The Grand Ole Opry, already the world’s longest-running live radio show, will air its 5,000th broadcast on Saturday night. Opry members like Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Darius Rucker, Vince Gill, Chris Janson, Bill Anderson, and Connie Smith are all set to perform, underscoring the eras of country music spanned by the cast: Janson is 35, Anderson is 83.
In fact, it was 77-year-old fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson who first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, when the show — then known as the “WSM Barn Dance” — debuted on 650 AM WSM on Nov. 28, 1925. The program, a showcase for classic country, bluegrass, gospel and acoustic music, aired between NBC network programming that routinely featured dance bands and classical orchestras and made for a stark juxtaposition between those polished, erudite sounds and the Opry’s down-home, improvised picking. After a performance of “Pan American Blues” by harmonica wizard DeFord Bailey, the Opry’s first Black star, host George D. Hay cemented the show’s name: “For the past hour we have been listening to the music taken largely from the Grand Opera,” he said, “but from now on we will present the Grand Ole Opry.”
As the show grew in popularity, the Opry’s first stars, primarily string bands, gave way to singers like Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton, all of whom would rank among the Opry’s most iconic performers. Today, a typical lineup can include Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, or Marty Stuart, and 2021 Opry inductees like Lady A, Carly Pearce, or Mandy Barnett.
The stacked lineup for Saturday’s 5000th broadcast leans into the organization’s breadth. There have been more than 225 total members since the Grand Ole Opry began, and 65 current members in the cast, including Jeannie Seely, who will perform Saturday night. Seely, 81, was inducted in September 1967 and says the secret to the institution’s longevity lies in its personalities and their music. “I believe the reason the Opry has had such a long run is because they have always given their audience what they could relate to in their own lives, through the music, the comedy and the common-shared love of home, family and pride in our country,” she says. “They have been a constant comfort in an ever-changing and often uncomfortable world. And they keep it fun.”
Even during the pandemic, the Grand Ole Opry persevered, presenting shows without an audience in Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House.
“Country music is no stranger to hard times, and neither is the Grand Ole Opry,” Marty Stuart said from the Opry stage in March 2020, as the second Saturday night broadcast without a live audience took place. “For 95 years it has seen world wars, catastrophes, and presidential assassinations, but somehow the show has gone right along.”
The 5,000th show then is a testament to that resilience, proof that the Opry can overcome what vice president and executive producer Dan Rogers called the show’s “greatest hurdle”: staying relevant while respecting its rich history. “That is what makes the Opry unique, but with it being unique comes that unique challenge as well. When do you say something is such a part of the Opry’s legacy that it needs to be a part of every show?” Rogers told Rolling Stone in 2020. “And when does something maybe become a part of the Opry’s treasured past?”
Along with superstars like Brooks and Yearwood, Saturday’s show includes Dustin Lynch, John Conlee, the Gatlin Brothers, Chris Young, Terri Clark, and 2021 Opry inductees the Isaacs. Opry 5000 will be broadcast live on WSM and wsmradio.com, and livestream via the Circle Network on select cable providers including Peacock, as well as on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
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