With 2015 upon us, the Grand Ole Opry enters it's 90th year and I am sure there will be special events to commemorate this historical achievement. But first, it is time to review 2014 at the Opry.
2014 started with 66 Opry members. Two members, Jimmy C Newman and George Hamilton IV, passed away during the year. The Opry inducted one new member as Little Big Town joined the cast. That brings total Opry membership to 65. It should be noted that over the last two years, the Opry has lost four members, as Jack Greene and George Jones passed away the previous year, but has added only two, as in addition to Little Big Town, Old Crow Medicine Show joining the cast in 2013. With the recent passing of Jimmy Dickens, that leaves Opry membership at 64. Currently, there are no rumors of any additions that may be coming to the Opry.
Of those 66 members that began the year (67 when you include Little Big Town), 55 made at least one Opry appearance. That includes an appearance by Reba McEntire, who appeared after an absence of many years to invite Little Big Town to join the Opry. The missing Opry members included Garth Brooks, Tom T. Hall, Alan Jackson, Barbara Mandrell, Ronnie Milsap, Dolly Parton, Jeanne Pruett, Ricky Van Shelton, Randy Travis, Travis Tritt and Trisha Yearwood. Of that list, Barbara Mandrell, Jeanne Pruett and Ricky Van Shelton are retired, Tom T. Hall has stated that he will not be returning to the Opry and Randy Travis is ill and unable to appear. Ronnie Milsap was scheduled for a couple of appearances but cancelled. Travis Tritt last appeared in 2007. Garth, Dolly and Trisha were all touring and active this past year, but didn't or couldn't find time to do the Opry.
If that isn't enough, there are a number of Opry members who appeared only once or twice during the past year. Those who appeared just once included Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire and Keith Urban. Those who appeared just two times were Dierks Bentley, Clint Black, Roy Clark, Emmylou Harris, Stonewall Jackson, Hal Ketchum, Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Martina McBride, Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker and Blake Shelton.
So of those 67 Opry members in 2014, 26 appeared two times or less. That leaves 41. So who did appear the most often at the Opry in 2014? That honor goes to Jeannie Seely, who made 88 appearances. The "Top 10" is as follows:
1) Jeannie Seely -88
2) Riders In The Sky-68
3) Bill Anderson; John Conlee; The Whites-67
4) Connie Smith-64
5) Jim Ed Brown-50
6) Bobby Osborne-47
7) Jimmy Dickens-39
8) Jesse McReynolds-37
9) Jean Shepard-34
10) Mike Snider-27
When you look at that list, we know that Jimmy Dickens has passed away, Jim Ed Brown has serious health issues, and Connie Smith, Jesse McReynolds and Jean Shepard all missed time as they also had health issues during the year. Mike Snider made no Opry appearances prior to October, yet he still made the "Top 10."
In addition, there are two items that stand out on this list The first is the fact that all of those listed are veteran Opry members, each of whom have been Opry members for a significant period of time. The second is the age of those who are making the most Opry appearances. Looking at the ages of those listed, Jeannie Seely is 74; Doug Green, the leader of Riders In The Sky 68; Bill Anderson 77; John Conlee 68; Buck White 84, while Sharon and Cheryl are just over 60; Connie Smith 73; Jim Ed Brown 80; Bobby Osborne 83; Jesse McReynolds 85; Jean Shepard 81 and Mike Snider 53. While Pete Fisher would like to see the Opry membership get younger, the fact is that the majority of the load is still being carried by those well past the normal retirement age.
One of the goals of Pete Fisher has been to ask each Opry member to appear 10 times each year. It does not matter if it is a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday as they all count. So who else besides those listed above made it 10 times or more this past year? That list, and their appearance numbers, include:
Jimmy C Newman-25
Del McCoury Band-16
George Hamilton IV; Jan Howard; Mel Tillis-15
Charlie Daniels; Craig Morgan; Carrie Underwood-10
That comes out to 25 Opry members who made the minimum 10 Opry appearances this past year, and of those 25, 3 have passed away giving a net number of 22. And, as with those who were on the previous list of making the most Opry appearances, there is cause for concern when looking at the ages of these members. Carrie Underwood, at the age of 31 is the youngest on this list, while the ages of the rest have Ricky Skaggs 60; Larry Gatlin 66; Vince Gill 57; Del McCoury 75; Jan Howard and Mel Tillis 82; Lorrie Morgan 55; Ray Pillow 77; Charlie Daniels 78 and Craig Morgan 50. So of the 25 Opry members who made at least 10 or more appearances this past year, only 1 is under the age of 50!!
