A topic that comes up from time to time is the question of who should be a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Some of the discussion concerns current members that should be dropped from the cast, along with the names of new members that should be added. With the start of the new year I thought it would be a good time to open this topic up for more discussion.
I looked at the list of the current Grand Ole Opry members and came up with 10 artists that I would immediately drop as members of the Opry. Here is my 10 and the reasons why, which should be obvious:
1) Clint Black: Clint joined the Grand Ole Opry in January 1991, making him an Opry member for 21 years. So what has Clint given the Opry? Since 1998, he has made 20 Opry appearances. That averages out to just over 1 Opry appearance each year. From 2004 through 2010, he made 2 appearances. Last year he managed 1 Tuesday night show. His high point for Opry shows was in 2002 and 2003, when he made 5 appearances each year. Clint continues to be based in California and makes very few Nashville trips.
2) Garth Brooks: Garth says he is retired but for the past several years, when the money was right, he did weekend shows in Las Vegas. It would be just as easy for Garth to fly from Oklahoma to Nashville for a few Saturday night shows as it is to fly to Vegas. Garth says Opry membership is the most important thing to him and that anytime the Opry calls, he will be there for the Opry. Either Pete Fisher has lost Garth's number or feels no reason to call him, or Garth is just fooling everyone. In 2000, he made 4 Opry appearances, all the weekend of the 75th anniversary of the Opry. Since then, he has appeared just 3 times, with his last Opry visit coming in 2008 to induct Carrie Underwood as a member. He last sang on the Opry in 2005 for the Opry's 80th birthday. To carry the retirement thought a little further, for most of the Opry's history, when you retired from performing you gave up your Opry membership. I think the first member who retired and asked to stay a member was Barbara Mandrell. I think the show needs to go back to the policy that except for illness, as long as you are an Opry member, who need to be an active performer. (oh by the way, you will notice that I did not put Trisha Yearwood on the list. She should also go, but the reason I did not include her was the if Garth goes, Trisha will probably follow It has been a couple of years since she has done the Opry).
3) Tom T Hall: Tom T has not performed on the Opry for 20 years. He has said that he is never coming back to the Opry, so why keep him a member? Really it is too bad as in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he actually was on the show often. And he was well received. But for some reason, he just quit coming. Time for Tom T to go.
4) Alan Jackson: Why is Alan Jackson a member of the Grand Ole Opry? He joined the Opry in 1991. In 2011, the Opry wanted to do a show to honor Alan for 20 years of Opry membership. The show was never scheduled because Alan would not commit to it. I think that says it all. It is not hard to figure out how often he is at the Opry. In 2012-1; 2011-1; 2010-1; 2009-0. His high point was 4 shows in 2005, but except for that it was generally 2 shows per year through 2008. With his love of George Jones and traditional country music, you would have thought Alan would be there to support the Opry, but that is not the case. Actually, in many ways, he is following the example of his idol when it comes to supporting the Opry.
5) George Jones: I really hate to put this name on the list, but George has given up on the Opry a long time ago. While he has battled voice problems the past few years, he has still toured, but his tour schedule does not seem to include the Opry House. His last show was a Tuesday night in 2011 when he was honored for his 80th birthday. In 2008 and 2009 it was 1 show, with 2 in 2010. While he originally joined the Opry in 1956, he has left several times but comes back. The question is why, as even when he returns to the Opry, he does not perform on the show. As a legend who was influenced by Roy Acuff, he understands what the Opry is all about. And of course, he recorded, "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes". With George retiring this year, perhaps this is the time for George to retire from the Opry.
6) Reba McEntire: Since 2001, Reba has appeared on the Opry 1 time. That was in 2009 when the Opry extended a Saturday night show by an extra segment that was for her, and she was the only performer for that segment. She did 3 songs and hit the door. She is active in the business and tours. While she has been busy with television work, she still finds time to come to Nashville. I think in 12 years, she could have made it out to the Opry House more than once. The Opry would not lose anything if they dropped her from the cast.
7) Randy Travis: I know Randy has had some personal issues lately. I wish him well, and that is not the reason I would drop him as an Opry member. The reason is that Randy really doesn't seem concerned about doing the show. For the past couple of years, he has appeared once per year, with the 2011 show honoring him for 25 years of Opry membership. In 2008, he appeared 3 times, which included the night that he surprised Carrie Underwood with an invitation to join the Opry. From 2002 thru 2007, he made no Opry appearances. Randy needs to get himself straightened out and get his career back on track. If that includes the Opry, that is great. If not, time for Randy to go.
8) Travis Tritt: Travis joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1992. He last appeared on the Opry in 2007 and nobody seems to know why he has not been back. I do not know if there is something behind it, but Travis has not appeared on the Opry since Porter Wagoner passed away. We'll, I don't think Porter is coming back anytime soon, and I don't think Travis is either. When Travis was appearing at the Opry, his high point was 5 in 2001 and 2006. Other than that, it was an average of 2 shows per year.
9) Blake Shelton: Pete Fisher has had pretty good luck with the members that he has asked to join the Opry, in relation to Opry appearances. He has asked for a commitment of 10 shows per year, and most have come pretty close. But I think in the case of Blake, he missed. Blake joined in 2010, when the Opry House reopened after the flood. In 2011, he did 4 Opry shows, while in 2012 he did zero. He is busy with television work, and seems to be hosting a lot of "specials". But he apparently does not have time for the Opry. Even before he joined the show, he did not make a lot of guest appearances. I know Blake is a big name and his career is hot right now, but as an Opry member, it just is not working.
