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.