Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Question of Opry Membership and Guest Artists

Just to follow up on what my friend Barry commented on, I thought I would add some of my thoughts:

I go back to the comment that Pete Fisher made in 2001, "There is no longer a membership only approach in booking the show."

That is fine and as much as I enjoy going to the Opry and listening to the show each week, I do enjoy the variety. Nothing against Bobby Osborne, but how many weeks in a row can he sing "Rocky Top?" And I agree that in the 1980s and 1990s, the show was getting old and was more like a living museum of country music than a contemporary show. With so many of the same members performing each week, there were very few guest artists or younger acts performing.

But if you are going to have members, then have members who are going to appear on the show and allow those members who want to be on the show each week that opportunity. There are not that many legends left, maybe a dozen. Let them enjoy what is left of their performing careers and their time in the spotlight. The younger fans do enjoy the veterans and treat them with a lot of respect, and as long as you mix in the younger acts, everyone is fine.

But the issue is membership. I do think that while Pete Fisher is asking new members for 10 show a year, at the same time he is telling them no more than 10 shows a year, if that makes sense. If you look at all of the members he has brought on board since 1999, 7-10 shows per year is the average. I know that there was a case a year or so ago when Josh Turner, one of Pete's newer members, wanted to do the Opry one night and was actually on the Opry's upcoming schedule. He was called and told that they didn't need him that night. And that is one of the Opry's more popular younger acts.

At the same time, the Opry is doing things to merge the line on who is a member and who is not, so that the average younger fan of country music, doesn't really know. I have a few examples: for years, the Opry sold a small program at each show for 50 cents that included the names and a brief sentence on each Opry member. On the Opry's website, they not only have biographies of members listed, but also dozens and dozens of guest artists. Outside of a line by there name that says, "Opry member since.....", there is no real difference. Also on the website, there is more promotion of projects by non-Opry members than members. For weeks, The Band Perry was highlighted on the site, and not only are they not members, but they rarely appear on the Opry. I think that the only place you will find a list of just Opry members is the Picture History Book that is sold at the Opry House.

Barry is right that there are a lot of shows that have "B" and "C" class talent. Nothing against Jimmy Wayne, Rebecca Lynn Howard or Andy Gibson (who are on this week's schedule), but would anybody pay up to $60 to see them individually or as a group in concert? 2 nights ago I could have gone and seen Toby Keith and 2 opening acts in concert for $25 at Blossom Music Center. The Opry will tell you that you are not paying to see individual acts as much as to have the entire Opry experience. That is fine and I understand that, but at some point you have to have enough of the "A" acts to justify the price. And let's face it, this is not the Opry that many of us grew up to love. As times have changed, the Opry has changed.

Back to the membership question that Barry originally raised. I do think that for a lot of these artists, Opry membership is more of a symbol than an actual commitment. Something that they can point to, which makes them feel good, and something that is mentioned in interviews and other articles, which makes the Opry feel good. It's a win for both of them. And if they don't show up to perform on the show, the Opry has other acts that they can call and schedule, member or not.

But as an old-timer, I do wish that the Opry would enforce the membership requirement and add members who will be there. Those who attend the show and buy tickets do deserve that. Rhonda Vincent, Dailey & Vincent, Crystal Gayle and Gene Watson, just to mention a few, are several of those who make more Opry appearances a year than a majority of the members.

I find it interesting that they will limit the appearances of some one like Josh Turner to 10 or less, but at the same time they feel it is ok to schedule non-members such as Mandy Barnett, Sarah Darling, Jimmy Wayne or Chris Janson, up to 20 shows per year. That part of it doesn't make sense to me.


  1. From PA Anonymous: as always, well said; your summary matches our sentiments ! However, is there anything "we" can do?

  2. Do members and non-members get paid the same for appearing? Do members get insurance benefits? I'm thinking there's something that affects the budget where they only want 10 or less appearances a year from bigger Opry stars. If so, I can see why they would rather have Chris Janson appearing a bunch of times over Josh Turner.

    If you look at the Artists page on the Opry website, the far right hand column has an Opry Member List PDF and links to view Opry Members by the decade they joined right underneath. That decades list includes deceased members.


  3. Great commentary, Byron. I have to wonder if the fear in management is this: if Josh Turner or Carrie Underwood, et al., are there too often, is there greater disappointment when they are not there, and fans will no longer pay the ridiculous ticket price?

  4. A.B., while it is often stated that the Opry pays everyone union scale for appearing on the Opry, I know from past experience that many Opry stars and guests are paid more than the scale. How the rate of pay is decided, I cannot say but I am sure it involves many factors. I know when GAC televised their portion of the Opry, the pay was much higher to get many of those artists to appear. And there was a lot of cross promotion going on.

