Radio Rolled Out Grand Ole Opry from Nashville

Twenty-Ninth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Thursday, January 31, 2019

Copyright ©2019 for historical arrangement and original content by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing

The radio show to become known as Grand Ole Opry began Nov. 28, 1925, on newbie station WSM in Nashville—according to official version. But a broadcast weeks earlier held distinct markings of Opry genesis, retrospectively.

Thursday evening, Nov. 5, a mass of people gathered in downtown Nashville for the annual Policemen’s Benefit at Ryman Auditorium. Many had come because of WSM, for its old-time music and promotion of the event. Rising banjoist Uncle Dave Macon headlined, hilarious talent, and WSM would broadcast live. Six thousand fans jammed inside Ryman until doors closed on a couple thousand still outside.

The show began, carried three hours, and the crowd cheered throughout. “It was a miscellaneous program of music, instrumental, song and comedy…,” The Tennessean reported, “presenting a range from the finest touches in the classical to the old-time ‘break-down,’ and most ‘scientific jazz.’ ”

“Uncle Dave Macon [was] introduced as the ‘struttingest strutter that ever strutted a strut,’ either with his banjo, guitar or laryngeal equipment. Uncle Dave confessed to some embarrassment in being transplanted from a home far back in the country to the stage, without a big wood fireplace in which to expectorate and throw things. Some of the numbers presented jointly by himself and Mr. [Sid] Harkreader were: Turkey In The Straw, Sugar Walks Down The Street, Ain’t Goin’ to Rain No Mo’, Don’t Reckon Twill Happen Again, and Go Way Mule.”

“Both Harkreader and Uncle Dave kept the audience in an uproar.”

Dozens of telegrams reached WSM that night, lauding the Ryman broadcast, and within months the Nashville show was radio phenomenon. The “WSM Barn Dance” stood listed in Saturday broadcast schedules of newspapers nationwide.

“Old tunes like old lovers are the best, at least judging from the applause which the new Saturday night feature at station WSM receives from its listeners in all parts of the country,” touted George D. Hay, show announcer. “Jazz has not completely turned the tables on such tunes as Pop Goes The Weasel and Turkey In The Straw.”

Uncle Jimmy Thompson was press sensation for WSM, an old fiddler, 80-something. “Uncle Jimmy made his first appearance a month ago and telegrams were received from all parts of the United States, encouraging him in his task of furnishing barn dance music for a million homes,” Hay promoted. “He puts his heart and soul into his work and is one of the quaintest characters radio has yet discovered.”

Uncle Jimmy, crusty and endearing, was a ready human-interest story, meeting reporters to discuss life and fiddling championships. And public challenges rose immediately for Thompson, from other old fiddlers, bristling over press claims he was America’s best. Mellie Dunham of Maine, 72-year-old winner of Ford fiddle contests in the North, openly questioned the validity of Uncle Jimmy.

From Nashville the radio star bit back. “If Mellie Dunham will come down here to this WSM station, I’ll lay with him like a bulldog,” growled Uncle Jimmy. “He cain’t beat me. Why, he’s only a youngster, 72. I was plowin’ in a field ’fore he was born.” Their tussle went no further, apparently, as Dunham didn’t visit the South on vaudeville tour.

But Thompson traveled to Missouri for a Midwest fiddling contest, aired on WOS radio Jefferson City. A Missouri fiddler won the listener voting, Daniel Boone Jones, topping Uncle Jimmy Thompson and other entrants. Reportedly 250,000 votes were cast in calls, telegrams and letters to the station.

“Hillbilly music” entered lexicon as latest label in country genre. Uncle Dave Macon wrote and recorded his “Hill Billie Blues,” declaring “I am a billy and I live in the hills.” The 1924 record was unprecedented for use of the term. Bands emerged bearing the moniker, including George Daniell’s Hill Billies of Atlanta and the Al Hopkins Hill Billies of Washington, D.C.

