Grand Ole Opry: The Next Generation

Can the Grand Ole Opry cross the chasm into the twenty-first century? This article from the new issue of The Journal of Country Music explores a new Opry booking approach that includes left-of-center players. This new strategy, which mixes alternative-country acts with both veteran cast-members and mainstream artists, just may lead the Opry’s charge into a brave, new world.

In many respects, Mike Ireland was little different from any other singer making a Grand Ole Opry debut: He was a bundle of nerves. Ireland hadn’t eaten all day. He couldn’t keep a thread of conversation going with the family members and friends who had driven from Boston, Orlando, and his hometown of Kansas City this past August to be with him. Although Ireland hadn’t made the cut to appear on the Opry telecast on TNN, his performance would go out live over WSM-AM radio, reaching into 38 states, parts of Canada, and even more of the country if you counted those who would be listening by way of satellite. Ireland was slotted between funny men Bill Carlisle and Mike Snider on a Saturday night bill that also boasted such heady company as Porter Wagoner, Jean Shepard, Vince Gill, and Wilma Lee Cooper.

As if this weren’t pressure enough, Ireland and his accompanist, guitarist Dan Mesh, didn’t get a chance to rehearse with the Opry band before going onstage. They also had to be mindful of the show’s tight schedule, a by-the-clock system that left no room for deviation. The last thing they needed was for something to go wrong during their performance. But as bassist Ireland launched into his self-penned, hard-core weeper, “Worst of All,” the Opry’s house drummer came in too fast behind him. Within the span of three beats, the young singer’s big night hung in the balance. His heart in his throat, Ireland kept his head: He resolutely stomped his left foot to the beat, reined in the rhythm and, taking a page from the Jack Greene notebook, artfully built his song to its cathartic climax. “Worst of all is how you act like you still love me /Never give me no cause to doubt at all,” sang Ireland, his throbbing voice rendering palpable the feelings of betrayal and heartache that suffused his lyrics. The crowd was with him all the way. Hanging on his every word, the Opry audience burst into a vigorous round of applause.

The Opry regulars seemed just as impressed. As Ireland took a bow and headed for the curtained wings, Buck White, the segment’s host, was the first to pump his hand and congratulate him. Mike Snider, passing Ireland on his way to the stage, remarked, “Son, that was stronger than a garlic milkshake.” Other cast members welcomed him into the fold as well, just as they do most first-timers.

But beyond his pre-show jitters, Ireland was fundamentally different from many Opry first-timers. As a singer associated with the alternative-country fringe, Mike Ireland was a virtual unknown. He didn’t have a hit on the country charts. His 1998 debut album didn’t even come out on a country label, but on Sub Pop, the Seattle rock imprint that issued early recordings by the grunge band Nirvana. By the time Ireland walked onto the Opry stage he couldn’t even claim that affiliation: Despite reams of rave critical reviews, Sub Pop had cut him loose due to disappointing sales. Doubtless few, if any, of the show’s cast or audience had heard of Ireland, much less had heard his music.

An anomaly, you might say, a case of a plucky singer with a well-connected manager. In part, perhaps, but Ireland’s appearance was not a singular event. A lot of new, unexpected faces have been playing the Opry lately. Since the summer of 1999, the show’s management has booked a steady stream of tradition-leaning newcomers and older non-mainstream acts, not one of them a household name by any stretch of the imagination. Some, such as West Coast honky-tonker Heather Myles, Texas yodeler Don Walser, and old-time revivalists Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, are, like Ireland, critics’ favorites whose music falls well outside the bounds of commercial country radio. Others, such as Brad Paisley, Matt King, and Chalee Tennison, are young traditionalists who are part of the Nashville machine but whose hard-core styles challenge the hegemony of Music Row’s pop-driven aesthetic. Still others, such as bluegrass outfit the Del McCoury Band, western swing exponents Asleep at the Wheel, and Cajun stringband the Hackberry Ramblers, are practitioners of sub-genres of hillbilly music that have long been relegated to country’s margins. These new acts aren’t supplanting the Opry’s regulars, at least not yet. Their presence, however, does reflect something of a sea change for the nation’s longest-running radio show.

