The radio show that made country music famous first hit airwaves in 1925. Back then it was just a weekly one-hour “barn dance” put out by station WSM in Nashville on Saturday nights. Today, the Grand Ole Opry is among the longest running broadcasts in history, occupying reverential space in the canon of American music. Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, even Elvis Presley (though he famously only played the Opry once) have all performed. This weekend, the Opry celebrates the 40th anniversary of its move to its current space east of downtown. It left the historic Ryman Auditorium in 1974 after the show’s popularity demanded a larger venue—but not before taking a six-foot circle of oak from center stage and installing it in its new home.
To help mark the anniversary, we asked a handful of musicians to share their Opry memories with us.
The Opry in their own words…
“I used to go to sleep on my grandfather’s lap, listening to the Grand Ole Opry in his Ford pickup truck out by the barn. The sound would come and go up in those Kentucky mountains, but when it would come back in, it was the greatest sound in the world.”—Ricky Skaggs
“If you think the big bang is when the fiddle met the banjo, if you think there’s nothing so sorrowful as a sad country song, if you think Charlie Pride broke the color line just as much as Jackie, if you think Loretta is still the fiercest, fieriest female voice in Music City, if you think Porter Wagoner singing ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ is as deep and humbling as anything the choir belts out on Sunday morning, if you think Roy Acuff is still the king—then you must know it deep in your heart, as I do, that the Grand Ole Opry is hillbilly-heaven-on-earth.
Imagine if they never tore down Ebbets Field, or if you could still get up to the top of the Statue of Liberty and peek out the little windows of her crown; or imagine if you could still ride the Wabash Cannonball, the L&N, The Southern, or the Yellow Dog. Well you can’t. Most of that old American grandeur is gone for good. But you can still go the Grand Ole Opry. It’s still in Nashville, Tennessee, every Saturday night. You can still buy a paper cone of popcorn, sit back, tap your toes, and listen in. You might still even hear ‘em sing ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ or ‘Kaw-Liga’ or ‘Green Green Grass of Home.’ Some things don’t ever change.” —Ketch Secor, Old Crow Medicine Show
“I got a job with Bill Monroe in 1963—would have been February of ‘63 when I played at the Opry with him for the first time. And actually I couldn’t play. I could sing but couldn’t play my guitar. In those days you had to belong to the local musicians union to play there. That first night on the Opry stage I was so excited—not only was the Opry new to me but so was Bill Monroe. And I’ll tell you I still get nervous before I go out on that stage. If I’m ever going to forget the words to a song it’ll be on the Grand Ole Opry stage. It’s just so special. I’d been listening to the Opry program with my brother and my dad on Saturday nights since I was just barely old enough to listen, so it meant a lot to me to become a member.”—Del McCoury
“The first time I played the Grand Ole Opry stage I remember actually tearing up as it was a moment I knew I would never forget. Every time I step on that stage I’m reminded that country music has accepted me because there is not a more hallowed stage than the circle of the Grand Ole Opry. Moments happen on the Opry stage that never happen anywhere else. It’s an institution. Where else can you see Little Jimmy Dickens, Old Crow Medicine Show, Vince Gill, Brad Paisley, and Keith Urban on one stage on the same night? It’s home. The night I was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, I like to think my mom, who passed away over 20 years ago, was there, smiling.”—Darius Rucker
“The first time I played at the Opry was when it was still at the Ryman Auditorium, back in January of 1959. I remember that Porter Wagoner introduced me, and I was scared to death. I sang my first recording on a major label, a song I wrote called, “That’s What It’s Like To Be Lonesome.” But my overall favorite Opry memory is probably the night my mother was in the audience and I got a standing ovation on a song I wrote for her called, “Mama Sang A Song.” Standing ovations are rare at the Opry for anybody at any time, but her being there made this one even more special than it might have otherwise been. The exposure from having been an Opry member for over fifty years (I joined in July, 1961) has been immeasurable. But nobody plays the Opry for the money. We play it for the exposure and for the love of the music and our love for the institution itself.”—Bill Anderson
“I made my Opry debut last summer. I was sixty-four years old and my latest CD had just been released. Woody Paul Chrisman of Riders in the Sky introduced me, which was fitting as Woody and I had played music together while students at Vanderbilt forty years earlier. I’ve played the Opry twice since then, most recently at the Ryman Auditorium, which houses the Opry during winter months. Just standing on the same stage where so many of my heroes had stood—namely Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley —was an experience beyond words. Ironically, while students at Vandy, Woody and I would often hitchhike down West End Avenue to the backstage door of the Opry, waltzing right into Roy Acuff’s dressing room, where Woody and Mr. Acuff would swap fiddle tunes while Charlie Collins [Acuff’s guitar player] and I strummed along. Seems like another lifetime ago.”—Marshall Chapman