Thursday, August 14, 2014

The first use of drums on the Grand Ole Opry

In its September 30, 1967, issue, Billboard reported that "a full set of drums was used on the 'Grand Ole Opry' for the first time in history" when Jerry Reed performed the previous week. (Billboard also misspelled drummer Willie Ackerman's name.) But was Reed really the first?

For decades, the Opry famously refused to allow performers to use drums, and many artists over the years have been credited with being the first to bring drums to the Opry.

The no-drums rule adversely affected country artists who added rock and pop elements to their music in the late 1950s, which many artists did to remain commercially viable as traditional country waned in popularity. When they performed these crossover country songs on the Opry, they were forced to sound more traditional than they really were.

The rule also adversely affected rock and rockabilly performers who appeared on the Opry. When Carl Perkins' rock 'n' roll classic "Blue Suede Shoes" became a hit on the pop, R&B, and country charts in 1955, he was invited to perform it on the Opry but wasn't allowed to use drums. 

Today, Music Weird will look at some of the artists who claim to be—or are claimed to be—the first to use drums at the Opry. 

Bob Wills (1944)


The Billboard reporter who wrote about Jerry Reed apparently forgot that Bob Wills used a drummer on the Opry in 1944. Western swing star Bob Wills was scheduled to appear on the Opry for the first time on December 30, 1944, and was told that the Opry didn't allow drums. Wills told the Opry that he would perform with drums or not at all, so the Opry allowed his band to go on with its drummer. 

Richard Carlin's book Country Music: A Biographical Dictionary, says that Wills' drummer used only a snare drum and was forced to stand behind a curtain. But Charles Townsend's book San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills says in a footnote:
The story has been told that Wills agreed to hide his drums behind the curtain before the Opry officials would allow him to use them. According to Bob and Betty Wills and every musician I have interviewed who was present that night, the story is not true: the drums and horns were "out in the open."

Pee Wee King/Harold "Sticks" McDonald (194?)


Pee Wee King is also said to have used drums at the Opry in the 1940s, but accounts vary on whether he followed or preceded Bob Wills, and whether the drummer was made to stand behind a curtain or not. The All-Music Guide to Country's entry on Pee Wee King says that he "introduced electric instruments, drums, and horns to the notoriously conservative Grand Ole Opry."

Grand Ole Opry historian Byron Fay wrote about Pee Wee King's experience with using drums on the Opry and about this business of hiding drums behind a curtain:
They used the drums for a couple of weeks but were not allowed to announce on the radio that they were using them. After those couple of weeks, George D. Hay told Pee Wee to take the drums home and to leave them there. In a final comment regarding drums, Bud Wendell was quoted in 1985 as saying, "That story about hiding drums behind a curtain is just one of those tales around here. As long as we remained at the Ryman, though, we never used anything other than just a standing snare drum. But that had as much to do with space restrictions as with the purity of country music. You just couldn't fit a whole set of drums on the stage at the Ryman; it just wasn't that big."

The Everly Brothers (1957)


The Everly Brothers' booking agency claims that the Everly Brothers, in 1957, were the first to use drums on the Opry and that the Everlys are credited with introducing drums to Nashville. That's a lofty claim. The Everlys appeared on the Opry in 1957 to perform their hit "Bye Bye Love," which topped the country chart and was covered by country star Webb Pierce.

Carl Smith/Buddy Harman (1959)


Carl Smith, far left; Buddy Harman, center

In the early '50s, Carl Smith—who is seen as a traditionalist today—was one of the first country artists to feature a full drum kit in his band. His drummer, Buddy Harman, became one of the top session drummers in Nashville. Bluegrass Drummer claims that Harman "became the first regular drummer on the Opry in 1959."

Johnny Horton (1959)



I've read that Johnny Horton was granted an exception to the Opry's no-drum rule when he appeared to perform "The Battle Of New Orleans," which was one of the biggest hits of 1959 and prominently features a snare drum. I can't remember where I read it, though. Maybe in the book that came with Horton's Bear Family box set 1956-1960?

Johnny Cash/W.S. "Fluke" Holland (195?)


Johnny Cash and W.S. "Fluke" Holland

The Las Vegas Sun claimed that Johnny Cash's drummer, W.S. "Fluke" Holland, was the first drummer to use a full drum kit on the Opry, presumably in the 1950s, but the article is vague. Holland's website makes the same claim. 

Jerry Reed/Willie Ackerman (1967) 


Willie Ackerman

See the excerpt from Billboard at the beginning of this post.

Hal Durham (1974+)


Colin Escott's book The Grand Ole Opry: The Making of an American Icon claims that Hal Durham, who managed the Opry from 1974 to 1993, was the first to allow a full drum kit on the Opry: "He was the first to allow a full drum kit on the Opry stage," the book says. But elsewhere in the book, Escott writes that Pee Wee King "probably introduced guitar and drums to the Opry stage." Maybe King had a snare and Durham allowed a full kit, but the Billboard article above says that Jerry Reed used a full kit in 1967. 


  1. I had read in the past that Ernest Tubb was first, and caught some flak over it. It's a hard thing to pin down, I suppose.

    1. Maybe you're thinking of electric guitar? Tubb is credited with helping to legitimize the electric guitar in country music (he reportedly stunned the Opry bigwigs by playing an electric guitar onstage in 1943), but I've never heard that he pioneered the use of drums.