Watching John McCain run for President is good for America. It shows that older Americans are vital, capable, and can even be more energetic than some of the journalists covering the Arizona Senator. You do not have to agree with McCain’s views to understand the powerful message he sends about aging in America. And for the sake of my argument let us forget his attempt at stand-up comedy during the past few days. The message that McCain sends is that growing older need not be boring, or sideline anyone.
Unfortunately not everyone has received that message. For starters consider the outlandish actions of the Grand Ole Opry, the longest continuous radio show in America that is now in its 82nd year. Every Friday and Saturday night country music stars perform one or two songs on the world famous stage in Nashville, followed by live commercials for such products as Martha White Biscuits, or Goo Goo Clusters that ushers on the next act. The radio show, about 2 and 1/2 hours long, is broadcast every weekend on WSM Radio (The Air Castle Of The South) before a couple thousand people.
The stars of country music, when the Opry was just getting established, are being forced off the stage. These are the stars with true talent at showmanship, which is far different from just being a solid singer or musician with a great manager. These are the voices and images that started during the formative days of the Opry, and are still eager to stand on that round circle at center stage. But the management of the Opry thinks they are to old, and so have removed them for younger artists.
Stonewall Jackson, Charlie Louvin and others say they joined the Opry decades ago with the understanding that if they appeared a required number of times each year at the peak of their career they could still play the Opry in the later years of their careers. Gaylord Entertainment, owners of the Opry, disputes that any performing guarantees were ever made, and insists that the older stars are not being pushed off the stage due to their age.
Last summer I had a most pleasurable conversation with 79-year-old Charlie Louvin who just released a new CD featuring one song with Elvis Costello. Charlie also did a number of shows with Elvis Presley in the 1950’s. While backstage in southern Wisconsin as he smoked a few cigarettes and signed my guitar and autographs for folks who ambled by, he kept telling me stories about the days traveling and singing with his brother, Ira. I was very interested in his stories and he seemed to get quite nostalgic as he spoke. Many a week would end for the famous brothers as they made a mad dash from far-flung places to get back to “The Mother Church of Country Music”, the Ryman Auditorium, and their set for the Opry stage. To be a member of the Opry one had to perform 26 times a year, and was paid $15.00, a far cry from what could be made on the road. Charlie estimated that an act lost on average over $50,000 per year, but he was proud to be a part of the Opry and never complained.
But now Louvin and others are losing their health insurance due to limited performances, as salaries from those performances are the basis for coverage from the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. There is something so very wrong with this action by Gaylord Entertainment and what it says about one of our most remarkable slices of Americana, The Grand Ole Opry.
As a boy on Saturday nights I would move the radio around in our living room in central Wisconsin, using the cord as an antenna for better AM reception until the music from Nashville filled the room. A couple decades later my parents would be recognized from the Opry stage by famed WSM musicologist Eddie Stubbs for their 50th wedding anniversary as we all sat watching a live Opry broadcast in Nashville.
This is not just another musical venue. This is about as real and authentic a slice of history as one can get about what early radio, and early country music were all about. As such, the closer one can get to the past and experience the living stars of yesterday, the more accurate is the understanding of the time when the likes of Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff were taking the stage. None of those singers and musicians knew what the future held, but were sure they wanted to be there when that big red curtain went up. For 82 years that tradition has endured and it is mighty sad to think that some still want to be there to perform, but have been rejected due to the age factor.
To remove the past at the Opry in order to bring on the latest singer with tight jeans and a cowboy hat (and often these days too much red-neck) is unseemly. I admit to being a bit of a purist on the issue, but there is a huge gulf between the likes of Little Jimmy Dickens and the latest singer today with a massive PR effort. It comes down to showmanship and on-stage talent.
Last summer in Wisconsin I again had the chance to see Little Jimmy Dickens on stage, and this time he had a 30-minute set. He was energetic, had a series of snappy one-liners, and even a slight costume change on stage. And he had the crowd in his control after all these years. I think the vast majority of the current ’15 minute wonders’ will not be anywhere near a stage when they are 82. The old performers, the solid parts of the Opry, love the applause and it has been my personal experience that everyone gets a handshake and a chance to converse when around them. They are truly national treasures.
The Opry is making a huge mistake by removing some of the performers that made that stage so mighty impressive over the decades. We are displacing a part of the past before they will leave the stage for the last time and go to the biggest Opry show to be played. It does not need to be that way. Gaylord Entertainment is greedy and as a result we all lose something.