On Sunday morning, December 6, 1964, Nashvillians awoke to find spread across the top of their newspapers an eight-column banner headline in bold type usually associated with war or public disaster: "OPRY DROPS 12 TOP STARS."
"Twelve top country and western music stars," the story read, "will not appear on the Grand Ole Opry in 1965, and have been prohibited from using the Opry name in their outside billings, it was learned yesterday. Another entertainer, long-time favorite Minnie Pearl, has been given a leave of absence from the show for the coming year, but will continue to use the Opry billing in her present contracts, a WSM spokesman said."
Dismissed from the Opry roster were George Morgan, Don Gibson, Billy Grammer, Johnny Wright, Kitty Wells, the Jordanaires (background singers on Elvis Presley's records and concert dates), Faron Young, Ferlin Husky, Chet Atkins, Justin Tubb, Stonewall Jackson, and Ray Price. Opry officials, after using the policy only minimally before, had insisted on strict adherence to a rule that said Opry performers had to appear on twenty-six shows in a year to be retained on the roster.
WSM public relations director Bill Williams tried to put a best face on it, insisting, "Nobody is mad at anybody. It's just that periodically we have to take stock. It's just a routine thing." Irving Waugh, somewhat removed from the Opry in his capacity as general manager of the WSM television station, nevertheless thought the announcement was ill advised. He viewed the action as an "antagonism" of the country music community by WSM president Jack DeWitt.
Looking back on it, the "Purge of '64" might have been a monumental public relations goof. Within a day of the release of the original story, Opry manager Ott Devine had to remove Chet Atkins name from the list of the original twelve. His name should not have been included, Devine said, because "Chet has not been officially connected with the Opry for many years." That admission suggested to some that the entire incident reflected adversely on the quality of Opry management.
Money is what really generated the hassle. Faron Young remembered: "When they insisted on the twenty-six week thing, I put a pen to it and figured it out. I was gonna lose $180,000 a year to work the Opry twenty-six weeks out of the year."
Percentages paid by the artists to the WSM Artists' Service Bureau (make that read "booking agency") also were in contention. Johnny Wright, Kitty Wells's husband, explained: "They booked some of our dates, and then some of the dates were booked by our personal managers and booking agents. They were charging us fifteen percent on the dates they booked, and then if they didn't book a date you still had to pay them five percent of the dates that you booked yourself. Some of the artists stopped paying the five percent, a lot of them. But Kitty and I paid it right up to the very last, and I told Ott Devine: 'Ott, I don't think it's fair for us to pay and some of them not paying it. Unless you get everybody to pay it, then I'm not gonna pay it.' They didn't fire anyone. We just quit because we didn't wanna pay the five percent."
Quit or fired? It didn't make a difference; the public perception was that their favorites had been summarily dismissed. If anything good came out of the incident, it was a realization in the city, in some quarters, for the first time, that the Grand Ole Opry was really important to Nashville.
On Tuesday December 8, the Nashville Tennessean ran an editorial under the heading: "Opry Has Duty of Protection." It said, "The Opry has been, and continues to be, the nucleus of Nashville's $40 million music industry. There is hardly a successful music enterprise in the city that does not owe its origin and its longevity to the Opry. Thus, it seems the Opry has a responsibility to compel observance of reasonable restrictions for its own protection and for the protection of the rest of the music industry in Nashville."
"Most of the thousands of people who line up at the Opry House every Friday and Saturday night have traveled long distances to see in person the stars they have come to love by radio. It must be a disappointment for these fans to arrive at the Opry on this one big night for them and find that their favorite stars have found a more profitable audience in some other state. Opry Manager Ott Devine says the 11 released stars will be missed. And they will be. But there is a feeling that such a loss would be more keenly felt if the stars had not already been missed too often at the Opry."
With that, the Tennessean put the onus squarely on the artists, perhaps unfairly. But a lesson was learned, expressed best in a bit of old country philosophy: "Don't try to fix what ain't broke."
Bill Anderson later said: "That was a surprise. I'd never signed a contract saying that I would be in twenty-six times a year. I had the same manager as Faron and Ferlin, and I just felt that they made the choice to work the road. Hubert Long was our manager, and I remember him coming to me at that time and saying, 'Do you realize how much money it's costing you to be on the Grand Ole Opry? I could book you out on the road and you're down there making eighteen dollars and seventy-five cents.' I considered leaving, but my father, who knows nothing about show business but a lot about human nature, gave me as good a piece of advice as I've ever gotten. He said, 'Son, look around you.' The Opry was owned by National Life, and he said, 'Maybe the Opry isn't at the very top, but these people haven't gotten to the level they're at by being stupid. They'll turn things around, and you'll be glad you stayed.' I took his word and it's some of the best advice I've got in my life."
Ott Devine eventually relaxed the requirement to twenty weeks per year, and explained the situation in a letter to Earl Scruggs:
"It has not been and never will be possible to stage the Grand Ole Opry as we know it and compete with the road show in talent fees. The talent fees have doubled since 1962 and as you know, each weekend we schedule several times the number of musicians that a road show would carry. The number and cost of firemen, policemen, ushers, ticket takers, etc. we are forced to employ has increased each year."
"It was never our intention to ban for life those persons unable to meet our requirements as to the number of Saturday nights at the Opry House. We were not angry with them then or now. Some felt we were too harsh in not allowing the acts to even guest with us in 1965. Some felt we were not strict enough. In my opinion, all were treated as fairly as possible. We feel that the twenty week requirement settled upon last year is fair to the artist who wishes to remain a member of the Grand Ole Opry and fair to the audience which travels hundreds of miles to see you here in Nashville. We will continue maintaining and improving the Grand Ole Opry, and hope that you will continue to appreciate its value to you."
Interesting when you look back on this event 52 years later. Of those fired, several would return as Opry members: George Morgan, Don Gibson, Billy Grammer, Justin Tubb and Stonewall Jackson. Minnie Pearl did return a year later from her leave of absence. Of those who did return, all but Don Gibson would become Opry "regulars" as far as their appearances. Kitty Wells would never become an Opry member again, although there was a report that later in life, she asked to be reinstated as an Opry member, but was refused. Johnny Wright, the Jordanaires, Ferlin Husky, Faron Young and Ray Price would come back to the Opry, not as members, but by making guest appearances. As to Chet Atkins: no he was never officially an Opry member, but Chet would come back as an Opry guest.
It can be debated if the Ott Devine and the Opry's management made the right decision in firing the members who were not supporting the show. If nothing else, it had an effect as it forced the Opry's members to actually appear on the show at least twenty weeks of the year, or face the consequences. While those eleven were the only ones officially fired, others would leave the show over the next decade, including such artists as Willie Nelson, Bobby Lord, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Bobby Bare, Norma Jean, The Glaser Brothers, Sonny James, Leroy Van Dyke, and two who joined during the 1970s and 1980s, Don Williams and B.J. Thomas. By the mid-1980's, Bud Wendall and Hal Durham had dropped appearance requirements for new members. This policy would continue under Bob Whittaker. In 1999, Pete Fisher became the Opry's general manager and he has worked at trying to require ten annual appearances by those he has asked to join the cast. At best, the results have been mixed.
The Grand Ole Opry cannot go back to the way it was in the 1960s, when Opry members were expected and required to perform weekly on the show. But I do believe that as an Opry member, there is an obligation to support the show and to be there on a somewhat regular basis. I realize it is tough for some acts and a lot of money can be lost by not being on the road. But, each Opry member had a choice when asked. If they were not inclined to support the show, then the invitation could have been declined. And in the case of a few, it should have been.