Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Cause for Concern? The Aging of the Opry's Cast

Over the past week, I have received several emails from my readers asking my opinion on the Opry's cast. Specifically, if Pete Fisher would like to see the Opry become more relevant with the younger country music fans, does the Opry need to become younger? I know one of my readers even asked me if I knew the age of the Opry's members. I know I have covered this topic before, but I also know that I have some new readers, so I thought this would be a good time to revisit the topic.

Currently, the Opry has 65 members. Here is the current age of each Opry member:

90-Jimmy Dickens; Wilma Lee Cooper

85-Billy Grammer
84-Ralph Stanley
83-Jimmy C Newman
81-Jack Greene; Jan Howard; Jesse McReynolds

79-George Jones; Loretta Lynn; Bobby Osborne
78-Roy Clark; Stonewall Jackson; Stu Phillip; Mel Tillis
77-Jim Ed Brown; Jean Shepard
75-Tom T Hall
74-Charlie Daniels; Ray Pillow; Jeanne Pruett
73-Bill Anderson; George Hamilton IV; Charlie Pride
72-Del McCoury
70-Jeannie Seely

69-Connie Smith
68-Ronnie Milsap
65-Dolly Parton
64-John Conlee; Emmylou Harris
63-Larry Gatlin; Riders In The Sky(average age); The Whites(average age)
62-Barbara Mandrell

59-Ricky Van Shelton
58-Hal Ketchum
56-Reba McEntire; Ricky Skaggs; Steve Wariner
54-Vince Gill; Patty Loveless;
53-Pam Tillis; Diamond Rio(average age)
52-Joe Diffie; Alan Jackson; Marty Stuart; Randy Travis
51-Lorrie Morgan; Mike Snider

49-Trace Adkins; Clint Black; Garth Brooks
48-Travis Tritt
46-Trisha Yearwood
45-Montgomery Gentry(average age); Craig Morgan
44-Martina McBride
42-Terri Clark

39-Alison Krauss
38-Brad Paisley
35-Dierks Bentley; Blake Shelton
33-Josh Turner

28-Carrie Underwood

The average age of an Opry member is just over 62.

To further break it down, 12% of the Opry's members are over the age of 80; 40% are over the age of 70 and 52% of it's members are over the age of 60. Just under 10% of the Opry's members are under the age of 40.

That's considering all of the Opry's members. Now, let's consider the Opry's most active members in terms of appearances so far this year. Here is how they rank, along with their age:

1. 63-Jimmy Dickens (90)
2. 46-Bill Anderson (73)
3. 42-Riders In The Sky (63)
4. 37-The Whites (63)
5. 33-Jim Ed Brown (77); Jimmy C Newman (83)
6. 32-Mike Snider (51)
7. 31-Jeannie Seely (70); Connie Smith (69)
8. 29-John Conlee (64); Bobby Osborne (79); Jean Shepard (77)
9. 24-Jack Greene (81); Jesse McReynolds (81)

Average age of this group is 73. It does not print a pretty picture for the future of the Opry.

Just looking at the members under the age of 40, here are their appearances so far this year:

6-Carrie Underwood
4-Josh Turner
3-Blake Shelton
2-Dierks Bentley; Alison Krauss; Brad Paisley

Now, of the Opry's 65 cast members, there are a number who do not appear on the show, either through retirement or illness. Those members include Wilma Lee Cooper; Billy Grammer; Hal Ketchum; Barbara Mandrell; Jeanne Pruett and Ricky Van Shelton. That accounts for 7 members, which brings the active number of Opry members to 58. Of those 58, there are several who choose not to appear on the Opry, for whatever reason.

In the past year, the Opry has lost 2 of its members, Charlie Louvin and Mel McDaniel. Several of the Opry's members have had health issues over the past several years and just with the age of many of the Opry's members, we can expect some more of the Opry's members to pass away in the coming year or two.

I do not mean this as any criticism of any of the Opry's older members. The majority of the legends and veterans do not travel any more and are available for most of the Opry's shows. And, the vast majority of them still sound and look great. I personally enjoy seeing them on the Opry's stage. At the same time, I understand that the Opry's younger members have strong careers going and are on the road a lot making personal appearances. But at the very least, I would like to see these younger stars making the 10 appearances per year that is asked of them. And to be fair, the majority do. It is the artists in the 40 to 60 age range that are causing most of the appearance issues, and that is due to the fact that when they joined, there was basically nothing asked of them as far as appearing on the show. I know that seems strange, but that is the way Hal Durham and Bob Whitaker set it up. At least Pete Fisher has tried to change that, and has been getting a commitment from those he has asked to support the show. But, some of the various media outlets have also reported that Pete Fisher has implied many times that he wanted to make the Opry younger and more relevant to today's country music fan.

