George D. Hay and the Start of Grand Ole Opry Radio

Ask most folks these days who George D. Hay was, and you’re liable to get an empty stare for all your trouble. But in a quiet cemetery, tucked away in the hills of Virginia, rests a man that helped shape classic country music into one of the most wholesome, passionate and beautiful works in this great nation. Without George D. Hay, the Grand Ole Opry would never have come to be.

Who Was George D. Hay?

Born in Attica, Indiana, on November 9th, 1895, George Dewey Hay was born blessed by the Lord with a drive and talent for entertainment. George went through numerous jobs during his early days, first serving in the military before becoming a reporter for the Commercial Appeal newspaper out of Memphis. Eventually, he found himself as the late night announcer for the papers radio station, WMC. It was there that he first heard 78 year-old Jimmy Thompson fiddling away, and it only took once for George to realize the potential for this “hillbilly” music.

George aspired to build himself a show that would share with the nation the excitement and joy this “down-to-earth” folk music made him feel.

George’s subsequent show, then known as the WSM Barn Dance, was broadcast on NBC after the Music Appreciation Hour show. That show was dedicated mostly to classical and Grand Opera, a far cry from the fiddlers and harmonica players George Hay planned to show on the Barn Dance. It must have been a peculiar sound to hear, after such a grand performance.

But, as George would later put it, “the past hour, we’ve been listening to music taken largely from the Grand Opera. From now on, we will present the Grand Ole Opry.”

The Start of the Grand Ole Opry Radio

And present they did. George, calling himself “The Solemn Old Judge” after a character he created back in his newspaper days, showed the nation all that “hillbilly music” had to offer. 

Each artist on the program performed for 15 to 20 minutes in front of a live audience. There was never a loss for talent either. Performing at the Grand Ole Opry was a big deal, with it quickly becoming a national institution. Under George’s direction, singers such as Minnie Pearl, Bill Monroe and others became regular acts for the Opry.

Soon, the Opry expanded from its little half hour show to a three-hour program. In the 1940’s, it even became a full length Hollywood movie!

Even as his age caught up with him, George still toured across the country with the Grand Ole Opry troupe. In September 1947, George made his last appearance in Carnegie Hall. He would continue to have a strong influence on the country music scene in Tennessee and across the nation, even standing as a vocal critic of the later decisions of the Opry and the direction it took.

In 1968, George D Hay died in Norfolk, Virginia. Ever the entertainer, George will always be remembered by those of us that appreciate what he did for country music.