Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Death of the Grand Ole Opry/Can Garth & Reba Save It?

While I was at my local grocery store today, I happened to look at the various celebrity magazines that are for sale by the cash registers and the headline printed above was on the cover of the "National Examiner" July 9th edition. Naturally that caught my eye, so I am reprinting the article below with my comments at the end. The article was written by Roger Hitts.

Music city movers and shakers have rallied in a desperate bid to save the Grand Ole Opry from being shut down by greedy corporate wheeling and dealing. "Someone needs to breathe new life into Opry's heart and soul," a country music source tells The Examiner. Nashville insiders have launched a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign to convince country music's biggest stars to rescue the historic venue from extinction. "We're talking the likes of Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire, along with some of the younger stars like Kenny Chesney and Taylor Swift, who have played the Opry," says the insider. "If they pooled their resources, they could keep the Opry alive."

The loyal supporters of the Opry also hope to recruit stars as diverse as Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, George Jones and Keith Urban, because Opry lovers fear the time-honored venue may end up on the chopping block. Gaylord Entertainment, a resort and entertainment company which has owned the Opry since 1983, may soon cut a deal to merge with a hotel giant. According to the published reports about the deal, Gaylord would still own and operate the Opry. But insiders are afraid the corporation will eventually unload the Opry under pressure to boost stock prices. "If the Opry falls into the wrong hands, it will die a tragic death," veteran country music promoter Marty Martel tells The Examiner. "It would be a godsend to have one or a group of major stars purchase the Opry as a lifesaver." The source adds: "There are some folks who feel Gaylord hasn't been the greatest steward for our beloved Opry. And there's fear of the unknown. If Gaylord gets taken over, whoever buys it could decide it's not a cost-beneficial operation and mothball it entirely."

Launched in November 1925, the Nashville-based barn-dance show was beamed to more than 30 states during its heyday, thanks to the freedom afforded to old-time AM radio stations. Over the 90 years, the Opry has helped the careers of legends like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Roy Clark and Minnie Pearl. The show has also hosted contemporary stars like the Dixie Chicks, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood. Devoted fans call it The Mother Church of Country Music. But the beloved symbol of Americana has increasingly suffered under the onslaught of FM radio, cable television, the Internet and wireless devices like iPads. The program has been kept alive by a devoted group of legendary stars like Jean Shepard, Little Jimmy Dickens, Bill Anderson, Jimmy C Newman, Jack Greene and Stonewall Jackson.

But the Opry needs modern star power to survive, say Music City insiders. The Opry has inducted more than 100 artists, only to see many of them skip out on their agreement to perform at least 10 shows on the hallowed stage. These artists prefer to book tours at major venues that pay more than the Opry. "The artists inducted need to hold true to their promise of taking care of The Mother Church of Country Music," says Martel, "not to give lip service, but to make regular appearances so that they can breathe new life into the heart and soul of the Opry."

Now for my thoughts and comments:

First, you have to remember that this is the National Examiner and as you can tell by reading the article, they have a few facts wrong. And they are known to sensationalize a story. While Gaylord has had some issues and is working on an operating agreement with Marriott for the resort and convention business, there is nothing new to report on the Opry. Gaylord has said they are not selling it and will continue to operate the show and nothing has changed since they made that statement.

I do find it amusing that the artists they list as those who should buy the Opry are members who never appear or support the show now. Garth Brooks? Alan Jackson? Reba McEntire? Later in the article it mentions about the lack of support from the various members who do not appear 10 times each year. If these artists really cared about the Opry, they would be there. Let's face it, if Garth, Alan and Reba actually appeared at the Opry, there would be no need for this discussion. As far as the non-Opry members listed, Kenny Chesney and Taylor Swift have appeared several times on the show. It's not like they are regular performers.

Now, I will say it is open to debate whether or not Gaylord has been good stewards of the Opry. Early on, they were. While the Gaylord family was actively involved with the management of the company, and folks like Bud Wendell were still around, the Opry was operated just fine. But when you have current management doing things like cutting show lengths, ridiculously raising ticket prices, cutting sponsors and reducing the number of acts per show, you have to question how much they really think of the history and tradition of the show.

Marty Martel does a great job with the legends of country music. He does a lot of promoting of shows and really does care about the Opry and the history of the show. But, he also has had his differences with Gaylord and how he feels the legends have been treated. He is right in the fact taht if the Opry ends up in the wrong hands, it could be worse than what it is now. But the last sentence in the story, which is a quote from Marty, is right on, "The artists inducted need to hold true to their promise to take care of The Mother Church of Country Music, not to give lip service, but to make regular appearances so that they can breathe new life into the heart and soul of the Opry."

I couldn't agree more.


  1. from Fred in Bismarck:

    Just about a totally worthless story, as Byron says, with no information on exactly HOW the Opry is endangered except by the failure of too many stars to show and the alleged inroads, not demonstrated, of other entertainment options.

    (The iPad hurts -- how? The Internet? More people can use it to listen to the Opry now than can find it on today's cluttered airwaves. FM and cable? They've been around for a long, long time.)

