NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The Grand Ole Opry has been a witness to the evolution of country music over its previous 5,000 Saturday night broadcasts.
For a walk through history of the last nine-and-a-half decades, country music fans can visit the Opry’s 5,000th Exhibit through the end of the year.
Emily Frans, along with archivists Jen Larson and Tim Davis, spent months compiling memories from over the years and curating the exhibit.
“Obviously, a lot of story to tell, so we really sat down and tried to figure out how can we pack all of those stories and highlights in, and we decided the best way to it would be to kind of break it up into 1,000 broadcast increments,” said Frans, director of archives and content management.
Frans said one of the most important milestones was the start of WSM radio.
“We have an area dedicated to WSM and the innovative technology that they brought to the radio world.”
Country music fans can explore everything from technology over the years to the dresses worn on stage by top female artists. The exhibit offers a little something for everyone from every era.
“We have a harmonica from DeFord Bailey whose one of the earliest Opry members and performers and just to see what that means to people is really, really special,” Frans said. “The genre has changed and the Opry I think has gone right along with it. We do our best to have the traditional country music all the way to today’s very contemporary country music.”
The Grand Ole Opry launched its first broadcast in November of 1925. The show began broadcasting from the National Life and Accident Insurance Company in downtown Nashville.
“We’ve got a speaker on display that is one of my favorite artifacts that literally hung off the side of the National Life building to pipe music and WSM into the streets,” Frans explained.
The show was broadcast through World War II. The Opry cast teamed up with Armed Forces Radio Network and visited military bases to boost morale among the troops. One photo on display at the exhibit shows Pee Wee King, Ernest Tubb, Bradley Kinkaid, and Eddy Arnold playing bedside for veterans at a hospital during the war.
Following the war, the sound of string bands and bluegrass took shape with Bill Monroe. Some smoother sounds also came from artists like Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold, and Jimmy Wakely. Several female artists also became popular on the show, including Kitty Wells and Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters.
1,000 – 2,000 Broadcasts
Some of country’s most notable female artists took center stage, joining the Opry during the program’s second thousandth broadcast era, including Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Jeannie Seely, Dottie West, Connie Smith, and Tammy Wynette.
Other notable memberships included Bill Anderson, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, The Osborne Brothers, Billy Walker, Hank Locklin, and George Hamilton IV.
In 1967, Charley Pride became the first African American artist since DeFord Bailey to perform at the Opry.
The following year marked one of the few times the Opry’s Saturday night broadcast was canceled due to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. Nashville was placed under a 7 p.m. curfew. For the fans that had already traveled to Nashville to see the Opry, Roy Acuff opened his museum for a small performance. Over the airwaves, a previous episode of the Opry was replayed.
In the next 1,000 broadcasts, new members to join the Opry included Ricky Skaggs, The Whites, Riders in the Sky, Lorrie Morgan, Reba McEntire, Randy Travis, and Patty Loveless.
In 1980, WSM dedicated its programming solely to country music. The decade also brought the formation of Country Music Television and the Nashville Network.
Jeannie Seely was the first woman to host a segment of the Opry in 1985. Female musicians also made history with various country music awards. In 1980 and 1981, the Academy of Country Music awarded Barbara Mandrell with Entertainer of the Year two years in a row.
Also, for four consecutive years, Reba McEntire won the CMA’s Vocalist of the Year beginning in 1984. She was also the first woman to ever receive the award.
Country music also worked its way to Hollywood with movies like “9 to 5” featuring Dolly Parton and “Urban Cowboy” starring John Travolta. Notably, the film “Coal Miner’s Daughter” hit the big screen, documenting the life of Loretta Lynn. The movie starred Sissy Speck and Tommy Lee Jones. Opry stars Minni Pearl, Ernest Tubb, and Roy Acuff also made appearances in the movie.
Queen of country Dolly Parton’s career really took shape in the 80s with hist like “9 to 5,” Island in the Stream,” and “Starting Over Again.” In 1988, Parton taped an episode of her “Dolly” series at the Opry House, where she performed with Porter Wagoner. You can get an up-close look at the dress she wore on display at the 5,000th Exhibit.
Country music began to reach audiences through new platforms like CDs and satellite radio. WSM also launched its 24/7 live web stream during this era on wsmradio.com.
During this era, the Opry welcomed many of today’s country legends, including Clint Black, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Alan Jackson, Trace Adkins, Vince Gill, Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, Terri Clark, Charlie Daniels, and Carrie Underwood.
Notable songs from the era include Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places” and “The Thunder Rolls.” His album “No Fences” sold more than 17 million copies and to this day, Brooks remains the country’s best-selling solo artist.
Women continued to shine in the world of country music, including Faith Hill, Martina McBride, and Shania Twain. In the 90s, Twain was dubbed the “Queen of Country Pop” with hits like “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” and “Any Man of Mine.”
At one point during this timeframe, the Grand Ole Opry was underwater quite literally.
During the 2010 Nashville flood, water covered the stage and reached the seats in the auditorium. Although the Opry House had to close to audiences for five months, the show carried on at other venues, including the Ryman and the War Memorial Auditorium. The Opry House was restored and reopened on September 28, 2010.
This era no doubt expanded country music’s fan base with modern pop country. Listeners fell in love with inductees like Kelsea Ballerini, Luke Combs, Lady A, and Carly Pearce.
The era also brought a challenge unlike any other with the COVID-19 pandemic. Would-be sold-out lineups performed in front of an empty house, including a show featuring Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, and Brad Paisley on March 21, 2020.
For a consecutive 29 weeks, artists played without the support of a usual full house band and in-person audience. An estimated 50 million people from more than 100 countries tuned in through radio and digital platforms. Audiences were able to return in person on October 3, 2020.
Among other Opry outfits on display, Kentucky native Carly Pearce’s Opry debut dress and boots are featured in the 5000th Exhibit. Her boots have special meaning, as her parents told her she couldn’t wear them until she played at the Opry, according to Frans.
Veteran WSM Radio and Opry host Bill Cody told News 2 he believes country music has a bright future to come.
“The future to me has never been brighter because you have Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, and Luke Combs, and Garth Brooks, and Trisha Yearwood, and Darius Rucker. These people are so viable still to continue for generations to take it to the people.”
Country fans can check out the 5000th Exhibit at the Roy Acuff house through the end of the year.