As the Grand Ole Opry turns 95, historians share the moments that changed country music forever
The beloved home of country music aired its first episode on Nov. 28, 1925
For the past 95 years, the Grand Ole Opry has played host to some of the biggest, brightest and boldest stars in country music.
Structured as a weekly live music concert, the Grand Ole Opry exclusively showcases country music. Though the program is most famously known as a radio program, audiences can also catch the Opry on television and online.
Artists from Dolly Parton to Hank Williams Sr. to Johnny Cash have all graced the Opry's famous wooden circle stage, with country music fans around the world tuning in to the show every Saturday night to hear the newest hitmakers and legends of the genre.
Day 6 spoke with three country music historians, Robert K. Oermann, Bill C. Malone and Paul Kingsbury, to get their thoughts on some of the moments that changed country music forever — all thanks to the Grand Ole Opry.
Uncle Jimmy Thompson plays his fiddle and the crowd (at home) goes wild
Before the Grand Ole Opry was formally known as the Opry, the 650 AM WSM radio station in Nashville, Tenn., broadcast a program known as the WSM Barn Dance.
The first episode, which aired on Nov. 28, 1925, featured Uncle Jimmy Thompson, whose mastery as an old-time fiddle player inspired George D. Hay — the founder of the Grand Ole Opry radio show — to put Thompson on the air.
"The brass, the people that owned the WSM radio station, were horrified, because they wanted the station to stand for something higher class than that," according to Oermann, a columnist for MusicRow magazine and the author of nine books on music history, including the recently released Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics.
"They were embarrassed that they put country music on the air on the station. But the mail poured in and that made them put country music on the air the next Saturday night, and the one after that and the one after that, beginning the tradition that we still celebrate in country music."
The Grand Ole Opry gets its name
The Grand Ole Opry wouldn't actually get the name it's now known by until 1927 — two years after the WSM Barn Dance first debuted.
The details of the story change depending on who tells it, but according to Malone — a musician, former Tulane University professor and the author of several books on country music, including Country Music, U.S.A. — the name came about thanks to the opera music program that aired before the WSM Barn Dance.
"Supposedly one night, the barn dance came on air after Walter Damrosch's musical appreciation hour," Malone told Day 6, noting Damrosch's acclaim as a symphony conductor and an authority on classical music and opera.
After Damrosch's program aired, Opry founder Hay came on-air and told listeners that they'd just heard selections from the grand opera.
"'You'll be hearing music from the Grand Ole Opry,'" said Hay, according to Malone.
That evening's performance wasn't just notable for the program's name. It also marked the first time that a Black man performed on the show.
DeFord Bailey, who later earned the nickname "Harmonica Wizard," was the first-ever artist to be introduced on the program, debuting Pan American Blues — a song that also happened to be the first harmonica blues composition ever recorded.
The love story of Johnny and June
Of course, the Opry isn't special just because of its music. The show has been the home of some of country music's greatest love stories.
According to Paul Kingsbury, that's the case for Johnny Cash — the Man in Black himself.
"Johnny Cash first saw June Carter, who eventually became his wife ... when he was 18 on a senior class trip to the Grand Ole Opry," Kingsbury told Day 6.
"She was on-stage with her mother … and her sisters, they were performing on the Grand Ole Opry, and he was pretty smitten. He'd heard her on the radio, but now he'd seen her in person."
Six years later, when Carter had risen to a level of fame that earned him a spot on the Opry stage, he met Carter backstage and prophetically predicted that they would be married one day.
"There's a little problem with that," said Kingsbury. "Because they were both married to other people [at the time] … but you know what? It came true in the years that followed that meeting."
The romance between Cash and Carter is legendary in country music, even inspiring an Academy Award-winning feature film starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Withherspoon as Carter.
"They were married in 1968, and they stayed married until their deaths in 2003," Kingsbury said. "They passed away within four months of each other."
Cash's debut at the Opry featured three songs, including Walk the Line.
13-year-old Dolly Parton takes the stage — and she wasn't even on the list
Despite the fact that the Grand Ole Opry is a scheduled, weekly program with a defined list of performers every week, long-time fans will agree that part of the show's appeal are the moments of spontaneity that occur.
In 1959, Opry audiences didn't just witness a moment of spontaneity, they also witnessed history in the making, when a 13-year-old Dolly Parton and her uncle managed to talk themselves backstage at the Opry.
The young Parton — who had a single record to her name and wouldn't actually perform as a featured musician until 1969 — managed to convince Cajun performer Jimmy C. Newman to give up one song to let her perform.
"Jimmy C. Newman … gave little Dolly one of his song slots … and let her sing on the show instead," said Oermann. "And Johnny Cash introduced her."
"That's an example of a backdoor moment … This little 13-year-old girl, who did have a record out … gets to be on the Opry, even though she wasn't on the list."
Parton performed You've Gotta Be My Baby, originally written by George Jones, and wowed the audience to such an extent that she received three encores from the crowd.
Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra.