A Good-Natured Riot


“A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth Of The Grand Ole Opry,” by Charles K. Wolfe (Vanderbilt University Press / Country Music Foundation Press, 1999)

Charles Wolfe on Humphrey Bate:

Like Most other performers on the early Opry, Dr. Bate did not make a living from his music.  For most of his career he was a full-time practicing physician who saw music as a hobby and as a means to relax.  He was born in 1875 in Sumner County, Tennessee, some forty miles northeast of Nashville and about halfway between Nashville  and the Kentucky state line.  His father before him had been a physician for about forty years at Castalian Springs, near Gallatin, Tennessee, and young Humphrey took over his practice at about the turn of the century.  He had graduated from the Vanderbilt Medical School just prior to the Spanish-American War of 1898, during which he served in the Medical Corps.  After the war young Dr. Bate reportedly turned down several offers to practice in urban centers, preferring the life of a country doctor and the rustic pleasures of hunting and fishing.

As a boy Humphrey Bate would perform on the steamboats that ran excursions up and down the Cumberland River, which wound through the Middle Tennessee highlands.  His daughter recalled: “At first it was just him playing harmonica solos.  Later I’m sure he may have carried others, but at first it was just him and his harmonica.  It worried my grandmother because he would go to the river.”  But an even more important influence on him than the riverboat experience was an old ex-slave who had worked for the Bate family for years.  Alcyone Bate Beasley remembered: “I have heard him say that most of the tunes he learned, he learned from this old negro who was an old man when he (Humphrey) was a little boy.”

It was (George) Hay who decided to call the band the Possum Hunters; before that, it was simply called “Dr. Bate’s Band,” or “Dr. Humphrey Bate’s Augmented String Orchestra.”  The two earliest photos of the band show the members in conservative, well-tailored business suits, but by 1930 Opry publicity was sending out photos of them that showed them dressed in sloppy felt hats, overalls, and suspenders.

Humphrey Bate


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