Sunday, February 2, 2014

"Steve Buchanan: The protector of all things Opry"

This morning when I received my daily email from the Nashville Tennessean, that was the headline that greeted me. I read the article and wanted to think about it for a little while before offering a response on a topic that I am sure is creating a lot of interest and talk.

First, to give credit where credit is due, the article was written by Cindy Watts and she did a nice job with it. I recommend that if you have not read it, please do. Secondly, I do want to point out that I have met and talked to Steve Buchanan twice. Once in the Ryman gift shop, several years back, and once backstage at the Opry. Both were very short conversations, nothing special, lasting less than a minute. I have met Pete Fisher a couple of times and like my conversations with Steve, they were very short.

Now in reading the article, it is a great public relations piece if you are Steve Buchanan. Based on the article, a reader would think that there would be no Ryman Auditorium, no renovated Opry House and no Opry itself, if not for Steve and his team.

Just to be clear on a couple of points, yes Steve was in charge when the Ryman Auditorium was renovated and it is an outstanding facility, And I agree it might be the best concert hall in the country. But, the plans were in place to renovate the building long before Steve took charge. Bud Wendell was the man behind it, and while he does give credit to Bud, it should be noted that the only reason Steve was involved was because Bud Wendell put him in that position.

Steve Buchanan, Pete Fisher and the entire Opry management deserve all the credit in the world for the job that they did after the flood of the Opry House. I know they worked hard to save the historical items and keeping the Opry going. If there was ever a time to shut down the Opry, as many of us have thought Gaylord would do at some point, it would have been then. Colin Reed gave the financial support to rebuild the Opry House and they did a great job, especially in the backstage area. I personally would have like to have seen more items out front, where the average fan can see it without paying $20 for a backstage tour, but it is what it is. We cannot change it.

Now, for a couple of quotes from the article:

*"Since accepting that first job, the bulk of Buchanan's decades-long career has been driven by one thing: keeping the Grand Ole Opry healthy."

*"It was critical that we change how people thought about the Opry. Any business that's been around 80-plus years has to continually be working to embrace a new fan base."

I don't doubt that Steve Buchanan and Pete Fisher want to keep the Opry healthy and doing well. But, the way they are going about it has just been bad. Let's add it up: 1) Huge increase in ticket prices. 2) Cutting the number of shows. 3) Cutting the length of the shows 4) Cutting the number of artists per show. 5) Cutting the veteran acts on the show, with an emphasis on new country artists. 6) Making Opry membership less important as more non-Opry acts perform on most shows then actual Opry members. 7) Decreasing the importance of the Opry Birthday Celebration. 8) Not having a television deal. 9) Showing disrespect toward the veteran Opry members to the point that if they speak out, they lose appearance slots.

Yes, they have changed the way people think about the Opry. The older fan base, which supported the show each week, has left. Many who do come are turned off that on many nights, the Opry has turned into more of a rock concert then a country music show.  They continue to market the younger fans, who do come when there is a special act that they want to see. Yes, they will sell out when Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban or Blake Shelton is there, but other nights, plenty of tickets can be had. And oh, because so many of these new fans are coming just to see a particular act, when a star act cancels out, the Opry has a public relations issue to deal with.

Now for the "Nashville" show. It would seem that Steve Buchanan has tied the Opry's future into this show. I will ask the question, how many of the fans who watch the show now think that Juliette Barnes is an actual Opry member? And it was nice that Brad Paisley found time to "induct" her on the televison show!! Each week, the Opry seems to have at least one or two members of the Nashville cast on the Opry. Heck, most of them are on more than a majority of the Opry's members. The next question is what is Steve Buchanan going to do when Nashville gets cancelled, which might happen as soon as this Spring? I guess he goes to Plan B.

Despite everything, we still go to the Opry and support the show. I know a few who are almost at the point of no return. I'm not there and will continue to go as I do love the Opry. It is still a great show.

I think I have run out of steam and will leave it at that. Please take the time to read the article and I would like to hear what others think.


  1. Fred, Bismarck:

    After I finished this long, boring story -- basically a one-source story -- I realized what bothered me most about it. Buchanan obviously loves his marketing work and has important accomplishments to point to. What's missing is a passion for the music the Opry stands for (or used to stand for). Who were his personal country favorites growing up -- if any? Where does he see "country" headed, now that even country folks have all the urban tools? Things like that.

    It may have been only Watts' failure to ask. Although one thinks that a strong feeling for the music would have somehow shone through without any prompting.

    In short, Buchanan is a manager, and any business would probably have been successful grist for his mill. Just our bad luck he landed at the Opry.

  2. Have to read the article. Skimmed topics and already know it will be frustrating.

    One thing we don't have to worry about. If ABC's Nashville ends, we will now have "Real Housewives of Nashville" to draw from. There should be plenty of junk there to add to the Opry's good name and popularity. Must get those folks on the Opry ASAP!