“It’s really important that the Opry embrace the broad spectrum of what truly makes up the genre of country music,” explains Steve Buchanan, president of the Grand Ole Opry Group. “I think the Opry has done that for many, many years. But what we’re trying to do now is swing the doors open a little wider and embrace some artists that might be perceived as being a little bit more on the contemporary side of things, the quote-unquote Americana side of things.”

It is precisely the Opry’s growing recognition of the “Americana side of things” that has caused a number of observers to take note. In a town where the commercial country music industry rises and falls with chart positions and units sold, the Opry’s current willingness to include acts that fall far below the radar of the Hot 100 strikes some as a bold move. At the very least, it is an acknowledgment that, stylistically, country’s reach extends well beyond what gets played on mainstream radio.

“We’re just reflecting what the world recognizes as country music,” says Opry general manager Pete Fisher. “If it looks like we’re going after Americana, well, the Opry is Americana. Some people might think of the music on the Americana chart as progressive, but a lot of it is really just hardcore traditional music.” Fisher, a ten-year veteran of Music Row, took over the reins of the Opry in mid-June of 1999, just before the number of younger, edgier acts in the show’s lineup started to reach critical mass.

The presence of left-of-center or progressive performers on the Grand Ole Opry, even as cast members, is hardly without precedent. “We don’t look on it today as being as dramatic as it was,” observes country historian Charles Wolfe, “but the Opry has booked acts that pushed the envelope before. Take, for example, when Pee Wee King came to the Opry in 1937. A lot of the older people thought that what King was playing was not country music because [he and the Golden West Cowboys] came in dressed up in uniforms and were doing all kinds of well-orchestrated stage routines and were emphasizing cowboy stuff more than mountain stuff. [Opry founder] Judge Hay routinely got into arguments with King over what he could or couldn’t use on the show.”

The Opry has had other controversial guests as well. In 1968 the Byrds played the show, an appearance that evoked critical comments from disc jockey Ralph Emery. This in turn inspired the incipient country-rockers to pen the pointed Emery send-up “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man.”

Richard Nixon and James Brown, among others, were also guests on the Opry. Nixon appeared on the show in 1974, at the height of the Watergate scandal. After receiving onstage yo-yo lessons from noted conservative Roy Acuff, he proceeded to plink out a version of “My Wild Irish Rose” on piano, in honor of his wife Pat’s birthday.

Brown came to the Opry in 1979, at the bidding of Porter Wagoner, who had wanted the Godfather of Soul to play the show ever since he saw Brown perform in Newark in the late ’50s or early ’60s. Some of the Opry’s regulars, however, weren’t so enthusiastic, especially when, after singing Opry-friendly versions of “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Georgia on My Mind,” and “The Tennessee Waltz,” Brown tore through a five-song soul medley that included the proto-funk workout “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”

But where the Opry appearances of Brown, Nixon, and the Byrds were oddities or one-offs, the recent profusion of Americana-identified acts on the show reflects a conscious change in booking philosophy. Management’s current crusade to enlist the likes of Kelly Willis, Mandy Barnett, and Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band is born of more than just a spirit of musical ecumenism, of more than just a desire to ensure that the Opry be a forum for country’s many roots and branches. The move strikes a much deeper chord, that of the 75 year-old institution’s survival.

The Opry has faced challenges since its inception. In the 1920s and ’30s, it moved to various studios within the National Life and Accident Insurance building in downtown Nashville to accommodate its growing audience. Between 1934 and 1943, the year the show established itself at the Ryman Auditorium, the Opry also called the Hillsboro Theater, the Dixie Tabernacle, and the War Memorial Auditorium home. And in 1974, in an effort to inject new life into the show (after nearly a decade of being out-of-touch with country’s commercial mainstream), the Opry moved to Opryland, a sprawling suburban complex that included an enormous hotel and theme park, as well as the Grand Ole Opry House.

