Friday, May 11, 2012

A Cause For Concern?

Yesterday, news broke that involved Gaylord Entertainment, the company that owns WSM and the Grand Ole Opry. Gaylord's stockholders, at their annual meeting on Thursday, voted to make it more difficult, if not impossible, to extend beyond mid-August a poison pill that the company has used up to now to ward off a hostile takeover. The vote comes as Gaylord explores ways to increase shareholder value, a process that analysts said could lead to a sale of the company in parts or whole, or possibly spinning off some properties as part of a reorganization plan. One Wall Street money manager has talked of putting Gaylord properties in a real estate investment trust or REIT to monetize those holdings and help boost the hotel chain's stock price. Another opinion is that Gaylord will pursue something other than a sale, perhaps creating a separate real estate investment trust.

Cris Blackman, who runs Empirical Capital Management of Hendersonville, said he wouldn't be surprised if Gaylord's largest stockholder, TRT Holdings Inc, tries to scoop up the company. TRT, a fund controlled by Texas billionaire and Omni Hotel owner Richard B. Rowling, controls a 21.8 percent stake in Gaylord, plus two seats on the board. Or, Blackman said, Gaylord could spin off properties and create a separate company for its convention booking operations, which could then also book business at non-Gaylord properties to win additional revenue.

The reason for concern is several. First, we know that the hotel and resort operation is the primary business that Gaylord is in. With the exception of WSM, the Opry, the Opry House, Ryman Auditorium and Wildhorse Saloon, they have sold off everything entertainment related over the years. And we all know what they wanted to do with WSM several years back. The second concern is that in all the media coverage yesterday and today on this news, all of the speculation had to do with the hotel business. Nothing was stated or mentioned about the Opry or WSM. Third concern is that TRT Holdings are the ones involved in the new Nashville Convention Center and the Omni Hotel that is being built in downtown Nashville that will be connected to the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Convention Center. And finally, TRT Holdings has made it known over the past year that their real interest in Gaylord is with the hotel and convention business. I also read a report somewhere that mentioned that Richard B. Rowling, while based in Texas, is not a real fan of country music.

I think many of us can remember the uncertainty that Opry fans went through in the 1970s and early 1980s when National Life was taken over by American General. At the time, American General wanted nothing to do with the Opry or Opryland and Bud Wendell spent a majority of his time finding a buyer for the Opry and related properties.

I know many of us have strong opinions on how Gaylord and it's management has treated the Opry. But we also have to remember that Gaylord has kept the Opry going. Look at what happened when WWVA in Wheeling was sold to Clear Channel and Live Nation took over Jamboree USA. At the time, it was the 2nd longest radio program in the nation and it wasn't long after that when Jamboree USA was shut down. WLS changed format and new management ended the National Barn Dance. The Opry is the last of its kind. Who is to say what a new owner might or might not do.

Could WSM and the Opry be sold? I really think it is a possibility. If the primary business of the company is the hotel and convention part of it, then you would think the entertainment division could be sold off. And with WSM a 50,000 watt, clear channel station, it could bring lots of cash to a company that is struggling. Where does the Opry fit in? Good question. In my thinking, WSM and the Opry are tied together and I think it would be hard to put a value on the Opry alone. WSM can survive without the Opry but I really wonder if the Opry could survive without WSM. And what value would the Opry have without a 50,000 watt radio station to broadcast the show?

I know it has been mentioned before regarding who might buy the Opry. One idea that has come up many times is a non-profit trust that would preserve the show. That would be a great idea but it would take a substantial investment to pull that off. Gaylord just is not going to give the Opry away. They would be looking for some fast cash. After what Live Nation, the country's largest concert promoter did to Jamboree USA, do you really want them to purchase the Opry? Disney has been mentioned  in the past but I have heard nothing on that front.

The rest of 2012 could be very interesting for Gaylord and the Opry. The bad news is that with Gaylord trying to move its stock value up, there will probably be more cuts at the Opry and little spending done to improve the show. Whatever decision Gaylord makes, I hope it will be the right one and the Opry will be preserved and put into good hands. But whose hands those might be, I do not know.


  1. Byron,

    Thanks for posting this. With all the differnt opinions posted here we should all take a moment to give thanks that we have had the Opry as we know it this long. Any take over by a new owner or management can bring unwanted or unaccepted change to any business. One thought I have is that maybe the RFD folks could have a roll if the Opry dose change hands. They seem to be interested in preserving our musical heritage.

    Speaking of heritage, that leads me to some thoughts continuing what Tim S posted a short time ago on last weeks lineup post. Durahm and Wendall added several big names that have neglected the Opry including Reba who has made less than one appearance every two years since she joined. They did also sign folks like Riders in the Sky, Mike Snider and Boxcar Willie who I'm sure they knew would never be the mega star that Reba or Alan Jackson were already becoming. However, these folk did a very important thing. They preserved the heritage of the Opry along side the new mega stars and the ever changing style of the music. This is the biggest problem I have with what Fisher and Buchanan have done. I know it is a business and must make a profit. However the heritage could and should be preserved at the same time. This could be done by adding some excelent performers who are lesser known but give the audience a tast of all the styles of country music past and present. Rhonda Vincent and Gene Watson have been mentioned here many times. And, how about some of the young Texas folks like Amber Digby or Justin Trevino.

    These folks would help maintain the integraty of the show which it is beginning to lack. A case in point occured at my last visit to the Opry in October 2011. That Friday night, reality show star Whitney Duncan performed just before Ray Price. She had on a thin very short skimpy dress and jumped around and in my opinion screamed out her lyrics on stage. All that was missing to complete her performance was a pole. You would think management might notice that she got that polite but suttle applause Opry crowds give somone they did not particularly appreciate. Then, here's Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys who peformed three songs and got a standing ovation. Now I like the pretty girls same as the next guy but the Opry has always been a family show and in my mind is no place for the type of performance Duncan made.

