History of the Opry

One of the founders of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company had a fascination with radio and convinced the company to launch its own radio station. In its downtown Nashville office, National Life built a small studio with a window, allowing passersby in the hallway to peer into it. The company’s slogan was “We Shield Millions”, the acronym of which became the call letters for their station, WSM, which went on the air on Monday, October 5, 1925. Just a few weeks after going on the air, WSM introduced the WSM Barn Dance, which would be renamed the Grand Ole Opry in 1927. Soon enough, country music fans began showing up in droves to watch the show, crowding the building’s hallway, much to the chagrin of some National Life executives. This led to the creation of Studio B and later, the 500-seat Studio C in an attempt to accommodate the Opry fans — but the Opry still very quickly outgrew those facilities, calling for a much bigger venue.

On October 3, 1934, the Opry moved into a small community playhouse near Vanderbilt University that still operates today as The Belcourt Theatre. It was here that the Opry began selling advertising on the broadcast, and the show was divided into the sponsored segments that are still heard on the show today. The theater was small, so artists would often perform twice to separate audiences in one night.

Less than two years later, the Opry moved to the Dixie Tabernacle, a large church on Fatherland Street in eastern Nashville. It was a rustic venue with a dirt floor, wooden plank benches, and roll-up canvas walls. It was here that advance tickets first became available, distributed to customers by salespeople at the National Life and Accident Insurance Company.

Up until this point, the price of admission for the Grand Ole Opry was free. But in June of 1939, when the Opry moved again, the show moved to the neoclassical-styled War Memorial Auditorium, which was considered to be Nashville’s most elegant performance hall.

However, the War Memorial Auditorium also quickly proved to not be enough to handle the massive crowds the Grand Ole Opry was attracting. It was then that the Grand Ole Opry moved to the 2,300-seat Ryman Auditorium in 1943, which would serve as the home of the Opry for the next 30+ years. After the move to the Ryman, the Opry’s popularity took off by orders of magnitude, with fans often lined up for blocks around, patiently waiting in the heat or cold to reach the building, go inside, find their seats, and enjoy the Opry. As a result of the Opry moving to the Ryman, the Ryman became known as “The Mother Church of Country Music”. Even though the Opry later moved on to an even larger facility specifically built for it, the Opry returns to the Ryman each winter for a special run of the Opry at the Ryman, which celebrates the Ryman’s status as the show’s most famous former home.

In March of 1974, the Grand Ole Opry got its permanent home at the 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House, which was specifically built to accommodate crowds almost twice as large as the Ryman Auditorium could. On the very first show at the Grand Ole Opry House, numerous Opry members performed, but being restricted to only one song apiece that night in order to give all members present, which included Hank Snow, Stonewall Jackson, Jeannie Seely, and many others, a chance to perform. Then-President Richard Nixon made a special appearance as well, playing piano and singing.

In May of 2010, the Grand Ole Opry House was ravaged by a massive flood that left it unusable, forcing it to close for restoration. During the restoration process, the Opry still pressed on from various temporary venues, including two of its former homes, the War Memorial Auditorium and the Ryman Auditorium. On September 28, 2010, the restoration process was completed, allowing the Grand Ole Opry to return to the Grand Ole Opry House.

In June of 2019, the Grand Ole Opry instroduced a new custom-built theater that opened Backstage Tours with music, state-of-the-art special effects, 3D film images, and priceless archival footage.

In March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused many businesses deemed “non-essential” by state and local governments across the country to be forced to close and conduct as much business as possible strictly online. The Grand Ole Opry made the tough decision to cancel their live shows, but quickly launched a livestream event in a historic moment in Opry history with the Saturday Night Grand Ole Opry. The Opry remained true to its roots as a live, weekly broadcast show, albeit without an audience. The show continues to broadcast live to homes across the world on WSM Radio, Circle TV, and the WSM website, keeping the Opry tradition unbroken.

Saturday night, October 30th, 2021 marked a significant milestone in Opry history, when the Grand Ole Opry presented and aired its 5,000th show.

Over the course of the Opry’s history, there have been over 200 artists and groups who have been Grand Ole Opry members, 70 of which are still active. As of September 2023, the oldest living Opry member is Buck White (born 1930), of The Whites, and with the youngest member being Lauren Alaina (born 1994).