A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry

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The Story of the Opry's Humble Beginnings.
Winner of a Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award
Winner of The ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award

Vanderbilt University Press and the Country Music Foundation Press are Proud to Bring You the Story of the Opry's Humble Beginnings.

On November 28, 1925, a white-bearded man sat before one of Nashville radio station WSM's newfangled carbon ...

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Overview


The Story of the Opry's Humble Beginnings.
Winner of a Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award
Winner of The ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award

Vanderbilt University Press and the Country Music Foundation Press are Proud to Bring You the Story of the Opry's Humble Beginnings.

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.

Co-published with the Country Music Foundation Press

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

The origins of this resilient institution are an important and character-rich story that has never been told as completely or as winningly as in A Good-Natured Riot. . . . The book is the product of three decades of interviews with early Opry cast members and promises an entertaining read even for those not caught up in the country sound. Indeed, it's probably a more gratifying and insightful work on mass media, public relations and image-making than most of the flashy business titles flooding the bookstalls today.
--Wall Street Journal

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.
--Country Music

Wolfe is meticulous in his research and writing-a good match for the Country Music Foundation and Vanderbilt University Press in their efforts to produce sterling works on the history of country music.
--Library Journal

Twenty-five years in the making, A Good-Natured Riot is comprehensive in its research. Wolfe has pinned down the dates and names of cast members as precisely as is possible, goes to some lengths to be specific about repertoire (both live and recorded), and knows this subject as well as anyone living.
--No Depression

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.
--Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Perhaps there is no commercially successfully genre of music as misunderstood as country: even its most ardent fans seem content to embrace its aw-shucks image. Wolfe makes no such mistake, affectionately chronicling the savvy business decisions that gave birth to the Opry and to its careful "rustication." Emerging from 25 years of research on the Opry's beginnings, Wolfe's book includes an unprecedented number of interviews with the performers and their families and associates. Although he sometimes favors depth of detail over narrative shape, his work will be invaluable to historians of country, and of American music more broadly. Wolfe depicts a number of eager, opportunistic not to mention talented and pioneering performers and businessmen who made big bucks by fashioning old-time music into a slick commodity with mass appeal. Knowing that early Opry stars Uncle Dave Macon and Uncle Jimmy Thompson were in it for as much glory and money as they could come by should not decrease our appreciation of their music; no one minds that Elvis and the Beatles built fortunes along with their legends. 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. June
Library Journal
While collecting oral histories from old-timers of the Grand Ole Opry, award-winning country music historian Wolfe (English, Middle Tennessee State Univ.; The Devil's Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling) saw a need to gather written material to back up what he was hearing. Beyond the standard histories and journals of country music, Wolfe combed the files of the Tennessean and the Nashville Banner as well as materials at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, the Country Music Foundation, and the Grand Ole Opry collection at Vanderbilt University. The result is a thoroughly researched yet entertaining study of the Grand Ole Opry from its beginning to 1940. Wolfe is meticulous in his research and writing--a good match for the Country Music Foundation and Vanderbilt University Press in their efforts to produce sterling works on the history of country music. Recommended for collections on American music in public and academic libraries.--Kathleen Sparkman, Baylor Univ., Waco, TX Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Rich Kienzle
"Of the many academics who've written country music books . . . only one, Charles Wolfe, truly has mainstream appeal. Why? Because he combines outstanding writing with research to create work that is both academically worthy and accessible to a wide audience."-Rich Kienzle, Country Music magazine
Roy Blount, Jr.
"Absorbing. Lots of fun to read. You can almost hear the music."-Roy Blount Jr., author of Be Sweet: A Conditional Love Story
Bill Malone
"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.
Kirkus Reviews
A highly readable and detailed account of the early years of America's premiere country and western radio show, The Grand Ole Opry. It's hard to imagine that a book about the Opry could appeal to a broad audience, because, frankly, how many people have even heard of early Opry stars Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Uncle Dave Macon, or emcee George Hays? However, what makes Wolfe's book so compelling is that it shows the intersection of the birth of the Opry with so many other important, and often overlooked, cultural moments. First, the Opry comes at the dawn of radio, and Wolfe spells out some of the more interesting features of the pioneering stations. WSM, the Opry's original station, was actually capable of broadcasting nearly coast-to-coast due to the clarity of the airwaves in those days. And its decision to present a program of what was then called "old time music" was extremely controversial. The city of Nashville, the Opry's home, prided itself on its high-brow aura, making it the soi-disant "Paris of the South." Old time music seemed lowbrow, yet its popularity pushed the format forward. It is largely due to the Opry's location there that today Nashville is known as the home of country music. Wolfe also covers, of course, the issue of race, since the Opry was, in its early days, one of the few venues that featured both black and white musicians. That black musicians fell out of country music is an aspect of the transition from old time to country, and one that Wolfe handles sensitively. On the whole, a surprisingly interesting book that covers not only its putative subject, the first great country music radio show, but also the constellation of musical and cultural issues that swirledaround the birth of a new music and a new South. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)
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Product Details