    I love the Opry and it has been an enormous part of my life since I was a child. I guess I fit what Mike Snider often says about Eddie Stubbs. While all the other kids were out drinking, dating and causing a rukus, I was home listning through the static for Roy Acuff to take the Opry stage. But, if the Whitney Duncan's are what the Opry is going to become, a two or three act concert of less than tastful performances then I would just as soon see it end with grace and dignity as we know it and be renamed to fit the new theme. Again, that is NOT at all what I wish for. It just hurts me to see what it is becoming. Maybe it is a true reflection of our society but I don't have like and accept it.

    I am so greatful for the many folks like Bill Anderson, Jim Ed Brown, Jean Shepard and all the other Opry veterans who have chose to continue to perform. If they had not, I feel the Opry would be gone. In the recent past management has ask just about anyone to appear on the Opry to fill the ever shorter show but from the late 90's until just a couple years ago they would have never put on a show if these folks had been retired.

    Thank you Byron and all the others here for letting me talk. As Jimmy Dickens says, if anything I have said offends anyone I apologize. I have been wanting to share these thoughts ever since I found this blog a few monts ago.

    Jim Rhodes
    Knightsville, IN

  2. Jim, I know you didn't offend me, and I was going to give you a Ray Price-style standing ovation, but I'm sitting at a desk by my computer and thought it wouldn't make much of an impact. Beautifully said.

    I will say this. First, if the management doesn't understand audience reaction, they shouldn't be management.

    Second, there is room for both Whitney Duncan and Ray Price on the Opry. I'm a traditionalist--like Herman Crook and Grandpa Jones, I want drums thrown into the Cumberland River. But I know not everybody feels that way. I don't mind seeing different acts, so long as we remember the Opry is supposed to be something in particular overall. There is room for tradition and innovation at the same time. But I'm reminded of a night that Bob Whittaker decided the TV portion of the Opry should look like a WHOLE Opry show, and should both open and close with the square dancers and their band. Which led to--if I recall--Billy Walker nearly being knocked galley west when the dancers, Earl White, and Charlie Collins had to rush on and off the stage. Thus endeth that experiment. The point is, we need some experimenting--Porter Wagoner's line about bringing in James Brown was that even Coke tries new things. It's when the new things overwhelm the old that we need to do something.

    Finally, a thought. Will the Opry survive the CURRENT management? In my opinion, no one has done more damage to the Opry in its history than Steve Buchanan and Pete Fisher. It may be worth the risk.

  3. I have been highly critical of the 'Opry's recent direction.
    I have met Pete Fisher, and found him to be a nice guy. While I have found fault with the penny-pinching and general lack of enthusiasm of today's 'Opry, I have to admit that I think Pete Fisher really cares about the 'Opry.
    The next guy might NOT care a lick about the 'Opry or country music.

  4. Nat, I agree with you regarding Pete Fisher. I have met him once. It was nothing more than a hi and bye type deal and it was over at Opry Mills. But, I found him to be sincere and pleasant. I have met and talked to Steve Buchanan and I had a longer conversation with him. That was a while back and he came across as someone who did care about the Opry.

    I think some of Pete's problems came when he gave a magazine interview shortly after he became the Opry's general manager in 1999. In the interview, he talked a lot about changes he wanted to make at the Opry and what direction he thought the show should take. I believe it was in the interview that he said he would like Bruce Springsteen to do the Opry someday. Obviously, not the way to start.

    That said, and getting back to my original point, I do think Pete cares about the show, but he did, and still does, have definite ideas about how he feels the show should be managed. And some of the decisions that he has made have left many of us scratching our heads.

    Of course, we may never know how much of what he has done have been his own ideas, or direction dictated to him by Gaylord's upper management, who all live in the Nashville area.

    And Nat, your final comment does worry me and is a cause for concern. The next owner might not care.

  5. I will offer one possible owner for the Opry. How about Dolly Parton and the Herschend Group. They jointly own Dollywood and the Herschend Group is involved in numerous theme parks. In addtion, I believe that they are providing some of the funding, along with Gaylord, for the water/snow park being planned across from the Opry. Oh by the way, has anyone else noticed that there has been no additional news regarding this park since the initial announcement?

  6. I need to add a few comments to my opening remarks Friday evening.

    I remember not liking some the things Bob Whittaker was doing and then missing him when he was replaced. I wrote to Mr. Whittaker once and I belive I have written Mr. Fisher twice. On both occassions I made clear that I was just a fan/customer giving feedback and was sure there were all kinds of things behind the scenes that I didn't and shouldn't know. I thanked eash of them for helping keep the Opry alive and moving it forward. If Fisher and Buchanan truley care about the Opry I can't imagine how tough it is to make decisions that respect the artist and still address the issues of their superiors.

    Michael, I agree that the Opry has room for all kinds, it always has. And, there has always been those I like better than others. I was never a big fan of the Four Guys but they too were carrying on something that is now gone from the Opry and that is a qurtet or group that often sang popular songs of the day. Bill Anderson oftem comments that looking at the variety of music on the Opry is like looking at a rainbow. Where my fear lies is that once those we now think of as veterans are gone, the only color left in the rainbow will be the false gold at the imaginary end and the show will no longer represent all of the past and present varieties of country music.

    Byron, the idea about Dolly and the Herschend Group is very intersting and a great thought. Whatever happens, lets hope that it ends up in the hands of someone like Dolly who understands what the Opry is all about.

    Jim Rhodes
    Knightsville, IN