National Barn Dance


National Barn Dance, broadcast by WLS-AM in Chicago, Illinois starting in 1924, was one of the first American country music radio programs and a direct precursor of the Grand Ole Opry.[1]

It also set the stage for other similar programs, in part because the clear-channel signal of WLS could be received throughout most of the Midwest and even beyond in the late evening and nighttime hours, making much of the United States (and Canada) a potential audience. The program was well received and thus widely imitated. National Barn Dance ended its broadcast in 1968.


The Barn Dance in 1940

National Barn Dance was founded by Edgar L. Bill. To him goes the credit for arranging to have a program of "down-home" tunes broadcast from radio station WLS, of which Bill was then director. Having lived on a farm, he knew how people loved the familiar sound and informal spirit of old-fashioned barn dance music. The first broadcast was an impromptu sustaining program. An avalanche of telephone calls and letters indicated a definite demand from the public for this type of broadcast, and National Barn Dance was born. It first aired on WLS on April 19, 1924 and originated from the Eighth Street Theater starting in 1931. The show was picked up by NBC Radio in 1933.[2] NBC expanded the program's coverage in 1942, adding it to the schedules of international shortwave stations.[3] In 1946 it switched to the ABC Radio network and aired until 1952 on Saturday nights from 6:30 p.m. to midnight.

George D. Hay (a.k.a. The Solemn Ole Judge) has always claimed that he started the WLS Barn Dance when he worked for them as an announcer, but research is showing that this was a falsehood of documented history and that his claim was to help him get a job as the first director of WSM Radio c. 1925 Nashville, Tennessee.

The show regularly featured Gene Autry, Red Foley, The Three Little Maids, Jenny Lou Carson, Eddie Dean, Lulu Belle and Scotty, Pat Buttram, George Gobel, The Williams Brothers (featuring future crooner Andy Williams), Arkansas Woodchopper, The DeZurik Sisters and the Hoosier Hot Shots. Other guests included Smiley Burnette, Eddie Peabody and Joe Kelly, best remembered today as the host and moderator of NBC's Quiz Kids. The announcer was Jack Holden and it was once sponsored by Alka-Seltzer.

ABC made two moves that ultimately led to National Barn Dance's slow demise. The first was the cancellation of the network broadcast in 1952. After a few years, audiences finally began to wane, and the program ceased live performances after 1957. The show continued to air on WLS, however, until 1959 when ABC bought the station and changed the format to Top 40 rock and roll, canceling National Barn Dance outright. The show moved to Chicago's WGN-AM until it finally left the air in 1968.[4]



Charles M. Bardy[5]

William Bardy[5] Byron Bouchard[5]

Film and TV

A fictionalized account of the show's origins, The National Barn Dance (1944), was filmed by director Hugh Bennett from a screenplay by Hal Fimberg and Lee Loeb. The film starred Jean Heather, Charles Quigley, Robert Benchley, Mabel Paige and Charles Dingle. Pat Buttram and Joe Kelly appeared as themselves. Paramount Pictures reportedly paid WLS $75,000 for the rights in 1943.[6]

ABC Barn Dance, a filmed TV series featuring some of the radio performers, was telecast on ABC from February 21November 14, 1949. Hosted by Jack Stillwell and Hal O'Halloran, the 30-minute musical variety format presented a mix of folk music with country and Western tunes.


In 1925, prior to network radio or syndication, Hay brought his Barn Dance concept to Nashville, Tennessee. The result was a show called the WSM Barn Dance. It became so popular that on December 10, 1927, Hay renamed it the Grand Ole Opry. WSM became one of the first NBC affiliates in 1927, and the Opry is still on the air today.

A second program was launched in the 1930s by National Barn Dance's then-president John Lair in Renfro Valley, Kentucky; the Renfro Valley Barn Dance still takes place weekly but is no longer aired on radio (although a sister program, the Renfro Valley Gatherin', does still air weekly on Sunday mornings).


  1. "The Story of the National Barn Dance (PBS)". 22 August 2011. Retrieved 22 August 2011.
  2. Young, William H. and Young, Nancy K. (2007). The Great Depression in America, p. 345. Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.
  3. "'Barn Dance' Shorwaved; Third NBC Show Overseas" (PDF). Billboard. March 7, 1942. p. 6. Retrieved 11 February 2015.
  4. Kemp, Bill (2015-08-16). "Popular WLS Barn Dance stopped in Twin Cities". The Pantagraph. Retrieved 2016-04-18.
  5. 1 2 3 photograph June 16, 1934 National Barn Dance Crew
  6. "Paramount Buying WLS' Barn Dance". Broadcasting and Broadcast Advertising. Washington, D.C.: Broadcasting Publications, Inc. 25 (3): 26. July 19, 1943.

Prairie Farmer WLS National Barn Dance Crew photograph dated June 16, 1934 in "WLS Family Album 1935." Chicago: The Prairie Farmer Publishing Company, 1934, p. 30.

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