Sunday, February 13, 2011

Some Reflections On The Current Opry Membership

Last month as I was doing my year end review of the Opry, it got me to thinking about the current membership of the Opry, their commitment to the show and the future of the Opry. Last week while I was at the Opry, some of the same thoughts came into my mind, so I thought I would offer my analysis of the Opry's current membership.

Since the death of Charlie Louvin and the addition of Blake Shelton, there are currently 66 Grand Ole Opry members. Now, let's break this down into some different categories.

There are 3 Opry members who are ill and due to health reasons, do not play the Opry. Those include Wilma Lee Cooper, Hal Ketchum and Mel McDaniel. That brings us down to 63.

There are 4 Opry members who are retired and no longer play the Opry. Those are Billy Grammer, Barbara Mandrell, Jeanne Pruett and Ricky Van Shelton. That takes us down to 59.

There is the group of Opry members that for whatever reason, have not played the Opry in a number of years. Those are 5 of those and they include Clink Black, Garth Brooks, Tom T. Hall, Reba McEntire and Travis Tritt. That brings the number to 54.

Then there is the group that plays the Opry once or twice a year, just to say that they are staying active on the Opry. This is a large group of 12 and includes Roy Clark, Alan Jackson, George Jones, Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Loretta Lynn, Ronnie Milsap, Brad Paisley, Dolly Parton, Pam Tillis, Randy Travis and Trisha Yearwood. That takes the number down to 42.

Now we have the group that will generally play the Opry between 5 and 10 times each year. This is the largest group of the Opry membership and numbers 18. These are Trace Adkins, Dierks Bentley, Terri Clark, Charlie Daniels, Diamond Rio, Joe Diffie, Larry Gatlin, Emmylou Harris, Martina McBride, Montgomery Gentry, Craig Morgan, Charlie Pride, Ralph Stanley, Mel Tillis, Josh Turner, Carrie Underwood and Steve Wariner. I will also include Blake Shelton in this group, even though he just joined. Now we are down to 24.

There are a couple of senior legends that only play the show about once per month. This is not their choice, but it is all they are scheduled. There are 3 in this group and they are Stonewall Jackson, Stu Phillips and Ray Pillow. Now the number is 21.

So out of 66 Opry members, you can say that only 21 of them, or one-third of the Opry roster, is really actively participating on the Opry on a regular basis.

Now of the 21 left, there are those that, give or take a few appearances, are good for about 20 to 25 shows each year (some years more than that, some less). That group would include Vince Gill, Del McCoury, Lorrie Morgan, Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart. That leaves 16 Opry members left.

Of the 16, you have some that appear on about 50 shows each year. Those include John Conlee, Jack Greene, George Hamilton, Jan Howard, Jesse McReynolds, Bobby Osborne and Riders In The Sky. That list numbers 7. And, I will add the disclaimer that all of these would do the Opry more if they were just asked.

Now of the remaining, you have 9. And these are the 9 the are on the Opry most weekends of the year. These 9 are Bill Anderson, Jim Ed Brown, Jimmy Dickens, Jimmy C. Newman, Jeannie Seely, Jean Shepard, Connie Smith, Mike Snider and The Whites.

Now the scary part. Of the 16 that are participating in most of the Opry shows, Jack Greene, Jan Howard, Jesse McReynolds, Jimmy Dickens, Jimmy C. Newman and Buck White are all over the age of 80. Then you have George Hamilton IV, Bobby Osborne, Bill Anderson, Jim Ed Brown and Jean Shepard all over the age of 70, with John Conlee, members of Riders In The Sky, Jeannie Seely and Connie Smith, all over the age of 60. Heck, Vince Gill, Lorrie Morgan, Marty Stuart and a whole bunch more are over the age of 50.

This is not good and should give all Opry fans some concern. George Jones sang, "Who's gonna fill their shoes?". When you look at the younger members who have recently joined the Opry, say in the last 10 years, there is nobody that is stepping forward to "fill their shoes" as far as the Opry is concerned. The generation before this current one, you did have Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart who stepped forward and challenged those of their generation to play the Opry and keep the tradition going. That was also the last generation who knew the early stars of the Opry, people such as Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Grandpa Jones, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow and the others. The current younger stars of the Opry do not know that historical link.

While it is not reasonable to expect any of today's younger Opry members to play the Opry each week, you would expect there would be one or two that would follow the example of Vince, Ricky and Marty and at least play the Opry on a semi-regular basis. When Brad Paisley joined the Opry, I really thought that he would have been the one to step forward and be that person. The one to challenge his generation of performers to support the Opry. He was that member when he joined, but then his career went into overdrive and, like so many others, he left the Opry behind. He showed back up when the flood severely damaged the Opry House, but then once the Opry House reopened, he has disappeared. And, Blake Shelton, the Opry's newest member, has yet to play the Opry since he became a member (although he is scheduled for an upcoming show), But, then again, he was not really a regular Opry performer before he was asked to join.

I really believe, that for the Opry to survive, there has to be some type of commitment from the newest members. And, for that matter, from future members. Joining the Opry and playing the show less than 10 times per year is not going to cut it. And, just taking into account the age of some of the veteran Opry members, it is possible that we could lose several more this coming year. These younger Opry members could be needed more than ever.