    There are no measurements of attendance, finances and other things by which to quantify the alleged decline. No tallying of appearances, or lack of same, by the offending artists. Of course, all this would have taken research and footwork.

    A congressman once said of another: "My colleague never opens his mouth without subtracting from the sum total of human knowledge."

    He could have said the same about the Examiner and its brand of "journalism."

  2. I can't add much to Byron's comments, but I am going to talk about something unrelated to make a point. Namely, I was a newspaperman and still write for newspapers, and if I don't start the day holding The New York Times in my hands, I feel like something is wrong. But I'm unusual in this day and age, I know. Now, one of the problems is that even before the economy worsened, newspapers were in trouble--the internet provided other, potentially more interesting means of getting news, and it certainly was quicker than a once-a-day paper. How did newspaper publishers respond? By cutting their staffs and product, and giving away internet information.

    Now newspapers are setting up what's called "paywalls." Beyond that, though, I go back to The Times. In the 1970s, with New York in economic trouble and The Times having trouble, the publisher, general manager, and editor added new feature sections that readers found interesting and, more important, advertisers liked. The executive editor at the time, A.M. Rosenthal, had a great line: Other newspapers were adding water to the soup, but we put in more tomatoes.

    Well, that explains the problem with the Opry. They have watered it down, raising the prices for it without adding anything to the show and, instead, cutting the programming offered. They are charging far more now for about half as much entertainment. What kind of business management is that? If I were teaching Business 101, I would use that as the opposite of what to do.

  3. Mike, great analogy. Thanks. And I agree with your assessment regarding the Opry and its business management. If they were to teach a class in college on how to not run a business successfully, Gaylord's management of the Opry should be lesson #1. But on the other hand, according to Gaylord's annual report, the Opry had its best year ever. So go figure.

  4. Roger Hitts???? You are kidding? That is probably a pen name for Marty Martel...This sounds like it came from his pen as he is quoted throughout. He has been at odds with Pete Fisher and Opry Management for about 15 years now, and at one time(don't know if this is still the case) he was banned from the backstage area.

    If you are going to stir things up about Gaylord and the Opry, one could do better than this article. The funny part is where it says "But the beloved symbol of Americana has increasingly suffered under the onslaught of FM radio, cable television, the Internet and wireless devices like iPads." Last I looked, the Opry was utilizing very well and being broadcast on all of those mediums except FM. Oh, and instead of FM which would maybe reach Franklin KY and Monteagle TN, it is on XM/Sirius reaching all over the US and Canada.

    Very funny article. As Byron stated, the Opry and Attractions group had their best year ever last year...doesn't look too desperate to me.

    I actually think if the Marriott deal finalizes(it still has to finalize) it would probably solidify the Opry for a while. And with the Dollywood park joint venture with Gaylord, and Opry Mills re-opening, things are actually looking better than they have looked in years for the Opry business. I think the big worry they have is who is going to replace Tater and some of the other stalwarts when that time comes? Hopefully, that is a little while longer off, but that is why it is so important that all the members make the appearances they agreed to make when they were invited to join the Opry. It would sure help the consistency and quality of the shows week in and week out if a lot of these members would actually just live up to the very minimal committment they made.

    I am trying to take a more positive approach to the many changes that have taken place at the Opry in recent years.. Yeah, the shows are shorter. But do people in this fast paced modern society really want to sit any longer than 2 hours anyway? Yeah, there are fewer artists on the show. But it gives everyone who is on, more opportunity to perform and mega stars often get 3 or 4 songs now. The sound, lighting and staging is the best it has ever been. The giant screens are a nice touch for people who sit in the back.
    It is still, even on an off night, a pretty fascinating, entertaining show to watch in person.

    The only real gripe I have is the ticket prices, but I understand that most entertainment is expensive(look at what Broadway in NY, and Disney in Florida charges, these place make the Opry look like a bargain...especially if you get the 30 and 40 balcony tickets at the Opry House) and going to the Opry is a luxury not a necessity after all. I mean, Gaylord just put 20 million into the Opry House..that was quite a committment in itself.

    But, to be fair, I would say, right now things are probably at the limit for me personally. Any shorter shows, any fewer artists, any more changes in format and I would probably have to think twice about making the effort to see the 8-10 shows a year I spend hard-earned money to go to.

  5. As I've said before, the Opry really made a mistake 30 years ago in not adding a whole lot more of the 1970s and 1980s stars to the lineup. The average age of an Opry member (especially the regulars) is just too old for the show to be sustainable.

    Nobody is a bigger fan of classic country of the 1940s, 50s and 60s than me, but the fact is those artists are simply dying out.

    It is unrealistic to think that the current big stars are going to play the Opry on a regular basis as that hasn't been true since probably the early 1960s.

    When the Opry was at its peak attendance wise in the 1970s and 80s, it was basically an oldies show which is fine as long as you keep adding newer acts who will play the show after their career peaks.

