The first member of the Grand Ole Opry was also its very first performer: Uncle Jimmy Thompson. The iconic fiddle player was the first artist to be featured on Nashville’s WSM radio station’s new show, then called the WSM Barn Dance, on Nov. 28, 1925.
The Barn Dance would later be renamed the Grand Ole Opry, and 95 years later, it is the longest running radio-broadcast in U.S. history. Being inducted into the Opry is widely considered one of country music’s most prestigious honors: The organization has 67 current members, and more than 200 acts have held membership throughout the show’s history.
But how exactly does an artist become a member of the Grand Ole Opry? While it may seem like a certain type of alchemy, the Opry itself insists that there is no magic formula or secret code. Read on to learn everything you need to know about becoming a Grand Ole Opry member and a few other surprising facts.
How Does Someone Become a Grand Ole Opry Member?
Receiving an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry is not easy or predictable. Of course, factors such as radio airplay, music sales and touring success are all considered, but it’s not just about who is the biggest star or the most successful artist. The Opry’s management team, which makes all definitive decisions as to membership, looks just as much for musical and generational balance as they do for career success.
Becoming a Grand Ole Opry member often starts with a nomination from an artist who is already a member, and the consistency and commitment of a performer to the Opry is strongly considered. Ultimately, induction into the Grand Ole Opry is about relationships: relationships to country music, to fellow artists, to country fans and to the essence of the Opry itself.
“Opry membership requires a passion for country music’s fans [and] a connection to the music’s history” says the Opry on their official website, also citing one more vital aspect: “It requires commitment — even a willingness to make significant sacrifices to uphold that commitment.”
What Does It Mean to Be a Grand Ole Opry Member?
Once an artist becomes a member of the Grand Ole Opry, he or she can perform or even host any show they wish. Each broadcast typically boasts 5-7 Opry members acting as performers in one of the show’s four segments, introducing guest artists or taking on hosting responsibilities for a night.
Membership in the Grand Ole Opry requires that artists appear consistently to maintain their place in the ranks, and they can be stripped of their membership at the discretion of Opry management — just like Hank Williams was in 1952 because of alcohol abuse and his unreliability to the show. Grand Ole Opry membership expires when a performer dies (which is why, despite petitions, Williams won’t ever be reinstated as a member).
Who Is / Has Been a Grand Ole Opry Member?
During its 95 years of weekly broadcasts, the Opry has inducted more than 200 acts into membership throughout its illustrious history. Along with Thompson, the show’s first 30 years included the inductions of acts such as Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl and Ernest Tubb, while the 1950s saw iconic artists including George Jones, Johnny Cash, Kitty Wells and the Everly Brothers join the ranks.
The ’60s and ’70s featured the largest surge of female Opry inductees – Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette and Barbara Mandrell, to name a few — while in the ’80s, the Grand Ole Opry welcomed, among others, Reba McEntire and Patty Loveless. One of the Opry’s most well-known performing members, Ricky Skaggs, also joined in the 1980s.
Emmylou Harris, Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood, Garth Brooks, Martina McBride, Vince Gill and Alison Krauss all became members of the Grand Ole Opry in the 1990s, while in the early ’00s, Trace Adkins, Charlie Daniels, Montgomery Gentry, Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood were all inducted into the Opry.
Also among the Grand Ole Opry’s members are Blake Shelton, Little Big Town, Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban. The Opry’s most recent addition is Gene Watson, who was inducted in February of 2020. (Rhonda Vincent was due to join the Opry on March 24, 2020, but has not yet officially been inducted due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.)
PICTURES: The Grand Ole Opry Through the Years