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The Grand Ole Opry: searching for modern day relevance

By George Hauenstein, June 2000

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Skaggs agrees. "By and large most of the new acts out there look at the Opry as being old and stiff and out of date...out of touch."

Performing on the Opry is no longer as essential as it was in terms of building and sustaining a career in country music. For many of today's artists, their stature isn't based on Opry performance or membership.

Rather, it's built on radio airplay and movie and TV appearances.

As a result, there are a lot of today's newer artists who don't feel connected to the tradition and the history of the Opry. Hence, they don't feel the sense of obligation to appear there that older artists like Skaggs and some others might feel.

Skaggs says, "I have an issue with some of the acts that are members but not Grand Ole Opry stars. There is a lot of difference between being a Grand Ole Opry member and a Grand Ole Opry star. We have a few that are members that once every five years they show up."

"As hot as we were in Œ80's, we still kept our 25 spots per year," says Skaggs.

He remembers when he joined the Opry, "Mr Acuff said, 'yeah, we made you a member, and now you'll never show up.'" Skaggs told him, "I'll make you eat those words. Every Friday I'd go and knock on his door, to let him know I was keeping my commitment."

Fisher says it is an even tougher battle to convince young artists to commit to the Opry, "The demands that are on artists have never been greater."

The economics of country

In addition to the changes in the way artists get their music to fans and the diminished sense of obligation that today's artists may feel toward playing the Opry, economics have played a role in the lack of young country artists making regular appearances on the Opry.

The costs of touring and maintaining a band are higher than ever, and an artist can earn far more by being out on the road.

Opry GM Fisher says the Friday and Saturday night Opry schedule makes it difficult to get artists who are touring a great deal. "The Opry pays scale, just a couple of hundred dollars."

That hardly compares with the money that an artist can earn in one night's performance on tour.

Wagoner adds, "You can understand whyŠYou can't relinquish the Friday or Saturday night making thousands of dollars (on the road)ŠYou've got to make hay while the sun shines. The money won't always be there. They've got to make it while they can."

Twenty-year Opry veteran John Conlee agrees. "When you're on the road you can't give up the money (that touring brings) for basically scale. Those first few years of membership, I was on less than I am now."

Conlee remembers when he was asked to join the Opry in 1981, "I took them up on it with the proviso of I want to join, but can't do 21 days a year (that Opry management was requesting)."

Many of those interviewed mention artist like Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, Brad Paisley and even Garth Brooks as being among the newer artists who do make an effort to appear on the Opry when they can.

The new regime

All concerned give credit to new Opry management and Fisher in particular. They commend him for being aggressive about getting younger country acts on the Opry and for working to keep the Opry fresh while retaining a lot of the elements that make the Opry unique and special.

"They want to make the Opry and WSM more recognizable to today's fans. (But) it's a genuine battleŠ30 years of virtual neglect from parent companiesŠand it looks it," says Kingsbury.

Despite the efforts that current Opry management is making, during much of the mid-'60's through the end of the 1970's, Opry management relied on the same acts whose commercial success had come and gone, which didn't help the institution to attract new audiences.

According to Wagoner, "They love the Opry, and they're trying to improve itŠThey are to be commended...its hard thing to do to stick with the roots and keep up the times."

Skaggs says, "Pete Fisher is trying to allow new artists to come there and do their music as well as others like Jean Shepard or Little Jimmy Dickens or Bill Carlisle that have been there for 40 years or so."

Fisher wants to present the full spectrum of the music. The traditional alongside of the contemporary ­ even alternative-country artists.

"The Opry challenges the traditional listener to appreciate contemporary and the contemporary listener to appreciate the traditional. My role is to facilitate that diversity."

A former music executive himself, Fisher realizes the importance of bringing in new artists to the Opry. To do so, some changes are being made.

Already, Opry management has begun to add Tuesday matinee shows starting in June. Fisher says that will make it easier for artists to fit it in to their schedules.

The Opry returned its former home, the historic, Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, in January for a series of shows. The Ryman was the home of the Opry until 1974 when it moved out to the grounds of the Opryland Theme Park in suburban Nashville.

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