10) Ricky Van Shelton: Yes, I know Ricky is retired. He has not been at the Opry since 2005. But, while Barbara Mandrell and Jeanne Pruett are also retired, they both are still around Nashville and are involved with Opry events. Jeanne is a backstage visitor to the show, while Barbara is still involved in the music industry. Ricky is in Virginia and shows no sign on coming back to town. Even when he was a member, he was not making a lot of Opry appearances. It is time to give Ricky's spot to someone else.
Now, if these 10 were to go, who could they be replaced with? I have my own list of whom I think would make good Opry members and would support the show. Most of them have been guest artists at the Opry for a number of years and come whenever asked. It is time to take the guest label off of them and make them Opry members. Here is my list of 10:
1) Rhonda Vincent: The person I get asked the most about when it comes to Opry membership is Rhonda Vincent. When is it going to happen? Why is she not a membership? Who at the Opry is mad at her? Is her Martha White association hurting her? Those are the questions I get and I just don't have the answers. From what I have been told, Rhonda would love to be an Opry member. She appears more than most of the members, with 16 appearances over the last 2 years. Here is another fact: of the Opry's 67 members, only 18 are females and that includes several who are retired. The last group of new members have all been male. I think it is time to add some females to the cast to help balance it out. And in the case of Rhonda, she would be only the 2nd female bluegrass artist to be at the Opry.
2) Elizabeth Cook: Like Rhonda, Elizabeth has been a frequent guest artist at the Opry. In Americana music, she has been making a name for herself and brings a lot of energy when singing. She also has a great voice. Over the past 2 years, she has made 29 Opry appearances, more than a majority of the members. Time to bring her on board.
3) Mandy Barnett: Mandy seems to be on the Opry a lot and her past CDs were produced by the Grand Ole Opry and distributed by them. She is a Pete Fisher favorite. No, she has not had any hit records and in that way, I would view her more like former Opry member Marion Worth. Someone with a nice voice that can fill a spot. She has made 39 Opry appearances over the past 2 years. Again, she would not bring star power but would be there.
4) The Grascals: This group is another popular bluegrass act that brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm to their Opry appearances, which have numbered 25 since 2010. They have won numerous bluegrass awards and are headliners on the circuit. Bluegrass music is a foundation of the Opry and with the aging of many of the bluegrass acts, they would fill a void.
5) Crystal Gayle: A legend, she would be the female version of such performers as Mel Tillis, Oak Ridge Boys and Charley Pride. She has had numerous hit records and at some point, will be elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame. She has made guest appearances at the Opry over the years and is well received. I think at some point, she could be an Opry member.
6) Sarah Darling: Ok, I will admit that she is a personal favorite of mine. She is popular with Opry audiences and has the beginnings of a good career going. The Opry has treated her well, much like Brad Paisley and Josh Turner were at the beginning of their careers. Both of those eventually became Opry members and the same could happen to Sarah. She is young, beautiful and talented and good things are going to happen to her in the next few years.
7) Gene Watson: While I don't see this happening, Gene would make an outstanding Opry member. He is a legend who has always done the Opry over the years. I think a lot of the reason why Gene has never become an Opry member is that he does the majority of his touring and work in Texas and Oklahoma and just doesn't get to Nashville often enough. But, he would make a good member.
8) Love and Theft: This group made 12 Opry appearances last year, and were at the Opry the first weekend of this year. They are up and coming and do a nice job. They seem to enjoy the Opry and are well received. They, along with Sarah Darling, would bring some youth to the Opry.
9) Jim Lauderdale: Jim is another popular Nashville artist who's work is much admired by many in the industry. He also is a frequent Opry visitor. He is a star on the Americana music scene and plays all types of music. He also has an appreciation of the history of country music and bluegrass and has recorded and played with many of the legends. He has averaged about 8 Opry appearances over the past several years. In addition, he has hosted his own show on WSM.
10) Jimmy Wayne: Jimmy performs at the Opry so much that most people think he is already a member. ln 2012, he was at the Opry 23 times, while in 2011 it was 17 shows. What hurts Jimmy is that after his first CD, he has not followed it up with anything new. And from what I have been told, he seems to turn some people the wrong way. While the Opry likes him as a guest, they really don't want him to become a member. But everytime the Opry calls, he answers and comes. He would be there more than most of the members. He already is.
Now, while we hope some of this could happen, in reality we know it will not. The Opry is not going to fire 10 of the most popular acts, even if those 10 are not appearing at the Opry. The Opry wants publicity, but not that kind. On the other hand, I think true Opry fans would understand and appreciate the fact that the Opry is doing something to make Opry membership important again.
So for now, the Opry Picture History Book will continue to be filled with pictures of members who rarely appear at the Opry, or not at all. And while new members will continue to say how important Opry membership is to them, the proof is otherwise. And the audiences will continue to see more and more guest artists, and as the Opry continues to blur the line between who is a member and who is not, many in the audience will not know otherwise.
And for true Opry fans, it gives us another topic for discussion.