For nearly 94 years, since it began as the WSM Barn Dance in the fall of 1925, the Grand Ole Opry has been a country-music institution. But few fans really know what the Opry is, how an artist is inducted, and what comes along with membership.
As Ken Burns’ new documentary Country Music sparks renewed interest in the Opry, we take a look back at its rich, colorful history, recalling some of its most iconic moments and spelling out what it takes to become a cast member of the longest-running radio show in American history.
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How does someone become a Grand Ole Opry member?
The Opry’s management team selects a handful of new members each year, taking into consideration the standards that measure success in a country artist’s career: radio airplay, record sales, touring, and recognition by their industry peers. Commitment and availability to actually appear and perform on the Opry is also very important, as is an artist’s relationship with his or her audience. According to the Opry’s official website, “Opry membership requires a passion for country music’s fans, a connection to the music’s history, and it requires commitment — even a willingness to make significant sacrifices to uphold that commitment. Often, the Opry seeks out those who seek out the Opry, though decisions aren’t based on which artists appear most on the show, either.”
How many Grand Ole Opry members have there been since the show began?
More than 200 solo artists and groups have been official Opry members since the show’s inception in 1925. Currently there are 68 active members in the official cast, which still includes artists who are no longer performing on a regular basis, such as Randy Travis, who suffered a stroke in 2013. In May 2019, Travis celebrated his 60th birthday on the Opry stage and added his signature “A-a-a-men” to the finale of a star-studded performance of his classic “Forever and Ever, Amen.”
Who was the Opry’s first member?
A man named Uncle Jimmy Thompson, who, on the evening of Saturday, November 28th, 1925, would play a fiddle tune called “Tennessee Wagoner.” The broadcast, which made its way across the country via WSM’s 1,000-watt transmitter, was an instant hit, with telegrams flooding into the station from every state in the union within the hour. Thompson, who said he could barely get warmed up in just an hour, lamented the program’s length. Within a year, the WSM Barn Dance was expanded to four hours.
Other Opry members popular in the show’s first decade included Uncle Dave Macon, harmonica wizard DeFord Bailey, the Crook Brothers, the Dixieliners (a string band featuring Sam and Kirk McGee along with Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith), female comedy duo Sarie and Sally, and the Delmore Brothers.
Who is the Opry’s newest member?
In June of 2019, Luke Combs was invited to become a Grand Ole Opry member by members John Conlee, Craig Morgan, and Chris Janson. He was inducted the following month by Vince Gill and Joe Diffie. Other members inducted in 2019 were Mark Wills and Kelsea Ballerini.
Who are the longest serving members of the Opry?
Singer and songwriter “Whisperin’” Bill Anderson has been with the Opry since July 1961, celebrating his 58th anniversary as a cast member in 2019. Loretta Lynn was inducted on September 25th, 1962, with this week marking her 57th anniversary.
It’s Jan Howard, however, who is the Opry’s oldest living member at 90. Kelsea Ballerini, at 26, is currently the cast’s youngest member. In the Thirties, singer Asher Sizemore was an Opry regular alongside his son, Little Jimmie, who was just 5 years old.
Have any Opry members ever been fired or suspended?
On August 15th, 1952, it was announced that Hank Williams had been released from his contract with WSM and the Opry after failing to show up for an Opry performance a week earlier and another promotional event the following day. Williams’ crippling drug and alcohol addiction would lead to his death at age 29, just four months later.
Marty Robbins, who had been performing on the show since the Forties, was fired from the Opry in 1958 after five years during which he skyrocketed to country and pop fame. The decision was made after Robbins was believed to have stated that he “no longer needed the Grand Ole Opry.” Opry manager W.D. Kilpatrick said at the time, “We simply cannot deal with prima donnas on this show.” The decision, however, was reversed less than a week later, with WSM executives conceding that Robbins had never made the statement that had been attributed to him.
In October 1965, six months after an arrest for public drunkenness — he was caught picking wildflowers from the garden of a Starkville, Mississippi, resident — Johnny Cash, an Opry member since 1956, was banned from the show after angrily smashing the footlights on the Ryman Auditorium stage with the stand from a faulty microphone. The ban was later lifted.
Skeeter Davis, an Opry member since 1959, was suspended from the show in December 1973 for derogatory comments she made about the police following the arrest of a group of so-called “Jesus People.” Sixteen members of the Christian organization, called Christ Is the Answer Crusade, had been arrested at local shopping centers. From the Opry stage, Davis referred to them as her brothers and sisters. Earlier in the year, she was also one of the few Opry stars to speak out against the Opry’s impending move from the Ryman Auditorium to the new Opry House. She would rejoin the cast 16 months later.
After E.W. “Bud” Wendell became Grand Ole Opry manager in 1968, he instituted a credit system that required Opry members to make a certain number of appearances. Without enough credits, the members risked suspension. Although members Jack Greene and Jeannie Seely, who were touring together at the time, were both short of the necessary credits needed to retain their memberships, Wendell bent the rules, which have since been relaxed considerably.
How many homes has the Opry had?
Six. When the WSM Barn Dance began, it was broadcast from WSM’s fifth-floor studios in the National Life and Accident Insurance Company’s downtown Nashville headquarters. The show moved to the Hillsboro Theater (now the Belcourt, in Hillsboro Village) in 1934, to the Dixie Tabernacle in East Nashville in 1936, then the War Memorial Auditorium downtown from June 1939 to June 1943. The Ryman Auditorium would be the show’s home from 1943 to 1974, after which it relocated to the Grand Ole Opry House adjacent to the now-defunct Opryland amusement park. The Ryman still serves as a venue for the Opry in the winter months and on special occasions.
Has the Opry ever missed a show?
By April 1968, more than 2,200 Grand Ole Opry shows had taken place. But on Saturday, April 6th, with Nashville under a 7:00 p.m. curfew following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. two days earlier, the Grand Ole Opry did not go on as scheduled. It marked the first time that the show was cancelled. In May 2010, when flooding devastated Music City, including the Grand Ole Opry House, it was temporarily relocated to its previous home at the Ryman Auditorium. The show carried on remotely until September, when the Grand Ole Opry House was reopened following a rededication ceremony with Brad Paisley and Little Jimmy Dickens.
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