A Good-natured Riot: The Birth Of The Grand Ole Opry
They ask for your zip code when you buy tickets to the Grand Ole Opry these days, and there’s always a puzzled look when something local is offered up. One of the many virtues of Charles K. Wolfe’s new history, A Good-Natured Riot, is the discovery that little has changed since Uncle Jimmy Thompson appeared on the newly minted WSM, November 28, 1925. Urbane Nashville, the self-styled Athens of the South, has been apologizing for its rustic cousins and their curious musical appetites ever since.
Wolfe’s new volume is a scholarly history of the Opry’s early days (he ends with the ascendancy of Roy Acuff, about 1940), and quite probably the first such history not sponsored in some way by the Opry itself. A Good-Natured Riot relies on contemporary newspaper accounts, several short histories from the pen of station manager George D. Hay, and a number of interviews with the performers themselves. This, as Wolfe carefully acknowledges, is both a strength and a weakness. Many of the newspaper stories, for example, are simply press releases Hay wrote. And, though Wolfe began these interviews in 1973, there’s still almost 50 years between the stories and their retelling.
Nevertheless, since nobody seemed to care much at the time for this music that was explained to Nashvillians as a marketing campaign for the life insurance company that owned WSM, this is probably as good a history as is possible. Perhaps because Wolfe comes to the topic as the foremost published authority on old-time fiddling (1997’s The Devil’s Box, etc.), much of this volume begins from that instrument and branches out. Certainly the Opry, in part, grew out of the old-time fiddling frenzy Henry Ford set off in the 1920s. And, perhaps because he has more fiddle research to draw upon, Wolfe seems less engaged by the vocalists who came to replace the Opry’s early string bands.
Twenty-five years in the making, A Good-Natured Riot is comprehensive in its research. Wolfe has pinned down the dates and names of cast members as precisely as is possible, goes to some lengths to be specific about repertoire (both live and recorded), and knows this subject as well as anyone living.
In short, if the early history of the Grand Ole Opry is of interest, this is the book. That said, remember that Wolfe is a scholar, not a storyteller. The facts are here, along with some reasonable and well-educated guesses. What they add up to is less often a concern. And, occasionally, what is omitted is more curious than what is told. Take this single sentence, part of a short explanation for the Delmore Brothers’ decision to leave the Opry: “Principal among these [personal problems] were their [management’s] feeling that some of the Opry regulars and staff disapproved of Rabon’s unconventional life-style and were jealous to start with.” That one just sits there, at the end of a chapter-long profile of the Delmores. Clearly, Wolfe is more interested in music than personality. Good for him, and for us.