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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 575

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This is the grave of Jim Denny.

Born in 1911 in Silver Point, Tennessee, Denny grew up dirt poor. He went to work as a teenager, moving to Nashville. In 1927, he got a job with WSM, a radio station in Nashville. This was the very beginning of commercial radio and stations were looking to create programs, mostly to support the business interests that created the stations, often just some store with a visionary manager. WSM started a new show called the Grand Ole Opry, one of many country music shows that were intended to get people to listen to all the ads for the stores. Denny’s job was just in the mailroom. But he worked his way up the station’s management. He sold tickets and then began managing the talent. By 1946, he headed the Artists Service Bureau and by 1951, was the general manager of the show. He worked with Webb Pierce to began his own publishing company in 1954, which eventually forced him from WSM due to a conflict of interest.

Jim Denny was also a huge asshole. What I know of him comes primarily from the premier episode of Tyler Mahan Coe’s excellent country music podcast Cocaine and Rhinestones. Many of the details of this post are taken from this, but you should listen to it and the whole series. It’s great. Among many other things–such as making Johnny Cash wait two hours to see him after Cash had already had a huge hit with “I Walk the Line,” just because he could–Denny’s publishing company meant that he started only putting people on the Opry that published for him. Coe asserts that this is why Denny fired Hank Williams from the Grand Ole Opry in 1954 instead of the stated reason that Hank was a drunk. Quite easily could have been both reasons. Owning a publishing company while also controlling the Opry was just a cash cow. And Denny had every intention of cashing in. The history of music executives is one of what is really the worst people in human history (the Sopranos episode where Hesh is confronted by a popular star for ripping off his mother’s music is not the best episode of the series by far because David Chase could not portray black people with even the slightest bit of sophistication, but it did expose this kind of thing in a useful way). And Jim Denny was among those terrible people.

After Denny was canned from the Opry, he contacted Philip Morris, that fine company that never hurt anyone. He asked the company to pay for a country music package tour that would challenge the Opry directly. It would also be free for the audience since America’s finest tobacco firm was bankrolling it. Then he basically forced all his artists to quit the Opry. Then he started challenging artists directly.

Ernest Tubb, one of the nice guys of the industry, had started a Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Festival in the Singing Brakeman’s hometown of Meridian, Mississippi. Denny sent his festival to Meridian to compete directly with it. Now, Tubb loved Jimmie Rodgers. He ran the festival to help support Rodgers’ widow. And he went ballistic. In fact, he got drunk and tried to murder Denny. First, he called Denny in the middle of night. So Denny told him to come down and fight it out if he wanted. He didn’t change out of slippers but he did grab a couple of guns. He sobered up pretty quick once he fired a random shot and thought he killed the wrong man, even though he didn’t hit anyone at all. The story was hushed up but everyone in Nashville knew that he wanted to kill Denny. And most of them couldn’t blame him.

Denny had an early demise though. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1962. He and Tubb supposedly made their peace before he died, in 1963. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1966, the first non-musician inducted.

Jim Denny is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader contributions. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other music executives, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jerry Wexler is in Sarasota, Florida and Sam Phillips is in Memphis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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