Now approaching its 74th anniversary, the Grand Ole Opry is more than just America's longest-running radio show. It is also a cultural force of limitless reverberations, one whose impact far surpasses that of any of its biggest stars whether of Roy Acuff, its first musical titan, or Garth Brooks, its current behemoth.
No scholar is better suited to reveal the Grand Ole Opry's historic underpinnings than Charles K. Wolfe. He has written extensively on the subject before and has contributed valuable studies of such country music luminaries as Kitty Wells, Grandpa Jones, the Louvin Brothers, and DeFord Bailey, the Opry's first major black personality. A tireless interviewer of peripheral figures and a rooter-out of obscure archives, Wolfe's most recent offering was The Devil's Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling.
In his new book, Wolfe chronicles the Opry from its advent November 28, 1925, on Nashville radio station WSM as a regional barn dance to its development into a cherished national institution by 1940. He explains as well how the Opry cast evolved in its first 15 years from a loose collection of musically talented amateurs into a corps of polished show business professionals. At the center of all this activity stood the Opry's originator and guiding spirit, station manager George D. Hay, the solemn old judge. Wolfe's research turns up a number of notable firsts. By his account, the Binkley Brothers and Jack Jackson's I'll Rise When the Rooster Crows, recorded in 1928, was the first country hit to come from Nashville. Obed Dad Pickard, who made his Opry debut in 1926, became the show's first vocal star. And the Vagabonds, who came to the Opry in 1931, are credited with creating its first souvenir songbook and establishing Nashville's first country music publishing company. A segment of the Opry first began airing regularly on the NBC radio network in October, 1939. Wolfe also points out that in spite of the Opry's growing importance Nashville did not become a country music recording center until the mid-1940s. Although many of the Opry's early performers made records, they did so in such faraway places as Atlanta and New York.
This fact-filled text is enriched by 46 photos and a complete annotated listing of the Opry's cast members from 1925 to 1940. It bears emphasizing that Wolfe is as readable as he is detailed.
Edward Morris is a Nashville-based journalist and former country music editor of Billboard.