On Oct. 30, the Grand Ole Opry will celebrate its historic 5,000th Saturday night broadcast with performances from Opry members Bill Anderson, Terri Clark, the Gatlin Brothers, Vince Gill, Chris Janson, Jeannie Seely, Connie Smith and Chris Young, among others.
The radio show that would become known as the Grand Ole Opry began airing on WSM in 1925 and later added television broadcasts and digital streaming broadcasts. The Opry has since become the world’s longest-running radio show, as performers have kept the music going, weathering the Great Depression, World War II, two floods in Nashville and, most recently, a global pandemic. In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the shutdown of other live music broadcasts, the Opry kept the music playing via 650 AM WSM, SiriusXM radio and a partnership with Circle Network, via Gray Television — a partnership that launched just prior to the pandemic, in January 2020.
Over the decades, it has helped make stars of artists including Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, George Jones, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, as well as more recent inductees such as Little Big Town, Luke Combs and newest member Carly Pearce.
Leading up to the historic evening on Oct. 30, the Grand Ole Opry has opened a limited-time exhibit that will be on display at the Acuff House called Opry Moments: Celebrating 5,000 Saturday Night Broadcasts. The exhibit offers a look into the history of WSM-AM radio and the initial broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry and highlights special moments from 1,000 broadcasts through the present day. The exhibit also includes photos and artifacts from Opry members including Combs, Parton and Trisha Yearwood and early Opry stars including Acuff, DeFord Bailey, Minnie Pearl and others.
“It tells that magical story of WSM and how that radio station and the Opry grew up together,” said Grand Ole Opry executive producer Dan Rogers.
Next month will also mark the return of Opry Country Classics, hosted by Larry Gatlin. The show has been shuttered since the beginning of the pandemic.
During a presentation at the Grand Ole Opry house on Aug. 17, Grand Ole Opry member Marty Stuart (who was inducted in 1992) joined Pearce to discuss their relationships with the prestigious institution.
Artist, musician and music historian Stuart, who was prominently featured in the Ken Burns documentary Country Music, said of the Opry’s enduring influence, “In a world of constant change…I think we’ve all longed for something that we can hang on to that gives us a source of comfort, a source of steadiness, something we can count on…that circle has seen it all.”
For Kentucky native Pearce, the Opry has always held a special place in her life. “It was a way of life…my grandparents loved the Opry and I think that’s where I got my first taste of understanding what this place meant to country music. To me, it was a family that I so desperately wanted to be a part of.”
Prior to earning a record deal and placing hits such as “I Hope You’re Happy Now” atop Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, Pearce worked for Parton’s Dollywood theme park. Earlier this year, that career history came full-circle when Parton herself invited Pearce to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
“Dolly understands what that moment was for someone who now is sitting right when she was 31, wanting to be a part of that family and just to pass the baton down,” Pearce said. “To be willing to do that, that’s what this place does. It’s people like Jeannie Seely, like Dolly, like Trisha Yearwood — they’ve done that for me.
“I don’t think people even realize the Opry invited me to play before I ever had a record deal. I was still an Airbnb cleaner, and it was so interesting to have this moment that I had dreamt of my entire life but still didn’t feel like in real time my career was where it should be. I was still cleaning toilets,” Pearce said with a laugh. “I just remember immediately walking in here and feeling worthy. They made me feel a part of this place and stepping into that circle was the most overwhelming moment that I’ve ever had…You think about every single person who has ever meant anything to this genre has stood there…and I was standing there.”
“The Opry was like going to another planet…it was something you dream of doing,” Stuart recalled of his first Opry performance. “I had come up here to ride the bus with Lester Flatt on Labor Day weekend in 1972. He let me play and it worked out and he offered me a job. A week later I was on the stage with Lester and his band. Walking into the Ryman Auditorium, carrying his guitar case, was like walking into the Vatican with the Pope. It gave me instant acceptance into the family of country music, it gave me instant credibility. I just remember when the curtain came up…it was everything I hoped it would be.”
Seely has been Pearce’s Nashville neighbor for the past decade, and Pearce credits Seely with first introducing her to the Opry environment.
“Very quickly she found out there was a singer that lived next to her that was obsessed with the Opry. So any time that any of my favorite artists were playing, she would put me on her backstage list. I would stand…at the side of the stage, watching the show happen, dreaming of what it would be like one day to get to maybe play,” Pearce says. “It’s how I met one of my favorite people in the world, it’s how I’ve just become friends with everyone here, and I feel like a little sister to everybody because they’ve truly watched me grow up here.”
Stuart and Pearce both contributed memorabilia to the Opry Moments exhibit, including Pearce’s dress and boots she wore for her Opry debut performance. On Aug. 3, Pearce was officially inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, with Seely and Yearwood overseeing the induction.
Stuart shared his own story of being asked to become a member of the Opry. Before being inducted in 1992, Stuart first received the endorsement of two important people: Acuff and Pearl.
Stuart recalled getting Acuff’s blessing, saying, “He said, ‘Well, I think it would be good for the Opry. You don’t wear holes in your britches…and you come out here and do a good country song.’”
Pearce said she also feels a similar sense of responsibility and honor as an Opry member. “It’s now my duty as one of the members of this generation to make sure that I carry myself in a way that makes people understand what this place means…making sure it is preserved in the way it was always intended to be, but it still has that fire and family atmosphere, and it never will be broken.”