Hopkins County Folk Lore
By Carolyn Buntin Eveland, Contributing Editor
The Grand Ole Opry celebrated seventy-five years of continuous broadcasting in October 2000. Generations of families and patrons of the longest running live radio show in America have tuned in each Saturday night for years on end. The tradition still continues today and shows no trend of slowing.
Saturday night in the mid twenties to forties, was the time for neighbors to crowd around the radio in anticipation of the best foot stompin', fiddlin', banjo pickin', and guitar playin' music in the world. It was a big event in those days, and as such, neighbors and families never lost an opportunity to get together at one house or the other in the neighborhood.
"Comin' over for the Opry?" would be called from one yard to the other as dusk approached. Telephones had not been installed in most rural areas and the same method of communication used by their forefathers was still practiced with gusto. A person would simply stand on the porch, cupping hands around the mouth, and proceed to yell at the top of one's voice to the family next door. Soon, someone always appeared from the other house or yard, and began hollering back across the property, "What time do you want us, and what can we bring"? You see, country folk never intruded on another household and partook of that family's hospitality without bringing a little something of their own to contribute.
If the night was hot and stuffy as southern summer nights can be, the radio was brought to the porch, the cord thrown inside an open window and plugged in right into the living room wall. The old radios were marvels of invention or so it seemed to me. The first radio I remember my sisters, Hazel, and Shirley, huddling around, was a thing of mystery to me. It was battery operated of all things. Listening time was limited so telecasts had to be important enough to warrant draining the batteries. One time my sister Hazel wanted to listen to a radio soap opera while Shirley insisted on hearing the Grand Ole Opry. Naturally, an argument ensued between the two girls. Our dad listened to them as long as he could stand it, then stepped to the radio and switched it to the Opry. He and my mom were great fans of the Opry too and in our house, he was the boss. Sometimes I didn't understand how those scratchy voices could come from that big box or why my sisters were so mesmerized by it. However, I am told that I was quite fascinated by the music box as well, for my chubby three year old body was known to have hopped from one foot to the other as I played my imaginary guitar in the middle of the room.
I recall other radios of that time also. They were about three feet tall featuring elaborate wooden cabinets with brass inlays and operated by electricity. There was a Motorola radio and it was just the most amazing thing I had ever seen. It had four round knobs for the controls. One was the on-off switch, one for volume, and the other two were for dialing stations on the AM radio. One knob checked all the stations going upward, while you had to turn the other knob to go back down again. Becoming impatient at the length of time it took the radio to warm up, we would always pull the cabinet away from the wall and watch the big, glowing tubes in the back as they began to hum. Somehow, this prolonged action of staring at the tubes was supposed to hurry things along. Ah, finally, voices soon came blaring through the static background and we were in business.
Recently, my son presented my husband and me with an old cabinet radio of our very own. It is a Philco (remember that brand?) and the instrument is made of real wood. The radio part of the cabinet is recessed into the wood and the top of the cabinet is crowned with narrow, carved molding around the front and sides of it. This model has both AM and FM stations, a real improvement too, as the knobs for these respective stations travels both forward and backward through the dial. There is a panel at the bottom half of the cabinet, which is covered with gold, felt cloth, featuring a handle. The panel opens and there to our amazement we found an old phonograph still in working order. The "arm" still has to be set manually upon the old 78 rpm records it was made to play. What memories this piece of furniture has brought back to us.
My mother was addicted to the early soap operas which debuted on the radio stations back in the nineteen forties. I was named for a character on one of those shows. Mother had intended to name me Hilda Jewell (after my father, Jewell) until her favorite actress portrayed a fictional person named Carolyn, which so mesmerized her, she decided to name me for that character. I consider this a much better handle and am forever grateful for the invention of the radio as you might guess. At least I wasn't named Minnie Pearl, or Kitty Wells, two of Mom's favorites from the Grand Ole Opry.
The Opry first originated from the fifth floor of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company in November 1925. A performer known as Uncle Johnny Thompson, an eighty year old fiddle player, was the featured guest. Uncle Johnny continued to play countless times on the show as the headliner and was considered the greatest fiddle player in the south; noted for being able to play over a thousand fiddle rounds.
George D. Hay, one of pioneer radio's first showmen, was the announcer. George was only thirty years old yet dubbed himself the "Solemn Old Judge". He launched his show calling it the WSM Barn Dance. The show did so well that three years down the road, George renamed his project the Grand Ole Opry, and it stuck.
The Opry was housed in three consecutive buildings, each larger that the last one. The first one was the Hillsboro Theater, followed by The Dixie Tabernacle, and later, the War Memorial Auditorium. Crowds had increased to three thousand people a night with many people turned away for lack of seating.
