The Grand Ole Opry is something with which most Americans are familiar, but many of us are a little hazy on the details. Billed as “the show that made country music famous”, the Grand Old Opry is undoubtedly a landmark or American music history. And that tradition continues to this day. Headquartered in Nashville AKA the Music City, the Grand Ole Opry has been operating for nearly 100 years. Today, we will review some of that rich history from opening night to present times.
Grand Ole Opry Opens in 1925 and Early Days
A radio station was launched in 1925 under the name WSM. WSM was an acronym for National Life and Accident Insurance Company’s slogan: “we shield millions”. What started as a whim by a music enthusiast who just so happened to be a founder of an insurance company, would later transform into the Grand Ole Opry radio show and live event platform. It wasn’t long before the Grand Ole Opry was the hit program on WSM, and the show very quickly outgrew the tiny studio in downtown Nashville.
In October of 1934, the Grand Ole Opry picked up and moved from National Life’s offices to a community playhouse just outside of Vanderbilt University. This playhouse is still operational today under the name of Belcourt Theatre. This marked a turning point in the Opry’s history as sponsors were introduced. The now famous sponsored segments began in the 30’s and remain a staple of the show to this day. The Belcourt Theatre was certainly an upgrade from a tiny studio, but small stages prevented the Opry from reaching much of its potential audience.
Opry Moves to War Memorial Auditorium then the Ryman Auditorium
The popularity of the Grand Ole Opry radio show soon far outpaced the demand for live tickets. In 1936, the Opry expanded to play shows in an East Nashville religious venue known as the Dixie Tabernacle. Due to this expansion, the Opry began to offer advance tickets through dedicated salespeople and improved their reach in local, working class communities. The Dixie Tabernacle was larger, but it still left something to be desired by way of its dirt floor, wooden benches, and general lack of amenities.
The Opry moved to the War Memorial Auditorium in 1939. Perhaps the most well known auditorium in Nashville at the time, it could be argued that this was when the Opry really became a big deal to locals. In fact, the story goes that Opry crowds raised hell to the point that the venue owner essentially kicked the show out due to complaints and property damage.
In 1943, the Grand Ole Opry moved to perhaps its most well known home: the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. This was undoubtedly the era where the Opry went from a small hit and local treasure to a national phenomenon. Most of the famous acts and events which took place during Opry performances happened at the Ryman between the years of 1943 and 1974. Legendary performances from stars like Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, and Johnny Cash all took place at the Ryman.
Eventually, the Opry needed its own dedicated venue. In 1974, construction was completed on the Grand Ole Opry House with a capacity of 4,400 + standing room. The opening ceremony was attended by then President Nixon. Nixon even put on a show by singing and playing piano for the crowd! The playbill for opening night was so crowded with talent that each performer was given only one song to perform.
Modern Opry Acts and Tourism
Today, the Opry continues to be a world famous radio show, television program, and live performance series. Tourism opportunities to visit the Grand Ole Opry include taking in a show, signing up for a guided tour, walking through venues past and present, and exploring nearby attractions including the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The Opry still draws some of the biggest acts from country music and other genres both locally and globally.
Modern performers to grace the Opry stage include Carrie Underwood, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, the Gatlin Brothers, Alan Jackson, James Carothers, and many, many more. The legendary venue and program remains a top draw for both country music lovers and country music talent from around the world. Whether you are interested in attending a show or simply walking the iconic stage, there is nothing quite like the Grand Ole Opry!
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