Monday, December 5, 2011

Opry Drops 12 Top Stars--December 6, 1964

On Sunday morning, December 6, 1964, Nashvillians awoke to find spread across the top of their newspapers an eight-column banner headline in bold type usually associated with war or public disaster: "OPRY DROPS 12 TOP STARS."

The story read, "Twelve top country and western music 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."

Those who were dismissed from the Opry included George Morgan, Don Gibson, Billy Grammer, Johnny Wright, Kitty Wells, the Jordanaires (background singers for Elvis Presley's records and concert dates), Faron Young, Ferlin Husky, Chet Atkins, Justin Tubb, Stonewall Jackson, and Ray Price. Opry officials, after using the policy only minimally before, had insisted on strict adherence to a rule that said Opry performers had to appear on twenty-six shows in a year to be retained on the roster.

WSM public relations director Bill Williams tried to put the best face on it, insisting, "Nobody is mad at anybody. It's just that periodically we have to take stock. It's just a routine thing." Irving Waugh, somewhat removed from the Opry in his capacity as general manager of WSM television, nevertheless thought the announcement was ill advised. He viewed the action as an "antagonism" of the country music community by WSM president Jack DeWitt.

Looking back on it, the "Purge of '64" might have been a monumental public relations goof. Within a day of the release of the original story, Opry manager Ott Devine had to remove Chet Atkins name from the list of the original twelve. His name should not have been included, Devine said, because "Chet has not been officially connected with the Opry for many years." That admission suggested to some that the entire incident reflected adversely on the quality of Opry management.

Money is what really generated the hassle. Faron Young remembered: "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." Percentages paid by artists to the WSM Artists' Service Bureau (make that read "booking agency") also were in contention. Johnny Wright, Kitty Wells's husband, explained: 'They booked some of our dates, and then some of the dates were booked by our personal managers and booking agents. They were charging us fifteen percent on the dates they booked, and then if they didn't book a date you still had to pay them five percent of the dates that you booked yourself. Some of the artists stopped paying the five percent, a lot of them. But Kitty and I paid it right up to the very last, and I told Ott Devine, 'Ott, I don't think it's fair for us to pay that and some of them not paying it. Unless you get everybody to pay it, then I'm not gonna pay it.' They didn't fire anyone. We just quit because we didn't wanna pay the five percent."

Quit or fired? It didn't make any difference; the public perception was that their favorites had been summarily dismissed. If anything good came out of the incident, it was a realization in the city-in some quarters, for the first time-that the Grand Ole Opry was really important to Nashville. On December 8, the Nashville Tennessean ran an editorial under the heading, "Opry Has Duty of Protection." It 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 origin 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 that 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."

Eventually, a number of the Opry members fired would return to Opry membership, with those being Billy Grammer, Don Gibson, Justin Tubb, Stonewall Jackson and George Morgan. And those who did not rejoin would continue play the Opry as guest artists.

Of course, the Opry's battle with its members regarding Opry appearances continues to this day. Those who joined the Opry while Hal Durham and Bob Whitaker did so without any appearance requirements and that continues to haunt the Opry today. Just look at some of those who became members then and they include Clint Black, Travis Tritt, Reba McEntire and Alan Jackson, among many others. You are hard pressed to find them at the Opry. I will give credit to Pete Fisher in that since he has taken over as the Opry's general manager, he has asked each new artist that has joined while he has been in charge to commit to 10 shows per year. Most of those have kept to that.

Could the Opry get away with firing 12 artists today? I don't think so. The publicity fall out would be too great. Look at what happened when Pete Fisher fired the 4 Guys. And, while they were great Opry members, honestly, they were not superstars. But it sure gives us something to think about and I think we would all like the Opry's members to support the show and to appear on a regular basis. After all, that is what membership is all about.


  1. Nicely done. I think there is a subtle statement on the Opry website about how much membership means. It used to be that the only artists with pages on the site were members. Now, guests have their own pages and biographies. Yes, the members are identified as members. But if you want to show how little importance management attaches to the members, there it is.

