Friday, February 17, 2017

All the Opry's in the Land

We all know the The Grand Ole Opry. It's been on 650 WSM-AM for 92 years. It was originally called WLS and WMC in Memphis, TN. Hay was key to the renaming of the barn dance into the Opry.
"The WSM Barn Dance." At that time is was broadcasting live from the fifth-floor radio studio of the National Life & Accident Insurance Company in downtown Nashville, TN. It's first airdate was November 28, 1925. They had hired announcer George D. Hay 26 days earlier.  He had already worked at

The program was re-named on December 10, 1927. That year on NBC the barn dance was preceded by NBC Red Network's Music Appreciation Hour. It was a schlock program of classical music and opera presented conductor Walter Damrosch. Damrosch however was no stuffed shirt. His father and brother were also conductors, and his mother was an opera singer. He studied at the Dresden Conservatory, and was conducting himself in New York and New Jersey by the age of 19. Damrosch was the National Broadcasting Company's music director under David Sarnoff, from 1928 to 1942. Yet critic Theo Adorno wrote that the Damrosch approach towards popularizing classical music was infantilizing and authoritarian. Anyway back in 1927 Damrosch stated "there is no place in the classics for realism." George Hay decided to make hay of it. Hay responded as follows:
" Friends, the program which just came to a close was devoted to the classics. Doctor Damrosch told us that there is no place in the classics for realism. However, from here on out for the next three hours, we will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the "earthy"... For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera. From now on, we will present the "Grand Ole Opry".
He followed that up with a performance by DeFord Bailey who played "The Pan-American Blues," which is a semi-improvisational and impressive series of train noises played on harmonica. By December newspapers were using the new name. Sociologists have oft remarked on this expression of "rural values" in a Southern City. We can skip that. The story is apocryphal, but it is notable that the word "opry" was thus born. But the word didn't stop here. Other barn dances took up term and the original Grand Ole Opry finally trade marked the word in 1950. They further trademarked "Opryland USA" for their theme park in 1974 and "Opryland Talent Agency" in 1981. But the word "Opry" not until 1982.
  • Country Shindig Opry (1979 - 1982)
  • Myrtlebeach Opry (1970-1973)
  • The Ozark Opry (1954-1980)
  • Austin's Nashville Opry (1954)
  • Austin's Ozark Nashville Opry
  • The Carolina Opry (1986)
Legal action ensued. WSM sued for trademark infringement. There were numerous cases but three in particular put the question to rest. WSM, Inc. v. Hilton in 1985, and before that WSM, Inc. v. Bailey and
Rainwater in 1969.  That same year was WSM, Inc. v. Kansas City Industries.  But let's start with Bailey. Donald Bailey had recorded a record released by Jay Rainwater which in part bore the name Grand Ole Opry. Actually they had named their recording company "Opry Records." WSM had never used their brand in that manner, but Bailey and Rainwater didn't have the right to misappropriate it either. They got shut down.


In 1970 the court went the other way. Lee Mace operated the "Ozark Opry" and registered that trademark in 1962. Then in 1962 Austin Wood licensed the Opry name from WSM and began operating "Austin's Ozark Nashville Opry" in Branson Missouri. Lee Mace objected in 1962 and Austin changed the name to Austin's Nashville Opry. WSM got around to suing in 1969, and the parties settled. Lee was prohibited from using the name "Ozark Opry" in Kentucky and Tennessee but was licensed for the other 48 states.

The Hilton case was more interesting. The central issue was whether or not the word "Opry" was a generic term for country music entertainment. The Federal Circuit held surprisingly in 1982 that the word "opry" is generic! At the core was not George Hay's first use of the word but it's etymology as common vernacular. For that I'll quote the court:
"Certain persons who reside along the mid-Atlantic seaboard, in Appalachia and in the Ozarks have adhered to a rule of pronunciation under which words ending with the letter "a" are pronounced as if the word ended with the letter "y". The word "opera" is among at least 175 words to which this rule of dialectic pronunciation applies. For example, "opera" is pronounced as "opery" or "opry". The horse, medicine and jig operas were often respectively referred to as "horse opry" or "hoss opry", "medicine opry" or "med-opry", and "jig opry."
More problematic was that the word "opry" is listed and defined in Webster's New Third International Dictionary as a dialectic variation of the word "opera." The American Thesaurus of Slang lists "opry" as a "musical performance," describes an "opery house" as a "theatre," and includes "horse opera" and "hoss opry" among terms referring to a "circus." So the court applied the Lanham Act, which provides that if a registered mark at any time becomes generic, it provides for the cancellation of that mark's registration. George D. Hay died in 1968 and was unable to make his case. The court for what it's worth was correct. The term "horse opry" appears in every John Wayne biography, and a dozen 1940's-era issues of Billboard hocking disposable C&W 78s.