Inside the Music
Country Music Hall of Fame
Election to the Country Music Hall of Fame is country music’s highest honor. The Country Music Association (CMA), the country music industry’s trade organization, created the accolade to recognize significant contributions to the advancement of country music by individuals in both the creative and business communities. The first members - Jimmie Rodgers, Fred Rose, and Hank Williams - were inducted in 1961.
CARTER FAMILY - the First Family of Country Music
Their very first recording was “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow.” It would be the first of numerous songs they would record for the company over the next eight years, including best-sellers such as “The Storms Are on the Ocean” (1927), “Keep on the Sunny Side” (1928, their theme song), “Wildwood Flower” (1928), “John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man” (1928), “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” (1929), “Wabash Cannonball” (1929), “Anchored in Love” (1928), and “Worried Man Blues” (1930). Their sparse but elegant arrangements helped make these songs country standards, and led them to record over 300 songs on Victor and subsequent firms such as the American Record Company (including the Sears custom label Conqueror) and Decca.
The most popular female country singer in recording history, Patsy Cline has achieved icon status since her tragic early death at age thirty in 1963. Cline is invariably invoked as a standard for female vocalists, and she has inspired scores of singers including k.d. lang, Loretta Lynn, Linda Ronstadt, Trisha Yearwood, and Wynonna Judd. Her brief career produced the &1 jukebox hit of all time, “Crazy” (written by Willie Nelson) and her unique, crying style and vocal impeccability have established her reputation as the quintessential torch singer. Cline’s debut single, the country weeper “A Church, a Courtroom and Then Goodbye,” sold poorly when released in July 1955 on the Decca label’s Coral subsidiary (by lease arrangement between McCall and Decca A&R man Paul Cohen). Cohen turned production over to his protégé and eventual successor, Owen Bradley, who became Cline’s guiding light for the duration of her recording career. Cline’s first four singles flopped, but the “hillbilly with oomph” act she developed on TV and in personal appearances earned her regional fame. Her recording stalemate ended when she made her national TV debut on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts show on January 21, 1957, singing “Walkin’ After Midnight,” which hit &2 country and &12 pop. Cline maintained her chart momentum with the Top Ten hits “Crazy” and “She’s Got You” and with albums like Patsy Cline Showcase and Sentimentally Yours.
Minnie Pearl was the undisputed queen of country comedy, known for her hopelessly styleless knee-length country dresses, her straw hat decorated with colorful plastic flowers and $1.98 price tag, and her cheerful shout of “How-dee! I’m just so proud to be here!’’ For fifty years, she performed as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. In the fall of 1940, a chance opportunity to perform at a banker’s convention in Centerville brought her to the attention of executives at radio station WSM in Nashville. On November 30, 1940 she made her debut on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. Less than a week later, more than 300 cards, telegrams, and letters addressed to Minnie Pearl flooded the offices of WSM. On December 7, 1940, the name Minnie Pearl appeared among the Opry cast listing for the first time in the weekly radio guide of the Nashville Tennessean, slotted in the 8:45 segment.
Kitty Wells was a thirty–three–year–old wife and mother when her immortal 1952 recording of “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” suddenly made her a star. Other female country singers of her day were trying their hands at hard–living, honky–tonk sounds, but it was the intense and piercing style of Kitty Wells, with her gospel–touched vocals and tearful restraint, that resonated with country audiences of the time and broke the industry barriers for women. Thinking of the $125 recording payment, Wells went into Owen Bradley’s studio on May 3, 1952, to record “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” for Decca Records. The single took off during the summer and sold more than 800,000 copies in its initial release. As the top female country star of her generation she accumulated thirty–five Billboard Top Ten records and eighty–one charted singles. Wells’s great achievement was defying the accepted country music wisdom of her time, which warned that women don’t sell records and can’t headline shows. Her success led record companies to open their doors to other women, and to experiment with new themes and images for women, thereby indelibly changing country music forever.