    When I used to go to the Opry a lot in the early 1980s, you could always hear artists like David Houston sing Almost Persuaded or Jack Greene sing There Goes My Everything or Jeanne Pruett sing Satin Sheets. Those songs were only 10-15 years old at the time and none of those acts were ever really superstars but the crowd was thrilled.

    1. Your right. In the 1970's the Opry only added the following acts as members: Jerry Clower, The Gatlins, Tom T. Hall, David Houston, Jan Howard, Barbara Mandrell, Ronnie Milsap, Jeanne Pruett, Don Williams and Tammy Wynette. Of those 10, Wynette, Clower and Houston are dead, Mandrell and Pruett are retired and have not given up their Opry membership, Williams resigned as a member, Hall is missing in action (for years now), so that leaves us the very faithful Jan Howard (when she gets called!) and Milsap and the Gatlins (when they want to show up).
      The 1980's got a little better. 15 acts were added: Boxcar Willie, Roy Clark, John Conlee, Holly Dunn, Patty Loveless, Mel McDaniel, Reba McEntire, Lorrie Morgan, Riders In The Sky, Johnny Russell, Ricky Van Shelton, Ricky Skaggs, B.J. Thomas, Randy Travis and The Whites. Of these 15 I believe the most faithful were, McDaniel, Riders in The Sky, Russell and The Whites. All of which were not as well known or successful as the others.
      Now, "what if" time. Look at those Country Family reunion shows, hosted by Bill Anderson. Look who shows up for those: Barbara Fairchild, Johnny Lee, Mac Wiseman, Moe Bandy, Helen Cornelius, Ed Bruce, Doug Stone, Neal McCoy, Linda Davis, Gene Watson, Rhonda Vincent, Gary Morris, Jimmy Fortune, Ronnie McDowell, Dailey & Vincent, Buck Trent and others. What if these acts had been made Opry Members. I believe we would have a bigger crowd showing up.

  6. The Opry was not prepared for the time when the legends began to pass away and had no plan in place. I am not talking about today's legends, I go back to Ernest Tubb, Marty Robbins, Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff, Grandpa Jones, Bill Monroe and Hank Snow. Even in the 80s, around the time of the passing of Ernest and Marty, Bud Wendell and Hal Durham both admitted that they had an aging cast that needed to be addressed and that the show was becoming more a museum piece than something contemporary and keeping up with the times.

    They did add acts, and some pretty good ones. The mistake was not holding them to the attendance requirements. At the time in the 70s and 80s, it was 16 shows per year. Then it was 12 and now it is 10 and still not really enforced. While they thought they were picking the right new members, they either were fooled or misjudged those that they picked.

    The Opry is still a good show but it could use a fix. The biggest ones would be to get the members to show up. At this point, just to see some of them 4 or 5 times a year would be an improvement. I am glad to see Larry Gatlin at the Opry more, along with Diamond Rio. There is no excuse for people like Lorrie Morgan or Pam Tillis not to be at the Opry more. They are still active, but not touring so much. Same with Patty Loveless. Again, it is a big problem when numerous non-members support the show more than the actual membership.

  7. Well if ther going to make more money someplace else,why join the Opry in the first place.DUHHH.But I agree the Opry has to survive.

  8. Playing the Opry itself never made anyone money from union scale. However, up until I would guess about 1980, you could work the Opry and broadcast over 30 some states and Canada where you were going to be in the next week or weeks and increase turnout at you show dates and promote your latest single. Going back before that you needed the Opry to say you had made it. Today the Opry needs talent to say it is still making it.

    I guess the show was so much to my liking in the 80's I never thought of the short comings of the lack of new members. If you look at many of the folks we love as veterans today, Stu Phillips, Jeannie Seely, Ray Pillow, Jimmy C Newman and others, they were never superstars but thank goodness they were talented enough to be ask to join. Where would we be without them? That is why even in the late 80's and 90's I could not understand why Gene Watson, Vern Gosdin, Margo Smith, Rhonda Vincent, Leona Williams, Darrel McCall, David Ball and others who were not huge stars were not ask to join. Maybe they were and we just don't know it. There are others like Mark Chestnut and Tracy Lawrence who would be good as well. Membership may have meant more to those folks who weren't so big and the Opry might have found loyalty and increased participation. It's still not to late to ask!

    I'm not sure that we will ever see the loyalty of a big star to the Opry again like and Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff or Hank Snow. They knew they became big stars because of the Opry and they respected that fact and showed. Is there a star today that has any reason to do that other than just pure kindness?

    This arm chair management of the Opry we get to do here is fun! I hope anyone who reads what we say know it in love for the show and the people.


  9. As Pete Fisher has established his hold on the Opry, it is noticed that artists no longer promote personal appearances on the show, or even plug their latest albums. Also, while most of the artists do receive union scale for being on the Opry, there are many side deals that are made and may who are payed well above the scale. This has gone on for many, many years...back to Roy Acuff's time.

    Jim, you are right about loyalty. You have those who will say that they love the Opry, and then are lucky to appear more than a dozen times per year.

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