Each week, hundreds of music fans gather to watch the best in Country music do what they do best – perform and entertain. Thousands more listen live on the radio. These artists perform in a venue that has a rich history, along with the city it resides in. This isn’t just any concert venue, it’s THE concert venue. If you’re a resident of Nashville, Tennessee or you’ve been there, chances are you’ve seen a show at the Grand Ole Opry.
The Grand Ole Opry is a weekly American Country music concert that started back in 1925 and to this day is the longest-running radio show in U.S. history. It is still a hot commodity today and has helped launch the careers of many throughout the decades. To become a member of the Grand Ole Opry is a prestigious honor bestowed upon the biggest and the best in Country music. Ernest Tubb, Minnie Pearl, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Carrie Underwood, and Luke Bryan are only some of the names that define and continue to define the Grand Ole Opry.
The list goes on and on and on.
DeFord Bailey, a legend in the world of Country and Blues, was born in December of 1889 into a farming family in Smith County, Tennessee. He didn’t have the easiest start in his life. His mother passed away shortly after he was born and he was raised by his aunt Barbara and her husband, who would officially become his foster parents. At the age of three Bailey would be diagnosed with Polio which prevented him from growing and left him with a bent back. As a result, he was bedridden for a year.
He grew up part of a very musical family who played what he called “black hillbilly music” which consisted of a tradition of secular string-band music shared by rural black and white musicians alike. He would say in an interview later in his life, “My folks didn’t give me no rattler, they gave me a harp.” He would go on to play songs as a part of his church, expanding his musical ability. After moving to Nashville in 1918, he worked a variety of jobs, everything from a houseboy to an elevator operator. While in Music City he would attend live shows on the regular and started to learn more about music, specifically Jazz, Blues, and Pop songs.
Everything changed one fine afternoon when Bailey stopped at a local shop to buy parts for his bicycle. The shop was called Dad’s Auto Parts and was owned by Fred “Pop” Exum, who was captivated by Bailey’s harmonica playing. He began featuring him on radio station WDAD in 1925. It was around this time he met Dr. Humphrey Bate, a harmonica player and string-band leader Castalian Springs, who began performing on Nashville’s powerful WSM shortly after its debut in 1925. WSM call letters stand for ‘We Shield Millions’.
Bate and Bailey became great friends and he would convince him to go on a show which was called the WSM Barn Dance at the time. Simultaneously he would convince station manager George D. Hay to let Bailey perform without an audition and by June 1926, Bailey was performing consistently, beginning his professional music career. Over the years, his songs became instant hits, his most notable being Pan American Blues and Fox Chase.
In the spring of 1927, WSM became an NBC affiliate, allowing them to pick up network feeds from New York or Chicago and include live programs from both cities on their station. One of NBC’s programs was a classical music series called Music Appreciation Hour. The show’s objective was to emphasize “serious” music. In the fall of 1928, Walter Damrosch, the show’s host, played a classical musical sample that replicated the sound of a locomotive train. Hay would later ridicule the classical musician’s attempt to recreate a locomotive train, telling listeners, “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 Ole Opry.” Right then and there, Bailey stepped onto the stage and played Pan American Blues emulating ng the sound of a locomotive speeding down the tracks. Bailey would instantly become part of music history, inspiring Hay to change the name of WSM Barn Dance to the Grand Ole Opry.
Bailey’s groundbreaking sound was “Southern roots music, a mixture of blues, of country, of old-time fiddle music, of vaudeville music, and old-time pop music from the ’20s,” Opry historian Dr. Charles Wolfe told The Tennessean newspaper in 2002. “The thing about DeFord I always liked, unlike many other musicians of that time who were handicapped by genre, he never really understood boundaries. Music was music.”
He was a constant at the Grand Ole Opry for the next 15 years.
Bailey unfortunately passed away in Nashville on July 2, 1982. He was 82.
The following June, the country music industry celebrated DeFord Bailey as the first African American star of the Grand Ole Opry as Mayor Richard Fulton would reveal a tribute plaque in his honor. Bailey’s memorabilia were presented to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. His legacy lives on to this day and in 2019, he received a star on the Music City Walk of Fame in Nashville, rightfully acknowledging his influence as a Country music pioneer. Yet, to this day he is one of only two black musicians to have ever been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005, the first bring Charley Pride in 2000.
Ultimately, DeFord Bailey made great music, entertained millions, and was responsible for the branding of one of the most popular Country music radio shows today. He was truly a pioneer and one of Tennessee’s greatest exports.
Journal of the American Musicological Society