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Grand Ole Opry Turns 80

Opry fans applaud as newcomer Jessi Alexander performs on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., Friday, April 22, 2005. The Opry is celebrating its 80th year of entertaining.
AP Photo/John Russell
His Grand Ole Opry debut? Charley Pride remembers it well.

"It was 1967, January 1," Pride snaps. "Ernest Tubb brought me on, and I was more nervous than a cat on a hot tin roof."

That's how most performers feel about the Opry, the folksy live radio show that's helped define country music for eight decades. The stage with the red barn backdrop is hallowed ground in Nashville, and entertainers still consider their first performance there a milestone.

The show turns 80 this year, and while the anniversary doesn't have the bang of a 75th or a 100th, the Opry is planning a big to-do, including a rare broadcast from New York's Carnegie Hall in November.

Like a classic country song, the Grand Ole Opry has endured despite changes in technology, musical tastes, ownership and location.

It's the longest continuously running radio show in the country, and though at times it's been derided as stale and antiquated, there's a certain charm when the house band begins to play and the burgundy curtain rises.

The feeling is one of seeing something authentic, down to the vintage microphone stands, live advertisements and corny jokes.

The homespun feel, however, belies the elaborate production. The show is marketed nationwide, streamed over Internet and satellite radio, shown on cable TV, broadcast on regular radio and reaches more than 2 million people a week.

The hayseed image has always been there, since Dr. Humphrey Bate, a physician, donned overalls and led his band, the Possum Hunters. Later, comedian Sarah Cannon recreated herself as Minnie Pearl — a character from the mythical small town of Grinder's Switch who wore a straw hat with the price tag dangling.

But most credit the Opry's longevity to the music. Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe and Elvis Presley are among the thousands who have performed and become stars there.