Imagine a birthday party that covered nine days, featured a pro-celeb golf tournament, 6,000 disc jockeys, an abundance of spirits, both human and alcoholic, and wound up with a five-layer cake costing $300—all in the name of what was once denigrated as a “hillbilly” radio show.
That’s the kind of whoop-de-do they threw recently in Nashville to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Grand Ole Opry, the longest running epic in the history of American radio.
Because of Opry, Nashville has become to country music what Vienna is to Schlag. Each Saturday night, 62 entertainers perform for five-and-a-half hours in a show that reaches nearly 15 million listeners. In a half century, Opry has mushroomed into a multimillion dollar industry for its owners, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company.
The Nashville Sound, in celebration, seemed more like a slurp as free booze was poured along such places as Printers Alley for 1,000 invited guests. There were ham-and-biscuits and the ham-and-wry renderings of such performers as Tanya Tucker, Mac Davis, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Ferlin and Marvis Husky, Dolly Parton, Ronnie Milsap, Boots Randolph and Ronnie Prophet.
For every young star downtown, there was a glittering veteran at the Opry’s plush theater nine miles away. Roy Acuff (the king of country music) reminisced, Chet Atkins whapped the guitar and Minnie Pearl how-deed all over the big stage.
Some of the old-timers no doubt can remember the beginning of it all. It was at Nashville’s radio station WSM on the evening of October 15, 1925. Dr. Humphrey Bate, a physician from Castalian Springs, Tenn., brought his five-member string band, featuring guitars, fiddles, a banjo and a ukulele into the station. His daughter, Mrs. Alcyone Beasley, 63, remembers it well. “We played for 30 minutes,” she recalls, “and when we were driving home, my father said to me: ‘Baby, I think we may have started something tonight.’ ”