The radio station that created Music City USA turns 87 today

Radio stations come and go. You’ll like a station, but you’ll tune in one morning, and instead of oldies, they’ll be talking sports.  

That’s what I like about WSM-650 AM in Nashville, which began broadcasting 87 years ago today. It’s always there, playing country music.

Its nickname is “The Air Castle of the South.” At night, its 50,000-watt signal can be picked up all across the South and Midwest, and it’s online (and there’s an app for that).

WSM has a neat history. It was founded by the National Life and Accident Insurance Co. as a way to advertise its insurance policies. Its motto was “We Shield Millions.”   

On Nov. 28, 1925, it launched the “WSM Barn Dance.”  Back in those days, radio stations played a little bit of everything, and before the “Barn Dance,” WSM played operatic music.  One Saturday night in 1927, the announcer, “Judge” George Hay, introduced the “Barn Dance” by saying, “For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from the grand opera, but from now on, we will present the grand ol’ opry.”  

It’s been the Grand Ole Opry ever since.  

Because of the Opry, a lot of musicians set up camp in Nashville, and because they wanted to make records close to home, the city got a bunch of recording studios, eventually, Nashville became Music City.

If you ever visit Nashville, you can visit WSM, or, at least, look through the window at the disc jockey. WSM’s studios are in the Magnolia Lobby of the massive Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, which is named after Opryland USA, which was a theme park that Gaylord Entertainment razed in the 1990s because it thought it would make more money with a shopping mall. The executives who thought that are no longer with the company.

The only recording studio that’s open for tours is the former RCA Studio B, which is down on Music Row, an area that’s home to record labels, recording studios, video production houses and other business who serve the music industry. RCA Studio B is known as “The Home of 1,000 Hits,” and that’s no exaggeration. It’s where Elvis recorded “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” Roy Orbison recorded “Only the Lonely,” and Dolly Parton recorded “I Will Always Love You.” You should go. (The Jolie did when she passed through Nashville a couple of years ago.)

One of the things I like about Nashville is that there’s a lot going on here besides music. Nashville is known as “the Athens of the South,” because there are so many colleges and universities. It’s also the center of the nation’s for-profit healthcare industry.  

But country music is what makes Nashville unique, and without WSM, it wouldn’t be Music City USA.

In the food court: Santa, with the Rockettes

Thing 1 had basketball practice this morning, so Thing 2 and I went to mall to see Santa.

Some shopping mall Santas arrive by helicopter, some sneak in through the vacant store next to Spencer’s Gifts, but, usually, Santa travels alone.

Not here. In our little town in the middle of Tennessee, Santa arrives with the honest-go-God Radio City Music Hall Rockettes.

It’s not what you’d expect in a little Southern town, but it’s been going on for years. Santa arrives at Cool Springs Galleria with 6 Rockettes. The dancers do a 3-minute routine, complete with a kickline, and then Santa and the Rockettes lead the children from the food court to Santa’s castle. This morning, Thing 2 was first in line behind the Rockettes.

Living here, in Franklin, about 20 miles outside Nashville, you kind of expect the unexpected, like seeing the Rockettes in the food court or passing Nicole Kidman in the crowd at the county fair (she’s married to the country singer Keith Urban, and they live here sometimes).

The deal with the Rockettes is that since 2001, the owners of the Grand Ole Opry have moved the world’s longest-running radio show out of the 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House and back to the 2,400-seat Ryman Auditorium (which, if you’re ever in town, is a terrific place to see a show) and brought in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular for a 6-week stand. It’s the same show you’d see at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

I know, who’d have thought the Rockettes would become a Nashville tradition, but there you go.

Little Jimmy Dickens is beloved

Image via Wikipedia

Saturday night, I was grilling hamburgers and listening to Little Jimmy Dickens on the “Grand Ole Opry,” and I thought, this is a good Saturday night.

There’s just something deeply satisfying about hearing Little Jimmy Dickens on the radio and knowing he’s there at the Opry, knowing that Little Jimmy Dickens has always been on the Opry and probably always will be.

If you recognize his name, chances are it’s because of his only No. 1 song, “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose,” but while he may be most famous for a nearly 50-year-old novelty song, here in Nashville, Little Jimmy Dickens is beloved.

Little Jimmy Dickens is 4-foot-11 and 90 years old. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1983, and he’s been a member of the Opry since ’48. Hank Williams nicknamed him Tater. The name suits him.

If you don’t know a lot about the Opry, it’s the country’s longest-running live radio show. It’s on every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday night, and Little Jimmy Dickens is usually there. I’ve heard he loves the show so much that he’s usually the first performer to arrive at the Opry House. He just likes hanging out there.

Little Jimmy Dickens’ voice isn’t as strong as it used to be, but no one listening seems to mind. On nights he doesn’t sing, he talks and tells jokes. He has a self-deprecating sense of humor.

“I’d like to play a song from my latest album,” he’ll say. “It came out in 1963.”

One night we went to Opry, the auditorium was about half empty. He said. “There aren’t a lot of people here tonight, but that’s OK. We’ve played to smaller crowds.

“One time, we drove all night, and when we got there, there was one person in the audience. I said, ‘Sir, we drove all night to get here, and we’re gonna do our show just for you.’ He said, ‘Well, hurry up. I’m the janitor, and I can’t go home until you’re done.'”

He tells the same jokes over and over. People who don’t listen to the Opry a lot don’t notice. The rest of us, I think, find it comforting.

Here are 2 videos of Little Jimmy Dickens. In the first, he pulls a Kanye West on Brad Paisley at the Country Music Association awards a couple years ago:

And here’s a clip of Little Jimmy Dickens on the Opry a few years ago. The song is called, “(You’ve Been Quite a Doll) Raggedy Ann.” It peaked at No. 75 on Billboard’s country chart in 1970. They don’t make country records like “Raggedy Ann” anymore. These days, country songs are about partying in the woods. This one is about grieving. These days, country songs are ironic. In this one, Little Jimmy Dickens means every word.