Opry ticket sales have been down five to ten percent since Opryland Theme Park padlocked its gates in late 1997, says Pete Fisher. It’s not unusual for management to invite people to stay over for the second Saturday night show in hopes of filling an otherwise half-empty house. “The park was definitely a feeder to the Opry,” Fisher admits. “But with the opening of Opry Mills [shopping mall] in May 2000, as well as the further development of this complex, we feel like we’re going to create, once again, a significant destination.”

Perhaps, but if, as some fear, Opry Mills doesn’t draw the swarms of tourists that officials are projecting, then the only way to ensure the show’s long-term viability may be to reinvent it as an entertainment-driven as opposed to a tourism-driven event. Such a move, one that hinges on getting big names with current chart hits to play the Opry regularly, won’t be easy. For starters, some Opry members haven’t been held to a minimum number of annual appearances in order to maintain their slots in the show’s cast. So while superstar members like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Reba McEntire could be big drawing cards, they play the Opry only on occasion.

In an interview with the Nashville daily newspaper The Tennessean last November, Vince Gill — who among bona fide superstars is one of the Opry’s staunchest supporters — suggested that this dearth of marquee acts could be putting the show’s future in jeopardy. “The real crux of the problem for me is in Garth [Brooks] and in Reba [McEntire] and in Alan [Jackson] and in Clint [Black] and on and on, the so-called big stars of today who don’t support the Grand Ole Opry,” said Gill, alluding to his peers’ infrequent Opry appearances. Gill’s got a point: The bulk of the show’s Friday and Saturday night lineups have long consisted of veteran regulars such as Jim Ed Brown, Jeannie Seely, and Charlie Walker, performers who haven’t seen chart action in years. From Skeeter Davis singing her 1962 smash “The End of the World” to Stonewall Jackson belting out his 1959 signature song “Waterloo,” the Opry has long revolved around these venerable stars performing their best-known hits.

Many of these stalwarts represent the last, significant tier of Nashville-based heritage artists, a roster that has taken considerable hits over the past twenty years. As late as 1982, you could still catch the legendary Ernest Tubb on the Opry. With the deaths in the last decade of such Opry titans as Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Minnie Pearl, and Hank Snow, the ranks of greats at the Opry have diminished considerably. With many of the current cast members reaching their retirement years, there is a need for younger artists to fill the inevitable void. There is also a need to appeal to a younger audience as the current one ages with its most beloved performers. Having the show’s fading stars sing the same songs and tell the same jokes week in and week out might still be enough to attract busloads of vacationing seniors to the Opry. But if the show is going to outlive its audience, it is going to have to start drawing more younger patrons as well.

Fisher concedes that the Opry needs to bring the average age of ticket buyers more in line with mainstream country’s core demographic. “The Opry’s health depends on the diversity of its audience and that means a better generational mix,” he explains. “The average country radio listener is a 35-plus consumer. The Opry, by contrast, has more of a 55-plus audience. If we can attract a contingent of 30-year-olds, of 40-year-olds, of 50-year-olds, and maybe even some 20-year-olds, and if we can continue to give them an entertaining event, then I think the Opry will grow.”

To that end, Fisher hopes to book big-name rock acts with ties to country music as guests on the show. “I’d love to have Bruce Springsteen on the Opry,” he says. “I’d love to have Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler. There are lots of artists out there who pay homage to country music, and I think it’s in the Opry’s best interest to invite those folks to be on the show from time to time.” They are already web casting the show on the Internet. In addition, Fisher says Opry officials are exploring expanding the televised portion of the show from a half-hour to an hour, as well as introducing a roving camera to capture, vérité style, events taking place backstage. Other ideas Fisher and his colleagues are discussing include sponsoring periodic packaged tours akin to the old Opry Road Show; and hosting limited Opry runs at the Ryman Auditorium. In January, a month-long run at the Ryman garnered press and demonstrated the broad scope of management’s new booking strategy. Appearing over the four weekends was a high-profile mix of performers ranging from Trisha Yearwood and Reba McEntire to Ralph Stanley, Loretta Lynn, and BR5-49.