    I do not have a copy of the current union contract, but the one that expired in 2007 paid a solo performer the rate of just over $250 per show. The group of square dancers were paid $927 per night, while there are higher rates for televised appearances.

    As far as the Health and Retirement Funds and regarding "Senior Status" the contract states, "if a senior Opry performer is not fully vested or if the performer is fully vested and desires the benefits and coverge of the AFTRA health program the Opry may, in its sole exclusive and unreviewable discretion schedule the performer to work only the minimum amount necessary to quality for the benefits, rather than terminating the performer, if the performer so desires."

    That is how you end up with many of the Opry's senior members only appearing on the Opry less than 10 times per year.

  5. I look at artists such as Blake Shelton and really believe that he believes that little Opry trophy is just that.... an award.

    Gone are the artists that looked at Opry Membership as a career boost. The fame and glory of calling yourself a member is the only coveted part of membership today.

    Hall of Famers such as the Loretta Lynn, Mel Tillis, Tom T. Hall, Emmylou Harris, Roy Clark..etc... are not filling the shoes of Hall of Famers, Grandpa Jones, Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Hank Snow, Little Jimmy Dickens.etc.. And the difference is that those latter artists knew that without the Grand Ole Opry they never would have been Hall of Famers.

    In reality the Opry did properly make to many "members" in the 50's and 60's. And I think there came a point where they realized that. Look at the decade of the 1970's. Only ten artists were made members; Jerry Clower, The Gatlins, Tom T. Hall, David Houston, Jan Howard, Barbara Mandrell, Ronnie Milsap, Jeanne Pruett, Tammy Wynette and Don Williams. That's less than 1 per year for the whole decade.

    An Opry without "members" ? Hummm... I have never thought of that. At some point, it would not surprise me.

  6. Let's face it. Most, but as always not 100%, of the big name acts who accept membership at the Opry these days are looking for a catch phrase to show that they have roots in older country and appreciates Blake's "old farts". They know that their music has very little connection to the Opry but they can pull in a few more fans and bucks if they can say "hey I'm a member of the Grand Ole Opry, I really respect and appreciate my country heritage or I wouldn't be a member".

    It's kind of like the AMS seal of approval that many local on air weather personalities have. Sounds great and like they are pure dee certified weather meteorologists but it really doesn't prove much.

    I'm surprised that no comment has been made about Jeanne Pruett's 40th anniversary moment last night. I'm okay with it but it seems odd that a retiree would actually get time to celebrate and an active member reaching that milestone would get an announcement from Eddie Stubbs. Or, was this a Jeannie Seely thing they slipped in? If so, hats off to Jeannie!

  7. Oops, forgot sign entry at 2:06 pm!

    Knightsville, IN

  8. Byron, I do suspect that some of the senior members would be there every Saturday night if they could. I wonder whether the Opry has tried to "un-vest" some of them, so to speak.

    David, two notes about the 1970s. One, the Opry also brought BACK some members--Jimmy Dickens in 1975, George Hamilton IV and Don Gibson in 1976, and the Vic Willis Trio in 1979, succeeding the Willis Brothers (also Tom T. Hall and the Melvin Sloan Dancers, succeeding Ralph Sloan and the Tennessee Travelers in 1980). Two, remember that that wasn't a great decade for country music. There was controversy over pop vs. country, including George Jones and others starting an organization of traditional country entertainers. I seem to recall T.G. Sheppard, who did straddle the line as it was defined at the time, saying that he enjoyed playing the Opry but that it wasn't the same thing for that generation; Grant Turner talked about stars of the time who would do the Opry, but literaly would go from their bus to the stage and back rather than hang out backstage.

  9. I'm not sure which post this best fits with but just something I was thinking about. I'm open for comments because I don't know if there are any statistics available to back up what I'm thinking about.

    We have been discussing Pete Fisher and company and the direction he said he was going to take the Opry in that Peter Cooper article. I also keep thinking about what Charles Wolfe said about the same songs, same jokes and so on.

    My question is this. On any given night at the Opry, how many in the crowd are there for the first time. You still hear them announce that someone up in years has been a life long Opry fan and finally realized a dream of attending the show in person. How many people got one chance to go to the Opry, especially say pre 1980. If they had longed for years to see Roy Acuff live at the Opry, they would have been disappointed to not hear the Cannonball or one of his songs that made him famous way back in the 40's. Or Minnie or Little Jimmy or Grandpa tell that favorite joke just for them because they had made that big trip.

