Saturday, March 22, 2014

Opry Wants Key Role In Country Music

(I was going through my Opry archives this evening and came across an article with that headline. The article was from Thursday January 27, 2000 and written by Jim Patterson of the Associated Press. This would have been about 6 months after Pete Fisher took over as the general manager of the Opry. I thought it would be interesting to look back at what was written 14 years ago.)

The Grand Ole Opry was entertaining national audiences before the Internet and cable televison came into existence. It predates television, too. It is the longest continuously running radio show in the country. Every Saturday night since 1925, the Opry has been beamed out on AM radio and heard as far away as Canada on 50,000-watt, clear channel WSM. The TNN cable channel airs 30 minutes of each of the current three 2 1/2-hour shows each week.

"A lot of folks love and treasure the Opry for presenting country music's legacy," said general manager Pete Fisher, who was hired six months ago. "They want it to play a key role in today's country music, and also in tomorrow's music. That's our focus and the vision we have for it."

During January, the show is playing at the downtown Ryman Auditorium, home of the Opry from 1943-1974. At the Jan. 8 show, Porter Wagoner wore a purple suit studded with rhinestones. The songs of Hank Williams and Dottie West were performed. Several performers dedicated their numbers to their moms or dads. Most of that is business as usual for the Opry. The return to the historic Ryman Auditorium is just and extended visit while the suburban Grand Ole Opry House is being upgraded. More Ryman Opry shows are likely in the future, Fisher said.

Along with mainstays Wagoner and Bill Anderson, artists on the Jan. 8 bill included relative newcomers Jo Dee Messina and the hot band Lonestar. "I want to make certain that the Opry is evolving, and being able to attract contemporary artists has a lot to do with providing a performance environment, whether it's lighting, sound, staging or staff band musicians, so that they can present the best performance possible," said Fisher, who has replaced several longtime house band members with musicians he says are more versatile.

"(Changing the band) really was about the unique need that we have in a staff band musician, and that is a musician who can play not only the traditional music in a very authentic fashion, but also the contemporary music."

The most visable and welcome change has been the booking of so-called alternative country artists. Iris DeMent and Gillian Welch have played the Opry in recent months. So has Don Walser, 65, who had been trying to get on the show for years. "Oh, boy, that was the thrill of my life!" Walser said about his Opry debut. "They even said they were going to have me back on the televised part one of these days. It's something I've dreamed about all of my life. I guess I got on because a new guy is booking the show."

Fisher is looking for performers who fit into the Opry show, which attempts to present every facet of country music from square dancing to the latest hit-makers. "In many regards, what we consider to be progressive and alternative in country music is really just ultratraditional," Fisher said. "Gillian Welch is perceived as an alternative and progressive artist, but she does that by really getting to the core of traditional country music."

Fisher is also trying to address a long-standing complaint that many of the big stars that are cast members rarely show up to perform. Cast members are expected to perform at the Opry at least 12 times a year. "In the early days of the Opry, the Opry WAS country music," Fisher said. "Participating in the Opry was the best thing you could do for your career. I acknowledge the fact that the Opry is not the center and magnet that it once used to be. The way I can win the artist over is to work toward an Opry that really can be an important component to an artist's career." He cites as an example singer Brad Paisley, who appeared more than 20 times last year.

"He has acknowledged the Opry," Fisher said. "That was something we didn't ask for and something we didn't expect, but he really made a point to give us some credit. The future of the Opry is very bright, when you look at situations like that."

(An interesting article to look back on, especially seeing what direction the Opry has taken in the last 14 years).


  1. "Fisher is also trying to address a long-standing complaint that many of the big stars that are cast members rarely show up to perform."

    Yeah, he's done a really great job of that. /s

  2. I will say that Fisher seems to have tried some of the big names to show up, or perhaps he chose wisely in certain cases. Some who hadn't been around much before have been here more often--Larry Gatlin, for example. Among the newcomers, Carrie Underwood strikes me as having been especially good. But he's made some poor choices or had limited success in other cases. Another way to look at it is this: some longtime members like Dolly Parton got out of the habit of showing up, and frankly have sacrificed any right to our affection for that.

  3. Fred, Bismarck:

    Well, Fisher talked a good game ... and maybe even got off to a promising start. But where have the Gillian Welches, Iris DeMents and Don Walsers ("The Pavarotti of the Prairie") been lately?

    I did appreciate as true his comment that some newer artists are so traditional they're "progressive," Welch being a prominent example.

    His comments on the staff band were ... interesting. Who (besides Fisher) says the old band wasn't versatile? Weldon Myrick not versatile? (At the time, still one of the busiest studio guys around.) Joe, the fiddler (can't put my hands on his last name right now)?

