The Grand Ole Opry and the Urban South

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The Grand Ole Opry and the Urban South

by Louis M. Kyriakoudes
Southern Cultures, Vol. 10, No. 1: Spring 2004

"'Lord, Lord, you ought to take a ride, get in a Ford with a donnie by your side.'"

One Saturday evening in 1927, George D. Hay, the program director of Nashville radio station WSM, was preparing to introduce the evening’s local program, the WSM Barn Dance. Not really a barn dance at all, the program’s succession of what was then called “old time” or “hillbilly” musical acts interspersed with comedy routines made it more akin to vaudeville or minstrelsy. Hay had begun the program soon after arriving at the then one-month-old station in November 1925, and the heady brew of traditional string-band music performed by musicians drawn from Nashville and its hinterland proved extremely popular with radio audiences across the South. On that night, the Barn Dance followed an NBC network presentation of symphonic music from New York. The conductor, Walter Damrosch, stating over the airways that he was making an exception to his rule that “there was no place in the classics for realism,” ended his program with a performance of a brief orchestral composition depicting a locomotive. As the program went on the air, Hay announced, “For the next three hours we will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the earthy.” Thereon, DeFord Bailey, harmonica virtuoso and the sole African American performer of the program, laid into a rousing rendition of “Pan American Blues.” After Bailey’s opener, Hay sought again to differentiate his program from its high culture predecessor and bragged that “for the past hour we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera, but from now on we will present ‘The Grand Ole Opry.'” And that is how the “mother church” of country music, and Nashville’s best-known and most enduring contribution to the nation’s popular culture, got its name.