As for the 16 remaining Opry members, their appearance numbers are as follows:
Old Crow Medicine Show; Marty Stuart-9
Trace Adkins; Terri Clark; Charley Pride; Little Big Town-8
Diamond Rio; Oak Ridge Boys; Pam Tillis-7
Rascal Flatts; Josh Turner; Steve Wariner-6
Joe Diffie; Ralph Stanley-5
Montgomery Gentry; Stu Phillips-3
In looking at that list, Diamond Rio and Steve Wariner are usually pretty good at making the 10 yearly appearances, while a few of the others are pretty close to the number. I always add the disclaimer that Pete's asking for 10 yearly appearances only applies to those who he asked to become Opry members, those who joined since June 1999 when Pete became the Opry's general manager. Of those who have joined since Pete became the general manager, the average number of appearances last year was 7. Overall, he has done well with Charlie Daniels, Del McCoury, Oak Ridge Boys, Mel Tillis and Carrie Underwood. The jury is still out on Old Crow Medicine Show and Little Big Town. He has missed big time with Dierks Bentley, Darius Rucker and Blake Shelton.
The Opry had a total (if I added right) of 267 guest artists who appeared in 2014. It breaks down to 122 male acts, 80 female and 65 females. So of those who made guest appearances last year, who were there more than 10 times? That list includes:
The Willis Clan-30
Elizabeth Cook; Sarah Darling; The Henningsens-16
Mandy Barnett; Jimmy Wayne; Mark Wills-15
Exile; Restless Heart-10
In the cases of Mandy Barnett, Chris Janson, Sarah Darling, Striking Matches, Mark Wills, Jimmy Wayne, Greg Bates, Elizabeth Cook, The Willis Clan, Sara Haze and Exile, they were all on the list last year. Would the Opry be any worst having these folks as members versus those who are members and do not show up?
The Opry over the past several years has done a lot of cross promotion with the "Nashville" television show, which is on ABC. In fact, Steve Buchanan is one of the executive producers of the show. So how many Opry appearances did actors associated with "Nashville" make at the Opry in 2014? That number comes to 59. And that is just the "main" characters.
People have asked me what I would do about the Opry members who have not been appearing on the show. In the case of those who are retired, I would end their Opry membership. This concept of being retired and still keeping their Opry membership started with Barbara Mandrell. She asked and the management said yes. Back in the day, if you decided to retire, your Opry membership ended. There are many who lost their Opry membership, such as Lonzo and Oscar, Marion Worth, and more recently Holly Dunn, because they retired from performing. It doesn't make them a bad person, but the Opry is an active show and needs active members to survive. Those who are ill, I would give an exemption to. As far as Tom T. Hall, Reba McEntire and Travis Tritt, who haven't peformed for decades on the show, I would tell them we have gotten along very well without you and if you are not coming back, their membership would end. (Of course, we know in the real world that is not going to happen).
As for the rest, I would give them a year to at least increase their appearances. I know in the case of a few, such as Stonewall Jackson and Stu Phillips, they would appear more if asked. I know Stu Phillips was at the birthday bash last year, and I think some of it was that he asked to be on that night and the Opry said yes. And to me, if you are having the same guest artists making more then 10 appearances year after year, you might as well make them members. The Opry will not be any worse off and really there is no magic number of members. But as we know, in today's Opry, membership isn't what it once was.
In 2014, there were a total of 184 Opry shows, which was up 2 from the year before. The breakdown was 61 Saturday night shows, 54 Friday night shows, 44 Tuesday night shows, 9 Wednesday shows, 14 Opry Country Classics and then the one Tuesday and Saturday matinee.
As far as hosting segments, Jeannie Seely was the leader, hosting 71 times. She was followed by Riders In The Sky with 56; John Conlee 50; Bill Anderson 49; Connie Smith 39; Jim Ed Brown 26 and The Whites 22. 26 different Opry members hosted at least one segment. What I found interesting is Ray Pillow making 13 Opry appearances and hosting a segment on each appearance.
2014 saw the Opry recognize Jesse McReynolds and Bobby Osborne for 50 years of Opry membership. What is interesting about these two bluegrass giants, each came to the Opry originally with their brothers. Jim McReynolds passed away in 2002, while Sonny Osborne retired in 2005. 2014 also marked the Opry's 89th anniversary and it is safe to say that the birthday bash was one of the worst in the Opry's history. 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of Connie Smith as an Opry member and also the Opry's 90th anniversary. 90 years is a significant achievement and I think we all hope that the Opry will treat it as such this October. 2015 will also mark 25 years of Opry membership for Garth Brooks and Mike Snider.
All in all, 2014 was very similar to 2013 at the Opry. The year saw the passing of several veteran Opry members, a continued shift to younger guest artists, and a reduction in the appearances by veteran Opry members. From a financial and attendance standpoint, I am told it was a very good year at the Opry and that the management of Ryman Hospitalities continues to be pleased with the performance of the show. I know many of us may not necessarily agree with that statement, yet that is how they feel.
Only time will tell what 2015 will bring. The hope for a big 90th birthday bash and new members who will support the Opry is probably at the top of the list. Only time will tell. Here is hoping for a good year.