As the Grand Ole Opry celebrates its 74th birthday, it’s time to reflect on its illustrious past, while looking ahead to the future. What began as a little Saturday night radio program on Nashville station WSM-AM, hosted by “The Solemn Old Judge” George D. Hay has weathered many changes. There have been multiple venue changes, changes of personnel and changing trends in musical preferences, most notably with the advent of rock ’n’ roll in the ’50s, which caused attendance to take a nosedive as the new music roared into America’s collective consciousness. The loss of such stars as Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves in the 1960s was another critical blow.
In 1974 the Opry moved from the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville to its present location, the new Grand Ole Opry House near the Opryland Hotel, and attendance started to spiral once again. The number of required annual appearances was relaxed for Opry members, and younger, popular talent took an avid interest and started performing — stars such as Vince Gill, Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire and Alan Jackson. Today, a member of the Grand Ole Opry performs a minimum of 12 shows a year, the equivalent of four complete weekends including Friday and Saturday night shows. Currently, there are 71 acts that make up the cast.
On Friday and Saturday, October 15-16, the Opry will celebrate its 74th anniversary with three star-studded shows. Opry members Loretta Lynn, Lorrie Morgan, Marty Stuart, Diamond Rio and Martina McBride are some of the scheduled performers, as well as special musical guests Jo Dee Messina, Brad Paisley, Trace Adkins, John Berry and Ray Stevens.
There will be a special Friday night performance of the current Ryman Auditorium musical Smoke on the Mountain, an open house Saturday where guests can tour the backstage area and dressing rooms, and the Bill Monroe Bluegrass Celebration to follow in the afternoon. TNN will broadcast a special one-hour segment of Grand Ole Opry Live Saturday at 8 p.m. ET.
The biggest change for the Opry this year has been the addition of new General Manager Pete Fisher, who took the reins in June. Fisher, who was raised in Maryland and Pennsylvania, did not grow up listening to the Opry but was exposed to Nashville through programs on The Nashville Network (TNN). This, he feels, is an advantage rather than a disadvantage. “Obviously, we’re fortunate to have many fans who have just grown up on the Opry and tune in from wherever they’re at on WSM. I’m not one of those people,” he explains. “I’m someone who has been a solid country music consumer for 15 years, but then a peripheral consumer prior to that, just through growing up and listening to Pure Prairie League, Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles and James Taylor.
“I tell people my lack of historical experience with the Opry I think is a real asset, because what I do bring is a passion for country music and true respect for the Opry’s traditions. But I think solid sensibilities are where the Opry needs to go.”
An affable man, Fisher is speaking from his office located to the right of the artist entry to the Grand Ole Opry. Dressed in a casual suit, he is articulate and youthful, a modern reminder of changes to come. He talks at length about the perception of the radio show and how it will be marketed in the near future to reflect the changing climate of country music, while holding on to the traditions already established.
“We could just sit back and say we’re a 74-year-old radio show, the world’s longest-running radio show with a worldwide brand, and this is it. This is the way it’s going to stay. Over time, most people would agree that approach would diminish the value of the Opry. The Opry has never taken that approach – it has always evolved with the times,” he says thoughtfully. “So I come in with the sensibilities of, hey, what makes for an exciting country music entertainment event, for lack of a better word, for the new millennium? A great respect for the tradition, but I think a vision for what is going to keep the Grand Ole Opry in the forefront of country music — to be the premier focal entertainment event for the genre.”
Fisher realizes that one of the perceived pitfalls he’s up against is a preconceived notion of what the show is about. “It’s very easy, when you say the words ’Grand Ole Opry,’ to kind of think of that Nashville cornball kind of stereotype image,” he counters. “I’d be lying if I said that we didn’t need to reposition our brand, but again, it’s an evolutionary process. One-third, and sometimes more, of our music is contemporary music on the Opry. We’ll have five and six guests a night beyond our core members, and you’ll see a variety of musical styles. If you look on the Americana chart, 25 percent of the artists on the chart have performed here in the past two months. There’s a part of the Opry that’s very traditional but a part that’s very progressive as well.