Meet the Author


Charles K. Wolfe, professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University, was one of the leading experts on the history and development of country music. He was the A01 of The Devil's Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling (Vanderbilt/Country Music Foundation Press) and more than a dozen other books whose subjects range from Leadbelly to the Louvin Brothers.

He is sorely missed.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


"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 byusing 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.

    Hay accepted the new job on November z, 1925, and arrived in Nashville to take over a week later. What he found was a station that was directing its programming at the varied and rather sophisticated tastes of Nashville itself. Some traditional music was occasionally heard, but a great deal of the fare was light or semi-classical music, dance bands, and ladies' string trios. Given the potential of WSM's broadcast range, which on good nights could actually reach both coasts, Hay knew that a much vaster audience than the Nashville urban area lay within range and demanded a reconsideration of programming. According to the early show historian Don Cummings, not long after Hay arrived he told Eva Thompson Jones that he wasn't entirely satisfied with the programming direction of the station and asked for suggestions.

    Hay soon decided to act on his instinct and to try to expand the audience appeal to include the rural South. He himself changed whistles again, going back to the kind of steamboat whistle he had used in Memphis. This whistle he named "Old Hickory" in honor of Nashville's hero Andrew Jackson. (Later he changed it back to its original "Hushpuckena," perhaps originating from the town of the same name in north Mississippi). He noted with interest the appeal of hillbilly artists like Dr. Bate, Uncle Dave Macon, and Sid Harkreader as they played on WSM. (Documentary evidence shows that at least these three musicians had appeared on WSM well before Hay arrived in town.) Thus when, on November 28, 1925, Hay sat Uncle Jimmy Thompson down before the WSM microphones, he should not have been as surprised at the response as he says he was. True, telegrams and phone calls poured into the station, many requesting special numbers. But this same syndrome had already occurred at almost every other station that tried programming old-time music in these early days; it had happened with WLS in 1924, with WSB in Atlanta in 1923, and with several other stations. It was a "vox populi" phenomenon, with the stations being apologetic about broadcasting such music but caving in to public demand. Hay had seen some of this firsthand at WLS and must have been aware of this sort of possible reaction. He had also had time to note the kind of response Dr. Bate and Uncle Dave Macon had gotten for their playing. Audience reaction to Uncle Jimmy was probably more dramatic and more extensive, but it was part of a pattern. Probably the main effect of the November 28 program was to confirm to Hay that WSM's audience for old-time music existed in the mid-South as much as it did for WSB's in the Deep South and for WLS's in the Midwest. He might have exaggerated his surprise at the response for two reasons. First, it was a good story and could be dramatized effectively in press releases; second, it could help convince a reluctant National Life and a skeptical Nashville that old-time music filled a definite need for "the people."