    The present staff band, to me, is as far from versatile as you can get. Their hammering away behind Earl White ruins the flavor of his square-dance numbers. Last night, the drummer managed to destroy the Whites' job on one of the anthems of trad country, "Keep on the Sunny Side." (The song was in progress when I tuned in, and I clicked away from the station almost as quickly ... sadly, my usual Opry listening experience these days.)

  4. Sadly, Don Walser retired not long after this article was written and passed away a few years later.

  5. Fred, it was Joe Edwards, and you are right about their versatility. I also can remember Eddie Stubbs--I love that Connie Smith calls him Edward; he once said that for years, Bill Monroe just called him "Boy"--saying once that the band loved playing the Coke jingle because they could be jazzy with it. I can remember one singer--I wish I remembered who it was!--who said to Ralph Davis, "Hit it." Ralph said, "Hit what?" The singer said, "Anything." And off they went. I'd like to see the current group have Mr. Acuff turn to them as he would to his band and do something other than what he planned!

  6. I believe that the Opry should accurately represent different types of country music in the manner which it did only a few decades ago. To add to Anonymous's comment, a few months ago, I saw a video of the Square Dancers taken during the late 1980s. The staff band (if I'm remembering correctly) entirely changed over to acoustic instruments. Even the drummer switched to a simple snare drum, in keeping with old-time instrumentation. Now, on the few occasions that I listen to the Opry, all I hear is Earl White (who is a great old-time fiddler in his own right) with the rest of the band laying down electric guitar power chords, very heavy electric bass, ear-shattering drum-beats, and highly distracting pedal-steel harmonics and glissandos behind him. Old-time heavy metal is the only way I can describe it. If anything, that's as far from versatile as I am able to fathom.

  7. Fred, Bismarck:

    "Old-time heavy metal" -- wish I'd thought of that!

  8. PL, I bow to you for that one. On the live CD's I have of Earl White, you can hear Tim Atwood a good bit, but it fits, and you know he was good if the current management decided to get rid of him. Buddy Harman was on drums for most of them, and he certainly knew what he was doing.

  9. Fred, Bismarck:

    Great comments, fellows.

    Being stubborn, I can't help but think a "versatile" staff band would be capable of switching to standup bass for the square-dance number. Drums have their place in C&W ... with Bob Wills, E.T., Pee Wee, and God knows all the modern radio acts. But NOT in old-time or square-dance numbers, dammit!

    The genius of an unamplified bass is that it's TUNEFUL! Nobody ever got a tune out of a drum.

    If nobody knows how to play doghouse bass, let a guitar picker play the part.

  10. Thanks Michael. I just had to say something after hearing portions of "Sally Goodin" drowned out by incessant pedal-steel harmonics (sure sounds "traditional," and "very authentic;" doesn't it?). Fred, I wholeheartedly agree with your comments. In the case of square dance music, it might be worth noting that lot of old-time bands were very small, often consisting of just a fiddle player and an accompanist. You would think that the Opry would be able to provide just one decent acoustic guitar player to accompany Earl White. But actual, authentic old-time music that made the Opry what it is today? That isn't something that I've ever heard. Not even once. Uncle Dave is doing 600 rpm in his grave...

  11. This is not sarcasm but an honest question. What are the influences of the current staff band members? How many of them would site the rock influences that all the new acts mention?

    If my suspicions are true why should we expect them to back a square dance like a string band? I must say that I am really surprised that the square dancers still have a spot on the Opry..

    Now for little sarcasm, my take on the staff band being versatile isn't that at all. It's code for we need some hip new staff band members who know how to back southern rock groups like all these new folks we want to play the Opry. Who needs for them to know how to play real country or string band music. We are trying to kill it off! I said it was going to be sarcasm.

    I agree with everyone about the drums. They sound so obnoxious, I'm waiting to see Animal form the Muppets back there!

    A couple of side notes about this weekend. For those who couldn't bare to listen to the entire shows, Jimmy Dickens made a brief appearance with Jim Ed on Saturday night. He told a couple jokes and thanked everyone. I've never listened to the Steel Drivers closely but I caught them this time. I have to ask if this was punk rock meets bluegrass? Talks about Uncle Dave spinning, Mr. Monroe must be too. And, trying to find hope and be positive, I wish I had caught all of Caitlin Rose for what I did hear she sounded pretty good for a new young artist of today. I need more proof though!

    Knightsville, IN

  12. Incidentally, I found something that may be of great interest. Skip to 2:42 for the truly old-time music.

  13. Tuesday's show:

    Members: Connie Smith, Craig Morgan, Jesse McReynolds, John Conlee

    Guests: Chase Rice, Easton Corbin, Gwen Sebastian, Parmalee

  14. Speaking of old-time string music, where the heck has Mike Snider been?