Saturday, September 24, 2011

Former Opry Manager-D. Kilpatrick

I wanted to take a look back into Grand Ole Opry history tonight as it was on April 25, 1956 that Walter David "D" Kilpatrick took over as the "general director" of the Grand Ole Opry. He replaced Jim Denny, who was fired by WSM the previous day.

I know that many of my younger readers might not know who D. Kilpatrick was, so here is a brief biography by John Rumble of the Country Music Hall of Fame:

"Walker David "D" Kilpatrick was a notable music executive from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. After high school, service with the marine corps, and sales experience in the auto parts field, he broke into the record business as a salesman with Capital Records' Charlotte, North Carolina, distributorship, servicing retailers and jukebox operators in parts of North Carolina and South Carolina. This prepared him for three years as Atlanta branch manager, beginning by early 1948. While there, he recruited and produced James and Martha Carson and the Statesmen for the label. In 1950 Kilpatrick became the first salaried country producer to be based in Nashville. In this role he recorded numerous acts at various studios around the nation, including Hank Thompson, Carl Butler, Jimmie Skinner, Tex Ritter, and Bob Atcher.

In 1951 Kilpatrick shifted to Mercury Records' country A&R slot. Although he remained heavily involved in southeastern sales and promotion he concentrated on recording Jerry Byrd, Johnny Horton, Jimmy Dean, Benny Martin, Ernie Lee Carl Story, and Bill Carlisle and the Carlisles. In 1956 Kilpatrick became manager of WSM's Grand Ole Opry and its associated booking operation and brought in new blood such as Rusty and Doug Kershaw, Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper, Porter Wagoner, and the Everly Brothers. In 1958 Kilpatrick helped found the Country Music Association (CMA). In mid-1959 Kilpatrick left the Opry to form Acuff-Rose Artists Corporation (ARAC)-a booking agency-with Roy Acuff and Wesley Rose. A companion firm to Acuff-Rose Publications and Hickory Records, ARAC promoted not only Opry acts but also pop stars such as Roy Orbison and Mark Dinning. Next, Kilpatrick moved on to serve as southern district regional sales manager for Warner Bros. Records (1962-64), South and Southwest distribution and promotional manager for Philips Records (1964-65), and national sales and promotion chief for Mercury Records (1965-66). A number of smaller musical ventures followed, until Kilpatrick essentially left the music industry to run a custom drapery and fabrics business."

On a final biographical note, he spent his final years living in retirement in the Nashville area. He passed away on May 21, 2008 at his home in Franklin, Tennessee. he was 88 years old and died from lung cancer.

At the time that Kilpatrick was hired at the Opry, there was a lot of turmoil going on behind the scenes. Some reports called the atmosphere in the corporate offices as an "armed camp." There were differences between WSM president Jack DeWitt and several of his executives. And the board of directors of WSM were concerned over the increasing moonlighting of their employees. So, they decided that outside business activities would not be allowed by WSM employees, especially in those instances deemed to be in conflict with their WSM employment. The employees were told to make a choice, WSM or their outside jobs. Several, including engineers Aaron Shelton, George Reynolds and Carl Perkins, who had founded the very successful Castle Recording Studio, elected to stay with WSM. Jim Denny, who was running the Opry and the artist's booking agency, also operated Cedarwood Publishing, while Jack Stapp, WSM program director, was operating Tree Publishing, which was a smaller company than Cedarwood.

"The board of directors," executive Irving Waugh said, "had indicated that Denny and Stapp should be given the option of resigning or giving up their publishing interests. DeWitt didn't do that. He just fired Denny in September of '56 and brought in a new manager for the Grand Ole Opry."

That was how Kilpatrick was hired. His official title was Grand Ole Opry 'general director', and he was also named the manager of the radio station's Artists' Service Bureau. Also with his appointment, Stapp was removed from any control of the Opry.

When he took over, Kilpatrick faced a very strong challenge. He was quoted at the time as saying, "They asked me what I thought was wrong. We'll, back when I was working with Mercury Records I was at the Opry every Saturday night I was in town, and I could look at the audience and see what was wrong. The Opry didn't have the appeal to the younger audience that you have to have if you're going to keep growing. All I could see there were older people and little teeny kids. There weren't any teenagers." And he did add many younger acts, including those I listed previously. In addition to those, he also brought back the Wilburn Brothers, and added Stonewall Jackson and Ferlin Husky. While he was trying to attract younger people to the audience, he was also up against some of the Opry's long traditions, including the issue of drums. He sided with tradition on this one, leaving the drums out of the Opry.

During his time as the Opry's manager, two issues came up that had an effect on the Opry for many years. The first had to do with the string bands. When he took over, there were four of the groups on the Opry, and they were all from the start of the show. Those were the Possum Hunters, the Crook Brothers, the Fruit Jar Drinkers, and the Gully Jumpers. Each band was getting its own spot on the show, time was being used that might more profitably go to newer acts-acts to attract audience and sponsors.

