A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opryby Charles K. Wolfe, Wolfe
On November 28, 1925, a white-bearded man sat before one of Nashville radio station WSM's newfangled carbon microphones to play a few old-time fiddle tunes. Uncle Jimmy Thompson played on the air for an hour that night, and throughout the region listeners at their old crystal sets suddenly perked up. Back in Nashville the response at the offices of National Life Insurance Company, which owned radio station WSM ("We Shield Millions"), was dramatic; phone calls and telegrams poured into the station, many of them making special requests. It was not long before station manager George D. Hay was besieged by pickers and fiddlers of every variety, as well as hoedown bands, singers, and comedians-all wanting their shot at the Saturday night airwaves. "We soon had a good-natured riot on our hands," Hay later recalled. And, thus, the Opry was born. Or so the story goes. In truth, the birth of the Opry was a far more complicated event than even Hay, "the solemn old Judge," remembered. The veteran performers of that era are all gone now, but since the 1970s pioneering country music historian Charles K. Wolfe has spent countless hours recording the oral history of the principals and their families and mining archival materials from the Country Music Foundation and elsewhere to understand just what those early days were like. The story that he has reconstructed is fascinating. Both a detailed history and a group biography of the Opry's early years, A Good-Natured Riot provides the first comprehensive and thoroughly researched account of the personalities, the music, and the social and cultural conditions that were such fertile ground for the growth of a radio show that was to become an essential part of American culture. Wolfe traces the unsure beginnings of the Opry through its many incarnations, through cast tours of the South, the Great Depression, commercial sponsorship by companies like Prince Albert Tobacco, and the first national radio linkups. He gives colorful and engaging portraits of the motley assembly of the first Opry casts-amateurs from the hills and valleys surrounding Nashville, like harmonica player Dr. Humphrey Bate ("Dean of the Opry") and fiddler Sid Harkreader, virtuoso string bands like the Dixieliners, colorful hoedown bands like the Gully Jumpers and the Fruit Jar Drinkers, the important African American performer DeFord Bailey, vaudeville acts and comedians like Lasses and Honey, through more professional groups such as the Vagabonds, the Delmore Brothers, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, and perennial favorite Roy Acuff and his Smoky Mountain Boys. With dozens of wonderful photographs and a complete roster of every performer and performance of these early Opry years, A Good-Natured Riot gives a full and authoritative portrayal of the colorful beginnings of WSM's barn dance program up to 1940, by which time the Grand Ole Opry had found its national audience and was poised to become the legendary institution that it remains to this day.
Wall Street Journal
"Wolfe's book should help both country music's proponents and opponents realize that country is an important and substantial chunk of the music business, and that it has always involved both smarts and flair."
"In addition to being a superb researcher and a crackerjack storyteller, Wolfe has a gently persuasive writing style that conveys his immense warmth for the subject. . . . A Good-Natured Riot, like the radio show it celebrates, is vivid theater of the mind."
"Absorbing. Lots of fun to read. You can almost hear the music."
—Roy Blount Jr.
"An excellent piece of work, marked by a clear style of writing and a masterful command of relevant research materials, both written and oral."
—Bill Malone, author of Country Music, U.S.A.
- Vanderbilt University Press
- Publication date:
- Co-published with the Country Music Foundation Press
- Product dimensions:
- 6.38(w) x 9.74(h) x 1.15(d)
Read an Excerpt
A Good-Natured Riot
The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry
By Charles K. Wolfe
Vanderbilt University PressCopyright © 1999 Country Music Foundation Press
All rights reserved.
"A Good-Natured Riot"
There are two ways to look at the Grand Ole Opry as it emerged through its first fifteen years: as a radio show and as a collection of talented musicians. The distinction could be considered arbitrary, of course, because in the real world a show's form cannot be separated from its content. But an artificial division can be made for the purposes of study, and in the case of the Grand Ole Opry the "form" includes the complex of geographical, political, commercial, and historical factors that caused a Nashville insurance company to found and sustain a controversial radio show. It also includes the public relations genius of a young announcer named George Hay, who established and defined the scope of the show. Any notion of the program's form must include the temper of the 1920s, the time that spawned such a program, and the way in which the people of that time looked at entertainment and mass media. And the concept of form must include the city of Nashville, a city which aspired to become a center of classical culture and instead became a center of popular culture.