This emphasis on entertainment, rather than on tourism, constitutes something of a renaissance for the Opry: It was the show’s main focus from the time it first broadcast in 1925 until it abandoned the Ryman for Opryland in 1974. This isn’t to say that the Opry didn’t attract tourists before it relocated to the suburbs. Fans both far and near began making pilgrimages to Nashville to see the show well before the Opry gained national exposure after affiliating with the NBC radio network in 1939. Yet even during its heyday from 1945 to 1965, the Opry was foremost a place where locals, and people from throughout Tennessee and neighboring states, would go for weekend amusement, much as they went to the movies.

“When the Opry was down at the Ryman and at the other places it was not a pleasant place to go,” explains Charles Wolfe, whose latest book, A Good-Natured Riot, chronicles the birth and early years of the Grand Ole Opry. “If you didn’t want to go downtown and hear the music, you didn’t go. Nowadays [the Opry] is so nice and pleasant. It is very much a tourism thing, but that really only coincided with the opening of Opryland. [The show’s sponsor] National Life had suddenly decided, after it got into its third or fourth generation of management, that they could do something besides sell insurance. And the one thing they decided they could do was tourism.”

It’s too soon to tell whether or not the Opry’s new entertainment-driven booking approach will turn things around at the box office. But in the meantime, the historically change-averse institution is, ironically enough, emerging as something of a progressive force within the larger world of country music. At a time when country radio stations have dramatically narrowed their playlists and record companies are cloning the likes of Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks in hopes of cashing in on their pop crossover success, the Opry’s mix of pioneers and history-conscious upstarts seems patently hip.

“The Opry is one of the last hold-outs for hard-core honky-tonk and bluegrass, and I think more and more people are starting to realize that that’s the cool stuff,” says Jim Lauderdale, catching his breath backstage after his recent Opry debut with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Lauderdale, a successful mainstream country songwriter who has a low-profile solo career as a roots artist, released two albums last year, a major-label solo record and a bluegrass collaboration with Stanley. “Country’s audience is getting younger and the music is getting more pop-oriented,” he adds. “But the Opry still doesn’t have the corporate pressure to have a certain look or sound.”

Indeed, for now anyway, the Opry seems to be operating outside the grip of the industry consolidation that has homogenized commercial country music. “The Opry’s objectives are different from country radio,” Fisher explains. “Our format lends itself to presenting variety. It’s very vaudevillian in its approach. By having 20 to 25 artists perform on each show, we can cover a broad spectrum, and many times the entire spectrum of country music, in two-and-a-half hours.”

What’s remarkable here isn’t so much the Opry’s flexibility as the fact that it is attracting pickers and singers from the younger, hip end of this spectrum, none of whom need to appear on the show to advance their careers. This wasn’t the case back during the Opry’s heyday, when performing on the show helped singers secure concert bookings and promote their latest singles. Monetary incentives for appearing on the show are minimal. The Opry has long paid performers at musicians’ union scale. But even more than in the past that amounts to a fraction of what most contemporary stars earn for a single concert, making playing the show tantamount to doing a benefit gig.

Yet Brad Paisley, the hot, young honky-tonker whose single, “He Didn’t Have to Be,” topped the Billboard chart in December, has sung on the Opry more than twenty times since his debut in May of 1999. The benefits Paisley derives from doing the show may be less tangible than a hefty paycheck, but to hear him tell it, they are no less rewarding. “I can make a whole lot more in royalties than from standing up there on that stage, but that’s not why I do it,” he says. “Being able to walk up there on the same stage as Porter Wagoner, Bill Anderson, Jimmy Dickens, and Billy Walker, that grounds me. I get a grandfatherly feeling from those guys. I realize that they are the ones who came up perfecting the style of music I’m doing now.”

