The Nashville, Tennessee venue known as the Grand Ole Opry has long been important in the world of entertainment and particularly in country music and it was the same in 1943 when several of their touring performers arrived in Athens for one time event.
The local show was promoted in the June 24, 1943 Athens Weekly Review under the headline “WMS Grand Ole Opry Presents in Person” then the performers were listed. For the price of 25 cents for children, 60 cents for adults (25 cents extra for reserved seats) the Athens High School Football Field under a “big tent” would be the scene for Henderson County residents to see such performers as Pap and his jug band, Fiddlin’ Art Wooten, Rachel and Oswald, as well as Jackie and Jessie. But heading the bill would be two major acts, Roy Acuff and his Smokey Mountain Boys and Uncle Dave Macon – also known as “The Dixie Dewdrop.”
The Grand Ole Opry was (and still is) a popular radio broadcast that began in the 1920s when what was sometimes called hillbilly music – folk music from the Appalachian area – became popular on records and on the radio. It got its name in November, 1925 when Nashville station WLS broadcast a program of classical and operatic music which was to be followed by the “Barn Dance” program with country music. As announcer George Hay put it, “For the past hour, we have been listening to music largely from Grand Opera, but from now on, we will present ‘The Grand Ole Opry.’”
Radio listeners could of course purchase their favorite performers’ records, but they also enjoyed seeing them in person as they toured to entertain in local areas – such as Athens. Let’s take a look at some of these artists.
At the time of his appearance in Athens Roy Acuff was often known as the “King of Country Music” and many felt that he was instrumental in helping country music move from the “hoedown” format to a more singer-based type of entertainment. He was so popular that Hank Williams once described Acuff as “…the biggest singer this music ever knew. You booked him and didn’t worry about crowds.”
Born in Tennessee in 1903, Acuff came from a musical family and it was said when the neighbors gathered at the Acuff home for musical programs he amused the audience by balancing farm tools on his chin.
He began his career singing for a traveling medicine show where he would sing to draw crowds who would then be harangued with a sales pitch for a patent medicine. He performed on the radio with various bands but it was with the Smokey Mountain Boys that they joined the Opry in the late 1930s. They also appeared in various Hollywood movies. .
In the 1940s Acuff entered Tennessee politics, running as a Republican for governor after the incumbent labeled country music as “disgraceful” and called Nashville the “hillbilly capital of the U.S.” However, Acuff’s opponent won with more than 60% of the vote.
In the 1950s after Acuff’s record sales dwindled as newer performers rose in popularity he later had a resurgence in popularity in the 1970s. He also received various honors, and was the first country artist to receive a lifetime achievement award from the JFK Center for Performing Arts. He died in 1992 at the age of 89.
The Athens show also featured Uncle Dave Macon whose stage presence and lively performances brought him great popularity on the radio.
Born in 1870, Macon was a performer from early childhood, particularly at his family hotels where traveling music performers and vaudeville artists often stayed. He performed as an amateur for several years; Macon began to appear professionally in the early 1920s and then became a favorite showman on the vaudeville circuits of various southern theaters.
Macon was a longtime recording artist but his appearances on the radio often presented some challenges to the technicians. One source put it this way: “While playing, Macon would often kick and stomp, and shout sporadically, taxing the skills of WSM’s early volume control engineers.” His stage shows were known to be entertaining as he would tell jokes, present monologues and provide repartee with other performers. Roy Acuff said of him, “There was never a person that I have in come in contact with in the entertainment world that was more individual than Uncle Dave Macon. He was a self-entertainer who seemed to copy nobody.” Macon died in 1953.
Though there have been many changes in country music over the years, this type of entertainment remains as popular now as it was in 1943 in Athens.