The content of the Opry must include a look at the musicians and their music. What was so special about this particular group of musicians that caught the imagination of the South, when similar groups of similar quality dropped into obscurity? What did these pioneering artists think they were doing with their music and with their show? Who were these legend shrouded figures like Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Uncle Dave Macon, Dr. Humphrey Bate? Most of them are now gone, but by using modern research techniques we can reconstruct their lives, their careers, and their music. The picture that emerges is fascinating.
In this chapter and the next, we will be examining some of the aspects of the Opry's genesis and form. We will attempt to study the Opry as a single entity — a whole — and trace its direction and changes. Yet the early Opry as a whole was primarily a live radio show — a vague and amorphous thing born in a sparkling moment, that then vanished into the night, leaving only memories. And in the end, it was nothing but a collection of individuals and music. Thus for the bulk of this study we will concentrate primarily on individual musicians, with occasional side trips into relevant historical events. We cannot hope to recapture the essence of the early Opry, its wonderful music. Much of that, unrecorded in any form, is gone forever. But we can try to recapture the personalities who made the music and, hopefully, gain some fleeting hints as to the nature of that music.
Every student of the subject knows the prototype Opry story. On November 28, 1925, young George Hay sits an old white-bearded man before one of the station's newfangled carbon mikes. He lets him play a few fiddle tunes. The switchboard lights up and telegrams pour in. The old man, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, plays for an hour, and across the country listeners scramble for the earphones to their old crystal radio sets. Hay gets an idea: why not have a regular weekly show of this sort of stuff? Soon he is besieged by pickers and fiddlers of every variety: "We soon had a good-natured riot on our hands," he recalled. The show was off and running.
In many ways this story is fairly accurate. The founding of the Opry was indeed a dramatic event. But it was more dramatic, and in more complicated ways, than even George Hay remembered.
National Life and WSM
The National Life and Accident Insurance Company (originally called the Tennessee Sick and Accident Association) was founded in Nashville shortly after the turn of the century. Importantly, two of the founders, brothers Cornelius and Edward Craig, were from Giles County, in rural south-central Tennessee. The business was successful throughout the early years of the century, specializing in industrial health and accident insurance. Soon Cornelius Craig was elected president and brought his son Edwin into the company after the young man had graduated from Nashville's Vanderbilt University. In 1919 the firm made an important decision to go into the life insurance business and to place Edwin Craig at the head of this division. Both decisions were to be important later, for the life insurance move helped to redefine the company's customer appeal.
In early 1924 National Life moved into a new building located on Seventh Avenue in downtown Nashville, only a few blocks from the state capitol and on a hill commanding most of the town. By this time Edwin Craig had become fascinated by the phenomenon of radio. He had seen it grow into a nationwide fad during 1923 and was intrigued by its potential. He urged the company to start its own station and to include a studio in the new building. The company's old guard saw little in the idea, but they finally gave in to Craig and let him have what one of them later referred to as "his toy." In 1925 work began on the station, to be located on the fifth floor of the building. No expense was spared, and National Life intended, once it had committed itself, to create one of the finest stations in the country.
The station was seen not so much as a corporate investment as simply an elaborate advertisement. The company quickly associated itself with the new station's call letters: WSM stands for the slogan "We Shield Millions," capitalizing on the shield used in the company's logo since its inception. It was not at all uncommon to have one-advertiser stations in early radio; Sears's WLS in Chicago ("World's Largest Store") was perhaps the most popular station in this regard. Many other stations were owned by newspapers. Edwin Craig's own rationale for starting the station was described by Powell Stamper in The National Life Story (1968):
His insight as to the potential values of the station through such collateral benefits as extending company identity, service to the community, the influence of public relations, and supporting the company's field men in their relations with both prospects and policyholders, activated his interest and support of the idea. (121)
The last reason — support for the field men — was to become vastly important later with the founding of the Opry.
With Craig in charge of the radio project, station WSM went on the air on October 5, 1925. It began broadcasting with one thousand watts of power, making it one of the two strongest stations in the South, and stronger than 85 percent of all the other broadcasting stations in the country at the time ([Nashville] Tennessean, October 4, 1925). For a time WSM shared its wavelength assignment (282.8 meters) with WOAN, a smaller station operating out of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. That station was operated by James D. Vaughan, a nationally known publisher of gospel songbooks, who used the station to publicize his new gospel songs. Some of Vaughan's quartets would later become regulars on other WSM programs.