    Knightsville, IN

  3. Byron, your analysis is terrific. As journalism goes, it was a bad article. A profile like that should have more than just one interview unless it is intended to be a puff piece, in which case, the reporter really needs to look in the mirror.

  4. The most telling remark to me was the comment about a third of the way through the “Nashville” pitch were he says in part “ultimately as a community and industry we are disappointed with how we are represented because we feel like we are STEROTYPED WITH DATED PERCEPTIONS AND IMAGES” In other words we need to shed the country image and get in the groove with what is cool today. Some insight to why they are destroying the Opry as we know it!

    I also find it interesting that so little is said about the music performed at the Opry but so much about what sounds like a reality TV show. Sounds like promotions and money over art and history.

    I also think his list of favorite performances at the Ryman are telling.

    I was surprise that he mentioned Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl and Grandpa Jones and admitted that back around the time he became associated with the Opry it was the members that promoted the show and kept the crowds coming and they had survived well without a marketing department because of that.

    Knightsville, IN

  5. A little off topic for the Buchanan story , but for those following the Hall of Fame debate , here is a great-article from USA today on Ronnie Milsap, recently done. .
    Sounds like he may be giving The Browns some competition in the Veterans Category. I just can't understand how those categories work myself.

  6. All us old guys, myself included, can choose to worship all the old-timers and lament any attempt by anybody to grow the crowd and keep the 'Opry alive, but this article puts it all in perspective for me.
    I have never even watched the show Nashville, and could care less about the stars on the show. I go to Nashville to see the record-selling stars of my era.
    But I'm 66 years old, and that demographic ain't a good one to keep courting.
    As much as I hate to admit it, Buchanan is on the right track.
    The Nashville show folks will have to put up with my heroes on the 'Opry, and I will have to put up with their "stars."

  7. Nat, I'll second you, but add an asterisk and a footnote. I know I'm not the demographic either (48, and I was never in my twenties, so to speak). I don't object to the Opry changing. It NEEDS to. I do object to being dishonest or disrespectful about it.

  8. Fred, Bismarck:

    I will agree with Nat and Michael this far, that to survive the Opry must attract new fans to replace the ones who croak off. However:

    I think many people don't "discover" country until middle age, when they've worn out some of the immature enthusiasms of their youth. Those gray heads we see in Opry audiences today aren't the same ones that were there 10 or 20 years ago. And, when they're gone, there will be new gray ones to take their place.

    After all, we keep making new middle-aged people all the time!

    What I'm getting at is -- to a certain extent, who cares about the kids? Country -- real country -- probably hasn't been their music since Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Are they worth turning the Opry on its head for, into a rock show?

    If the Opry wanted or needed a wider demographic than the one that's made them a very good living, thank you, for almost 90 years, they could have turned themselves into a pop show way back in 1925.

  9. This isn't necessarily apropros of the conversation about Steve Buchanan, but maybe it's relevant to the conversations about the Opry's image and its attempts to reach out to a new generation of fans.

    I thought it was interesting how a couple weeks ago, shortly after the announcement that Carrie Underwood was the new spokesperson (or "brand ambassador" as they call them these days) for Almay, Carrie Underwood led Almay reps and a bunch of beauty bloggers through a tour of the Opry. That led to a bunch of online interviews that each started out mentioning the Opry, as on Vogue, and also pictures on the Almay Instagram account which was cross-promoted by the Opry Tumblr page. Those other sites are not places where the Opry would typically gain exposure.

    The interview on devoted some nice ink to the Opry:

    "Something spiritual happens when you step into the theater of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Even if you’re not versed in country music, the venue still engulfs you in its majesty. The pew-style seating evokes a sense of community and that old-time religion. The six-foot circle of oak wood embedded center stage, cut from the Opry’s former Ryman Auditorium where the likes of Patsy Cline and Hank Williams performed, represents a deep-rooted tradition. The history, the legends, the giants. It’s enough to bring you to tears, just like it did Carrie Underwood.

    We joined Underwood at the newly-renovated site, where she gave a group of beauty editors a tour, her first as the new face of Almay beauty. She apologized while standing in what is affectionately called, and hashtagged, #thecircle, overwhelmed with the magic of the moment. Celebrity aside, the American Idol alum-turned-Opry member didn’t shy away from a sincere moment; it was as though Underwood had only then realized that she belonged to the storied institution."

    I thought it was nice, 1st off, that Carrie Underwood still gets so emotional being at the Opry. This also seems like a part of what Steve Buchanan and Pete Fisher want for the Opry - more mainstream awareness. I think that in seeking that awareness, the Opry hasn't always made the best decisions in terms of admitting new members, but it's fair to say Carrie Underwood has been a good pick. I just also believe that the Opry must balance out the mainstream side with more exposure for up & coming and established Americana and bluegrass acts.