“We’re not out there to define what country music is,” he further clarifies. “I think many Opry consumers would say ’keep it country,’ or ’keep it traditional.’ We’re here to say, ’let’s keep it country,’ but let’s not define what country music is. We’ll reflect what the mass media will define as country, whether it’s Jimmy Dickens, or Vince Gill, or one of our guest artists such as SHeDAISY or BR5-49, Gillian Welch or Billy Joe Shaver. The Opry will present everything under the umbrella. But I think we’ll always be defined for what we’re known best for and that is presenting the legacy of country music. Our core cast of membership is really the way that the Opry is best defined.”
There’s been a surge of interest in the Opry lately among the younger generations of country artists. Trisha Yearwood, the 71st and newest member, was inducted in March of this year. Rising stars Brad Paisley, Mandy Barnett, Chely Wright and Clay Walker are just a few of the up and comers choosing to play as guests. This is a trend that Fisher believes will continue.
“I think that the Opry artists find a true sense of place. An artist spends most of their time jumping from one city to the next, one fair to the next, really just seeing the insides of their bus and the backsides of the stage, and then an audience for a few minutes, and they’re back on that bus. The Opry welcomes all — that’s our philosophy now.
“When people say that the Opry is a family, it’s so true,” he continues. “It’s a place that thrives on diversity and community, and artists recognize that. It’s almost a place where they all get their ’gas tanks’ refilled when they come. There’s a good population of artists that come to the Opry just to get re-inspired again, to get back in touch, to get centered. It has to do with being able to come back in touch with people and talk with the people who have made country music what it is and who are part of making country music what it’s gonna be.”
For the younger artists, the Opry is an education in country music and tradition, Fisher says. “The magic doesn’t just happen in that circle on the stage, there’s a lot of the magic that happens in the dressing rooms and in the relationships that new artists develop with some of our older cast. It’s a great mentoring opportunity, and a lot of artists like Brad Paisley and Chely Wright take advantage of that. I always encourage the newer artists to take advantage of the wisdom that’s backstage.”
As the Opry enters the 21st century, there are plans for more entertainment features, capitalizing on tourism opportunities created with the completion of Opry Mills, a large mall being constructed by Gaylord Entertainment, the parent company of the Opry. The new megamall is located immediately next to the Grand Ole Opry building and will open in Spring 2000. Fisher explains that there will be more little extras added to the experience of seeing the show, such as the Minnie Pearl impersonator that currently greets the patrons outside the doors.
“We’re truly concerned about what people experience from the moment they step out of their car or tour bus in the parking lot and come into the Opry House. Those characters, they’re out there every week. We have a bluegrass band that plays out in the plaza, and we plan to enhance not only the plaza activities but also the audience activities as well,” he says.
The Opry returned to the Ryman Auditorium, The Mother Church of Country Music, for a weekend this past January after nearly a 25-year absence. The sold out shows were very successful, and Fisher foresees future shows at the historic venue. “That is something that will happen. The audiences and the artists love when the Opry goes back to the Ryman. Everyone who performs on that stage, much like performing on the Grand Ole Opry event, says that the Ryman stage is like nothing else.”
All these changes, or evolution as Fisher likes to call the process, are proof positive that a new day is dawning for the Grand Ole Opry, but Fisher emphasizes that a quality musical experience is still the primary goal as the show heads into the new millennium.
“The Opry is about two types of diversity: musical diversity and generation diversity. When you come to see the Grand Ole Opry, you’ll get a 2 ½-hour show where you’ll see a 17-year-old to a 93-year-old perform. You’ll see musical styles that range from traditional country to contemporary to alternative country, to Cajun, to Western, to bluegrass and also comedy and square dancing. We really want the Opry to represent the full spectrum of musical styles under what’s defined as country music.”