Vaughan's was also the first Southern concern to issue its own phonograph records, starting in 1922, several years before any Opry performers would record. WSM also worked out an alternating schedule with two other stations in Nashville, finally giving it a schedule that featured Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday nights. (For an account of WSM's relationships with other Nashville stations, see the following chapter.)
The first program broadcast by WSM featured Tennessee Governor Austin Peay, Mayor of Nashville Hilary Howse, National Life's President Craig, and noted announcers from other parts of the country: Lambdin Kay of WSB, Atlanta; Leo Fitzpatrick of WDAF, Kansas City; and George D. Hay of WLS, Chicago. The musical entertainment schedule included several light classical pieces, some quartet singing, the dance bands of Beasley Smith and Francis Craig, assorted tenors, sopranos, and baritones, a quintet from Fisk, and a "saxophone soloist." Not a note of old-time music was played.
For the first month of operation, the mainstay of the station was Jack Keefe, a popular Nashville attorney who announced, sang, and played the piano. Keefe was responsible for broadcasting Dr. Humphrey Bate and his band, Uncle Dave Macon, and Sid Harkreader, though he did so on a rather random schedule. It was also Keefe who initiated an early "remote" broadcast from the Ryman Auditorium in early November, when many of the WSM regulars performed for the policemen's benefit. Keefe was apparently very popular, for when WSM announced, a month later, that it had hired George Hay, it had to assure audiences that Keefe would still be heard on the station. Keefe left the station a few years later and went into politics. WSM veterans have described Keefe's "real" departure from the station. One night he was "standing by" for a network feed of a talk by then-President Herbert Hoover. Just before the feed, not realizing his mike was on, Keefe grumbled aloud, "Who in the hell wants to hear Hoover?" This story has not been verified, but it has certainly become a part of Opry lore.
Other early WSM staff members included Rise Bonnie Barnhart of Atlanta, the program director who also doubled as pianist, singer, and story-hour hostess. The original engineers were Thomas Parkes of Nashville, John DeWitt, a Vanderbilt student, and Jack Montgomery, who had helped build the station and who was also a relative of fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson. Both DeWitt and Montgomery were to remain with the station well into the modern era.
Thus by the end of October 1925 all the basic elements for the Opry were in place: a powerful radio station located in an area rich in folk tradition; a backing company with impressive assets and (with Edwin Craig at least) a dedication to principles of commercial radio; and an eager and enthusiastic audience just learning and growing accustomed to the benefits of a new entertainment medium. What these elements needed was a catalyst, and that they got when, on November 2, 1925, WSM hired George D. Hay to manage the station.
George Dewey Hay
Though it has been widely assumed that George Hay was a Southerner, he was in fact born in Attica, Indiana, in 1895. Though only 120 miles from Chicago, Attica at the turn of the century was a surprisingly rustic place. Hay later recalled: "I used to walk two or three blocks to the edge of town and there was the beginning of some wonderful corn fields. They have 'em in the Hoosier state! I love corn." The old Hay house in Attica was on the very edge of the town, close to some of the larger farms. But Hay's father was a well-known local jeweler, remembered as a "progressive merchant" who tried all manner of advertising and promotions — including releasing balloons into the air with discount coupons in them. His mother was a Dewey, and she named her son after her maiden name. (Later stories that Hay was named after Adm. George Dewey, the hero of the Spanish-American War, are untrue.) When George was in the third grade, his father died, and his mother took the family and moved away from Attica — eventually settling in Chicago. Young George was not happy there: "I never did care too much for cobble stones, asphalt pavement, blocks upon blocks of 'flat' buildings and the terrific tempo of large cities. ... If you say, 'Howdy neighbor,'[people] think you are as nutty as a fruit cake. I lived there for many years, against my better judgment (for you see I was a little kid and had to go there with my folks)."
Nonetheless, it was in Chicago that Hay developed his skills as a writer and soon began a career as a newspaper journalist. By 1919 he was living in Memphis and began covering the municipal court beat for the Commercial Appeal. He soon converted his court reporting into a humorous column called "Howdy, Judge," which revolved around dialogues between a white judge and various black defendants. These skits were written in dialect and are full of the ethnic stereotyping that characterized so much nineteenth century vaudeville and blackface humor. The sketches proved immensely popular, and because of them George Hay, even though a young man of twenty-eight, acquired the nickname "Judge." Hay published them in book form in 1926 and apparently converted many of them into skits, which he performed with Ed McConnell during the early days of the Opry. Such skits were not all that anachronistic in the 1920s — an era that made best-selling Victrola records out of Moran and Mack's "Two Black Crows" series and made the Chicago-based "Amos 'n' Andy" a favorite radio show.
