Sunday, December 6, 2009

"Opry Drops 12 Top Stars"

It was on December 6, 1964, that the Nashville Tennessean displayed this headline. According to the article, "Twelve top country and western stars will not appear on the Grand Ole Opry in 1965, and have been prohibited from using the Opry name in their outside billings, it was learned yesterday. Another entertainer, long-time favorite Minnie Pearl, has been given a leave of absence from the show for the coming year, but will continue to use the Opry billing in her present contracts, a WSM spokesman said."

The 12 who were removed as Grand Ole Opry members were George Morgan, Don Gibson, Billy Grammer, Johnny Wright, Kitty Wells, the Jordanaires, Faron Young, Ferlin Husky, Chet Atkins, Justin Tubb, Stonewall Jackson, and Ray Price.

At the time, Opry members were required to appear on 26 shows per year. According to WSM public relations director Bill Willams, "Nobody is mad at anybody. It's just that periodically we have to take stock. It's just a routine thing." Irving Waugh, the general manager of WSM television thought that the announcement was ill advised. He viewed the actions as an "antagonism" of the country music community by WSM president Jack DeWitt.

The following day, Opry manager Ott Devine had to remove Chet Atkins name from the list, since he was not even an Opry member at the time. Of course, this made the Opry management look like fools; not even knowing who was a member and who was not.

Faron Young later said that money was what generated the hassle. "When they insisted on the twenty-six-week thing, I put a pen to it and figured it out. I was gonna lose $180,000 a year to work the Opry twenty-six weeks out of the year." Johnny Wright would say that he and Kitty Wells were not fired from the Opry, but quit over paying the percentage fees to the WSM Artists' Service Bureau, which was the WSM and Opry's booking agency for the members.

Several days later, the Nashville Tennessean ran an editorial with the headline: "Opry Has Duty of Protection." The editorial said: "The Opry has been and continues to be the nucleus of Nashville's $40 million music industry. There is hardly a successful music enterprise in the city that does not owe its orgin and its longevity to the Opry. Thus, it seems the Opry has a responsibility to compel observance of reasonable restrictions for its own protection and for the protection of the rest of the music industry in Nashville. Most of the thousands of people who line up at the Opry House every Friday and Saturday night have traveled long distances to see in person the stars they have come to love by radio. It must be a disappointment for these fans to arrive at the Opry on this one big night for them and find that their favorite stars have found a more profitable audience in some other state. Opry Manager Ott Devine says the 11 released stars will be missed. And they will be. But there is a feeling that such a loss would be more keenly felt if the stars had not already been missed too often at the Opry."

Looking back at the editorial from the Tennessean, those same words could be written today about the thousands of fans who come to the Opry and find that the vast majority of Opry members are not there to perform, and that the vast majority of the Opry superstars are very rarely at the Opry. I wonder what the reaction would be in the country music community or at the Opry if Pete Fisher fired 11 Opry members today for not appearing? Would anyone care? Is Opry membership that important anymore? Many artists say it is, and they prove it by supporting the show. But there are others that after becoming Opry members, they do not appear. And, I think everyone knows what artists I am talking about: Alan Jackson, Randy Travis and Clint Black are three that come to mind. I know that if the Opry fired 11 members today, it would result in a horrible public relations disaster for the Opry that they might not recover from.

As far as the 11 who were fired, many came back to the Opry and fulfilled their membership requirements. Those were George Morgan, Don Gibson, Billy Grammer, Justin Tubb and Stonewall Jackson. Johnny Wright, Kitty Wells, the Jordanaires, Faron Young, Ferlin Husky and Ray Price never rejoined, although all continued to make guest appearances on the show. I do wonder if any of them, especially in the case of Kitty Wells, ever regretted leaving the Opry. And, it would be later in his career that Stonewall Jackson would sue the Opry for not allowing him to make appearances on the show when he wanted to, after firing him for not appearing.

In 1964, the Opry was such a big part of the Nashville community that this story made front page headlines for days in the Nashville papers. Even today, 45 years later, when something happens at the Opry, good or bad, it is still front page headlines in the Tennessean. Even if the Opry is not as essential to a career like it was in 1964, or as important to the music scene in Nashville like it once was, the Opry is still an important part of the Nashville community.

1 comment:

  1. Fine piece. It would be a PR disaster if the Opry fired the members who never appear for reasons other than health (such as Wilma Lee Cooper) or because they have left the business, at least for now (Jeanne Pruett and Ricky Van Shelton). But I have been and remain disgusted with the three current members you mention, as well as most of the members added in the last 20 years or so. Far too many of them claim their Opry membership is SO important to them, but we never see them.

    I think of Ricky Skaggs. When he joined, he said, Mr. Acuff said, "You'll be just like the others and never show up." Ricky made it a point each time he was there to stop by Dressing Room #1 and sing out, "I'm HERE!"