    Uncle Jimmy played on November 28 without being formally scheduled through newspaper listings or announcements. (The November 28 date is verified only through a December 26 Tennessean story, which mentions that Uncle Jimmy had made his first WSM appearance almost one month earlier.) The Barn Dance program was thus not formally established on that night, though Uncle Jimmy returned the next week to play again. In neither case did Hay bill it, through the newspapers, as any sort of special old-time program. Probably during December the idea for such a program was taking shape in Hay's head. It may have been during this time that Hay told Obed Pickard's brother that "he was going to start something like the National Barn Dance in Chicago and expected to do better because the people were real and genuine and the people really were playing what they were raised on." This quote, presuming it is accurate, gives us our clearest notion yet of what Hay was planning to do with the Barn Dance.

    Whatever the case, Hay's formal announcement of the establishment of a regular program devoted to old-time music and to be aired on Saturday nights came late in December 1925 when the station announced: "Because of this recent revival in the popularity of the old familiar tunes, WSM has arranged to have an hour or two every Saturday night, starting Saturday, December 26." (Tennessean, December 27, 1925). The Grand Ole Opry (then called the Barn Dance), as a deliberately structured old-time music show broadcast regularly over WSM, would thus have to date from December 1925.


Hay and Folk Music


    None of this, though, tells us much about Hay's real motives for starting the Barn Dance program. What was his own personal attitude toward old-time music? How did he see such music functioning in his world of 1925? Was he aware of the scholarly renaissance and popular interest in folk song books, represented most visibly by Carl Sandburg's American Songbag and the poet's own singing career—all of which developed in Chicago during the time Hay was there? Did he turn to old-time music simply because it was proving popular across the South and the nation as a whole during the mid-1920s? Or did he go to it, like Henry Ford, out of a genuine idealism about the music's ability to reflect and sustain traditional American values? Or was he simply pragmatic, going to the music because he felt it would attract the kind of audience National Life wanted to sell insurance to? Since virtually all the statements we have from Hay are in the nature of press releases or public posture statements, it is hard to determine what he actually thought about the music. But certain patterns do emerge, even from the public statements.

    Contemporaneous newspaper accounts of the early Opry are rich in what rhetoricians today would call "attitude," and most of them reflect the stately romanticism of Hay's own writing. Certainly they were supplied to the newspapers by the stations and were probably written by Hay himself. (In fact, there are several such press releases that are almost identical to later writings by Hay; and, in any event, as station manager Hay had to approve these releases.) Judging from this publicity, Hay originally favored airing the music because it was so popular and so commercially successful. He suggests as much in his first public statement about old-time music, in a December 27, 1925, release announcing upcoming performances by Uncles Jimmy Thompson and Dave Macon:


Old tunes like old lovers are the best, at least judging from the applause which the new Saturday night feature at Station WSM receives from its listeners in all parts of the country; jazz has not completely turned the tables on such tunes as "Pop Goes the Weasel" and "Turkey in the Straw." America may not be swinging its partners at a neighbor's barn dance but it seems to have the habit of clamping on its ear phones and patting its feet as gaily as it ever did when old-time fiddlers got to swing.


    Clearly, the public was demanding the old-time tunes. But the proper citizens of Nashville still resented the idea of having hillbilly music on their new station, and two months later (Tennessean, February 26, 1926) the tone of Hay's press release had become more apologetic: "Much has been said for and against the old-time tunes but the fact remains they are taking the country by storm. There is some delightful little folk strain that brings us back to the soil, which runs through each of the numbers." The appeal of the music could not be denied. Like jazz, its appeal was emotive, but, to many, unlike jazz it played on the healthy and natural, as opposed to base, emotions. But in this early announcement of Hay's, popularity is the central defense of the music. This was made evident in an interview with Hay published in the July 7, 1929, issue of the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Here Hay stresses the number of musicians who come to the show wanting to play, and he concludes by saying: "There are so many we just can't stop. In fact, we've been expecting that each year would be the last of this series. But we can't give it up. There's too much of a demand for the old folks and their tunes."