Loretta Lynn - the Coal Miner's Daughter
Loretta Lynn’s life story reads more like fiction than fact. It’s the story of a poorly educated woman from the coal mining hills of Kentucky, married at age thirteen and a mother at fourteen, who rose to become one of the most popular singers in country music. Two years after she recorded “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” Lynn began scoring with records such as “Success,” “Before I’m Over You,” and “Blue Kentucky Girl.” But it wasn’t until her recordings of “You Ain’t Woman Enough” and “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” that Lynn’s music took a new direction. Instead of using traditional country music themes she wrote songs that were more realistic and less compromising. She won the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year Award in 1967, 1972, and 1973. When Lynn won the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year Award in 1972, she became the first woman to achieve that honor.
Patsy Montana achieved a landmark when her 1935 recording of her polka–tempoed composition “I Wanna Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” became the first record by a female country artist to become a runaway hit. With her energetic voice and sparkling yodeling, and wearing her cowgirl outfit, Montana presented a cheerful image to Depression–era America. The lyrics of her great hit spoke of independence and love and the kind of freedom the cowboy had come to symbolize.
Brenda Lee has proved to be one of the most versatile singers ever to record in Nashville, and her commercial success (as measured by cumulative record sales) is probably second only to Elvis Presley among artists who have recorded heavily in Nashville. A professional singer by the age of six and a recording artist by the age of twelve, she has fashioned a career of uncommon durability that spans more than forty years. Lee started hitting the pop charts with regularity in 1959 with the release of the rocking “Sweet Nothin’s” (&4 pop). Owen Bradley changed her course for her follow–up hit and recorded the heartache ballad “I’m Sorry” (&1 pop). The recording’s use of strings not only bridged the gap between country and pop music but became one of the hallmarks of Lee’s sound through the 1960s. Lee soon became one of the best–selling female singers of the sixties. She could rock with the best of them, but as her voice matured she concentrated on singing heartfelt standards and newly written ballads. Between 1960 and 1973, she had fifty singles on the pop charts, including “I Want to Be Wanted” (&1, 1960), “Fool &1” (&3, 1961), “Break It to Me Gently” (&4, 1962), “All Alone Am I” (&3, 1962), “Too Many Rivers” (&13, 1965), “Coming on Strong” (&11, 1966), and the Christmas classic “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (&14, 1960).
TAMMY WYNETTE - the First Lady of Country Music
In the late 1960s and early 1970s the country music charts were dominated by a trio of creative, unique, and defining women: Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette. Stylists and songwriters, they each articulated women’s perspectives with an autobiographical slant that made their lives as much an object of audience interest as their music. Wynette’s first recording, “Apartment &9,” earned decent airplay but did not ignite as a hit. But her next release, “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” (1967), in which she sang of a woman who was going to join her man in his own philandering game, reached the Top Ten. Her first &1, a duet with David Houston, soon followed, and her first solo &1, “I Don’t Wanna Play House” (1967), won her a Grammy. Her classic “D–I–V–O–R–C–E” followed in 1968, as Wynette continued to explore the complicated feelings of women and children faced with the breakup of a family, a theme important personally and musically throughout her career. Producer–songwriter Billy Sherrill and Wynette collaborated in writing her signature tune, “Stand By Your Man” (1968), a &1 country smash.
DOLLY PARTON - the Queen of Country Music
With their strong feminine stances in the 1960s and 1970s, Dolly Parton, along with fellow female pioneers Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, revolutionized the world of country music for women performers. Parton took her crusade a step farther by crossing over to the pop world–landing on the cover of Rolling Stone, achieving pop hits, and starring in a series of Hollywood movies. Parton’s childhood figured very strongly in the many frank, unromantic songs she wrote about her experience and about life in Appalachia. For example, “Coat of Many Colors” (&4, 1971) was a straight–ahead account of a humiliating experience she had suffered at school when classmates made fun of her patchwork, homemade coat. Parton’s pivotal career moment came in 1967, in the form of a phone call from the syndicated television series the Porter Wagoner Show. Wagoner, a flashy–dressing traditional country singer, was looking to replace his duet partner Norma Jean. As a team, Wagoner and Parton became immediate audience favorites. Her hourglass figure and outrageous outfits and angelic voice played off perfectly against Wagoner’s cornpone humor and old–fashioned country sensibility. Parton’s first solo &1 hit was her composition “Joshua” (1970–1971), and that led to three more &1 songs in 1974: “Jolene,” “Love Is Like a Butterfly,” and “I Will Always Love You.” The early– to mid–1970s was the most creatively fertile period of Parton’s country music career. She was voted the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year in both 1975 and 1976.