Hillbilly books and movies sold, and record sales exploded. “Hill-Billy tunes are the new fashion in popular songs this year,” a scribe reported from New York in 1926. “Along Tin Pan Alley the vogue is spreading.”

Novelist Rose Wilder Lane, author of Hill Billy, had researched in the Missouri Ozarks. “We live in such a complicated world that a distinct movement is on hand among thinking people to restore simplicity,” she said. “While I was collecting the material for my book, I spend a great deal of time with the hill folks of the Ozarks. I found among them what I believe to be the real folk music of America—the hillbilly songs. These songs go back to the time before jazz, or even negro music, was heard on this continent.”

“When I came out of the mountains, I found that the first hillbilly tune, The Prisoner’s Song, had reached Broadway.”

Hillbilly was also a slur against country folks, deployed by 1800s newspapers, for example, to attack Kentucky highlanders in print. During 1925 Tennessee turned into tempest with hillbilly derogatory a factor, over media hysteria for the Scopes trial that pit evolution theory versus Bible scripture. Hill folks were depicted in vilest terms nationally, and ridiculed at home by uppity Tennesseans.

Nashville elitists extended their hillbilly ire to “WSM Barn Dance,” appalled of that commotion seemingly from nowhere. Elitists had nurtured Nashville music for generations, seeding awareness and hopefully greatness for classic symphony and grand opera. They were still anticipating a homegrown Mozart or Patti when suddenly 1,000-watt WSM started broadcasting from an insurance building downtown.

The radio station dismantled Nashville’s musical foundation in weeks, decried the intellectuals, by broadcasting mere rubes, hillbilly goofs and noisemakers on the airwaves. And to the entire nation! Nashville had been dumbed and disgraced by WSM, wailed the elitists. Their chum local newspaper critic protested by ignoring the country radio show, as he extolled opera.

Hillbilly fans struck back everywhere, defiantly supporting the music revived on radio. And country people always had comebacks for high-brow types, insults. They made fun of stuffy opera, twanging the word as opery or op’ry since before the Civil War. The comic-strip philosopher Abe Martin, wry rube character, proclaimed, “O stands for opery, grand opery, you know. Nobuddy likes it, but a few have t’ go.”

The opera barb led to a lasting name for WSM’s country show, uttered by announcer Hay on Dec. 10, 1927, according to his recall and news evidence. That evening the Barn Dance cast waited in studio as a network opera concluded in New York, for NBC at top of the hour.

After changeover to local programming, Hay aired his particular remark on WSM, along these words: “For the past hour we have been listening to music from the grand opera, but from now on we will present the grand old op’ry.” No recording of the broadcast was cut in disc, but evidence of a new show title was published next morning—“Grand  Old Op’ry,” as capitalized within quote marks—by the Sunday Tennessean.

The name would stick and Grand Ole Opry rolled by 1930, entertaining national audience from Nashville. Music elites could cry in their grand opera. The WSM hillbilly show boasted a bona fide star of American music in Macon, 60, former banjo-picking wagoner in the hills around Nashville.

“Uncle Dave Macon has taken the air by storm,” Hay promoted earnestly from WSM. “His character is rich with humor and his folk songs seem to strike home.”

Macon, for posterity, “was one of the first country recording stars and was the single most popular performer on the first 15 years of the Grand Ole Opry,” observed historian Charles K. Wolfe. “He saw country music develop from an age of sawdust floors and kerosene lanterns to an age of Hollywood glamour, million-selling phonograph records, and nationwide radio broadcasts. His repertoire ranged from pre-Civil War folksongs to Eddy Arnold hits. But his individual songs were not so important as his manner of presenting them… he wanted to feel a kinship with all his fans.”

Eddy Arnold spoke of Uncle Dave in 1971. “He was a showman—now that was the first thing about him,” Arnold said. “He’d get up and dance and take his hat and beat it on his banjo and stand the banjo down on the floor, go around it… he would tear an audience apart.”

“I learned, by George, you’d better be a showman to follow him.”

