It is hard to believe that we have reached the mid-point of 2013. I thought this would be a good time to give a mid-year report on the Grand Ole Opry for the year thus far. This covers the period from the 1st of the year through the Wednesday night Opry show on July 3.
So far in 2013 there has been 85 Opry shows. The breakdown is 27 Friday Night Opry shows, 26 Saturday night Grand Ole Opry shows, 19 Tuesday Night Opry's, 9 Opry Country Classics, 3 Wednesday night shows and 1 Saturday matinee.
The Opry started the year with 67 members, a number that has reduced itself to 65 with the deaths of Jack Greene and George Jones. 3 members, Jeanne Pruett, Barbara Mandrell and Ricky Van Shelton are retired and 2 members, Jimmy Dickens and Hal Ketchum do not currently perform due to health reasons.
The following 11 Opry members have not made any 2013 appearances: Trace Adkins, Clint Black, Garth Brooks, Tom T Hall, Emmylou Harris, Martina McBride, Dolly Parton, Stu Phillips (although he did appear on Friday night), Randy Travis, Travis Tritt and Trisha Yearwood.
Of the remaining 49 Opry members, Roy Clark, Alan Jackson, Stonewall Jackson, Loretta Lynn, Ronnie Milsap, Brad Paisley and Ralph Stanley have made only 1 appearance, while Dierks Bentley, Patty Loveless, Montgomery Gentry, Ray Pillow, Darius Rucker, Blake Shelton, Marty Stuart and Keith Urban have managed to find the Opry House only 2 times.
So who has made the most appearances so far in 2013? Well, the Top 10 list includes the usual veterans that you would expect to see:
1) Riders In The Sky/The Whites-37
2) Bill Anderson-35
3) Jim Ed Brown/John Conlee/Jeannie Seely-32
4) Mike Snider-29
5) Jimmy C Newman-27
6) Ricky Skaggs-25
7) Jesse McReynolds/Bobby Osborne-24
8) Jean Shepard/Connie Smith-19
9) Larry Gatlin-17
10) George Hamilton IV-14
Interesting that Riders In The Sky lead the list so far for this year. But also notice on the list that the only "young" artists would be The Whites (without Buck), Mike Snider and Ricky Skaggs. And yes, we all know that many of the veterans and legends, both on and off the list, would make many more appearances if they were asked.
As far as segment hosts, here is how that list stacks up:
1) Bill Anderson-31
2) Riders In The Sky-28
3) Jeannie Seely-27
4) John Conlee-23
5) Ricky Skaggs-19
6) Mike Snider-17
7) Jim Ed Brown-15
8) Vince Gill-9
9) George Hamilton/Diamond Rio-6
10) The Whites-5
As far as non-Opry member guest artists, we have this:
1) Mandy Barnett-11
2) Sarah Darling/Chris Janson-9
3) Kristen Kelly/Striking Matches-8
4) Mark Wills-7
5) Greg Bates/Craig Campbell/Jimmy Wayne-6
6) Elizabeth Cook/Joey+Rory/The Grascals/Exile/Dailey&Vincent/Darryl Worley-5
So you can see that as in past years, a minority of the Opry's members are carrying the major load in supporting the show. And despite the efforts of Pete Fisher to make the Opry younger, which he has, the younger artists are not coming out in the numbers needed to support the show.
I wanted to finish this recap with a Tennessean article written by Peter Cooper that I recently found and was printed on Friday October 13, 2000, when the Opry was getting ready to celebrate it's 75th anniversary. This was just a little over a year after Pete Fisher took over as the Vice President and General Manager of the Opry and I think it tells you a lot as to what direction Pete Fisher wanted to take the Opry. 13 years later, each of you can be the judge to determine if he has been successful or not. (I highlighted a few key points).
As the Grand Ole Opry's 75th anniverary weekend kicks off today, the institution's importance to music history and to Nashville itself are indisputable. After all, those highway signs at the county line still advertise Metro Nashville as "Home of the Grand Ole Opry." But the notion of just what should constitute a 21st-century Opry is in dispute. The arguments are less often about the show's updated stage set or Internet viability than they are about the cast of performers gracing the stage. And the arguments go deeper than some members' anger over not being introduced by name at this weekend's celebration.
