Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Some Longtime Opry Members May Get Boot

No, don't get excited!! That was the front page headline that readers of the Nashville Banner woke up to on April 18, 1985. Here is the entire story as written by Clarke Canfield.

About 20 percent of the performers on the world famous Grand Ole Opry will be phased out of the show under a new two-year contract agreed upon Tuesday night. Sources close to the contract negotiations said the move will affect at least 12 acts, all of them longtime show regulars, who will be placed on "Senior Status."

Under the plan agreed upon by Grand Ole Opry management and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the performers will be cut to only 14 of the Opry's 187 shows a year. "They (Opry management) say they have too many artists for the show now.," said David Maddox, AFTRA's executive secretary who negotiated the pact. "They say they have more acts than slots. I don't know who it will affect. What that means is those people who are to be terminated from the Opry will be given at least enough employment to be covered by all the benefits when the retire."

Among those artists Opry management wants to phase out, according to knowledgeable sources, Justin Tubb, Ernie Ashworth, Jean Shepard, Vic Willis, Charlie Louvin, Lonzo and Oscar, Teddy Wilburn, Del Wood, Stu Phillips, and Billy Walker. 

Opryland President E.W. "Bud" Wendell and Grand Ole Opry Manager Hal Durham were both out of town and could not be reached for comment. Opry Information Director Jerry Strobel said he was unaware of the contract details.

"Why were we promised we'd be there for life and we're kicked in the teeth?" said one performer who asked not to be identified. "We were the glue that held that place together," declared another." We built the Opry up and bypassed show dates on the road to keep the Opry going. Who are they to judge who is salable and who isn't." "This is nothing but age discrimination," said another.

Maddox would neither confirm nor deny report that only eight Opry members attended the Tuesday meeting and that seven voted in favor of the contract. The other voter reportedly abstained, sources told the Nashville Banner. Along with the possibility of being phased out, several Opry veterans voiced displeasure with the new contract that will give Opry performers a 5 percent pay raise over the next two years. The contract was approved Tuesday between the union members and Gaylord Broadcasting Co,. owners of Opryland USA, WSM-AM, WSM-FM, the Opryland Hotel and The Nashville Network (TNN) and approved by the AFTRA board today.

Contract negotiations had been in the works for about a month, with performers initially seeking 20 percent pay hikes, increased job security and compensation for performances on TNN, which began television some Opry shows nationwide last week. Maddox said that any mention of who would be phased out would be pure speculation on his part, but that under terms of the contract, those who are being kicked off the show will be compensated in the end. Once those performers who are targeted to be phased out of the Opry shows become eligible for the AFTRA pension fund, they will be taken off the show, Maddox said. "A minimum pension is probably not that significant in money, but with the pension they receive the same benefits as if they were employed, "Maddox said, explaining that those on pension receive major medical and hospital insurance. He said that Opry management could have kicked anybody they wanted off the shows but instead gave some performers more security by slowly phasing them out. "I was surprised we were able to negotiate that phase-out plan," he said. "This is experimental. What that means is that we want to try this for two years and see how it works out." Maddox said everybody he had talked to was pleased with the contract. "The reaction I've gotten from those who've heard the contract results is that they're very pleased with it. We had different priorities than just a 20 percent pay raise. You have to look at the package as a whole." But some embittered Opry performers claimed that Maddox had "sold us down the river" and did not look out for their best interest.

That was the Nashville Banner story from that day. For those of you who have read the Porter Wagoner biography, there is also a reference to this situation in the book which included details of a "locker-room" meeting called by Porter, who seemed to be the one taking charge. That meeting took place on May 8 and included Roy Acuff, Ernie Ashworth, Bill Carlisle, The Four Guys, Jack Greene, Jan Howard, Lonzo and Oscar, Jimmy C Newman, Ray Pillow, Del Reeves, Benny Burchfield (Jean Shepard's husband), Jeannie Seely, Connie Smith, Justin Tubb, Billy Walker, Charlie Walker, Teddy Wilburn, Vic Willis, and Del Wood. 

Porter was quoted as saying at this meeting, "I can imagine how humiliated each one of you were that your names appeared in the newspaper. Let me assure you, that article was not authorized by the Grand Ole Opry management. The phasing out of an artist is something we need to discuss deeply, anyone that would be phased out, would be purely because they can't contribute, and there is not a person in this room that can't contribute more to the Opry than you are doing." The entire Porter statement is in the book.

Looking back to 1985 when this story broke, the Opry just about 60 members including the two square dance groups. And Opry management was saying that was too many? Dropping 12 would have brought the membership total to under 50, the lowest in several decades.

Some of the names on the list are interesting, especially considering that several on that list, such as Jean Shepard, Billy Walker and Charlie Louvin to name three, were still actively touring. And it is not like those listed were senior citizens. Most were in the 50's. And if the Opry was going to make a list, notice some of the names that were missing. It could easily have been argued that The Four Guys, Ray Pillow or Bill Carlisle could have been included. Who knows how the Opry management came up with the list of names.

In a way, the Opry's members had only themselves to blame for this mess. While Porter had no trouble gathering a decent group of veteran members for his "locker-room" meeting, only eight bothered to vote on the union contract. It would appear that those who were quoted in the paper were among those who did not vote.

Obviously, and looking back, further discussions took place and all of those listed continued as Opry members. In fact, despite the claim that the Opry had too many members, Hal Durham went on a membership run in the late 80's and early 90's, with membership increasing to over 70. Of course, those who Hal asked to join accepted Opry membership with no appearance commitments, so there was no need to worry about too many members showing up most nights.

One last note: two of those listed, Charlie Louvin and Billy Walker, would lead the veterans who complained about their appearances being cut after Pete Fisher took over in 1999, while Jean Shepard continued to be very vocal about the way the veterans were being treated at the Opry. Obviously time did not change things.


  1. Jean Shepard and Charlie Louvin would become Hall of Famers. I guess they received the last laugh. If this was a issue of age discrimination I am very surprised Herman Crook was not included. Also, Archie Campbell did not attend too regularly during this time period. Lonzo & Oscar did quit later in 1985. I wonder if this issue contributed to this ?
    To me, some of those listed were the "glue". Sometimes a piece of machinery is made up of hundreds of parts. In this era Loretta Lynn and George Jones would have been two of those biggest pieces. Del Wood and Vic Willis much smaller. In most cases the small pieces turn out to be the most vital to make something work. Like today, when you compare a Garth Brooks to a Mike Snider or The Whites to Little Big Town. Usually those little parts "keep the lights on", so to speak.

  2. Well put, David B. I've wondered if management wasn't trying to threaten the artists into making concessions. It's also interesting that, at that time, the policy (possibly Durham's, possibly from above) of not requiring attendance meant that several members--Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, the Gatlins, Ronnie Milsap, Barbara Mandrell all were in this category--were barely ever there anyway.