Chester Martin Remembers Early Days Of The Grand Ole Opry

Tuesday, February 23, 2016 - by Chester Martin

In November 2015 NBC Nightly News carried a story about "our" Tennessee Opry, which began in 1925 and today is billed as THE single longest running radio show in the U.S.

NBC can claim the honor for itself because it was the network which first carried it as a regular Saturday night feature. NBC nurtured it to national acceptance, later carrying a 30-minute segment of it for many years. This 30-minute segment was hosted by both Red Foley and Roy Acuff at different times.

The Opry has had some great talent all through the years regardless of all the ridicule it has suffered.

Those who have sneered at it and called it "low-brow" have denied the origins of their own people and cannot recognize that it is a genuine Tennessee product, even appreciated in Europe and beyond.

To explain how the Opry began, the story is always told how the NBC network had long presented the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoons. Those operas were always long and ended at uncertain times. When the "Grand Opera" ended, there was a man standing by on a Nashville stage to proclaim that the Grand Opera had ended, but there was going to be a "GRAND OLE OPRY" to follow. The fiddles started playing and the square dancers began their lively dancing to usher in a night-time of "hillbilly music".

Some 20 years after the Opry took root, powers in New York City "discovered" the Opry's  nationwide popularity and Kate Smith, famous for her singing of "God Bless America" throughout the WWII years invited the entire Opry cast to appear on her new TV show. It was a knockout hit for the few that saw it, as there was no nationwide network at the time. That show can still be seen on You Tube, and you can amaze yourself with the talent that was represented there. You can also see your favorite old-time performers when they were extremely young and agile.

The Opry also received a great deal of good publicity through popular magazines of the day such as Colliers. That magazine went into almost every home in the entire country, and people read about the Opry for the first time. Several ladies of our church choir became interested and let it be known they were going to Nashville to find out about it first-hand. They came home (in time for church, to be sure!) with glowing reports of what they had found - and it was soon on my list of "things to do". I had no car because I was only 11 or 12 years old, but I was soon lucky when my parents needed to attend a a convention in Murfreesboro. I talked them into taking me along - and got them to take me to the Opry. It was great, and we all loved it. It was always very colorful and the comic acts were by men and women who had come up through the days of Vaudeville and knew how to work an audience. Admission was cheap, and although the Ryman Auditorium was a bit warm on summer nights, the on-stage acts compensated for it.

All the famous old singers were still alive at the time - and some of the newer ones were getting their start. Hank Williams was in his heyday; Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, plus many more. Little Jimmy Dickens was seldom there, as he was in too great a demand on road trips to be in Nashville. Ernest Tubb was highly popular, as was Canadian Hank Snow with his famous "train" songs. Mother Maybelle Carter performed with all her daughters regularly. Miss Dell Wood tore up the keys on the ancient upright honky-tonk piano. "Dr." Lew Childre of Opp, Alabama, was one of those "regulars" who had come up through the Vaudeville ranks and sometimes tap-danced while singing his humorous songs. He generally performed while standing on a circus-type stool as he was a shorty. Another Cajun I liked a lot was Jimmy C. Newman who had an amazingly French sounding band, and an accordion player who looked like he was fresh from the cafes of Paris.

All the big acts that traveled into the back-country for gigs where pleasures were few had funny-men as part of their regular routines. Roy Acuff had Bashful Brother Oswald, and Flatt and Scruggs had "Little Darlin'".  Lonzo and Oscar, a very funny duo with a lot of clever songs, seem to have been independent and "floated" among the various acts as needed. Cousin Jody was another great Country entertainer who made audiences laugh.

The Opry was always open to immediate change of plans when a truly special act came in unexpectedly off the road. Elvis did that on occasion, as I understood, and I was there once with some Air Force buddies when the Everly Brothers  ("Wake up Little Susie") made a surprise appearance. WSM virtually closed down the regular programming to let them sing as they were at the height of their popularity at the time.

Uncle Dave Macon was another old Vaudeville trouper who had appeared more recently in films with Acuff and was now 80 years of age. The stage crew would place a chair in stage center where he would play his banjo and sing: something like, "Chewing gum - yum yum"; then for the last verse he would get up and dance around the chair.

I clearly remember the young June Carter, long before she married Johnny Cash. She was always so lively and funny on stage. Rod Brasfield (another old Vaudevillian), and the most memorable Hank Williams whose slender body made him appear to tower over most of the others. Famous Opry announcers were Grant Turner and T. Tommy Cutrer.

The Opry lost a lot of its original character when it transitioned from the Ryman into the new Opry house. The new place, although larger, and air-conditioned, was always a bit too "slick"for my taste after having been conditioned by the "church house" atmosphere of Ryman Auditorium. I even know one old-time Opry performer who said as much.

Those Golden Years of the Opry were great!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

 

 

 

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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