Emmylou Harris’s career stands as a testament to musical and personal integrity. After a youthful dalliance with folk music that resulted in a 1968 album, Gliding Bird, Harris’s journey as a solo recording artist began in earnest with 1975’s Pieces of the Sky, for Reprise Records. The album established a direction her work would follow: She would update traditional country music with fresh reverence while elevating up–and–coming songwriters by recording definitive versions of contemporary, cutting–edge songs. By the mid–1970s, Harris had been embraced by the fledgling country–rock community in Southern California. Of all the performers to emerge from that scene, she achieved the greatest acceptance from the Nashville music industry and the mainstream country music world. Over the years, she has had twenty–seven Top Ten hits, including seven that reached &1. She also has achieved fourteen Top Ten albums on the Billboard country album charts. Along the way, she brought millions of new young fans to country music by providing common ground for rock audiences and country listeners. But Harris’s influence on contemporary country music extends far beyond her recording success. A majority of female country singers who rose to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s cited her as a primary influence, including Suzy Bogguss, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Deana Carter, Terri Clark, the Dixie Chicks, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Pam Tillis, and Trisha Yearwood, to name only a few. Her influence extended outside of mainstream country music, too, with acclaimed artists like Iris Dement, Patty Griffin, Nanci Griffith, Lucinda Williams, and many others regularly citing Harris as an artistic guidepost.
Few entertainers have been as gifted or as hardworking as Barbara Mandrell. A seasoned professional by age fourteen, she was a hit recording artist at twenty–one, and went on to star on network television and publish a best–selling autobiography. A talented singer, she is also a multi–instrumentalist adept at steel guitar, banjo, saxophone, accordion, bass, and mandolin; a dynamic stage performer; an accomplished dancer; and a successful actress. Amid a shower of industry accolades, CMA recognized Mandrell’s success by naming her CMA Female Vocalist of the Year in 1979 and 1981. In 1980 and 1981 she won the prestigious CMA Entertainer of the Year Award, the first artist to do so in successive years.
Reba McEntire ranks as the most successful female country performer of her generation, and she has been cited as a role model by nearly every successful woman to follow in her wake. She has achieved more than fifty Top Ten singles and more &1 country albums than any other female artist. McEntire has won CMA Female Vocalist of the Year four times and was CMA Entertainer of the Year in 1986. She also has won two Grammy Awards. In 1976, McEntire began releasing singles, introducing country fans to her powerful voice, with its down–home accent and emotion–rich phrasing. Her first Mercury album, released in 1977, didn’t sell well. But in 1978 McEntire hit the Top Twenty with “Three Sheets in the Wind,” a duet with Jacky Ward, and the following year with a remake of “Sweet Dreams,” a song associated with one of her idols, Patsy Cline. In 1980, McEntire entered the Top Ten with “(You Lift Me) Up to Heaven” and realized her first &1s in 1982–83 with “Can’t Even Get the Blues” and “You’re the First Time I’ve Thought About Leaving.” Signing with MCA Records in 1983, McEntire took more control of her career. Her back–to–basics album My Kind of Country contained the &1 hits “How Blue” and “Somebody Should Leave.” She won her first CMA Vocalist of the Year award in 1984; in 1986 she joined the Grand Ole Opry cast; and in 1987 she performed a sold–out concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall–a rarity for a country star in any era.
– Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.
Grand Ole Opry
The Grand Ole Opry was originally known as the WSM Barn Dance, and its inaugural broadcast was made from that station’s small fifth floor Studio A on November 28, 1925. “Uncle” Jimmy Thompson, who claimed he could “fiddle the bugs off tater vine,” was the initial performer, and the cast included Dr. Humphrey Bate and his daughter Alcyone, the Crook Brothers, and Kirk McGee.
By the time the show moved to Studio B of WSM, still in the National Life & Accident Insurance Building at 7th Avenue North and Union Street, its name had been changed from the WSM Barn Dance to the Grand Ole Opry.