    But if these accounts suggest that Hay started the Opry primarily because the people demanded it, other evidence hints that he saw the music in more philosophic terms. At first Hay seemed to make no clear distinction between "old-time tunes" and "folk tunes": the former he seemed to see as any older, nineteenth century, pre-jazz-age music, with its appeal not so much to cultural geography as to simple nostalgia. This philosophy was apparent when the early Saturday-night programs contained band music, barbershop quartets, bird imitators, even musical saws, acts that were "old-time" mainly by virtue of their nostalgia content. But gradually Hay began to focus his definition of what he meant when he said, "Keep it down to earth." He began to use the term folk to describe some of his musicians: Uncle Dave, in an April 1926 story (Tennessean), sang "folksongs" which seemed "to strike home." Even the February 1926 story cited above mentions a "folk strain" that "brings us all back to the soil." A year later a release refers to the fact that "the old time tunes of the Tennessee hills are presented the way they were handed down through the generations" (Tennessean, November 27, 1927). The 1929 Knoxville News-Sentinel story insists sing—are known only to the backwoods region from which they come. They're the American folk tunes of Tennessee." A 1931 story by Hay refers to "old hill-billy tunes, as they are called" that "have been handed down through many generations.... Of course, the tunes are distinctly elemental in construction" (Nashville Banner, February 22, 1931).

    But Hay's vision of himself as a preserver of American folk culture did not really emerge fully until after the Opry had become an established institution. In his own little book, written in the mid-1940s, he stresses this idealistic motive for starting the show. "Radio station WSM," he writes, "discovered something very fundamental when it tapped the vein of American folk music which lay smoldering and in small flames for about three hundred years." Later he echoes the familiar Henry Ford philosophy of folk music reflecting basic American values. "After all, we try to keep the Opry `homey.' ... Many of our geniuses come from simple folk who adhere to the fundamental principles of honesty included in the Ten Commandments. The Grand Ole Opry expresses these qualities which come to us from these good people." Hay asserts that he had perceived the value of traditional music as early as 1919, when he made his trip into the Arkansas Ozarks. Perhaps so, but his posture in the earliest days of the Opry was to maintain hillbilly music simply because it was popular; the idealistic underpinning came after the program had established itself.

    From his references to "Turkey in the Straw" and "Pop Goes the Weasel," it might seem that Hay had a rather superficial notion of what real folk music was. That might have been true originally, but his years of experience in working with musicians on the show—who, before 1930, were nearly all amateur musicians and native Southerners—soon taught him a great deal about the folk transmission process. Evidence suggests, in fact, that Hay understood the full dimension of Southern folk tradition better than did most of the respectable "academic" folklorists of the day. Scholars like Cecil Sharp, for instance, allowed into the folk canon only those songs passed exclusively by oral tradition down through generations and emphasized only the vocal music. Modern folklorists are just beginning to appreciate the full extent to which popular Tin Pan Alley music of the nineteenth century got into oral tradition in the South. But Hay understood this. "The line of demarcation between the old popular tunes and folk tunes is indeed slight," he wrote in his history. Later, as cowboy singers and barbershop quartets crowded onto the Opry, Hay expanded his definition of "folk" music to include folk music from areas outside the South; "any folk tune is okay," he said.

    His notion of folk music would expand even further during the 1940s, as the Opry became more commercial and began using more composed songs. During this time the show was often introduced as featuring genuine folk music or "music in the folk tradition." This became especially noticeable in the early '40s after NBC began broadcasting an Opry segment nationwide, and when the Armed Forces Radio Services (AFRS) began to syndicate the show to a nationwide audience. The term folk could make the music more acceptable to a mainstream audience. It certainly had better connotations than the adjectives hillbilly or old-time.

    Whatever he personally thought about the music, Hay sensed that it was very popular with Southern audiences and sought ways to exploit this popularity. Others who had exploited the music had done so by creating hillbilly stereotypes. In California the group called the Beverly Hill Billies were "discovered" rusticating up in the mountains; in Washington, D.C., Al Hopkins and His Hill Billies dressed in overalls; in Atlanta a sophisticated jazz-tinged fiddler named Clayton McMichen was made lead fiddler in a band called the Skillet Lickers and participated in skits about moonshine and "revenooers." Thus by the late 1920s, Hay had plenty of patterns to follow as he began image-building for his Opry musicians.