Mike Ireland, who has since returned to the Opry, feels much the same reverence Paisley does. “I’m being allowed to walk onstage and work in a venue where every country singer who’s ever meant anything to me has been,” Ireland says. “Some gigs might be good exposure, but I don’t look at the Opry that way. It’s simply a privilege to get to play the place where, for decades, anybody who’s been anybody in country music has played.”

“Artists may appear on the Opry at a financial sacrifice, but this place gives them a sense of place,” echoes Pete Fisher. “They come here and get centered musically on what it is they’re doing when they’re running across the highways and running into radio stations and going from one hotel to the next. It brings context to what they do. They see where the music’s been; they visit with the people who have forged this country music path; they see new artists that give us a hint of where the music may be going; and they reconnect with their place in the whole scheme.”

The names of some of these up-and-coming Opry stars might help answer the question of “Who’s gonna fill their shoes?” But their presence also raises another, more difficult question: Can they fill those shoes without stepping on any toes?

With just three shows per weekend and a cast that already numbers 70 living members, what sorts of sacrifices will the veterans, who have, in effect, retired to the Opry, have to make to accommodate this rash of newcomers? A certain amount of controversy already arose last November when an official trimming at the Opry resulted in the dismissal of a handful of long-time band members, among them A-Team session player Buddy Harman and guitarist Leon Rhodes. There has also been speculation as to whether or not some of the show’s senior members will soon be asked to cut back on their Opry appearances, if not shown the door.

Change is often painful, and some might argue that many of these Opry vets are the same folks who put their predecessors out to pasture back when they were emerging as stars. But while the Opry is and must function as a business, it also represents something akin to family and home for many of its regulars. Firing well-loved cast members or curtailing bookings, even in the case of those whose chops aren’t what they used to be, won’t be easy. Steve Buchanan knows that confronting membership issues means walking a fine line. “It’s important for us to be supportive of our cast, to be supportive of those that have been on the Opry for years,” he says. “Ultimately that can present some challenges, but we want to do everything we can to incorporate our membership into our programming. It’s really just finding the right artists who have the heart, the soul, the commitment to the Grand Ole Opry — people who truly want to be a part of it and who want to support it for many years to come. In a lot of ways, it’s not about what’s happening today, it’s about what happens five, ten, fifteen years from now.”

“I’m in the wings every week, watching performances with my eyes focused on the entertainment value of the show,” Fisher adds. “Am I comparing the people I see to the No. 1 record on the radio charts that week? No. How can you compare a legend like Wilma Lee Cooper to Shania Twain? You can’t. That said, we have to get aggressive about membership if we are going to steer the Opry safely into the next century. We have to find committed members with a certain career profile who can contribute to the musical mix of the Opry.”

The identity of the Grand Ole Opry has always been linked inextricably to its cast, to legends like Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Kitty Wells, Hank Snow, and Loretta Lynn — people who represent the Opry, and country music, to the rest of the world. The show’s core members will doubtless change over the next five-to-ten years. Younger cast members like Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, and Marty Stuart will begin replacing such stalwarts as Porter Wagoner, Jan Howard, and Charlie Louvin. But it remains to be seen whether or not the next wave of potential regulars will prove as faithful to the Opry, week in and week out, as their predecessors. It would seem that as Fisher and Buchanan nurture the evolution of this cast, they have the unenviable task of having to appeal to at least three discrete constituencies.

