Friday, July 9, 2010

The Aging Of The Grand Ole Opry

With the recent birthday and illness of Charlie Louvin and with the cancellation of some of Jimmy Dickens recent Opry appearances, it got me to thinking about the health and age of many of the Opry members. I know that the age of Opry members has come up frequently over the years, along with the statements that the Opry is a "living museum". I know that this topic came up in the 1980's, and concerned mostly Opry legends Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Hank Snow, Grandpa Jones, Bill Monroe and others, along with the criticism that the Opry wasn't getting any younger.

Now the Opry has a number of younger members, but as I discovered when doing some research, the majority of the Opry's members are over the age of 60. While we all enjoy the legends, this is not necessarily a good thing for the long term survival of the Opry. And, this does not even take into consideration the number of elderly Opry members who have died over the past several years, including Porter Wagoner, Roy Drusky, Del Reeves, Charlie Walker, Billy Walker and others.

So, here is the breakdown and just a short comment on the basic health of these members.

There are currently 66 Opry members, and of those 66, 10 are 80 or older.
*Jimmy Dickens is the eldest Opry member at 89, and as we know, he is basically day to day.
*Wilma Lee Cooper is also 89, but is no longer active on the Opry.
*Billy Grammer is 84, and has not been on the Opry in over a year.
*Ralph Stanley is 83 and is basically in good health and still touring and making Opry appearances.
*Charlie Louvin is also 83, and now has cancer. Up to this point, he was actively touring and making Opry appearances, when asked.
*Jimmy C. Newman is 82 and seems fine, as does Jesse McReynolds at 81.
*Jack Greene, Jan Howard and Buck White are all 80, and appear reguarly on the Opry, and all sound great.

17 additional Opry members are over the age of 70.
Bobby Osborne is 79 and seems fine; George Jones is 78 and has had voice issues over the past several years; Stonewall Jackson is 77 with some health issues; Mel Tillis and Stu Phillips are also 77 and while their voices have been a bit off recently, they seem overall ok; Roy Clark is also 77, with some recent health issues; Jean Shepard and Jim Ed Brown are 76 and appear reguarly at the Opry; Loretta Lynn is 75 and if you believe the scandal magazines at the checkout lines, she is in bad shape, but when I have heard her on the Opry, she has sounded fine; Tom T. Hall is 74 and missing from the Opry; Jeanne Pruett is 73 and retired; Charlie Daniels is also 73 and had a scare this winter; while Bill Anderson, George Hamilton IV and Charley Pride all seem fine at 72, as do Del McCoury at 71 and Jeannie Seely at 70.

An additional 9 Opry members are over the age of 60, and with the exception of Mel McDaniel at 67, who is unable to perform on the Opry, all seem fine. Barbara Mandrell is retired at 61, but the rest do perform on the Opry. Connie Smith is 68, Ronnie Milsap 67, Dolly Parton 64, John Conlee and Emmylou Harris 63, Larry Gatlin 62, and finally, all the members of Riders In The Sky are between 60 and 65.

I will just throw in that 12 Opry members are between the age of 50 and 60.

So, out of 66 Opry members, 36 are over 60. Wow!!

While you hope and pray nothing happens, you have to be realistic that over the next few years, the potential is there for the Opry to lose more than a few members. This is the time that the younger members need to stand up and support the show, and also the time for the Opry to look at adding new members. And, ideally, members who play good country music or bluegrass and would support the show. It has been a year since a member was added. And since Pete Fisher became general manager of the show, he has been careful about adding members. Of course, with fewer Opry shows and more guest artists appearing, maybe there doesn't need to be as many Opry members as before. I know for most of its history the Opry has usually been in the 50 member range. It got up to 72 in the 1980's and early 90's, when they were adding the younger artists left and right. But in recent years, with the deaths of many of the legends and fewer artists being added, the numbers have gone down.

Maybe it is the time for the Opry to be looking ahead. There are quite a few artists who would love to get that Opry membership and perhaps this is the time to consider some of them.


  1. Nice post and nice research. I have thought about this, too. I confess, I really thought the additions of Ralph Stanley and Mel Tillis were designed in part to offset the charges from Stonewall Jackson--and, lest we forget, Del Reeves and Charlie Louvin--about mistreatment of older Opry members. But, that said, I wish there was a way to have an emeritus category so that Wilma Lee Cooper, Tom T. Hall, and others who have retired or are ailing could keep their status but not really be considered members. Truthfully, Tom T. Hall vexes me. Barbara Mandrell and Jeanne Pruett have indeed retired. He hasn't, but he doesn't show up at all. He had a spiky relationship with the Opry--remember that he left around the time of the move to the Opry House in 1974.

    I also admit to being very disturbed that the Opry website has biographies of Opry guests. You are a member or you are not, and the members should be identified more clearly.

  2. I agree with the comments about Tom T. I just don't understand the whole Opry situation with him. He should just resign his membership. It's funny, they pushed Holly Dunn out the door when she moved and left the music business, but Tom T. continues to stay a member and has not appeared in over a decade.

    I will say, for whatever the reasons, Pete Fisher has been adding older acts as members. You are right about Mel Tillis and Ralph Stanley, but you can also add Charlie Daniels and Del McCoury to the list. I still think Gene Watson would be a great addition to the Opry.

  3. I am with you completely on Gene Watson--he clearly loves it, and he can still deliver the goods. He's another one of those singers--John Conlee is another and of course some of the legends like Jones and Haggard--where you could put them with a symphony and it still would sound country.

    I also think it's weird that Jeanne Pruett said she was quitting but was allowed to keep her membership. Of course, B.J. Thomas is still wondering why he was booted in the early 1980s!

  4. Gene actually appears more than most of the Opry members. So we both agree on this that he should be a member.

    But,there does seem to be no real policy or procedure when a member retires. In the past few years you have had Ricky Van Shelton, Jeanne Pruett, Holly Dunn and Barbara Mandrell.(I am not counting Mel McDaniel or Wilma Lee Cooper for medical reasons). Holly was the only one of those who they basically told that they would accept your resignation.

    If I remember, when Jeanne Pruett said she was going to retire and wanted to give up her Opry membership to allow the Opry to have a younger, female as a member, she specifically mentioned Rhonda Vincent. I am just wondering if the Opry just doesn't want Rhonda as a member and that was why they didn't accept Jeanne's resignation.

  5. I have wondered whether part of the issue with Rhonda Vincent is her association with Martha White, and the issue of free advertising and all that. I don't know. She would be a wonderful addition.

    By the way, about Jimmy Dickens, I have to quote Vin Scully on an injured player: "He's listed as day to day. Aren't we all?"

  6. I think you are probably right about Martha White and Rhonda Vincent. Rhonda and her fans have done just about everything they can to try to get her to become an Opry member. I know Rhonda in the past has been pretty open in her comments that she would love to be an Opry member.

    And yes, we are all "day-to-day"