He proposed a consolidation of the older musicians, from four to two bands, on the theory that the groups weren't really the old-time groups anyway, many of the original members having died. Herman Crook was incensed, taking his anger to WSM president DeWitt, arguing for status quo with the old string bands. He lost the argument. The old-timers were consolidated into the Crook Brothers and the Fruit Jar Drinkers. Herman was still angry about it years later. He was quoted as saying, "It shouldn't have changed...We had a lot of stuff on the Opry that didn't really belong. You need fiddles guitars, banjos, and things like that. And play the old-time tunes and songs. That's what it's supposed to be. It made National Life, I'm telling you. It really made them money."

The second incident was the firing of Webb Pierce. Webb was fired on February 19, 1957 for his refusal to pay commissions on bookings and other services to WSM. Kilpatrick was quoted as saying the Pierce was no longer associated with the Opry, WSM, or any of it's affiliates because of his "unwillingness to conform to long-established rules and regulations. Pierce failed to comply with the standard laws which govern the payment of commissions to the WSM Artists Services Bureau. The Artists' Services Bureau operates as the station's booking and publicity agency for personal appearances of Grand Ole Opry talent. For these services, and for use of the name, Grand Ole Opry, the WSM Artists Bureau receives a small commission from all Opry appearances. It was over the latter that Pierce and the Opry came to a parting of the ways." Kilpatrick then added that the Opry and Pierce departed "as friends."

Pierce, who had left the Opry once before but came back, claimed that he resigned from the Opry on February 19 because of the fee payment. He claimed that the Artists Services Bureau was doing nothing to promote or help Opry artists. Pierce went on to say that he didn't think that things were running too smoothly over at the Opry and pointed to the number of artists who had left the Opry in the previous months including Carl Smith, Red Sovine, Goldie Hill, George Morgan, Anita Carter, Lew Childre, the Duke of Paducah, Moon Mulligan, Rose Maddox and Martha Carson. He went on to say that he hoped the Opry and the station would correct the conditions that caused these artists to leave, although he did not specify what those conditions were. Kilpatrick finished off the debate by asking if things were so bad at the Opry, why were new members joining? He specifically named Porter Wagoner and Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper.

D Kilpatrick only lasted as the Opry's manager for a little less than three years, resigning in 1959. Why did he leave after such a short amount of time? There was some contention at the time that Kilpatrick had crossed swords with several of the established stars. Kilpatrick also thought that he had been undercut in the WSM executive offices by Irving Waugh, who held a position of power at both the WSM radio and televison. For what it is worth, Waugh never denied that he did not care for Kilpatrick.

After hiring someone from outside WSM and the Opry previously, this time the Opry stayed in-house and hired Ott Devine, who had been WSM's program director, as the Opry's new manager. Ott would have a successful run as Opry manager, due in no small part to the fact that he knew the radio station, the Opry, and its performers.

Many times we look back at the Opry's history and forget about some of the problems that the Opry had. In many ways, D. Kilpatrick faced some of the same issues that Pete Fisher has been facing, and in many ways, the two of them are similiar. Both came from outside WSM when they received their jobs. In fact, both came from artist promotion. Both had to deal with issues concerning the age of the Opry's audience and trying to attract new members to the Opry. Both have faced issues with the membership and terminating members--Kilpatrick with the consolidation of the bands and Fisher with the 4 Guys. Both faced criticism over their moves to modernize the Opry. And both had detractors among the Opry's members. The only difference is that Fisher seems to have the support and backing of Gaylord managment, while Kilpatrick lost the backing of National Life management.

Isn't it interesting that even though this was over 50 years ago, the Opry is still battling many of the same issues today?


  1. What a great post! Thanks.

    It's fair and safe to say that as long as there's an Opry, these issues will be debated. The Solemn Old Judge fought with WSM over these kinds of things, and there's a story that Hal Durham allegedly considered eliminating a lot of older artists and Porter Wagoner basically told him it wasn't going to happen. But I do think there is a difference: Kilpatrick didn't eliminate a bunch of older acts so much as try to bring in newer ones, and his newer ones included both traditional (Wilma Lee and Stoney, and Porter) and non-traditional (Rusty and Doug, the Everly Brothers), and continued that. But I don't think there was an obvious effort to keep older acts from being on--a key difference from Fisher.

    I also wonder about the departures. Webb Pierce and Carl Smith were involved with Cedarwood, I believe, and Goldie Hill was Mrs. Smith and Red Sovine was close to Webb. Further, I think George Morgan got a TV show on WLAC, and he couldn't be part of the WSM gang if he was doing that.

  2. Fred in Bismarck here; good morning!

    Great, indeed -- thanks, Byron. The reminder that everything wasn't golden even in the Golden Age is useful to us today.