First, they must satisfy long-time country fans, people who want to see the likes of Connie Smith, Jack Greene, and Jimmy C. Newman whenever they come to the Opry. Another group consists of people who aren’t country fans, but who, as Charles Wolfe puts it, “visit the Opry wanting to see the last really good live radio show. For them, coming to the Opry is kind of like going to see the Rockettes when you’re in New York. It’s something you do. These people are not dyed-in-the-wool fans. They need to be seeing a cross-section, everything from Riders in the Sky to the square dance band.”

The third group, of course, is made up of young people. Some are mainstream country fans, 20 and 30-somethings who can’t get enough of Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, and the Dixie Chicks. Others are more akin to the protagonist of the BR5-49 song “Little Ramona,” rock and pop fans who’ve only recently taken an interest in country music, mainly in the alternative or progressive variety. The Opry’s ability to draw these younger audiences, as well as to continue to please tourists and hardcore country fans — and to foster the commingling of all three — would seem to be the key to the show’s ongoing vitality.

“Ideally,” says Brad Paisley, “people will come hear Porter [Wagoner] or Bill Anderson on a night I’m singing and walk away saying, ’I like that new guy too.’ And maybe there’ll be people who come to the show because they’ve heard my songs on the radio and say, ’Boy, I didn’t know Bill Anderson wrote ’City Lights,’ or ’I didn’t know Jimmy Dickens’s ’Bird of Paradise’ was so funny. I need to go buy their CDs.’ To me, that would be the best case scenario.”

“I’d like to think that the Opry can not only represent mainstream America, and also the more senior American country music tastes, but the progressive ranks as well,” says Fisher.

Fisher’s vision for the Opry’s future is bound to ruffle the sequins on a few Nudie suits, but at least he’s got a plan. If the Opry is to remain viable well into the 21st century, it has no choice but to address the crucial issues of membership and marketing that he is raising. These are issues, says Charles Wolfe, that Fisher’s predecessors haven’t always attended to.

“There was a time in the ’50s, and to a lesser extent in the ’40s, when the Opry pretty well ran itself,” Wolfe explains. “The people in charge didn’t care or know about the Opry history and tradition. I get the impression that Pete is taking things seriously. He’s not just letting things happen. And that’s the only way we’re going to save the Opry, if somebody comes in and does that. Let’s face it: Things are going to have to change a little bit. Right now there are probably too many members of the Opry, and too many members who don’t take it seriously enough to show up more than three or four times a year.”

Wolfe, who has spent years chronicling country music’s most venerable institution, nevertheless remains optimistic that the Grand Ole Opry will survive into the next century. “People are always asking me, will there be an Opry in another ten years?” he says. “And I think, ’Oh yeah, there’ll be one.’ It may be different, but if it didn’t change, we’d be in trouble. That’s what almost happened in the ’60s. The Opry really got disconnected from the popular mainstream of the music. That’s a bad sign. So I’ll put up with [new artists like] SHeDAISY. I’ve got no problem with them. Hell, I grew up listening to the Byrds and Dylan. It’s not like I remember hearing Hank Williams at my grandfather’s funeral or something. This music is my music too.”

It is impossible, at this juncture, to gauge the impact that the Opry’s new booking approach will have on the show’s future or, for that matter, how far management will take it. The pendulum could just as easily swing toward fresh-scrubbed, Music Row baby acts, as well as former MOR hitmakers like T. Graham Brown and the Bellamy Brothers who still have strong followings. This much, however, is clear: The Grand Ole Opry is ripe for revival. As its core cast and audience ages, the Opry’s survival will depend upon attracting young people both to its lineup and to its box office. Management’s decision to engage a new generation of alternative-leaning artists and to start going after big name rock acts with ties to country music may rattle some cages, but at least Opry officials are taking action and being creative about it. If they play their cards right, the Opry could even become a beacon in the larger world of country music, a forum for the presentation and blending of tradition and innovation — indeed, for the entire spectrum of what constitutes country music.

Bill Friskics-Warren lives in Nashville, where he writes about country music for the Washington Post. He is also a frequent contributor to the Oxford American, No Depression, and the Nashville Scene.