(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).