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How the Grand Ole Opry Defines Nashville to the Nations

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Sounds & Visions

Today, it’s impossible to imagine Nashville without its nickname. You know the one. Nearly everyone does.

Nashville’s global reputation as Music City, USA is now based upon many sprawling branches, but the city’s massive music-industry tree first took root from a humble, homespun seed; the Grand Ole Opry. The story of Nashville and the Opry is one of an unlikely alliance, formed in the face of a social and economic divide that must have seemed wider than the Cumberland itself. At its outset, the joyful and boisterous live radio show that would become the Opry was peopled mostly with folks from well outside the city limits. These entertainers couldn’t have been further removed from the world of the prominent Nashville men who created the bedrock upon which country music would rise to heights unimagined by either of the two camps--namely, WSM - AM.

In 1925, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company launched a radio station at 650 on the AM dial. The station--as well as its call-letter-based slogan, “We Shield Millions” --was the brainchild of Edwin Craig, son of National Life president C.A. Craig. His son’s idea was first regarded as youthful folly by many, but Edwin Craig, too, would prove to be made of the same visionary stock as his father. Today, WSM-AM is an acclaimed bastion of classic country music heard worldwide via the Internet and, most important of all, it’s the birthplace of the Opry, Nashville’s best-known expert. “As the longest continuously running radio show in existence in the U.S. the Grand Ole Opry is easily the most famous institution in Nashville,” confirms author/music historian Paul Kingsbury. “It’s far more famous than Vanderbilt, Belmont, the Parthenon, the Hermitage . . . You could go on and on.

One could convincingly argue that institutions such as healthcare and higher education matter more than music of any kind, but the fact remains, As you drive away from Davidson County, its other proud accomplishments begin to fade like a low-power radio station. Don Cusic, an author/music historian and Belmont University professor, “puts the subject into perspective, speaking from across the globe, “I’ve been in India, France, England--and now I’m in Thailand--and if you say “Nashville,” people light up and think “music.” That’s our identity. The healthcare industry, insurance, history and education and all those other wonderful things get a blank stare.

Because the Opry’s keening fiddles, cornpone comedy and unapologetic rural tone stood in stark polarity to the ideals of a culturally aspiring Nashville in the 1920s and ‘30s, it was initially met with considerable scorn by many. Cusic, who refers to the story of country music as “the story of a fight for respect,” notes that “the business community wanted to attract new businesses and thought that country music presented a negative image of the city. Things changed!”

The Opry’s eventual triumph over its detractors was largely due to Edwin Craig himself. Craig, who would become president of National Life in 1943 (and who reportedly could play a mean mandolin), stood firm in the face of critics. As Country Music Hall of Fame Senior Historian John Rumble observes, “Mr. Craig deserves special credit, because he saw the value of country music, especially the music’s Folk roots. He certainly saw the commercial value of it,” say’s Rumble, adding that “the Opry was helping National Life sell insurance like crazy.”

In the firsts devastating years of the Depression, National Life’s sales actually increased by more than a quarter, aiding Nashville’s economy at a critical time, while the Opry began to establish itself as a national treasure far beyond its function as an insurance-sales tool. The upgrading of WSM to a clear-channel 50,000-watt frequency in 1932 carried its signal across most of North America and beyond, attracting ever-increasing crowds to Nashville to witness the Opry firsthand. It outgrew the WSM studios, moving to the Hillsboro Theatre (now the Belcourt) in 1934, on to East Nashville’s Dixie Tabernacle in ‘36 and then, near the decade’s close, to the 2200-seat War Memorial Auditorium. The resulting wear and tear on the ornate War Memorial eventually raised the ire of the governor, however, and the Opry was asked to relocate in 1943. Opry program director Harry Stone sought an arrangement with the sole remaining venue in town that could accommodate the show and its burgeoning audience--the Ryman Auditorium. That landmark deal would, in essence, save the Opry and transform the Ryman into a country-music shrine that would forever be associated with it.

Looking back, the Opry’s golden era at the Ryman--from 1943 to 1974--unfolded in tandem with a blur of forward momentum for Nashville as a country music center, “Within that three-decade period, music publishing companies and recording studios sprung up, laying the groundwork for what was to become Music Row. The Country Music Association was founded, succeeding in its mission to attract more radio stations to country formats. The Country Music Hall of Fame was created, bringing a new level of legitimacy to the music form. Country music diversified and broadened stylistically, embracing contemporary elements that led to increasing mainstream acceptance and the highly lucrative country/pop hybrid dubbed the Nashville Sound.” By 1963, the country music industry had finally begun to gain respect as a major player in the Nashville business community. Still, it owed its origins to the Opry and to National Life’s presence on the airwaves. “WSM and the Grand Ole Opry are the magnets that pulled the country and pop talent to Nashville that eventually made it Music City,” affirms Paul Kingsbury. “No other musical institution in town was seminal in quite the way that WSM and the Opry were.”

When National Life purchased the Ryman in 1963, it was an icon in the midst of increasing decay. By the late ‘60s, plans were in place to build a new Opry House as the centerpiece for a theme part and major tourist destination. Opryland, which would open in the spring of 1972, was heartily supported by a majority of Nashville’s city leaders. Mayor Beverly Briley, in fact, lobbied for the Opry’s location northeast of downtown. This, of course, is memorialized by the broad beltway that bears his name, put in to ensure easy access to the tourist and entertainment complex. The current Opry House has served its titular institution in grand style since opening in 1974, outliving its theme-park companion and continuing its legacy with laudable vitality.

Today, the Opry enjoys two homes, with seasonal performances again being staged at the mighty Ryman--an arrangement that fittingly symbolizes a once-broken circle again made unbroken. During its mostly-dormant two decades, the Ryman survived a proposal to tear down the landmark, thanks to public outcry and protests from preservationists both inside and outside of Nashville, Major motion pictures including Robert Altman’s Nashville and the Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter gave the old auditorium some new cachet, and the groundswell of support eventually resulted in an $8.5 million renovation by current owners, Gaylord Entertainment. The Ryman, which reopened in 1994, was designated as a national historic landmark in 2001; it’s been named as Pollstar magazine’s National Theatre of the Year for five of the last 10 years, including the previous three.

“[The renovation is] one of the best things that’s ever happened to the Ryman, to Nashville, to country music,” says John Rumble, The historian also notes that, just as the Ryman was undergoing renovation,” Nashville’s Chamber of Commerce fully embraced the, “Music City” terminology for its welcome signs--itself a sign that Old Nashville’s arm’s-length relationship with country music had shifted. “Now, with the last few mayors we’ve had--Mayor Bredesen, Purcell, and especially Mayor Dean--the business establishment, “observes Rumble, “is wholeheartedly joining hands with the music industry.”

Just as “Grand Ole Opry” is a countrified colloquialism of “grand opera,” so have Nashville’s culture-rich legacy and the common man’s music become irreversibly intertwined in the city’s saga--a story of visionaries who, in differing ways, sought to serve the common good. In the spirit of the gregarious greeting made immortal by Miss Minnie Pearl--How-DEEE! The Opry continues to warmly welcome the world to Music City, USA.

Celebrate Nashville - Metro Charter


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