In nineteen hundred thirty nine, NBC Radio carried the Opry live for the first time. Sponsors for the show were Prince Albert Cigars. Most of the performers were just starting careers in country music back then, but now make up the backbone of country music history and legends. Roy Acuff, The Weaver Brothers and Elviry and of course, the Solemn Old Judge headlined the show.
The city streets of Nashville were packed with traffic each Saturday night stemming from folks bent on seeing the Opry, often bringing traffic to a full stop. Fans were eventually charged a twenty five-cent admission fee in hopes of reducing the traffic jams and managing the over seating problem. Needless to say, the crowds weren't deterred and larger quarters were sought from various sources within the city.
In nineteen hundred forty three, the show moved to the Ryman Auditorium, staying there for thirty-two years. The Ryman, originally a religious tabernacle, first opened its doors in eighteen hundred and ninety two. Riverboat captain, Tom Ryman, provided funding for the tabernacle. The building had been designed with such perfect acoustical qualities, music and voices easily traveled from the stage to the last rows of seats and upper balconies.
Often dubbed The Carnegie Hall of the South, the Ryman has become a cornerstone for music performances of all venues. In the century plus since its opening, the Ryman has hosted such great performers as Enrico Caruso, Orson Welles, Mae West, and John Philip Sousa. Featured stage performances have included, the life of Patsy Cline, The Everly Brothers and Tammy Wynette: Stand By Your Man, to name a few. Elvis Presley even sang there in the building's reign as the home of the Grand Ole Opry.
The Ryman caters to a broad selection of tastes in music today including jazz, blues, and rock. Cheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen, and many other rock musicians have headlined at the old building in recent years and noted greats such as Gladys Knight will soon be gracing the old stage in months to come.
Country music's greatest stars have filled the 2,100-seat auditorium including Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, and Vince Gill and the list keeps growing.
The Grand Ole Opry made the Ryman a landmark of Nashville, TN even until today. Tours are still conducted of the old building located at 5th Avenue in downtown Nashville. The historical building remains an integral part of the Nashville scene, famous for its architecture and the excellent performances that greet visitors from all over the world.
Eventually a new opry house was built to accommodate the still growing crowds and in nineteen hundred seventy five the show moved to its new home within the Opryland Complex. The new building was renamed the Grand Ole Opry House. So nostalgic was the feeling most performers had for the Ryman that a piece of the stage was cut from the floor of their old home and installed in the new opry house stage.
While most people sat glued to their couches or dinning room chairs on Saturday night listening to the Opry, some people actually made a habit of going there. My sister, Shirley and her husband James, along with our cousin Junior Howton and wife Laura, made the trip each week to hear their favorite singers and pickers.
Shirley says it was always fun and affordable too. In nineteen fifty two, gas sold for fifteen cents a gallon and the foursome would put enough in the tank of Junior's old Studebaker to get them there and back. Cigarettes, too were only about fifteen cents per pack at that time. Having fortified themselves with the necessities, gas and cigarettes, they set out for Nashville, TN, Home of the Grand Ole Opry. These visits continued throughout the year and became the highlight of the week for the two couples from Hopkins County, Kentucky.
When I inquired about the time it must have taken to make the long drive there, Shirley informed me that our cousin Junior always found other cars to race with all the way there and back, so it never seemed as if it took a long time to get there.
The group never bought tickets bought in advance. Upon walking up to the doors at the Ryman, they were always met by a certain fellow who would be selling tickets to those people who arrived without any. Shirley says she will never forget him. They came to know him so well that he would hold their tickets until they arrived, even without prior notice. He was a little black boy, about eight to ten years old at the most. He always saved four front row tickets for them and in return, they tipped him extra.
Shirley's favorite singer was Little Jimmy Dickens. This tiny little man would take the stage in his big white cowboy hat and proceed to sing the songs he had made famous, songs like "Take an Old Cold Tater and Wait". Bill Monroe played his famous bluegrass music picking his banjo to the strands of "Blue Moon of Kentucky Keep on Shinning" while Roy Acuff sang " The Wabash Cannon Ball". The foursome sang along with Ernest Tubb, Red Foley and laughed with Minnie Pearl, String Bean, and Grandpa Jones on those Saturday nights so many decades ago.
My other sister Hazel and husband Carl, visited the Opry a few years ago at the Opry Land Complex with a group of business constituents from Ohio. Suffice it to say that the Grand Ole Opry knows no limits as to geographical areas and is famous not just in the south but all over the world.
My mother and Shirley continue watching the live broadcast from their own television sets today. I, who live in Nashville, must admit I have never visited this famous institution although my husband is a die-hard country music fan. I think that if I want to stay in the good graces of my family, I had better make arrangements to do so. After all, I want to learn what all the magic was/is about for them.
I adore music of all types mostly and surely listening to all those tunes as a little tot must have influenced me with the love of music I have today. Now, if only Barbara Streisand would make an appearance there, I would camp on the doorstep for days on end just to get inside.
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Nancy Trice, © 2000