But had it really? Won’t it live forever? I think it will. I think the very fact that the Grand Ole Opry continues to this day to be considered the Mother Church of country music is evidence that the foundation of county music will never be lost. Time and sounds will change of course. The artists of the 70’s were very different from their predecessors of the previous 50 years but they held their own kind of reverence for those great artists of the past. With every new generation of country singers they bring their own style but if you listen closely enough you’ll hear the influences that go all the way back to Deford Bailey. Every now and then each new generation pulls out the old Violin and reminds us that the sweetest sounds come from the oldest instruments, tried and tested by time.