And Pete Fisher has invited many non-Opry members to appear at the show. And, most of these have been younger acts or newcomers to the business. Here is a fact for you that I found amazing. So far this year, there has been a total of 89 Opry shows. Of the Opry's 65 members, 48 of them have made at least 1 Opry appearance this year. In addition to those 48, 132 non-Opry members have appeared on the show, a few of them more than once. That is a total of 180 different performers for the 89 shows. Talk about variety. At least he is trying to make each show somewhat different.

We all know what the solutions are and that is to bring on new Opry members who will support the show and help to draw a younger crowd to the Opry. When you bring on the younger performers, the younger fans will come. I have seen it many times. At the Opry's birthday celebration last year, Taylor Swift was there for both shows on Saturday night. Both of the shows were sell-outs and the younger fans loved Taylor (I have to admit, so did I). And for the older fans, Dolly Parton was on the same show. So you had something for the moms and dads and for their sons and daughters. That is how the Opry should be booked every week.

I know that when you mention bringing on more of the younger artists, the first thing the older fans say is that you are shoving the legends aside. There is room for both and most shows do have a good mix. But, attendance is down, the age of the artists are increasing and measures need to be taken for the long term survival of the Opry. I know that each time I write something like this, I always say that now is the time to act and add new members. And as we continue to lose more Opry members, I will continue to write and promote the same message.


  1. Historically--I think it was Del Reeves who made this point--the attitude was this: when you're younger, you are bigger and make more from road dates, but everybody realizes that when you get older, you're going to do the Opry more. So I suspect age often has been a bit of an issue. I do think Pete Fisher--brace yourselves; I'm going to say something nice about him--has tried to encourage the younger acts to pay more attention to the Opry, and he has correctly grasped that the Opry needs to reach across generations. When Hal Durham was manager, a lot of the lineups look great to us, and would have at the time, but to a lot of younger fans, they no doubt seemed to be nothing but a bunch of ancients.

    But Fisher also has created another problem. I don't think the same sense of family is evident there any more. It used to be that with a 2 1/2 hour show with about 20 acts, there was a swarm of Opry people and friends around, and it encouraged involvement. I don't get that sense any longer. And that's a tragedy. But I also remember reading in the 1980s a comment from a longtime member that the place had gone downhill since Vito Pelleteri died, that he really ran things and kicked them in the butt to do better. So, as Woody Allen makes clear in "Midnight in Paris," there's always a better historical era somewhere.

  2. This is fascinating data.
    I have to wonder if it hasn't been a lot like this for quite a few years.
    It would seem to me that the key would be to concentrate on younger artists who are in love with traditional country music, and who would relish the idea of appearing more regularly (and may be already).
    Mandy Barnett, Grascals, Daily and Vincent, Isaacs, and others who are appearing on a semi-regular basis should be invited to join asap.

  3. Nat, I agree and have said so before, about bringing on new members, especially those who will show up. Mandy Barnett, The Grascals, Dailey & Vincent have shown that they support the Opry.

    I think that if you look at the history of the Opry, especially since the 1970's, the age factor was a concern even then. I know that when the Opry got into the 1980's, one of the reasons that Hal Durham was quick to add so many new members, at whatever terms he could get from them, was that he was concerned then about the ages of his main stars, such as Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Bill Monroe, Grandpa Jones and Hank Snow. Ernest Tubb and Marty Robbins were already dead by then.

    I have to do my research in my files because I do have an article where Hal Durham talks about his concerns with the aging of the Opry, even back then.

  4. Hi,Byron,

    Fred here, in Bismarck. As always, you are thoughtful and provocative. I am a follower of fayfare because I love country music and know you do too. I do come from the different perspective that, if the Opry continues to evolve into a southern rock show -- the orientation of so many "hot" younger artists who appear there -- I don't care if it survives or not.

    I remember the Hal Burham "aging" concerns and suggested to him in a letter 30 years ago -- to which he graciously replied -- that the way for the Opry to go might be to forget the membership deal and pay acts the going rate for concert-type shows, with a mixture every week that would appeal to a broad spectrum.

    I still think this is the only way the Opry will survive ... unless it can return to its roots by MAKING stars rather than SIGNING existing stars.

    I continue to think that old-time country acts made up of younger pickers and singers would fall all over themselves to appear in Nashville Saturday night for union scale. This would require the Opry to return to its roots -- including smaller crowds, at least at first.

    This would probably not interest Gaylord ... but maybe a new Opry owner. And the music would be "country" again.

  5. Here is what Hal Durham was quoted as saying:

    "We must face the fact that some of the present members of the Opry will either want to retire, quit, or whatever. We, like any business can't close the door to young entertainers who want to join. Right now, we have 55 members and about 40 show up on Friday and Saturday nights. A lot of people tend to regard the Opry as something that's the same as it was in 1950 or 1935, but the truth is that the Opry has changed though all these years, and now the Opry must reflect what's happening in country music today."

