As the Grand Ole Opry prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary, general manager Pete Fisher is counting on a confluence of other actions and events to restore some of the stage-and-radio show’s once-commanding stature. Toward that end, new members will be added this year, the anniversary celebrations will be trumpeted worldwide, co-promotions are being worked out with the new Opry Mills mall next door and studies are being undertaken to see how the Internet and satellite radio can broaden the Opry’s audience.
But, first, Fisher has to address that pesky matter about firing the Four Guys. He dismissed the quartet from the Opry early this month. In that move, some observers perceived the first nick of an impending roster bloodbath. Not so, Fisher says. “The sole reason we made this decision was that the last two original members of the group departed in 1999 . . . If there was one original member left in the group, we would not be taking the action we just took.”
Fisher argues that membership in the Opry implies a two-way commitment and that the Opry had fulfilled its part. The Four Guys joined the Opry in 1967, but last year founding members Brent Burkett and Sam Wellington quit the group, leaving only the name as an original artifact.
None of the Opry members have complained to him about releasing the Four Guys, Fisher says. “I think that once the correct information got out, most people were assured that [it] was the correct decision to make in the interest of the Opry.” Seventy acts remain on the roster.
Instead of relying on the Grand Ole Opry’s distinguished history alone to keep and build an audience, Fisher wants to create a better show. “It’s imperative that the Opry be an entertainment experience that meets or exceeds the fans’ expectations,” he asserts. “That being said, we kind of look back and say, ‘What do we do to accomplish that?’”
Fisher explains that he is moving on three fronts: soliciting new talent, both as members and guest performers; upgrading the show’s production values; and nurturing a “real sound relationship” with existing Opry members. To achieve this last goal, he says he keeps in touch through individual meetings, letters, phone calls and “occasional town meetings with our entire membership to keep communications open.”
On the matter of star-attraction, Fisher points out that Opry members Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire and Vince Gill have all appeared on the show within the past four months, as well as such popular guest artists as Lonestar, Jo Dee Messina, Chely Wright, Mark Wills, Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley.
Some superstar members of the Opry rarely perform there, however. Fisher says he will make it clear to incoming members that they are expected to do at least a minimum number of shows each year. “Currently, the appearance number is 12 [per year],” he says, noting that a member can meet three of the required appearances by performing on the Friday and Saturday shows.
Members will also be able to earn performance credits on the new Opry matinee shows that will be held every Tuesday at 3 p.m. from June 20 through August 8.
Fisher confirms that the Opry will be adding new members this year, although he declined to say who or how many. Speculation has centered on Brad Paisley, Chely Wright and Daryle Singletary as possibilities. Ralph Stanley joined the Opry in January.
Because the Opry keeps its attendance count confidential, Fisher would say only that it “declined slightly” last year — but less so, he adds, than the overall percentage drop in Nashville tourism. In years past, visitors to the Opryland theme park accounted for as much as 20 percent of the Opry’s ticket buyers. The park closed in 1997.
The impending opening of Opry Mills on the old Opryland USA parking lot has not yet boosted Grand Ole Opry ticket sales, Fisher says. Nor did he expect it to this early. He notes, however, that “Opry Mills is certainly going to bring this destination to even greater life with [its projected] 17 million visitors a year.
“The Opry will have a strong presence in the Mills,” Fisher continues, “with Opry member meet-and-greet sessions, occasional acoustic performances, guest artists doing performances there prior to coming over to the Opry. . . . We’re going to be forming partnerships with many retailers there. We’re excited about the potential with Bass Pro Shops, the Gibson Showcase, Tower Records and even Hilo Hattie’s [Hawaiian] restaurant. I think there are tremendous opportunities for us to cross-promote each other.”
A more immediate traffic-builder will be the free Opry Plaza Parties in the area just outside the Opry House on Friday nights from June 16 through August 4. Performers already scheduled for this anniversary-celebration feature are Asleep at the Wheel, the Derailers, Beausoleil and Dale Watson. OpryFest, an outdoor ticketed event, will feature Southern gospel, bluegrass music and clogging on the weekends of July 15-16, 22-23 and 29-30, respectively. The Grand Ole Opry shows on those weekends will feature additional talent in those three forms of entertainment.
While the Opry will do some advertising to draw attention to its 75th anniversary, Fisher says he will rely mainly on publicity to gain attention. In early June, the Opry will publish its updated souvenir picture and history, which, Fisher reveals, will have a new format and design. Billboard will publish a special 75th anniversary section in its June 10 issue.
On October 14, TNN will broadcast a one-hour show celebrating the anniversary. Fisher reports that Opry members Trisha Yearwood, Loretta Lynn, Steve Wariner, Vince Gill and Travis Tritt have already confirmed they will perform that weekend. More big names are expected. Other television shows about the anniversary are being discussed, Fisher says, but have not been locked in.