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The Grand Ole Opry’s Anniversary: 5 Musical Milestones

In honor of the country-music institution’s 94th year, we look at pivotal moments in its history, including Jerry Lee Lewis’s wild performance

Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis's performance on the Grand Ole Opry stands as one of the country-music institution's most memorable moments.

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On November 28th, 1925, 94 years ago this week, the WSM Barn Dance was born. Fashioned after the already popular National Barn Dance, which premiered in April 1924 on Chicago radio station WLS, the show would later be christened the Grand Ole Opry, after host George D. Hay noted that a slate of performers playing hillbilly music, fiddle tunes, and the like would follow a just-completed classical music program. On a Saturday night in 1927, just before harmonica whiz DeFord Bailey played “Pan American Blues,” Hay told the radio audience, “For the next three hours, we will present nothing but realism. We will be down to earth for the earthy. We have heard grand opera from New York, but now we will be listening to the Grand Ole Opry.”

Countless musical memories have since been experienced on its legendary stages, from the WSM studios and the Dixie Tabernacle to the Ryman Auditorium and today’s modern Grand Ole Opry House. Here are the stories behind five of our favorites.

Hank Williams’ Opry Debut
By June 1949, Hank Williams, who had been a frequent performer on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, was becoming a huge star nationally. On June 11th, he made his way to Nashville where he would appear on the Opry for the first time during Saturday night’s 9:30 portion, sponsored by Warren Paints and hosted by Ernest Tubb. Sandwiched between performances by Opry mainstays Bill Monroe and the Crook Brothers, Williams’ first song was “Lovesick Blues,” one he didn’t write. Although it’s the subject of some debate, by most accounts, the enthusiastic audience was immediately treated to an astonishing six encores from the singer. The Opry program notes that the first of his songs he performed was “Mind Your Own Business,” soon to be a hit. This took place during a later segment hosted by George Morgan, and Williams would, according to other accounts, appear again during a segment hosted by Little Jimmy Dickens. Williams took the Opry stage again the following week and became one of the radio show’s most popular cast members. Sadly, his battle with alcohol led to his firing from the program in August 1952. While the Opry intended the move as a wake-up call to the beleaguered entertainer, he never returned. Four months later, he was dead from heart failure at just 29 year old.

Jerry Lee Lewis Break the Rules
“Let me tell ya something about Jerry Lee Lewis, ladies and gentlemen: I am a rock & rollin’, country-and-western, rhythm-and-blues-singin’ motherfucker.” With those words, uttered from the Ryman stage on January 20th, 1973, the music icon known as “The Killer” broke one Opry rule — no cursing on stage. Soon enough, he’d lay waste to another: a request not to perform any of his rock songs. After a single country hit, “Another Place, Another Time,” one of the songs that resurrected his foundering career and changed his musical direction, he proceeded to deliver a 40-minute set (instead of the generally allotted two songs per act) that included rock classics like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire.” Alongside covers of Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Once More With Feeling,” he shook, rattled, and rolled the audience with covers of Fifties staples “Rock Around the Clock” and “Mean Woman Blues.” He also invited Opry pianist Del Wood to join him on a version of “Down Yonder,” her 1951 instrumental hit.

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The Birth of Bluegrass
In 1926, a band called the Bluegrass Serenaders appeared on the Opry, marking the first time a group with bluegrass in their name would play the Opry stage. (They were actually an old-time string band.) When Kentucky-born Bill Monroe joined the Opry in 1939, he was accompanied by his band, the Blue Grass Boys, named after Kentucky’s nickname. By December 1945, Monroe had recruited banjo player Earl Scruggs, who picked with a fiery and innovate three-fingered style, as well as skilled guitarist and lead vocalist Lester Flatt, along with fiddler Chubby Wise and Howard Watts (a.k.a. Cedric Rainwater) on upright bass. This extraordinary combination, a highlight of Opry shows and a popular touring act, would be credited with inventing the genre, playing what musicologist Alan Lomax would refer to as “folk music in overdrive.” Today, bluegrass is represented on the Opry by members including Alison Krauss, Dailey & Vincent, the Whites, and Del McCoury.

“Long-Haired Hippies” The Byrds Land Onstage
Culture clashes are a rare thing on the Opry stage, but in the late Sixties and throughout the Seventies, as the Opry outgrew the Ryman Auditorium and country music evolved, not every invitation issued to special guest performers was greeted with enthusiasm by the more musically conservative fan base. On March 15th, 1968, folk-rockers the Byrds, with new member Gram Parsons, were in Nashville for the final day of recording their roots-influenced Sweetheart of the Rodeo LP, and that night took the Opry stage. Introduced by future “outlaw” songwriter and music publisher Tompall Glaser, and featuring steel guitarist Lloyd Green, the Byrds performed a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home.” Mocked for their long hair (which they’d actually had cut for the occasion), with some in the audience deriding them with bird calls, they ditched another planned Haggard cover, “Life in Prison,” to perform the Parsons original “Hickory Wind” as a tribute to the singer-songwriter’s grandmother. It was a risky move that defied protocol, embarrassed Glaser, and further pissed off a number of Opry cast members.

The Godfather of Soul Goes Country
Although piano player Del Wood had performed with rocker Jerry Lee Lewis six years earlier, in March 1979 she wanted no part of another upcoming event that would cross musical genres: the appearance of “Soul Brother Number One” James Brown. “I could throw up,” Wood told the Nashville Banner at the time. “The next thing you know, they’ll be doing the strip out there.” While longtime Opry member Jean Shepard announced she would boycott that night’s show in protest, it was Opry legend Porter Wagoner who issued Brown the invite while he was in Music City recording a disco-flavored tune called “It’s Too Funky in Here.” The Saturday night 7 o’clock segment, which Wagoner hosted, first featured Skeeter Davis, herself no stranger to controversy. Earlier in the decade, Davis was temporarily booted off the Opry for her onstage criticism of the arrest of a group of “Jesus freaks” gathered at a local mall.

Then came Brown’s eight-song set, five of which were among his soul hits: “Get Up Off That Thing,” “Cold Sweat,” “Can’t Stand It,” and an extended version of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” which also included a snippet of “I Got You (I Feel Good).” While the 30-minute set leaned heavily on Brown’s R&B classics, he also performed a trio of country-esqye tunes: “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Tennessee Waltz,” and “Georgia on My Mind.” In spite of the media attention and vocal protests, Brown would later insist he had been “treated like a prodigal son” during his Opry visit. Six months later, another R&B icon, Stevie Wonder, visited Nashville and performed on the Grand Ole Opry, singing Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors.” His appearance, however, was not accompanied by the same negative publicity.

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