0n November 28, 1925, a white-bearded man sat before one of
Nashville radio station WSM's newfangled carbon microphones to
play a few old-time fiddle tunes. Uncle Jimmy Thompson played
on the air for an hour that night, and throughout the region
listeners at their old crystal sets suddenly perked up. Back
in Nashville the response at the offices of National Life,
the insurance company that owned radio station WSM ("We Shield
Millions"), was dramatic; phone calls and telegrams poured into
the station, many of them making special requests. It was not
long before station manager George D. Hay was besieged by pickers
and fiddlers of every variety, as well as hoedown bands, singers,
and comedians all wanting their shot at the Saturday night
airwaves. "We soon had a goodnatured riot on our hands,"
Hay later recalled. And, thus, the Opry was born.
Or so the story goes. In truth, the birth of the Opry was a
far more complicated event than even Hay, "the solemn old judge,"
remembered. The veteran performers of that era are all gone now,
but since the 1970s pioneering country music historian Charles K.
Wolfe has spent countless hours recording the oral history of the
principals and their families and mining archival materials from
the Country Music Foundation and elsewhere to understand just
what those early days were like. The story that he has reconstructed
is fascinating. Both a detailed history and a group biography
of the Opry's early years, A Good-Natured Riot provides the
first comprehensive and thoroughly researched account of the
personalities, the music, and the social and cultural
conditions that were such fertile ground for the growth of
a radio show that was to become an essential part of American
Wolfe traces the unsure beginnings of the Opry through its
many incarnations, through cast tours of the South, the Great
Depression, commercial sponsorship by companies like Prince
Albert Tobacco, and the first national radio linkups. He
gives colorful and engaging portraits of the motley assembly
of the first Opry casts amateurs from the hills and valleys
surrounding Nashville, like harmonica player Dr. Humphrey Bate
("Dean of the Opry") and fiddler Sid Harkreader, virtuoso
string bands like the Dixieliners, colorful hoedown bands
like the Gully Jumpers and the Fruit Jar Drinkers, the
important African American performer DeFord Bailey,
vaudeville acts and comedians like Lasses and Honey,
through more professional groups such as the Vagabonds,
the Delmore Brothers, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys,
and perennial favorite Roy Acuff and his Smoky Mountain Boys.
With dozens of wonderful photographs, a discography, and a
complete roster of every performer and performance of these
early Opry years, A Good-Natured Riot gives a full and
authoritative portrayal of the colorful beginnings of
WSM's barn dance program up to 1940, by which time the
Grand Ole Opry had found its national audience and was
poised to become the legendary institution that it
remains to this day.
Charles K. Wolfe, professor of English at Middle
Tennessee State University, is one of the leading experts
on the history and development of country music. He is the
author of The Devil's Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling
(Vanderbilt/Country Music Foundation Press) and more
than a dozen other books whose subjects range from
Leadbelly to the Louvin Brothers.