Although the Grand Ole Opry began life in 1925 as the WSM Barn Dance radio show, emanating from the downtown Nashville offices of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, the show’s increasing popularity necessitated the move to a series of larger venues. In 1943, after being staged at the Hillsboro (now the Belcourt) Theater and the downtown War Memorial Auditorium, the Opry relocated to a former church — the Union Gospel Tabernacle, built in the 1890s, which would eventually be renamed the Ryman Auditorium.
It was there, from 1943 to 1974, that such iconic country stars as Hank Williams, Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline and hundreds of others would thrill audiences who were wowed by the building’s pristine acoustics (and overlooked the lack of such creature comforts as air conditioning). By the mid-Seventies, with the popular Opryland USA theme park nearby and plans for a massive hotel underway, the brand-new, state-of-the-art Grand Ole Opry House was constructed in north Nashville, near the Cumberland River. Opened in March 1974, with a visit from President Richard Nixon during the first Grand Ole Opry broadcast there, the Opry House would also become the home of the CMA Awards and other special events for decades to come.
In tribute to the Ryman’s inestimable role in the Opry’s history, however, a six-foot circle of the Ryman stage was removed from the building’s floor and placed center stage at the new Opry House. With so many of the legends of country music — as well as countless other performers in nearly every musical genre or area of the performing arts — taking their place in that circle, first-time Opry performers (and tourists given their own chance to stand within the border) are often overwhelmed by its historical significance.
On May 3rd, 2010, with storms dumping more than 13 inches of rain on Music City throughout the weekend, the Cumberland River crested on Monday morning at nearly 12 feet above flood stage. Eleven people in the Nashville area were killed in the flood, with 26 dead in Tennessee and Kentucky. Among the nearly 11,000 properties damaged, the Grand Ole Opry House sustained significant loss to its stage as well as the pews, curtains, walls and floors. The Opry broadcasts were relocated to the War Memorial and the Ryman Auditorium while $20 million worth of renovations took place at the Opry House.
In a rather miraculous turn of events, that historic circle of wood on the otherwise destroyed Opry stage survived the devastation. After being removed and placed into storage while repairs took place, the circle was returned to its rightful place during a ceremony on August 25th, 2010, just prior to the venue’s reopening the following month.
Introduced by Grand Ole Opry executive Steve Buchanan, the task of unveiling the circle went to Opry members Brad Paisley and Little Jimmy Dickens, with the former joking, “We’re the best choice for this?” He then invoked the title of the Carter Family’s often-referenced classic tune by saying, “The question on everyone’s mind is, ‘Will the circle be unbroken?'” The answer was, and remains, “yes,” and with the assistance of several stagehands, Paisley and Dickens lowered the wooden circle into its place on the newly refurbished Opry stage.
The Grand Ole Opry celebrates its 90th anniversary this fall with several special appearances, programs and events.