How World War II Helped the Grand Ole Opry Go National

Pete Foley ©Stars and Stripes. Frankfurt, West Germany, August, 1961: Country music star Hank Snow and his Rainbow Ranch Boys perform in front of a packed house at the Rhein-Main Air Base NCO club during a tour of bases in Europe. The Nova Scotia-born Snow, who sold over 70 million records during his career, was no stranger to the troops; over the years, he played at bases in Korea, Vietnam, Germany, France, Norway, Italy, England and Japan.Pete Foley ©Stars and Stripes. Frankfurt, West Germany, August, 1961: Country music star Hank Snow and his Rainbow Ranch Boys perform in front of a packed house at the Rhein-Main Air Base NCO club during a tour of bases in Europe. The Nova Scotia-born Snow, who sold over 70 million records during his career, was no stranger to the troops; over the years, he played at bases in Korea, Vietnam, Germany, France, Norway, Italy, England and Japan.

Time-Life has just released a second Opry Video Classics 8 DVD box set, a collection of performances from Grand Ole Opry TV programs from the mid-1950s through the 1970s. Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, The Statler Brothers, George Jones and Charley Pride are among the artists featured on the set’s 120 performances.

Most of today’s country music fans don’t realize is that the hillbilly music’s popularity skyrocketed as a direct result of World War II. Nashville radio station WSM, which had launched the Opry as a radio program in  the 1920s, teamed up with tobacco company R.J. Reynolds in the summer of 1941 to create the Camel Caravan. The touring revue featured Opry stars and was created as a morale booster for American troops in same year as the USO was founded. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the troupe kicked into high gear, playing 175 shows in 1942 at 68 military facilities in 32 states.

WSM also contributed transcriptions of its radio broadcasts to the Armed Forces Radio Services and the Opry’s blend of country music and down-home comedy was played around the world. Yankee servicemen raised on Bing Crosby were exposed to country performers like Roy Acuff, Hank Snow and Pee Wee King.

Roy sure doesn’t sing like he’s headed for damnation.

Acuff became such a star during the war that his influence was felt around the world. Soldiers fighting in the Pacific claimed that Japanese troops tried to demoralize American fighting men with this war cry: “To hell with President Roosevelt! To hell with Babe Ruth! To hell with Roy Acuff!”

Over the course of the war, southern troops shared their music with men from other parts of the USA, country music gained a national audience and the Opry moved into its most beloved home at the Ryman Auditorium in 1943. That popularity led to the TV programs featured in this box set and Nashville’s fame as the capital of country music.

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These are all studio performances (unlike the 1980s/1990s live on-stage broadcasts from the Opryland theater on the The Nashville Network) and the earliest ones are primitive kinescopes. It’s a great historical document and the interactions with the hosts of the various programs are just as interesting as the performances themselves.

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The collection is a sequel to an earlier collection and retails for $120. You can order both collections for $220.