    P.S. The Opry has announced the lineup to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Opry House on March 15th, which 2 shows featuring Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert (who hasn't played the Opry in years), Josh Turner, Clint Black, Diamond Rio, and Green River Ordinance. That's a good lineup. I guess Blake Shelton is putting in his 2 appearances for the year, based on his track record but hopefully I'm wrong and he'll be back for more.

  10. Windmills, I am not a Carrie Underwood groupie when it comes to music (and I'm married, so I'll leave the rest at that!). But I am when it comes to her and the Opry. She has been among the best at making sure she appears there, and she certainly doesn't have to. To put it another way, she takes her membership more seriously than just about any of the other big names who claim to adore and worship the Opry but can't be bothered to show up unless it's for a big event, and even then. And, sad to say, Brad Paisley is beginning to show signs of moving into that category.

  11. I have mixed emotions. I prefer traditional country music, bluegrass and what the opry used to represent. I've performed and promoted shows since I was 13 on the Illinois opry circuit. I had the foresight in the 90's that on a local and national level we were losing many patrons mainly due to death and an inability to attend shows due to health and age related issues. If those fans were not replaced there would be no live music venues and no Grand Ole Opry. Locally opry show would sell out with as little effort as a simple flyer and minimal marketing. Today it takes 4 color brochures, social media, websites and paid advertising only to draw sometimes as few as 80 people and never more than 200. The majority of patrons that enjoy the opry format have passed on the local and national levels. It's heartbreaking actually. The whole concept is dying a slow death. Do I like the weekly Grand Ole Opry line-ups? Not at all. Should they disrespect the opry veterans....a loud and emphatic NO!

    I haven't heard many good words about the opry management. I will have to credit them with the keeping the doors open. It's not what most of us like, but they absolutely had to evolve to stay in business. What I'd give to see Bill Carlisle walk off the stage carrying his walker over his shoulder.

  12. Fred, Bismarck:

    Opry66's report sounds pretty grim. It occurs to me to ask Byron about northern Ohio, always a country-music hotbed in my days there 50 years ago. How do our kind of trad-country shows fare in your area, Byron?

  13. Fred, the country music shows in northeast Ohio are not like the old days. Looking back over the past several months, Akron had Marty Stuart in for a show and they had the Oak Ridge Boys Christmas show. This weekend is Joe Diffie, Aaron Tippin and Sammy Kershaw. The Kent Stage up in Kent has had Riders In The Sky several times. Last year they scheduled Tommy Cash and cancelled due to low sales. In the coming months they have Desert Rose Band, Rhonda Vincent and Rodney Crowell in for a few shows and of course, there is the series of mega country concerts at Blossom Music Center.

    Now as far as traditional country, boy, that is a tough one. Bill Anderson has been around, but it has been a least a dozen years. And we do not get any of the classic shows that have featured Stonewall, Jeannie Seely, Jan Howard and some of those.

    I think the biggest problem is that there just isn't a promoter with a facility that will take the chance. And I agree with Opry66, it is pretty grim.

  14. Fred, Bismarck:

    Thanks, Byron. Sounds like there is still some action, even if it's not people who would necessarily be at the top of our list to go see. (Marty, Riders, Desert Rose and Rhonda sound good.) Here, you've got to go to one of two Indian casinos, 60 or 100 miles away, to see a single country act that is usually of marginal interest (to me). There is also an annual bluegrass festival, with usually one headliner, which I'll admit is also of little interest here. (I like old-time stringband.)

    I'm sure an old-time Opry package show of today's top "members" would be undo-able anymore; everybody's price is too high. And I can understand the limited audience for a show made up of the likes of Stonewall, Jim Ed Brown, Seely, Howard, et. al.

  15. The best venue for our kind of classic country is the orange blossom opry in Florida. Check them out at I'm in south Texas now and there's nothing here.

  16. Sadly it is not like the days when we had Ponderosa Park or the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree. Of course, so many of the older acts have passed on and so many of the current acts price themselves too high for a local promoter to take a chance.

  17. The article sucked!!! Horrible journalism, very verbose, and boring. Buchanan has the personality of an amoeba.
    I am a fan of traditional country music and bluegrass. What can I say?? I like country music from 1940-1980.... as far as bluegrass goes...... I like many groups and musicians: love Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe, Louvin Brothers, Rhonda Vincent, Ricky Skaggs, etc. The list would go on!!!!!!
    The first time I saw the opry was in 1998, when I was student on Spring Break. It was shortly after Grandpa Jones and Justin Tubb passed away. Was in March 1998...... I remember seeing Bill Carlisle, Porter Wagoner, Wilma Lee Cooper, Skeeter Davis, Vince Gill, Connie Smith, Bill Anderson, Jimmy Dickens, Charlie Walker, Billy Walker...........