    Yet today, they ask how many first timers are there and it is a large part of the crowd. Those folks laugh at all those jokes we can recite in our sleep that Jimmy Dickens was doing each week till his most recent illness.

    My point is that until recent times, maybe a similar show each week is what worked for the demographic that the Opry drew to or wished to draw to. Times have changed and admittedly, maybe prior management didn't or couldn't think forward enough to anticipate the social media age and the changes it would bring to our society and country music. I'm not defending Wendell or Durham but maybe they weren't just holding course but guiding the Opry to the future the best they knew how, it just wasn't the right direction or enough, at least not in hind site.

    As we have said, things are much different now than in, say, the pre 1990 time I think a lot of us here long for. I'm just wondering if that almost same show each week was all that bad to the crowds who consistently filled those 4400 seats almost every weekend except the dead of winter back in days before Mr. Acuff passed. As I have said before, his passing seems to be a benchmark for drastic change at the Opry. Fisher just took control of a show that was starting to wonder, picked a direction and ran with it!

    I'll kick back and see what those with more experience have to say. I always learn something and I appreciate the sharing of insight and knowledge here.

    Knightsville, IN

  10. Jim, your insights are far better than mine, I know that! I appreciate your comments.

    I always wondered whether it was a coincidence that Gaylord moved Hal Durham upstairs and then out a year after Mr. Acuff died and brought in Bob Whittaker, who had been a corporate attorney and then an Opryland executive. It was as though everybody knew that Mr. Acuff's passing would be the start--that Mr. Monroe and Mr. Snow couldn't go on much longer, and the show would need to change. Pete Fisher was much younger than Whittaker, though probably close to the age Durham was when he took over the Opry, and there was a felt need for someone who could think more creatively about the younger generation.

    The other problem to bear in mind is that they no longer have the theme park right outside. I would bet that has hurt attendance.

  11. "I find it interesting that they will limit the appearances of some one like Josh Turner to 10 or less, but at the same time they feel it is ok to schedule non-members such as Mandy Barnett, Sarah Darling, Jimmy Wayne or Chris Janson, up to 20 shows per year. That part of it doesn't make sense to me."

    The reason these non-members are scheduled is because the members have not made themselves available. Josh Turner is going to sell more tickets than Jimmy Wayne or Chris Janson, he would never be turned down the opportunity to play. No Opry member would ever be limited by appearances. (a schedule conflict for occasional special high profile guests should not be counted as limiting member performances)

    Understandably Opry members have incredible schedule demands as high profile artists and are not available multiple times per month, even if they wanted to play. But as for members that play less than twice a year, I can assure you they are not answering their phones.

    1. Fred, Bismarck:

      I would be interested in learning your authority for the above, since it seems to be in contradiction to everything that Byron has been telling us.

  12. I think part of the membership question comes down to how the Opry sees itself - a live event or a radio show - and I'm not sure that they completely know at the moment. On a radio show, where you are selling a package to sponsors, it makes sense to have as many A-listers (however you chose to define that) play as often as possible. My understanding is that in radio advertising is sold based on the potential amount of listeners, not on the content of the show, so being able to say the sponsorship will appear on WSM, WSMonline and satellite radio boasts the appeal to advertisers.

    The opposite is true of a live event where tickets are sold on the content of the show. When that is the case, most live event promoters will limit the appearances of someone who will sell a lot of tickets to maintain a sense of it being an event. Like it or not, the Opry is in large part a tourist attraction and there is a large percentage of those first time attendees, who Jim mentioned, rarely, if ever, listen to the show on the radio. If those people are planning a vacation and they see Josh Turner, for example, on the schedule every other week, then there isn't anything special about seeing Josh Turner at the Opry because "we can see him anytime there." I think the live event booking approach they have been taken is exemplified by Carrie Underwood. Generally, when Carrie rolls in to the Opry, they suddenly have to add more shows to accommodate the ticket sales.

    The biggest issue to me isn't the limiting to 10 appearances as much as limiting some to 10 and have a good portion that never show up. If all "A-listers" were limited to to 10 appearances, and they all honored it, you'd still have a pretty big show each week. I don't have any inside info on who gets called and turns it down, and who just doesn't get a call, but I think that seems to be one of the contributing factors to their current identity struggle.

