In 1925, Mount Rushmore was established, future First Lady Barbara Bush was born, and the theory of evolution went on trial in Tennessee. Also in Tennessee that year, on November 28th, to be exact, the Grand Ole Opry began broadcasting on Nashville’s powerful WSM radio. On Tuesday, March 24th, the longest-running live radio show in the country will kick off a nine-month celebration of its 90th birthday with two shows at the Grand Ole Opry House, featuring Brad Paisley, Del McCoury Band and Old Crow Medicine Show, and including Western swing legends Asleep at the Wheel.
To help commemorate the anniversary kick-off, the artists appearing on stage that night will share stories behind some of the seminal instruments and artifacts that have been a part of the venerable institution for the past nine decades. The artifacts will then become part of a backstage display at the Opry House throughout the celebration.
Among the one-of-a-kind items featured will be the fiddle played by Uncle Jimmy Thompson on the very first broadcast of what would become the Grand Ole Opry; the steamboat whistle used by Opry founder George D. Hay to introduce countless Opry broadcasts (with his cry of “Let ‘er go, boys!”); and a guitar used by Opry icon Little Jimmy Dickens, who passed away at the beginning of this year. Contemporary Opry inductees, including Paisley, Darius Rucker and Josh Turner, will also be represented in the display.
As the night’s two shows unfold, the Opry will also announce plans for the nine-month celebration. Florida Georgia Line, Charlie Daniels Band, Oak Ridge Boys, Racal Flatts and Reba McEntire are among the acts slated for upcoming appearances.
Originally called the WSM Barn Dance, in 1927, following a classical music program, “the Solemn Old Judge” George D. Hay spoke the line that would rename the show and rewrite music history. “For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera,” Hay announced. “From now on, we will present the Grand Ole Opry.”
Originally owned by the National Life and Accident Insurance Co., WSM was housed in the company’s downtown Nashville headquarters (the stations call letters were derived from the company slogan: We Shield Millions) and the first Opry broadcast took place in a tiny fifth-floor studio. As the show’s popularity grew, it was staged in other venues, including the Hillsboro Theatre (now home to the Belcourt Theatre in Hillsboro Village), East Nashville’s Dixie Tabernacle, the downtown War Memorial Auditorium, and from 1943 to 1974, the Ryman Auditorium, which still hosts Opry shows on occasion.
Forty-one years ago today, on March 16th, 1974, with then-President Richard Nixon on hand, the 4,000-seat Grand Ole Opry House opened. Situated next to the new Opryland USA theme park (which closed in 2007) and the still-vibrant Opryland Hotel, the Opry House sustained significant damage in the devastating flood of the Cumberland River in May 2010. Temporarily relocated to other venues throughout town, the show returned to the Opry House in September of that year.
In January of this year, the Grand Ole Opry House was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Ryman Auditorium also earned that distinction in 1971.