George Dewey Hay was born in Attica, IN on November 9, 1895. After serving in the Army in World War I, he moved to Memphis, TN and became a reporter for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. One of his recurring assignments was to cover the city court beat. This led to a humorous column he published called “Howdy, Judge”, based on the dialogue between judges and those charged with petty crimes. His column was released in book form in 1926. This led to him earning his famous nickname, the “Solemn Old Judge”, never mind the fact that he never had any legal training and thus never served as a judge, was only 30 years old at the time, and was a frequent jokester.
One of his special assignments in 1919 was to go to the small Ozarks town of Mammoth Spring, AR, located on the Missouri border, to report on a WWI hero who was killed during the war. While in Mammoth Spring, he came across a man who lived in a boxcar and was a farmer who had seven or eight children. That man was also a fiddle player and invited Hay to a hoedown at a neighbor’s cabin a mile out of town on a dirt road just across the Missouri line. At the hoedown, the fiddle player, a guitar player, and a banjo player played a series of songs all night long until the crack of dawn the following mornings, with some 20 or so other people dancing to the music. Hay was so impressed with the local talent and their enthusiasm, which would become the seed for his life’s greatest accomplishment.
In 1923, when the Commercial Appeal launched their own radio station, WMC, he became a late-night announcer at the station, which turned him into a local celebrity of sorts. In 1924, he left WMC for the then-new WLS radio station in Chicago. There, he would become the announcer for the WLS Barn Dance and also received the honor of being named as America’s favorite announcer according to a Radio Digest poll. The following year, in 1925, he returned to Tennessee and left WLS for the then-new WSM radio station in Nashville. While at WSM, he took his experiences from hosting the WLS Barn Dance and launched the WSM Barn Dance, which was renamed the Grand Ole Opry in 1927. Early Opry performers included Dr. Humphrey Bate and Uncle Dave Macon. But it was when he invited 78-year-old old-time fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson onto the Opry stage that the Opry’s popularity took off, which led to it becoming a regular show every Saturday night on WSM, which still airs today, having aired its 5,000th show on November 7, 2020. Little did Hay know that the show he founded, which featured music that, up until that time, had largely been relegated to the Appalachians, the Ozarks, and the Mississippi Delta, would turn into a multi-billion-dollar industry and bring the careers of many famous country music legends to life.
In spite of Hay’s popularity and success as the Opry’s founder, figurehead, publicist, and announcer, there was one major problem with him in that he lacked managerial skills, which led to WSM bringing in professional managers who took over many of Hay’s duties. This upset Hay so much that he suffered a nervous breakdown during the 1930’s. After an 18-month leave of absence, he returned to WSM and the Opry in 1938. In 1940, he produced a Hollywood movie about the Grand Ole Opry by the same name, which featured Uncle Dave Macon, Roy Acuff, and the Weaver Brothers and Elviry. Hay not only continued with the Opry during most of the 1940’s but also toured with some Opry regulars, with at least one such tour featuring an Opry group performing at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. However, by 1947, growing disillusioned with the direction the Opry was taking (among other things, Hay detested the use of electric instruments and drums on the Opry stage, which several groups had been using starting in the 1940’s), Hay decided to step down as the Opry’s announcer.
Hay wrote a fascinating book in 1945 called A Story of the Grand Ole Opry. In 1953, he became an editor of the Nashville-based Pickin’ and Singin’ News, one of country music’s first major periodicals. In 1963, he retired, left Nashville, and moved to Virginia Beach, VA. During the 1960’s, he hosted two short-lived radio shows reminiscing about country music’s early days. In 1966, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Hay died in his apartment on May 8, 1968 at the age of 72 and is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Norfolk, VA.