I look on the Opry's facebook page and you have those who ask why Keith Urban, George Strait, Taylor Swift and others are not Opry members. These people who ask, while having good intentions, just don't understand the history of the Opry. Now, more than ever, is the time for Steve Buchanan, Pete Fisher and the rest of the senior management of the Opry, to step forward and to clean out the roster of those who are not going to support the show, and to make a firm commitment to change the membership of the Opry, and to get as members, those who will fully support the show. Make new members sign a pledge and commit to doing at least 20 shows a year. While that is not ideal, it is a start. I am sure if they looked at the right people, they would have no problem finding those artists. Heck, there are guest artists that fulfill that already and they are not even members.

In conclusion, someone told me about 10 years ago, and it is someone close to the music industry in Nashville, that within 5 years, the Opry as we knew it then, would no longer exist. I laughed at her and told her no way. You know what? Maybe she was right. The Opry as we knew it back when we were growing up, does no longer exist. Now the question is, can the Opry be saved before it totally dies?


  1. I read this earlier today and gave it a lot of thought. I salute you. I do think it's time to clear out the members who just won't perform on the Opry. I exclude from that those who are ill. But maybe we should have a category, Member Emeritus, for the ailing or retired ones (I am not convinced Billy Grammer is retired so much as that his health, and especially his vision problems, preclude him from getting in there to perform). But the minute Garth Brooks took the big money from Steve Wynn, the meter started running on him--to claim he was on hiatus from show business no longer works. And I really thought he would indeed be the one to lead the younger generation after Ricky and Vince.

    I also wonder how much of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, Buchanan and Fisher have discouraged the senior members from showing up or expecting to perform as much as they should. Do Ricky and Vince, who have an obvious love for the Opry, look at that and feel as though they are unwelcome and they are biding their time until there is management again that cares about the Opry? And if so, will they be too late?

    I'll throw this in. In 1973, Herman Crook wanted to hire Earl White to play fiddle and had to fight for him because management wanted him to use the staff fiddler. He wanted to keep his group going. OK, Herman and Lewis died, and it's reasonable to think the Crook Brothers went with them. But now Earl and Charlie Collins play for the square dancers, and they, too, are in their seventies--and they are the last links to the original string bands (Earl) and Mr. Acuff (Charlie).

    My wife recently mentioned traveling back to that part of the country and asked if I wanted to see the Opry. I said, "It's not the Opry any more."

  2. I think that it has been talked before that it just seems that Opry membership is not as important as it once was as far as appearing on the Opry. There are many non-members who appear on the Opry many more times than actual Opry members. And, the Opry program that is given out at the shows does not list the actual members.

    For most of the Opry's history, membership was around 50 or so. It was a smaller number, but back in those days, you had the required appearances that were closely monitored. I think today, you could easily drop back to that number. At least you would have 50 who would take the membership seriously.

    I have often thought what the Opry would be like if it was under a different general manager, but I think that whatever Pete Fisher and Steve Buchanan are doing, it is being cost driven by corporate. That said, what would the Opry be like under different ownership? That is the question we don't know. It could be worst than what it is now.

    On and off, over the years, you have always heard that there was interest in the Opry, but I have not heard anything since Opryland closed. And what value would be placed on the Opry?

    A few years back WWVA in Wheeling, was sold to Clear Channel and they, through their Live Nation subsidiary, took over the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree and Capital Music Hall. They put no money into the Music Hall and eventually shut down the Jamboree. You would hate to see that happen with the Opry.

    I don't even know who you would sell the Opry to and expect the tradition to continue.

  3. I'm 62 years and love 'Opry legends.
    But if Sunny Sweeney and a whole bunch of other young artists who love the 'Opry are invited regularly, sing regularly, and are well received, invite them to be members.
    I'd rather hear young hungry artists who understand the 'Opry than big time stars who show up once a decade.
    And, it would not surprise me if we don't get more stars to understand the importance of the 'Opry as they get a little older.

  4. Regarding the Jamboree at Wheeling - many of the staff along with the Father of Brad Paisley who was in the Jamboree staff band in his teens. Helped transition the show away from Live Nation. It still goes on EVERY SATURDAY but on a local station WKKX and a live webcast.

  5. Why Tim McGraw and Keith Urban are not members just baffles my mind. Then you have Blake Shelton join who could care less about Nashville. I don't get it ??????

  6. The Opry would have died a long time ago if it weren't for the big stars who might not have every other weekend to give to the Opry, but who have sold the mystique and legend of the Opry to the next generation. If not for them, then the audience would be full of the over 80 crowd that you mention the most active members being that will die off in a few short years.

    While they should have a "regular" commitment to the Opry, many of these folks spend months on end touring and meeting their fans in their own back yards. These guys are paid tiny sums when they could be pulling in multi thousands in that one night. None the less, they still show up.

    Be happy they've found a way to make the Opry relevant to today's country music fan and not just the breed that will be gone in the not to distant future.

  7. There are some artist who paid there dues long ago to The Grand Ole Opry which explains why some don't play the required amount of shows today. I know at one time it was very hard to make a living as a new artist if all your time was given to The Opry. It required your fans to come to them instead of the artist coming to the fans. I know with Dolly Parton they made an exception with her for various reasons one being that she brought a lot of attention to The Opry in her day with The Porter Wagoner Show as well as her Dolly Show. She was inducted before she made a name for herself. If you are invited AFTER fame and you never show up to pay your dues then you should be taken off the list.