Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry – The Old Violin

When you come to the Nashville city limits sign coming from any direction, it says “Music City Metropolitan Nashville Davidson County, Home of the Grand Ole Opry.” See Nashville prides itself on its country music heritage these days, but that hasn’t always been the case. In 1925, when Edwin Craig started WSM radio, Nashville’s “old money” didn’t want anything here that would portray the city as backward or hickish. The early years brought endless battles with the conservative establishment of Nashville, which was very protective of Nashville’s image as the “Athens of the South.” They told Craig “you should educate these mountaineers, not please them.”

Initially, WSM had its studios on the top floor of the National Life and Causality building. They chose the nickname “Air Castle of the South” because they were on the top floor of the building, all 5 floors of it. They built a large one-room studio with a grand piano and elaborate red curtains that made it look like a fairly formal venue and intended primarily for the great dance bands and opera performers of the time.

WSM’s fate changed in early November 1925 when they hired a young announcer, George D. Hay, away from the mighty WLS in Chicago as their manager. George Hay had made a name for himself and was known on the air as the “Solemn Judge” even though he was just 30 years old at the time. He had earned the nickname in his childhood when a relative said of the serious and affable Hay: “He is as solemn as a judge.” Hay had listened to and enjoyed a variety of local folk music earlier in his life and felt that it would be a good draw to the “masses” for the new radio medium. He hired a 78-year-old violinist, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, to perform on a night when there was no regular act. The reaction from listeners was so strong that Hay announced that the following month WSM would broadcast an hour or two of old music every Saturday night and call the show WSM Barn Dance. There, as the “Solemn Ole Judge” would be the original announcer.

In December 1927, after a Saturday night performance of the “Hour of Music Appreciation,” which included the classics, “WSM Barn Dance” was opened with Deford Bailey, whom Hay referred to as “The Harmonica Wizard.” . After Bailey’s rendition of “The Harmonica Wizard.” Pan American Blues “Hay announced” for the last hour that we’ve been listening to music largely taken from the Grand Opera. From now on we will present the Grand Ole Opry.

Seventy years later, in 1997, I first stepped back on the now infamous Grand Ole Opry. Over the next several years, I would become a regular stage attending the Grand Ole Opry performance on Saturday night countless times. My kids grew up logging on a Saturday night backstage at the Opry it was normal but it wasn’t. Each attendance was an opportunity to see history in the making.

One of those events happened in 1998, as I recall. It was a typical night at the Opry except for one thing. Johnny Paycheck had been sick for a while and in Ohio. Tonight would mark his return to the Opry. Now the back of the stage is usually very lively with people visiting and doing what the veterans called “wave and hello”, greeting each other and everyone else backstage. Sometimes it is difficult to even hear what is happening up front. But tonight, when Paycheck stepped up to the mic and his violinist played that trademark lick, you could have heard a pin drop. Paycheck leaned over to that famous mic with the triangular cover marked WSM Grand Ole Opry and sang. “I can’t remember, once in my life, I felt so lonely like tonight, I feel like I could lie down and not get up anymore, it’s the most damned feeling, I’ve never felt it before. Tonight I feel, like and Old Violin, that will soon be saved and never touched again.

I wonder if the bow was some kind of feeling of power from the older generation of country music acknowledging that their time had passed. But had he really done it? Won’t you live forever? I think it will. I believe that the mere fact that the Grand Ole Opry continues to be regarded to this day as the Mother Church of country music is proof that the foundations of county music will never be lost. Time and sounds will change, of course. The artists of the 70s were very different from their predecessors of the previous 50 years, but they had their own kind of reverence for those great artists of the past. With each new generation of country singers, they bring their own style, but if you listen carefully, you will hear influences dating back to Deford Bailey. Every now and then, each new generation brings out the old violin and reminds us that the sweetest sounds come from the oldest, time-tested and proven instruments.

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