    It is interesting to trace Hay's deliberate attempt to "rusticate" the show. Very few of the program's regular members originally fit the hillbilly stereotype (nor, in fact, did most of the successful country entertainers of the 1920s). Many of them worked in Nashville at lower- and middle-class trades. Others were farmers from the Davidson County, Middle Tennessee area, perhaps of the soil but hardly cut off from the world. They were not professionals by any means (except Uncle Dave), but few of them were naive hill folk preserving an exclusive and rare heritage. That is, until Hay began building the Opry image. An important first step was his renaming the Barn Dance the Grand Ole Opry in 1927. Unlike the rather neutral term "Barn Dance," "Grand Ole Opry" suggested a deliberate rustic burlesque of formal and classical music.

    Hay also came up with colorful names for the Opry bands; Paul Warmack's band became the Gully Jumpers, and the Binkley Brothers string band became the Binkley Brothers Dixie Clodhoppers. In fact, Kirk McGee recalled that the Judge kept a list of "colorful" names in his desk drawer, and when a new band signed on, he chose one from the list. (He never tried it with the McGee Brothers since the name itself already had cornball connotations.) He also devised tag lines to be associated with each performer: DeFord Bailey, "the harmonica wizard"; Sam and Kirk McGee, "from sunny Tennessee"; Uncle Dave Macon, "the Dixie Dewdrop."

    He also changed the physical appearance of the show, once it became popular enough to attract sizable live audiences. Early photos of the Opry players—of Dr. Bate in 1925, for instance, or the one of the entire cast made in 1928—show them dressed in business suits. But the picture of Dr. Bate made in 1933 shows him in a cornfield dressed in overalls, and the next Opry group shot shows most of the gang in hats and overalls. Alcyone Bate Beasley, daughter of Dr. Humphrey Bate, recalled that she hardly ever saw anyone not in a suit on the early programs, and that the costumes came in when the groups started touring and playing frequently before live audiences.

    In addition to creating images through names and visuals, Hay began to stress the hillbilly image in print in the late 1920s. The July 1929 Knoxville News-Sentinel interview with Hay, which was probably syndicated nationally, stated that "every one of the `talent' is from the back country," and the music represents "the unique entertainment that only the Tennessee mountaineers can afford." Hay went out of his way to stress the genuine picturesque qualities of Uncle Jimmy Thompson and Uncle Bunt Stephens. Ironically, the greatest push toward rustication came in the early 1930s, when some of the Opry's genuine traditional musicians were being replaced by full-time professionals. Also influencing this move to promote a rural hillbilly image was the beginning of Opry tour groups and the increasing movement toward appealing to the live studio audience as well as the radio audience. By 1935 the image of the Opry as a rustic hillbilly show was well entrenched.

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface and Acknowledgments
1 "A Good-Natured Riot" 3
2 Nashville in the 1920s 26
3 Goin' Uptown: Dr. Humphrey Bate, Dean of the Opry 43
4 Uncle Jimmy Thompson 67
5 "Sail Away, Ladies!": Classic Opry Fiddlers 86
6 "Take It Away, Uncle Dave!" 101
7 DeFord Bailey 119
8 The Hoedown Bands 130
9 Family Tradition 154
10 The Original Nashville Sound: Nashville's First Recordings 166
11 The First Professionals: The Vagabonds 179
12 The Dixieliners 190
13 "When It's Time for the Whippoorwill to Sing": The Delmore Brothers 211
14 "Dear Lesperdeezer": The First Comedians 225
15 September Song: The Late 1930s 241
16 "The Homespun Voice of America": Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe 254
App. 1 Judge Hay's Valediction 267
App. 2 The Opry Roster, 1925-1940 269
Notes and Sources 288
Discography 295
Index 296
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