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10544Clip: Grand Ole Opry Celebrates 80th Year

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  • Carl Zimring
    Apr 25, 2005
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      Grand Ole Opry Celebrates 80th Year

      Published: April 25, 2005

      Filed at 9:17 a.m. ET

      NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- His Grand Ole Opry debut? Charley Pride remembers
      it well. ''It was 1967, January 1,'' Pride snaps. ''Ernest Tubb brought me
      on, and I was more nervous than a cat on a hot tin roof.''

      That's how most performers feel about the Opry, the folksy live radio show
      that's helped define country music for four decades. The stage with the red
      barn backdrop is hallowed ground in Nashville, and entertainers still
      consider their first performance there a milestone.

      The show turns 80 this year, and while the anniversary doesn't have the
      bang of a 75th or a 100th, the Opry is planning a big to-do, including a
      rare broadcast from New York's Carnegie Hall in November.

      Like a classic country song, the Grand Ole Opry has endured despite changes
      in technology, musical tastes, ownership and location.

      It's the longest continuously running radio show in the country, and though
      at times it's been derided as stale and antiquated, there's a certain charm
      when the house band begins to play and the burgundy curtain rises.

      The feeling is one of seeing something authentic, down to the vintage
      microphone stands, live advertisements and corny jokes.

      The homespun feel, however, belies the elaborate production. The show is
      marketed nationwide, streamed over Internet and satellite radio, shown on
      cable TV, broadcast on regular radio and reaches more than 2 million people
      a week.

      The hayseed image has always been there, since Dr. Humphrey Bate, a
      physician, donned overalls and led his band, the Possum Hunters. Later,
      comedian Sarah Cannon recreated herself as Minnie Pearl -- a character from
      the mythical small town of Grinder's Switch who wore a straw hat with the
      price tag dangling.

      But most credit the Opry's longevity to the music. Hank Williams, Patsy
      Cline, Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe and Elvis Presley
      are among the thousands who have performed and become stars there.

      The show was broadcast coast-to-coast during its heyday in the 1940s and
      '50s and is a main reason Nashville became the commercial center of country
      music. It's the last surviving big country music show from radio's golden
      age, outlasting competitors like the Chicago Barn Dance and the Louisiana

      Yet beginning in the 1960s and continuing into the '90s, fewer big stars
      joined the permanent cast because of the show's low wages and waning power
      to build careers. The Opry acquired the reputation as a home for aging acts
      who no longer have hit records.

      ''It's no secret that the heyday of the Grand Ole Opry was when it was the
      best thing you could do for your career,'' said Pete Fisher, Opry vice
      president and general manager.

      Pride, for example, declined the Opry's first invitation in 1968.

      ''My manager pointed out the criteria wasn't suitable for what we were
      trying to do,'' said Pride, who finally accepted in 1993. ''It was the
      beginning of my career, and they required me to be there 26 Saturdays of
      each year. For an artist just starting out, those were the best dates to
      get your money.''

      In recent years, management relaxed the appearance requirements and made
      other changes to make it easier for contemporary stars to join. Today,
      there are about 70 cast members ranging from Little Jimmy Dickens, Porter
      Wagoner and Connie Smith to Alan Jackson, Martina McBride and Trace Adkins.

      For Adkins, 43, the decision to join wasn't even a question.

      ''Growing up around Shreveport we had the Louisiana Hayride and that was an
      institution for many years, but everyone knew the Grand Ole Opry was the
      big deal,'' he said. ''It's like ball players going to the major leagues
      saying they're going to the big show. When I was a kid the Grand Ole Opry
      was the big show.''

      The format of the two-and-a-half hour program has changed little over the
      years. A parade of performers march on and off stage, doing two or three
      songs apiece, with different hosts.

      At a recent show, newcomer Jeff Bates performed his hit ''Long Slow
      Kisses,'' singer Suzy Bogguss did ''I Want to Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart''
      from 1988 and veteran Bill Anderson sang ''But You Know I Love You'' from
      1969. A country rock act called Hilljack also performed, as did the
      bluegrass picker Jesse McReynolds and a clogging group.

      ''It broadens our audience to have multiple generations on stage and
      multiple styles,'' Fisher said. ''The fans can see where country music is,
      where it has been and where it is going.''

      The Opry has been broadcast on the same AM station, WSM, all these years.
      The National Life & Accident Insurance Company started the station to sell
      insurance. The call letters were an abbreviation for ''We Shield Millions.''

      The show began almost by accident, according to ''A Good-Natured Riot,'' a
      history of the Grand Ole Opry's early years by Charles K. Wolfe.

      The station wanted to cater to those who considered their city ''The Athens
      of the South'' by playing light classical and dance band music. But one of
      the announcers, a former newspaper man named George Hay, asked a country
      fiddler to come to the studio and play requests.

      The switchboard lit up, and soon Hay was inviting other pickers and
      fiddlers and calling the segment the WSM Barn Dance, a spinoff of the
      National Barn Dance radio program he once had in Chicago. A couple years
      later he changed the name to the Grand Ole Opry, a play on a Grand Opera
      segment that preceded the show.

      Today, performers still cite the Opry as an influence and link to country's

      Pride remembers his father tuning in from the family's Mississippi cotton
      farm, exposing his son to key figures like Tubb, Acuff and Pee Wee King.

      Even now, after all these years, Pride is sentimental.

      ''When I do the Opry I dress in the same room that Mr. Acuff had,'' he
      said. ''And when you walk down the hall and see all the pictures on the
      wall, you're going to see somebody that takes you back to the memories when
      you were listening as a kid. Sure, you get all kinds of goosebumps. There's
      no way you could not feel something.''
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