In 1922 the Commercial Appeal founded station WMC in Memphis, and Hay, somewhat against his will, was "elected" announcer and radio editor for the paper. Hay sensed that radio, like any other mass medium, developed its heroes through audience identification. Hay understood that his radio popularity required auditory gimmicks. He thus devised a highly stylized form of announcing that was characterized by a deep baritone "chant" introduced by the sound of a steamboat whistle. His toy steamboat whistle, which he named "Hushpuckena," was used to announce the start of WMC's "entertaining trip down the Mississippi" (from one of the first wire service stories about Hay, [Nashville] Tennessean, June 27, 1926.)
Hay also edited the radio page for the Commercial Appeal, broadcasted shows from Beale Street, and sent out press releases to papers back in Chicago, such as the Defender. On August 2, 1923, Hay became the first broadcaster in the U.S. to announce the death of Warren G. Harding, further establishing his validity as a newsman and announcer. It was not surprising, therefore, that the next year, in 1924, he was hired by the Sears company to announce over their new station WLS in Chicago. Hay successfully made the move and adapted his style; he traded his riverboat whistle for a more appropriate train whistle. He spoke glowingly of the "WLS Unlimited" going over "the trackless paths of the air." (The train imagery would continue to fascinate him after he came to WSM: he loved to have harmonica wizard DeFord Bailey play train imitations, and for years he had microphones placed at a crossing in south Nashville to broadcast the daily passing of the Pan American.)
By now, still in Chicago, he was referring to himself simply as "the solemn old Judge," and his popularity in 1925 was such that regular WLS artists who recorded hired Hay to introduce them on record. Thus Hay is heard blowing his whistle, chanting "WLS, Chi-ca-go," and introducing the musicians on 1925 recordings by popular singers Ford & Glenn and dance-band leader Art Kahn. Hay worked at WLS as an all-purpose announcer and was present when the station inaugurated its famous Barn Dance program in April 1924. Contrary to popular belief, Hay did not start the Barn Dance program but was only an announcer. He was, however, deeply impressed by the success of the program and by the way it attracted such a large, loyal, and primarily rural audience. He had been impressed earlier with this sort of music when, as a cub reporter in Memphis, he had visited a backwoods community in Arkansas shortly after World War I; there he had attended a country hoedown in a log cabin near Mammoth Springs. Hay now saw this same spirit being successfully fitted to the new medium of radio, as throughout 1924 and 1925 the WLS Barn Dance became the first totally successful radio show featuring old-time music.
Later in 1924 Hay was awarded a gold cup by the magazine Radio Digest for being the most popular announcer in the nation; the winner of the award had been determined by votes of radio fans around the country. It is important to note that at this point in his career, while Hay was an announcer of the WLS Barn Dance, he was by no means associated exclusively with that program or with country music. He was simply a successful and innovative announcer who had captured the imaginations of thousands of Americans.
On October 5, 1925, Hay was invited as a guest of honor to the ceremonies opening WSM, where he must have greatly impressed the owners of the station. As noted earlier, National Life had set up WSM as a deluxe station, and they were prepared to spare no expense in making it nationally known as quickly as possible. Thus it was natural that they should go after one of the leading announcers in the country. There is no indication in the newspaper releases of the time that WSM pursued Hay because he was an expert in barn dance programs, nor was he hired with the intention that he start a country music show. WSM probably offered Hay the job because he had just been awarded the Radio Digest cup and because he was already known to many Tennesseans through his work in Memphis. Hay, for his part, saw the move as a step up: he was moving from merely being an announcer in Chicago to "radio director in charge" of the entire station in Nashville. He would be free to craft the new station's actual image and to develop his own line of programming. The fact that Hay had had considerable experience in dealing with the rural audiences of the Sears station, WLS, was not lost on the National Life executives, who were becoming very interested in rural and working-class customers.
Excerpted from A Good-Natured Riot by Charles K. Wolfe. Copyright © 1999 Country Music Foundation Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
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Meet the Author
Charles K. Wolfe (1943-2006) was one of the leading experts on the history and development of country music. He wrote or edited around twenty books, including The Devil’s Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling (Vanderbilt University Press/Country Music Foundation Press). Until his retirement in 2005, he was an English professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His work helped popular music scholarship gain academic acceptance.
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