    I do think that enough things outside the Opry have changed -- including the music, the musicians and the fan base itself -- that the old format may be doomed.

    In my scenario, either the Opry will survive by continuing its evolution into a country-rock show -- probably the best pure-business solution for an outfit like Gaylord; simply fold its tent, its day having passed; or (least likely) contract back to its country, smaller-venue roots. (The show's first audiences fit into the studios of WSM.)

    There is a market for the latter out there -- look at all the festivals -- but this would require a fire sale to somebody less money-hungry than Gaylord.

  3. Fred, you make excellent points. I think everybody tends to fail to understand how society has changed. The Opry was a revelation to a lot of people, but now it competes with television and the internet. A way to look at it: could a comedian who dresses as Lonzo & Oscar did in the old days make it now, except as a kind of spoof of the whole genre? Look at the absence of real country comics. As Garth Brooks said about his first TV special, no haystacks.

  4. A couple of comments I will make regards to D. Kilpatrick. First, did everyone notice that he usually only stayed at each of his jobs/positions for about 2 years and then moved on. It makes you think he wore out his welcome or had a difficult personality to deal with.

    Secondly, he left the Opry to go work for Acuff-Rose. It makes you wonder if Roy Acuff was one of those veterans who had issues with Kilpatrick and offered him that position with his company as a way of getting him out of the Opry's management position. Maybe Roy liked him personally but didn't like the way he was running the Opry.

  5. As a matter of public record, I will say that I do own a very small amount of stock in Gaylord. I emphasize, very small. Enough to allow me to get their annual report.

    That said, Gaylord has some serious issues right now, especially in regards to holding off a possible take over. Their stock is way down, thanks in no small part to the recession and to the flood. Colin Reed and the board of directors has been putting pressure on all divisions to run profitably.

    I say that because that goes to the root of many of the issues at the Opry today. Back in the old days, nobody cared if the Opry made money. It was used as an advertising opportunity for the insurance company. That has all changed today. One of Pete Fisher's main responsibilities, is to make sure that the Opry does not lose money. And, unfortunately, that is driving many of the decisions being made today. Shorter shows, higher prices, less sponsors, less artists---all are a result of this thinking.

    On the other hand, maybe more artists, a longer show and reasonable ticket prices, would have been the way to go.

    Somebody told me about 10 years ago that in the near future we wouldn't be able to recognize the Opry any more. I am sure we are not there yet, but I keep thinking we are getting close.

  6. I don't doubt that there are financial troubles across the board. And I'm not a businessperson; I'm a college professor, and not in economics! But I know a little history--I'd better--and I had enough economics to know that if you don't give the customer a good product, you won't keep your customer.

    I think of a journalism equivalent. Newspapers are always a dying breed. This was said in the 1970s, when the economy was bad. The New York Times added new sections and came out better than the ones who cut back. A.M. Rosenthal, the top editor there, said other papers put water in the soup, but The Times added tomatoes. Fisher and company need to be thinking about why they are adding water to the soup instead of tomatoes.

    A good example of how they should try something different. Last night, they had an icon on the Opry. Why not give Dolly the full 30 minutes, and load up the other segments? Jim Ed Brown and Jesse McReynolds could have been on other portions, and people would have stayed for a mini-concert? I think we can have it both ways.

  7. You make a good point regarding Dolly. Remember when Reba made her last Opry appearance a couple of years back, and they actually added another segment on at the end of the show and gave her the entire half hour? I would think that would be the way to go. In fact, I found the line up from that night, and it was on May 9, 2009, a Saturday. The Opry ran from 7-9, it's usual Saturday schedule with one show, and then added a 5th segment at 9 with Reba.

    Also, in the past, they have had shows with just the host and one guest. Last year at the birthday celebration, it was that way for 2 of the segments, on of which featured Taylor Swift and the other one Dolly Parton.

    I agree that when they have a superstar or icon like Dolly, they need to let them sing more than just 2 songs. Give the fans something special.

  8. Byron, I agree--yeah, easy for me since I brought it up!--but I also think last night was a missed opportunity for the Opry. The more they could have shown of the legends and of other members, with a bigger and younger audience for Dolly, the better.

  9. Fred again:

    I like Byron's useful reminder that the Opry used to be a vehicle (and write-off) for National Life, vs. a profit center for Gaylord.

    Michael's point about adding tomatoes to the soup instead of water is right-on. Dolly is definitely in the tomato category. When Fisher is lucky enough to have her on the bill, and dumb enough not to maximize her -- well, that is symptomatic of the problems at the Opry.

    Maybe Fisher thinks she's too old, like Stonewall?

  10. 'Bye for a while:

    I'm outta here for a couple of weeks, and will look forward to catching up on the posts when I get back.

    Fred in Bismarck

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