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Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry – The Old Violin
When you approach the Nashville city limits sign from any direction, it says “Music City Metropolitan Nashville Davidson County, Home of the Grand Ole Opry.” See Nashville is proud of its country music heritage these days, but that wasn’t always the case. Back in 1925, when Edwin Craig first started WSM radio, Nashville’s “old money” didn’t want anything here that portrayed the city as backward or crazy. The early years brought endless battles with the conservative Nashville establishment who were very protective of Nashville’s image as the “Athens of the South.” They told Craig “you have to train these hills, not harass them”.
In its beginnings, WSM had studios on the top floor of the National Life and Causality building. They chose the nickname “Air Castle of the South” because they were on the top floor of the building, all 5 floors of it. They built a large one-room studio with a grand piano and very elaborate red curtains that made it look quite a formal space, intended mainly for the big dance groups and opera artist of the day.
WSM’s fortunes changed in early November 1925 when they hired a young announcer, George D. Hay, away from the mighty WLS in Chicago as its manager. George Hay had made a name for himself and was known on air as “The Solemn Ole Judge” even though he was only 30 years old at the time. He had acquired the nickname in his childhood hood when relatives said of the serious character Hay, “He’s as serious as a judge.” Hay had heard and liked a range of local folk music earlier in his life and felt it would be a good draw for the ‘masses’ for the new medium of radio. He hired a 78-year-old fiddler, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, to play one night when a regular act didn’t show up. The response from listeners was so strong that Hay announced that next month WSM would broadcast an hour or two of oldies every Saturday night and call the show WSM Barn Dance. Hay, as “Solemn Ole Judge” would be the original announcer.
In December 1927 after a Saturday night “Music Appreciation Hour” performance, featuring the classics, the “WSM Barn Dance” opened with Deford Bailey, whom Hay referred to as “The Harmonica Wizard.” After Bailey’s rendition of ‘The Pan American Blues’ Hay announced ‘for the last hour we have been hearing music taken largely from the Grand Opera. From now on we will be presenting the Grand Ole Opry.
Seventy years later, in 1997, I returned to the stage at the now famous Grand Ole Opry for the 1st time. Over the next few years I would become a backstage regular watching the Saturday night Grand Ole Opry show countless times. My kids grew up logging a Saturday night backstage at the Opry was normal but it wasn’t. Every single appearance was an opportunity to see history in the making.
Such an event happened in 1998 as best I can remember. It was a typical night at the Opry except for one thing. Johnny Paycheck was sick for a while in Ohio as well. This night would mark his return to the Opry. Now typically the back stage at the opry is very lively with people visiting and doing what the old timers referred to as “shake and howdy”, greeting each other and everyone else backstage. Sometimes it’s hard to even hear what’s going on ahead. But this night, when Paycheck took to the mic and his violin played that signature lick, you could have heard a pin drop. Paycheck leaned into the famous WSM Grand Ole Opry triangular stand cover microphone and sang. “I can’t remember, once in my life, I felt so lonely as tonight, I feel like I couldn’t lie down and get up anymore, it’s the most damned feeling, I never felt it before. Tonight I feel, like the Old Fiddle, it will soon be retired and never played again.
I wonder if the reverence was some kind of proxy sense of the older generation of Country Music admitting that their time had passed. But did he really? Won’t he live forever? I think it will. I think the very fact that the Grand Ole Opry continues to this day to be considered the Mother Church of country music is proof that the county’s foundation will never be lost. Time and sounds will change of course. The artists of the 70s were very different from their predecessors of the previous 50 years, but they had their own respect for these great artists of the past. With each new generation of country singers they bring their own style, but if you listen closely enough, you’ll hear influences that go all the way back to Deford Bailey. Every now and then each new generation brings out the old Violin and reminds us that the sweetest sounds come from the oldest, time-tested instruments.
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