Traditionalists Carry Their Protest to WSM’s Front Door

Both sides could take some comfort in the demonstration held today (Jan. 8) to pressure Nashville radio station WSM-AM (650) into retaining its traditional country music format, including its broadcasts of the historic Grand Ole Opry live show. Station officials have confirmed that they are considering switching the 76-year-old outlet to an all-sports lineup to help it rebound from last year’s reported loss of $1.5 million.

The protest was held from 10:30 a.m. until just after noon CT in near-freezing weather in front of the station’s studios on McGavock Pike near the Opryland Hotel.

Boosting the protesters’ spirits was the fact that the event was covered by the ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox television affiliates, as well as by WPLN-FM (90.3), the local National Public Radio station, the Associated Press and other major news outlets.

For its part, Gaylord Entertainment, which owns the station, could point out that — despite being widely publicized — the rally drew no more than 100 demonstrators at any one time and that it was made up entirely of middle-age or older white people, not one of the more desirable demographic units for radio advertisers. With the exception of George Jones , who drove by as the demonstration was winding down, big-name country recording artists stayed away from the gathering.

Among the music business personalities who turned out were Grand Ole Opry star Billy Walker , artist and songwriter Shawn Camp, bluegrass singer Larry Stephenson, bluegrass talent booker Lance LeRoy, record producer and member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Jack Clement, BR549 guitarist Chuck Mead and songwriter Dennis Morgan.

Though he arrived late, Jones, an Opry member since 1969, wasted no time in adding his voice to the cause. “Gaylord is destroying country music, what real country music is all about,” he said as media representatives hovered around his truck.

“Where are we going to have country music?” he wondered. “You can’t hear it on radio hardly anymore, and it’s going to be gone. We’ve got a few stations scattered like WSM 650, and what are we going to do without them? Why let this man do this?”

Clement said he was on the line for the same reason the other preservationists were and cracked that he thought country music began its downslide when it dropped the name “hillbilly.”

“Where’s Vince Gill ?,” one sign-carrier asked another as the TV cameras nuzzled through the crowd in search of a recognizable face. “Where’s Porter [Wagoner],” said another. Gill and Wagoner are both regarded as defenders of traditional country music and considered well-spoken and well-known enough to carry the music’s banner to a larger audience.

Although passions ran bold among the protesters, the event was low-key throughout. The occasional chants from segments of the crowd sounded more dutiful than angry. WSM stationed a security guard at the entrance of its driveway to politely shoo demonstrators away from the station’s parking lot. But in a gesture that reeked both of good public relations and disdain, the station served the shivering throng hot coffee and tea, delivered in silver urns, as the protest wound down.

Traffic was light along the street beside which the protesters huddled. But most of those who drove by honked their horns, raised their fists or otherwise signaled support.

The signs — largely hand-lettered — ranged from business-like to eloquent, bearing such messages as “To Hell With The Gaylord Gang,” “Stop Another Murder On Music Row,” “Preserve History,” “Don’t Get Rid Of WSM — Get Rid Of Gaylord,” “O Brother, Please Don’t” and “Hank, Elvis And America Say No.”

Some signs took liberties with the WSM initials (which originally stood for “We Shield Millions,” a reflection of the station’s insurance company parentage). Among the adapted variations were “We Screwed Music” and “We Soaked Metro,” the latter a reference to the tax breaks Nashville gave Gaylord to build and expand its Opryland properties.

There being no speeches nor rallying cries for another protest, the crowd dispersed shortly after noon.

Another WSM supporter has set up an online petition to present to Gaylord executives. It has garnered around 6,000 e-signatures (many with fiery messages attached) from such show-biz luminaries as performers Duane Eddy, Hylo Brown, Del McCoury, Sonny Osborne, Bill Lloyd, Alan Jackson , Larry Cordle , Tommy Overstreet, Brad Paisley , Rosie Flores , Josh Graves, Carol Lee Cooper and Duane Allen (of the Oak Ridge Boys ); folklorist Oscar Brand; Station Inn owner J. T. Gray; music scholar Neil V. Rosenberg; music publisher Jana Talbot; music writer and novelist Cecelia Tichi; and songwriter John Ims.

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Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to