"I don't want this to sound like sour grapes, but why not honor the people who have made the Opry what it is for 75 years?" said longtime member Jan Howard, who made her Opry debut in 1959. A youth movement is afoot. General Manager Pete Fisher fired the first shots last autumn by dismissing several staff band mainstays with younger players. Now the youthful faces are coming out of the shadows and into the center stage spotlight. If nobody moves, nobody gets hurt. But, for what historians say is the first time in nearly 25 years, the Opry is moving. Certainly, it is different now thatn it was in June 1999, when Fisher took over as general manager and, in colaboration with Gaylord Entertainment's Grand Ole Opry Group president Steve Buchanan, began instituting significant booking changes. "We're projecting a 78% increase in the participation of contemporary members since the beginning of 1998 through the end of 2000." said Fisher, who defined "contemporary" as members 45 and younger. At the same time, the Opry has extended a hand to guests at an unprecedented rate. "This is no longer a membership only approach to booking the show," said Fisher, who projects a 440% increase in guest appearances from 1998 through December 2000.
More than in the past, young, radio-friendly country artists are giving the Opry more than lip service. Current hit makers Brad Paisley, Chely Wright, Lee Ann Womack and others are actually showing up to play. "When you're looking at the Opry's future success, it always comes back to the old 'Who's gonna fill their shoes?' question," Fisher said. "For nearly three decades, we've had a group of artists who, through their passion and commitment, have been a pillar of support for the show." Now, those performers' passion and commitment is being tested. The infusion of young blood, plus the greater participation of contemporary members, equals the exclusion of some ready, willing and able veterans.
"In corporate America, they call this downsizing," said Jeannie Seely, a member since 1967. "The department's the same size, but they get different people. All of us would like to remain the hot new kid on the block, but it doesn't work that way." Corporate America's veterans aren't quite so glittery or famous, though. Opry veterans are country icons, often referred to as "The Legends."
"They're getting fewer shows to do," said Chely Wright, whose respectful demeanor and knowledge of country music history have made her popular among The Legends even as her biggest hits stray far from the traditional country fold. "I don't want the mainstays to feel like we're trying to change it over. They're the ones who built it up strong. But you can't just put Jimmy Dickens in a new suit in order to bring in younger viewers." Most in the all-important younger-adult demographic know less about Dickens than they do about SHeDAISY, a poppy vocal group whose choreographed performance drew derisive hoots from the audience during an Opry appearance earlier this year.
"Pete Fisher has to make experiments," said Dr. Charles Wolfe, a music scholar whose book on the Opry's early history, 'A Good Natured Riot' just won an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award as the year's best book on American music. "Some of those experiments work and some don't. But if we don't attract the modern country audience, the Opry is going to become an antique."
There is, of course, another way to look at this. Take the case of Billy Walker, a member since 1960. Walker played the Opry most weekends in 1962, when his 'Charlie's Shoes' was a No. 1 hit. Then and now, the Opry paid its performers the musician's union "scale" salary, and more money could be made by playing elsewhere on weekends. Walker is still in fine voice, and his fans still come to the Opry with hopes of seeing him perform. "We have our place in country music history, and we shouldn't be shoved out just because we're no longer youthful," Walker said.
No one's membership is being retracted but some members complain of disadvantageous time slots and of being told to "schedule yourself out" for weekend shows more often. "New talent is the lifeblood," Walker said. "But you have to be wise and not overkill with new talent and shove the cornerstone people out. They're doing this to geet a big crowd, but it's not working here."
Fisher said the show puts as many people in the seats as it did last year even while Nashville's tourism industry has suffered. He would not give attendance figures. On many Saturday nights over the past seven months, the 4,400 seat auditorium has looked to be about 75% full for the early evening performance. Of course, country music record sales are down, and the current crop of young performers has not caught the public's fancy as the youngsters did in the Garth Brooks-Clint Black era. "You check the lineup now, and they will have people no one has heard of," said Jean Shepard, a member since 1955. "I know we're trying to cultivate a younger audience, but sometimes good people are being shoved aside for unknowns." Shepard admits some of those unknowns are actually welcome additions, particuarly a traditional young country singer named Elizabeth Cook. Part of The Legends beef, then is qualitative: "I know there's a lot of great talent out there, but some of it is not," said Howard, who has been performing less often on the Opry of late and more often in Branson, Mo.
In his defense, Fisher has scheduled a number of young acts who have been received far better than SHeDAISY, including Clay Davidson, Gillian Welch, Mike Ireland, Jim Lauderdale and Nickel Creek. "Starting in the 1960s and continuing into the '70s and '80s, the Opry reached a plateau and didn't change or develop," Wolfe said. "It was the same faces every night, the same songs, even the same jokes. What Pete's trying to do is get the Opry going again." Which sounds good, and it is. But Fisher and the Opry's upper management are now faced with the task of instituting change without offending a core membership that has helped the Opry say afloat and without turning away The Legend's fans, who have supported the long-running program with decades of dollars and applause.
That means taking every opportunity to spotlight veterans' accomplishments. It means remaining as gracious and helpful to cast members as to guests. "The Opry is a concern to all of us," Walker said. "We've put our lives into it."