    It is hard to believe, but very few members joined the Opry from the middle 1970's through the middle 1980's. Larry Gatlin joined in 1976 and there was not another new member until John Conlee joined in 1981. Ricky Skaggs and Riders In The Sky joined in 1982, The Whites in 1984, Mel McDaniel and Randy Travis in 1986, Roy Clark in 1987 and then the mass inductions started in 1988.

    In 1982, Marty Robbins died, and then Ernest Tubb in 1984. Bill Monroe had cancer a couple of years before that and in 1983, Roy Acuff moved to his house at Opryland.

    Further comments:
    "The Opry was doing right by its long-serving artists, but the problem of replacing them was more urgent than ever. Hal Durham and Bud Wendell also knew that they must attract younger fans, redoubling the need to bring in younger artists. At the same time, the new artists mustn't alienate longtime fans. It was a delicate balancing act, and a solution would come when country music went in search of its roots."

    So like I had commented, the problems that Pete Fisher is dealing with today are nothing new. Hal Durham was dealing with the exact same issues in the 1980's.

  6. If I am correct, Durham added Don Williams around 1977, but he dropped, and B.J. Thomas joined somewhere around 1980, and he was dropped for non-attendance. I think that suggests the problem: modern acts just weren't showing up. Also, remember that Lorrie Morgan joined in 1984, Johnny Russell in the summer of 1985, and then Reba McEntire (speaking of those who don't fulfill their obligations) on the 60th anniversary special.

    I do think the Opry might be in better shape right now if it stuck with Durham's policy of putting on everybody who showed up. Consider that Friday nights used to be 3 1/2 hour shows with, usually, four performers per segment, and there were two 2 1/2 hour Saturday night shows with an average of four per segment--sometimes three, sometimes five. Now it's almost always three per segment for a two-hour show, and that just isn't enough to make someone pay that much. They may pay that amount for a two-hour Brad Paisley concert, or for two hours in which they hear maybe 18 different acts.

  7. I agree with Michael: The rule should be everybody who shows up. That's what made for those gloriously crowded and various lineups of old that Byron is always showing us. It also increases the chance that there's somebody on the bill for everybody.

  8. Thanks Michael for catching the members that I missed joining in the middle 1980's. They were right in front of me and I still missed them!!!

    I know it is all about cost cutting, but is there any sense in dropping the number of artists per show and the length of the show, and then they wonder why attendance goes down? And, as we have seen especially in the last year, some of the line ups have been pretty weak.

    One of my big issues with Pete Fisher (among others), is that he keeps putting on unknown acts, some of whom don't even have a record out. I don't mind the newcomers to the business, and I don't really mind if, because no one else is available that they come on and sing one song, but, not at the expense of the veteran Opry members, many who would do every show if allowed. And not at a ticket price of $50.

    And I will say that the Opry has to be relevant. One of the big problems in the late 1980's and through the 1990's, was that the Opry was becoming more of a living museum. Almost like a rest home for performers who were no longer on the road. When I look at the artist line ups from many of those shows in that era, they would have 25-30 acts, but it would be the same 25-30 acts every single week.

    And, that goes back to the problem of the new and younger members not appearing as often as they could. I don't expect them every week, but they need to show up at least a dozen times per year. And in the case of the Reba's and the others who ignore the show, they really need to be dropped as members.

  9. The real issues connected to all of this are two: Can the Opry (and GAC, or etc.) find a television sponsor willing to cover the high cost of regular TV/cablecasts? Without the ongoing TV, the INTEREST in appearing among those younger stars is more limited. And 2--not how well are the over-70s performers being treated (because the short, rarely stated answer is: better than anywhere else) but--how much, how often and how energeticlaly are those 50-somethings willing to be the working face and hosts of the Opry now--as they should be.

  10. Outside of Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart, you really don't have anyone in the 50 age range that is stepping up at the Opry. Lorrie Morgan did for a while, but she has reduced her appearances lately. I will say that Pam Tillis is giving the show more attention this year than she has over the past couple.

    But, Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Trisha Yearwood and Reba McEntire have been notable for their lack of Opry appearances ever since they joined.

    As far as televison, the Opry needs to be back on, but not at the expense of the majority of Opry members, which has been the case with GAC. If you watched the Opry on GAC each week, you would have thought that the Opry only had about 10 members, as that is about all that they showcased. And, they were only putting on 4 artists for the hour, greatly reducing the number of acts on the Opry for that show.

    I would love to see a half hour Opry show on RFD-TV. With their traditional country music show line-up, I think it would be a natural fit. Put it on along side Marty Stuart on Saturday night and I don't think you will have too many complaints.

    But, the Opry thinks it is worth more than what a television partner is willing to pay. And for what it is worth, I know Pete Fisher was pretty unhappy over the way GAC was doing the Opry, especially in their final year of doing the show.

  11. I agree that the Opry needs a regular following on Television each week. Maybe a older host & a younger act but feature everyone. Not the same new American Idol singer each & every week.