The change reportedly came about in an accidental way, the result of an ad lib by announcer George D. Hay, who called himself ”The Solom Old Judge,” and who had originated the National Barn Dance on WLS in Chicago in 1924. Apparently, the WSM Barn Dance came on the air immediately after a broadcast of the NBC Music Appreciation Hour, conducted by Dr. Walter Damrosch. Hay opened the program by saying: “For the past hour, you have been listening to Grand Opera. Now we will present Grand Ole Opry!”
The name stuck, and in succeeding years, as the live audience grew, the program moved, first to a newly built studio that accommodated about 500, then to the Hillsboro Theatre, and East Nashville Tabernacle, and later to the auditorium of the war memorial, which seated about 1,200. Two years after the Opry became a network show, with a half hour broadcast coast to coast, it moved to the famous Ryman Auditorium.
Early Opry performers such as Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Ernest Tubb and Bill Monroe became musical foundations for the Opry during its years in residence at the historic Ryman Auditorium, later welcoming to the stage artists who would become entertainment icons in their own right, including Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Bill Anderson.
The Opry said good–bye to the Ryman Auditorium on Friday night, March 15, 1974. The next night, President Richard Nixon joined Roy Acuff on stage at the Grand Ole Opry House. Still, they could keep in touch with the traditions of the Ryman because an eight-foot circle of hardwood was taken from the Ryman and placed center stage at the Opry House.
The eight-foot circle of dark, oak wood in the Opry House stage is shiny but clearly well worn. Cut from the stage of the Opry’s famous former home, the Ryman Auditorium, this circle gives newcomers and veterans alike the opportunity to sing on the same spot that once supported Uncle Dave Macon, Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, and others.
“That circle is the most magical thing when you’re a performer,” says Brad Paisley, “to stand there and get to sing on those same boards that probably still contain dust from Hank Williams’ boots.”
Many things about the Opry have changed over the years — its members, the sound of its music, even its home. But there’s always that oak–solid center to remind every singer or musician who steps inside that they take part in something much larger than themselves, that wherever they go they have a connection to the legends and the giants who came before them.
As that wooden circle is the heart of the stage, the Opry’s heart is its music and its members — a broad scope of styles by a wide range of artists.
Being made a member of the Grand Ole Opry, country music’s big house, the oldest, most enduring “hall of fame,” is to be identified as a member of the elite of country music and remains one of country music’s crowning achievements. Such country music legends as Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Roy Acuff, the Carter family, Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells and Minnie Pearl became regulars on the Opry’s stage (although Williams was banned in 1952 due to frequent drunkenness). In recent decades, the Opry has hosted such contemporary country stars as Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, and the Dixie Chicks (both with their initial bluegrass/cowgirl lineup and their most recent alternative country trio).
In many ways, the artists and repertoire of the Opry defined American country music. Hundreds of performers have entertained as cast members through the years, including new stars, superstars and legends.
As country’s popularity boomed during the 1980s, Opry management ensured the show’s future by adding a new generation of stars to the roster, beginning with the induction of Ricky Skaggs, Lorrie Morgan, Reba McEntire, Ricky Van Shelton, and Holly Dunn. By the end of the 1990s, many of country’s top superstars — including Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Steve Wariner, Diamond Rio, and Trisha Yearwood — could call the Opry home. The Opry’s additions in the new century reflect the show’s commitment to a broad range of country music. Recent inductees have included bluegrass greats Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury, second–generation singer Pam Tillis, and award–winners Trace Adkins, Brad Paisley, and Carrie Underwood.
During any given Opry show, audiences can expect the best in country, bluegrass, comedy, gospel, and more performed by Country Music Hall of Famers, Opry members who helped establish the Opry as the home of country music, revered superstars, and rising rookies just starting to make names for themselves. “The Grand Ole Opry celebrates the diversity of all the musical styles under the country music umbrella. In addition, the Opry presents the many generations of artists who have formed country music’s rich legacy and continues to forge its future course,” says Opry General Manager, Pete Fisher. “The key to the Opry’s longevity can be attributed to its ability to evolve with the ever-changing musical landscape of the times.”