In 1928 Uncle Dave was portrayed in a novel, garnering fiction immortality like his colleague Blind Joe Mangrum on The Opry. Mangrum had come to Nashville and WSM after career revival in Paducah radio, Southern tours and fiddle contests. He was helped around by Mary, his devoted wife of more than a decade.

“I play now better than I ever did,” Mangrum said in Nashville, his former haunt with Fiddling Bob Taylor, late governor and senator. “Many’s the night I have played all night for ‘Our Bob.’ There was a man who dearly loved music…. I wish Governor Bob Taylor was back here now. We’d show them what music is.”

“Uncle Joe was one of the dearest people I’ve ever known in my life,” Alcyone Bate Beasley later recalled, original Opry performer with her father, Dr. Humphrey Bate. “He had a sweet wife who came with him every Saturday night, Aunt Mary. Used to bring him up there and stay right with him.”

“Uncle Joe was a talented man. I’ll tell you what he played—he played so beautifully—he played Italian things, some of those things, you can almost see gondolas. He played a lot that did not really fit in with the Opry, but it was so fine.”

The historian Wolfe summarized: “Uncle Joe Mangrum represented The Opry’s deepest roots in nineteenth century music.”

Mangrum starred in the glittering Opry shows of 1931, accompanied by Fred Shriver on accordion. Performers included the Macons, Dave and son Dorris; Dr. Bate and Alcyone with the Possum Hunters; G.W. Wilkerson and the Fruit Jar Drinkers; Sid Harkreader; the Crook Brothers; DeFord Bailey; Theron Hale; and Paul Warmack and the Gully Jumpers.

In remote broadcasts the Grand Ole Opry hosted crowds of 2,000 in War Memorial Auditorium, and a local music critic finally showed up, Alvin S. Wiggers, to review a show. Wiggers had avoided the WSM hillbillies for five years, covering everything else musical in Nashville, imploring readers to support grand opera especially.

Yet when Wiggers laid his eyes on and opened ears to Opry performers, he was pleasantly surprised and a good sport about it. “It was a novel experience for the writer, who felt like he had just dropped in from the moon,” Wiggers confessed in The Tennessean, adding he “didn’t know there was so much musical talent in Nashville, and had never seen so many fiddles, guitars, banjos, harmonicas, and accordions before, all played by experts who had spent their lives in studying their chosen instruments.”

Listeners sent song requests by telegram from multiple states, impressing Wiggers, who critiqued the players in positive notes. “Dr. Humphrey Bates and his ‘Possum Hunters’ played Take Your Foot Out Of The Mud and other classics, and varied their playing with occasional outbursts of vocalism or a hand-clapping concerto,” Wiggers wrote.

“Uncle Dave Macon, with his unique personality, gates-ajar collar, gold teeth and goatee, received an ovation. His son Dorris assisted in Red Wing and Jonah And The Whale, and Uncle Dave’s shouting and prancing brought down the house.”

“Uncle Joe Mangrum, who in his 79 years has never seen the light of day on his violin, and Fred Shriver, on the accordion, played Golden Slippers very entertainingly.”

Mangrum would’ve been better known in the 1932, when WSM went “clear channel” on its own radio frequency with 50,000-watts power. But the musical great died of a heart attack in January. Opry stars led by Macon performed a melodious tribute to Uncle Joe on the show.

A newsman friend wrote of Mangrum in remembrance, William Valentine Barry, at Lexington, Tenn. “I can still say that in all my life I never have heard anyone play The Mocking Bird as Joe did… He loved his violin and all who loved it. He would sit for hours and play for one man who listened attentively.”

“We hear of harps in heaven, but I take it that with Joe, it will be his old violin, reincarnated and transported to the Celestial Empire.”

Writer and consultant Matt Chaney is compiling a book on historical song and dance, tentatively titled River Music and Rockabilly in the Northern Delta. For more information see the ChaneysBlog page “Music History and Legend of the Missouri Delta.” For information on Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.  Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

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