  2. You are right Michael that Opry membership just doesn't seem so special anymore, especially when on a typical Opry show that there are almost as many non-Opry members as Opry members, and many of the Opry's major stars rarely appear.

    Up until a few years ago, the program at the Opry House listed who the Opry members were, but no longer does. As a result, a person attending the Opry doesn't really know who is or who isn't a member unless something is said on stage, or unless they pay the $15 for the History Picture Book.

    (from Byron)

  3. I'm thinking this is an Opry strategy for "claiming" non-members (and prestige) for itself. Many people will not read closely enough to make the distinction between members and non-members, a confusion that can be seen as playing into the Opry's hands.

    I am sympathetic with the historical problem: Play the Opry and make much less money than you could make elsewhere on a Saturday night. Also, modern concert prices being what they are, the cost to an Alan Jackson or Toby Keith is a lot higher than it was for Ernest Tubb or Hank Snow.

    But ... accepting the benefits of Opry membership, such as they are anymore, does confer the moral, not to mention contractual, obligation to observe the terms of the agreement.

    Those who can't bring themselves to do so should, as Byron has said many times, resign or be fired. Of course, the Opry needs a public separation from these big "stars" like it needs a hole in the head.

    So the situation just sits there, with no real incentive on either side to clean it up.

  4. Sorry, the above comment is by Fred in Bismarck

  5. Thanks Fred. I guess to sum up the situation, "it is what it is." As long as Pete Fisher, or whoever else might be in charge, can put on a show and have 12 to 14 artists on, it doesn't really matter if they are Opry members or not, at least not to them. And as more and more of the legends die, I think you are going to continue to see less and less Opry members on an Opry show. Just using Jimmy Dickens for an example. He is going to end up doing over 100 Opry shows this year. There is nobody that the Opry is bringing on as a member who is going to do anywhere close to that number. In fact, you are lucky if any new Opry member is going to be doing more than 10-15 shows a year. So, you end up with non-Opry members as guest artists on the show. Mandy Barnett, a non-Opry member, is going to end up doing more Opry shows this year than probably half the Opry cast.

    I just get tired of hearing from every new Opry member how they listened to the Opry every week when they were growing up, that it is the highest honor in country music and they are fulfilling a dream of being an Opry member, how they love the Opry and will always be there to support the show, and then showing up for only 5 or 6 shows a year.


  6. Fred again:

    Indeed, Byron, that lip-service blarney does get old. Please ... show us, don't tell us.

  7. Fred;
    I'd be happy with 5 or 6 shows per year. How many do we get from Garth, Alan, Clint, Dolly, Tom T., Barbara, Reba, or any number of others?
    Not sure what the answer is.

  8. Fred, every year I do a recap of the Opry and it includes the number of appearances by Opry members. Of course, the answer to some of your names is pretty easy to come up with-----0. Although in the case of Barbara Mandrell, she is retired and no longer performing, but was allowed to retain her Opry membership.


  9. It's certainly true that a major star like Alan Jackson or Blake Shelton can make a lot more money playing an arena or stadium on Friday and Saturday night than they can make at the Opry. However, they also don't tour 250-300 days a year like ET or Hank Snow did. With today's shorter touring schedules, there is no reason why the current group of superstars cannot appear on the Opry more often.

    I also agree with those who are tired of hearing performers talk about how much they love the Opry and what it means to them but then hardly ever play the Opry.

  10. Tim, you bring up an important point. Among the old-timers, I think they felt weird or that they were doing something wrong if they were in Nashville on a Saturday night and not playing the Opry. I know that Bill Anderson talked on his website about taking a vacation and feeling funny about it--and no one would ever question Whisper's commitment to the Opry. But it seems to me that nobody at the Opry would object if a big-name member said, I'm going out to dinner at 8 p.m., so let me run in and do the first segment. That used to be the attitude.