When most people think about Nashville the rich and vibrant music scene that has been at the soul of the city for decades is one of the first things that comes to mind. Much of that history begins and ends with the Grand Ole Opry, a one-hour radio show that had humble beginnings starting in the 1920s. Over that time, the show evolved and grew dramatically, becoming not just an institution in the Music City itself, but a popular destination for travelers the world over. Today, thousands still flock to the Opry each year to pay their respects to the legends of country music or to catch a rising star as they get their big break.
If you're planning on visiting Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry should be near the top of your list for places to see. Before you visit however, here's what you need to know.
The Grand Ole Opry has some very humble beginnings. At first, it was a radio show that was created as a simple tool to help sell insurance. But later, as it grew in popularity, it transformed into one of the best and most long-lived country music radio shows in history.
The early origins of the show can be traced back to 1925 and another radio program called the "WSM Barn Dance," which took place in a radio studio located on the fifth floor of the National Life & Accident Insurance Company in downtown Nashville. That show was a carbon copy of other popular music shows that were springing up in cities across America, where local musicians would perform for a live audience on hand to join in on the fun. But thanks to the incredible list of performers available in Nashville, the crowds and prestige of the show began to grow quickly.
Some of the acts that played on the "WSM Barn Dance" included Bill Monroe, the Dixie Clodhoppers, and Fiddlin' Arthur Smith. Host George Hay has a special place in his heart for any band that could play the fiddle, and usually ended the program with one of his favorite groups — the Fruit Jar Drinkers – in large part because they featured violins prominently in their music.
The Grand Ole Opry is Born
Over the next few years, the "Barn Dance" audience continued to grow, with thousands tuning in to catch the latest featured musician or band. On one particular Saturday night in 1927, Hay made a statement following the show's opening performance that would leave a lasting impact on the future of the program, not to mention country music in general. In reference to the music played by DeFord Bailey Hay said, "For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from the Grand Opera, but from now on we will present the Grand Ole Opry." That statement struck the right chord with country music audience, with the name taking hold not long after.
As the new name took center stage, the size of the crowds showing up for the weekly radio broadcast continued to increase as well. It wasn't long before the radio station and hosts were looking for a new, larger venue to contain its growing live audience. The first move took the program to the Belcourt Theatre (known then as the Hillsboro Theatre), before moving on to The Dixie Tabernacle, and then on to the War Memorial Auditorium. Eventually however, the Opry settled into place at the Ryman Auditorium (formally the Union Tabernacle) in 1943, where it would stay for the next three decades.
In 1963, National Life insurance purchased the Ryman Auditorium for $207,500 and changed the name of the building to the Grand Ole Opry House, but the Opry was destined to move at least one more time. In 1969, National Life announced plans to open up a theme park and hotel situated east of downtown Nashville and those plans also included a new home for the Grand Ole Opry itself. In the spring of 1974 the now-legendary radio show moved out of the Ryman Auditorium to set up residence in a brand new building officially named the Grand Ole Opry House.
In a direct nod to its roots at the Ryman, a 6-foot wooden section of the old stage was cut out and placed at the center of the new stage at the Opry House. This salute to its past has helped maintain the legacy and the legend of the "Grand Ole Opry" radio show and its live audiences to this day.
The Modern Opry
In 1982, American General insurance company took over National Life and it's properties and soon afterward began to look for ways to cut costs. In order to reduce the debt that resulted from the overpriced buy out the Opry's new owner began to negotiate the sale of some National Life's assets. Among them was the Opryland Hotel and Convention Center, the Opryland Theme park, WSM radio station, and the Ryman Auditorium. At the time, It was unknown what fate would befall "The Grand Ole Opry" itself.
Not long after the sale was announced however, an Oklahoma businessman, and good friend of country music legend Minnie Pearl, by the name of Ed Gaylord bought the properties for $225 million. Gaylord vowed to continue operations of the Grand Ole Opry House and the "Grand Ole Opry" radio program.
Today, the Grand Ole Opry is still owned by Gaylord Entertainment and is still going strong. The Grand Ole Opry show can still be heard on the WSM radio station and offers live shows every Saturday evening — February through December —starting at 7 p.m. local time. A Tuesday night show is also aired live and occasionally there are other country classic shows aired at other times of the week too.
Visiting The Grand Ole Opry
Travelers looking to visit the Grand Ole Opry will find a full slate of upcoming shows listed on the venue's website. They'll also find options for booking a backstage tour, special packages with accommodations and meet-and-greets, as well as travel tips for visiting the Music City in general.
Those who just want to drop by to pay homage to this special place will find it located 2804 Opryland Drive, not far from Nashville's trendy East Side. It is easy to access and sits next to the Opryland Hotel and the large Opryland Mall, making it an excursion that can keep visitors busy for a full day.
Inside, the Grand Ole Opry House is a thoroughly modern affair, with an elegant stage, beautiful lighting, and wonderful acoustics. That continues to make it a favorite venue for country artists to this day. That said, the location suffered severe damage during a massive flood that occurred back in 2010, but master craftsmen spent five months, working round the clock, to restore the place not only to its former status, but to improve the setting too. As a result, the Opry House of the 21st century continues to evolve and grow to meet the times.
That said, in a nod to its roots the venue uses pew-style seating. And while those seats are comfortable and accommodating, they are also a subtle salute to the seating that was found in the Ryman Auditorium when it became the home of The Grand Ole Opry radio show back in the early 1940s. Those seats help to convey the sense of community that has always been at the core of the show and continues to draw in fans even now.
Visitors to the Grand Ole Opry House will find that it is fully accessible for wheelchair users, with ramps for getting in and out of the building. Those pew-style seats are also highly accessible, with plenty of room for those who need to come and go. Assistive listening devices make it easier for the hearing impaired to enjoy the show too and interpreters can be booked in advance to help those who don't speak English as their primary language to enjoy their visit too.
Seeing a show at the Grand Ole Opry House remains a special treat for fans of country music. The place is one of the most storied music venues in the entire country, drawing in thousands of fans on an annual basis. Many of those fans have been listening to the radio show for years and it is a dream come true for them to witness it in person. Fortunately, very few ever go away disappointed.