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Happy Birthday WSM Radio

October 5, 2009

It all started on Monday, October 5, 1925.

There are not many radio stations that are remembered by their birthdays.  WSM is one of those exceptions given the historic nature of the station, and the programming that orginates over its airwaves.   Through the many decades this Nashville, Tennessee station known as “The Air Castle Of The South” has become a fixture on the broadcast dial.  Most people, such as myself,  just refer to WSM as the “home of the Grand Ole Opry”.  No matter how we refer to the station, however, one thing is for sure.  When we talk about WSM we are talking about an essential ingredient of America. 

The benchmark program that makes AM 650 a favorite selection on all my radios, be in the car or at home, is the classic sounds that travel the many miles from the Opry stage to my ear.  What has not been lost after all these years is the innocent sounds of the fiddle, harmonica, and old fashioned humor that draws smiles and applause across the generations.  While many changes have taken place with both technology that allows for better broadcast transmission, and marketing which produces at times a different type of Opry performer, one thing has never changed.  That being the basic elements of the old-fashioned nature of the longest running radio show.  Talent on a stage performing before an in-house audience, as well as a much larger listening audience, that are interspersed with ads read from the stage.


Dr. Humphrey Bate and his Possum Hunters were a popular parlor band in Nashville, TN., and the first live band to perform on WSM radio in 1927 .

How WSM started on October 5, 1925, and then how the Grand Ole Opry began are two of the great stories of radio.

In 1925, radio was growing with breathtaking speed. It had only been five years since the first commercial station, KDKA in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, had broadcast the first program over the air — the results of the Harding-Cox election — to an audience of 2,000 eager listeners. By March, 1922, WSB in Atlanta was broadcasting old time country string bands. The “National Barn Dance” was heard over WLS in Chicago in 1924, and its announcer was a former Memphis journalist by the name of George D. Hay. On the air, he called himself the “Solemn Old Judge”.

At the same time that Hay was introducing country acts in the Windy City, Edwin W. Craig, the son of the president of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, was trying to convince his father to build a radio station in Nashville.  He argued that company control of a radio station, especially with the call letters reflecting the company’s slogan, “We Shield Millions,” or WSM, would help sell insurance. C.A. Craig was sold on the idea and convinced National’s board to invest in his son’s station.

Opening night. October 5, 1925. Hay was one of the special guests invited to participate in the premier broadcast of WSM Radio. Although there were no country acts on the program, that date sealed country music’s fate forever because Edwin Craig offered Hay the job of WSM’s program director. Hay accepted.

The Grand Ole Opry didn’t happen overnight, but it wasn’t exactly slow in coming, either. In fact, it didn’t take Hay very long to inaugurate country music programming on WSM at all. Since radio was live in those days it, of course, depended on live performers. Hay knew that there was plenty of talent lurking in the surrounding hills. All he had to do was flush it out. 

On November 22, WSM’s first country performer went on the air. He was an ancient hard-drinking old-time fiddler named Uncle Jimmy Thompson. White bearded and outspoken, Thompson bragged that he could “fiddle the bugs off a ‘tater vine.” He also said that he knew a “thousand tunes” and announced over the air that he was prepared to fill all requests. Almost instantly, telegrams began flooding into WSM. After an hour of continuous playing, Hay asked Uncle Jimmy if he wasn’t tired and wanted to quit. The 80-year-old replied no. In fact, he said, it took him a hour just to get warmed up so he could play good. 

Uncle Jimmy Thompson was soon joined by Dr. Humphrey Bate, a gregarious country doctor who lived in Sumner County. He had a string band in tow but didn’t have a name for them. Hay suggested, “Dr. Humphrey Bate and the Possum Hunters”. The name stuck. 

By now, the Saturday night show was being called the “WSM Barn Dance”. Hay added more performers to the roster — The Gully Jumpers, The Fruit Jar Drinkers (a name which alluded to the fact that moonshine was drunk from fruit jars) and The Crook Brothers. The first real star, though, was a banjo picker from Smart Station named David Harrison Macon. He was also the first professional musician to join the troupe. Everyone called him “Uncle Dave”. 

Uncle Dave Macon became a professional musician late in life. He had owned his own freighting business until trucks proved faster than his mules. But he didn’t want to change to mode of locomotion. Uncle Dave didn’t get along with progress. In fact, he never did learn to drive a car. 

When his freighting concern passed by the wayside, Uncle Dave discovered that people were willing to actually pay him to sing and play the banjo. He had been picking for free for friends and family and this was a new wrinkle. He liked the idea. He teamed up with a fiddler Sid Harkreader and the pair toured the South to much success. They even traveled to New York and cut some records. Uncle Dave and Sid were asked to become part of the WSM Darn Dance in December 1925. 

Hay continued adding acts to his Barn Dance and by February 1926, had about 25 signed up. In the meantime, WSM was also growing by leaps and bounds. That year, the National Broadcasting Companywas formed by David Sarnoff and WSM sighed up as an affiliate. In the meantime, the station increased its power from 1,000 to 5,000 watts. Now the Barn Dance was being heard over much of the Midwest and its audience was growing rapidly. 

Cards and letters flooded the station. The Barn Dance increased from one hour to two, then three. Finally on December 8, 1928, something happened that would change the Barn Dance forever. 

From seven to eight o’clock, WSM carried the “Music Appreciation Hour” from NBC. The program, hosted by the conductor Walter Damrosch, consisted of classical music and selections from grand opera. That night, Damrosch ended his regular program a bit early in order to introduce a new work by a young Iowa composer. The piece featured a musical interpretation of an onrushing railroad locomotive — reminiscent of the “Orange Blossom Special”. Hay was impressed that an entire symphony orchestra would forsake Mozart and Beethoven and play a short bit of country-style music. 

When Damrosch finally signed off, it was time for the WSM Barn Dance to sign on. Hay stepped up to the old carbon mike and said, “For the past hour we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera. From now on we will present the Grand OLE Opry.” 

And since then, the Saturday night country music program from WSM has been known as “The Grand Ole Opry.”

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