  13. One of the reasons that Steve Buchanan hired Pete Fisher to run the Opry was that Gaylord wanted changes made to the show, mostly to increase the profitability of the Opry. Remember that Gaylord Entertainment was a public company with an expected return to stockholders. Increasing the profitability of the company and the value of the stock was one of the many reasons for some of the things that Gaylord did at the time, including closing Opryland, selling of various assets, etc., and hiring Collin Reed as the CEO, who had a background in resort/hotel management. Bob Whittaker was too close to many of the Opry members and to those at the Opry to carry out those changes. Someone from the outside, such as Pete Fisher, was more equipped to do it, since he had no ties or emotions to the Opry. By doing those media interviews after he was hired, and he did several in the 1999-2002 period, he was laying out what he was going to do and he has done that.

    No debate that Josh Turner would probably sell more tickets than those others, and yes many Opry acts are on the road, and always have been in the Opry's history, but I go back to the fact that if you are going to be an Opry member, than be there at least some of the time. Reba McEntire has not been at the Opry in years, On August 10 she is in Nashville for a program at the Hall of Fame. Wouldn't it be nice if she would slide over to the Opry later in the evening and do a song? In the old days, artists would do that.

    As far as allowing Opry members to appear whenever they want, or not limiting any Opry member in their Opry appearances, I think you would have to ask Jan Howard, Stonewall Jackson, Jimmy C Newman, Bobby Osborne or Jesse McReynolds, among others, that question. They are basically limited to one Opry show per weekend, or in some cases less, and all would do more if asked.

    1. It would be extremely nice if Reba would slide over and do a song. Why won't she? Because she doesn't want to. That plain and simple (and depressing). What can the Opry do, revoke her membership? The outcry from country music fans would damage the Opry's reputation irrecoverably.

      Every show would be Jan, Stonewall, Jimmy C, Bobby, and Jesse if that were the case. You can't say the artists are being limited when they're performing 50+ times a year. That's an issue of scheduling conflicts, not of a conspiracy to limit certain members performances. You can't say they're not getting the opportunity to perform. Jesse, Bobby, and Jimmy are in your top 10 list of artists that have made the most appearances in 2013.

      Audiences are not going to pay for a show that just consists of Jan, Stonewall, Jimmy C., Bobby, and Jesse. Even if the demand was there, then the Opry becomes nothing more than a glorified Branson show.

    2. I do agree with a couple of your comments, which I do thank you for making. You are right that there is nothing the Opry will do to Reba if Reba never showed up again at the Opry. Not to single out Reba, but we all know when she joined the show, it was during the period of time when Hal Durham was taking on new members with no guarantee of appearances. Basically, Reba has outgrown the Opry and really no longer has any interest in it. It doesn't fit her image anymore (and she has stated that).

      And yes, the Opry went through that period of time in the 1980s and into the late 1990s, when every show was about the same, with the same people performing the same songs. That was when the Opry was doing "member based" booking. The problem was that the members who were coming each week were the legends and veterans and not the younger ones. And attendance did drop. Which is one of the reasons why Pete Fisher changed his approach to booking.

      As far as the older members being limited on their appearances, they are. You can ask any number of them and in their polite way (or in some cases, their inpolite manner) will tell you. That was one of the reasons Stonewall sued the Opry. Jimmy C., Bobby Osborne, Jesse McReynolds, etc., on most weekends get one slot. That is it. Either Friday or Saturday night. No option.

      And I have always said, there is room at the Opry for everyone and the show needs the variety. Instead of having an unknown act doing 2 songs, how about 1 song and then having a veteran do a song? It gives opportunity to everybody.

  14. As I say, always being enlightened here. I remember my mixed emotions about Bob Whittaker. At times he seemed cold and detached from the traditions of the Opry. At other times he appeared to be close to some of the older acts and mindful of carrying the torch. In those days I was not aware of the business side of the Opry(not that I know too much now) and had no idea what Whittaker's task was supposed to be. Thinking about it after what Byron has just said makes me more sympathetic to Whittaker than I was at the time of his watch. I can imagine how hard it might have been to be emotionally attached to the organization and the people and have orders to make drastic changes that you knew were going to be painful to both!

    I remember one of the Opry members being happy that Buchanan was getting involved and at the same time not real happy with Mr. Whittaker. This was said in a conversation with the artist back around 1994. That confuses me now, maybe it was personal!

    We missed Reba's 25th anniversary, maybe we can have a big bash for her 30th, is it too early to start promoting?

    One of the folks Byron mentioned in the last paragraph has told me they would love to work the Opry more but they just don't get the call! With so many talented unknowns out there to fill the lineup, why should they be called. They have had their chance at the dream, so move over and let EVERYONE else who has that dream play the Opry. My sarcasm for the day!

    Kightsville, IN

  15. best part of this post is Barry is right that there are a lot of shows that have "B" and "C" class talent. Nothing against Jimmy Wayne, Rebecca Lynn Howard or Andy Gibson
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