Getting Old At The Grand Ole Opry


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Stonewall-Jackson-recorded-live-at-The-Grand-Ole-OpryWatching 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.

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34 thoughts on “Getting Old At The Grand Ole Opry

  1. I personally have not yet been to the Grand Ole Opry…It is one of my dreams yet to be fulfilled, but let me tell you, that when I see the show on TV, it just isn’t the same when you see all the new age groups of country singers…Just like the rest of us TRUE “COUNTRY” fans, I most love to see shows with LORETTA LYNN, GEORGE JONES, DOLLY PARTON, and all of the LEGENDS…after all, isn’t that where the Grand Ole Opry began?

  2. As a “Western” music performer, I primarily appear at concerts, dinner shows and Cowboy Poetry/Entertainer Gatherings all around the Northwest. I even do a few bar-gigs once in a while. And, a prevelant opinion from my audience is that shown here…REAL country Music seems to be gone. What is left is music that appeals more to the City ideas of what Country is. Most of what I hear today seems to be along the lines of what we called “soft rock” when I was a kid.

    I’m very aware of the fact that many people out there share my opinion of modern “Country” music as we get requests for “old” country all the time.

    http://cowboyentertainer.blogspot.com

  3. Tommy Tucker

    What’s happening to the great stars of the Grand Ole Opry is a travesty. I’m a DJ (in my 60’s) on a classic radio station in Lewiston, Idaho. In the past couple of years I have had the great pleasure to meet some these performers at the Casino in Worley, Idaho.
    Bill Anderson, Little Jimmy Dickens, Jean Sheppard, Stonewall Jackson, Kitty Wells, Johnny Wright, Bobby Wright, Tommy Cash, Doug Kershaw and Ralph Emery. Let me tell you, these are the friendliest, most talented and down to earth people you would ever want to meet.
    These people paved the way for the “so called” country entertainers of today. To be given crumbs by the Opry when they should be in the forefront until those new country entertainers earn their way on that stage is an absolute slap in the face!
    The main problem today. Even on the radio. If you are over 30, Radio, the Opry, Record Labels, Advertising Agencies don’t give a hoot about you! They don’t care! Everything is geared for the 12 to 25 age group.
    I have had the privilige of meeting Garth Brooks twice. And it was great. This man is a class act and his shows were fantastic. But I also saw several Johnny Cash concerts. Johnny could wrap an audience around his little finger and did it without a laser light show, running around the stage, swinging on ropes or smashing guitars. He did it with shear talent and a great stage presence. And got as much response from his audience as Garth. Same with Haggard, Robbins, Tubb, Dickens, Lynn, Wynette and so many of the country music greats. Some of todays new country, without the glitz and glitter, would never make it!
    God Bless Stonewall Jackson for having the fortitude to sue the Opry.

    Tommy Tucker

  4. It is sad and dis hearting when this happens. I have been involved in the Western part of music. The same happen with it only a much longer time ago. It seems to be making a comeback , somewhat. The old timers need to get together and form an organization with health care. It can be done, it’s just a lot of work. I formed a 501 C 3 to benefit Western Music. No health insurance but it is a place for performances once a month. If you remember it’s a lot of work and needs more than one person to spread out the work, you can do it. As someone above said, there are folks that want this music. There is still a place for it. But, you have to stick together and work together. One person can not do it alone. The younger folks need to hear the older music. If they don’t hear it, you can’t blame them for going towards the modern music. ………Shame on Gaylord Entertainment for letting the money take over good values.

  5. If you go to my website it says it all “Let’s keep this good OLD country & bluegrass music alive”. This stuff they call “country” anymore is just a bunch of roar to my ears. The Wheeling Jamboree theater just went down hill when they quit having the “older” stars. It once was thriving and had people from everywhere coming, busloads from Canada etc. The “older” musicians are the real STARS!

  6. Brenda Wheeler

    What would happen if we opened another venue in Nashville. Put the word out and let the fans choose. Gaylord will not hear our voices, they “hear” our money. Just a thought.

  7. Carol Kuchar

    This is horrible. They closed Opryland, built a mall, nearly killed Nashville with that decision, and now they make another decision to oust the real country music stars, out of the Grand Old Opry. That is completely inexcusable. They will be sorry and what tourists are left will all go to Dollywood. I think they should build the Grand Old Opry at Dollywood and show Gaylord who is boss.l

  8. Jim Hunt

    I have been a drummer for many years. I used to appear on the “Opry”, with many of the people named above. Now, when my name is mentioned, alot of the current “stars” say….JIM WHO? It’s tough being a “side man”, in the present state of things. Here’s hoping things change for the better soon!

  9. rick

    Wonder what Hank and Lefty would have to say about “demographics.” I don’t want to hear songs about love and loss from someone in a Guns’n Roses T-shirt who just lost their pet turtle or skinned their knee falling off their bicycle. Gaylord neither knows nor cares about the legacy of Nashville’s once-great country music community, it’s all about the money and Gaylord’s pimps don’t give a damn how they get it or who gets hurt in the process. After relocating the Opry from the venerable Ryman Audiorium to their “Opryland USA” complex (conveniently next to the mega-expensive “Opryland Hotel”) Gaylord once considered razing the Ryman (which they also own) but, after public outcry, relented. Gaylord also scuttled their (also overpriced)”Opryland” amusement park when they were convinced that a huge mall would make even more money. I’m not blaming Gaylord (or their “hatchet man” Pete Fisher) entirely for the death of what was country music in Nashville, but they’ve made it painfully obvious thru their vast holdings and actions that they are self-serving money-grubbing carpetbaggers who grow fatter daily at Nashville’s and by proxy, country music’s expense.

  10. queen

    I agree with your feelings completely. So much is being lost in
    America today because of the disrespect for our people once they
    reach the senior years. Their knowledge, wisdom & talents are just
    tossed away and it’s like they don’t exist anymore. This is so sad
    in many ways! So much can be learned from these folks. And so many
    more hours of enjoyment are still there, for them & us! But no one
    even takes the time to realize this. Don’t they know one day they,
    too, will be looked upon this way, and tossed aside? No one can
    escape the aging process!

    This same thing happened to my husband at work. He was a plumber,
    and one of ‘the guys’, until the day arrived when suddenly he was
    just the ‘old man’ to all his once upon a time younger friends that
    had always included him in on everything going on. He begun getting
    all the dirty jobs & those that lasted late into the night. He was
    the ‘outsider’ now, constantly being joked about, or belittled. I
    was so happy to see the day arrive when he could retire!

    These people are entertainers, it’s in their blood to perform! They
    can teach so much to today’s talent. Instead, they’re disrespected
    and pushed aside and out of the picture. Doesn’t anyone realize
    these people are still very much alive, and they have feelings, just
    as much as the younger performers do? This is just so cruel! Their
    careers are very important in their lives. For many years these
    people have traveled to hell and back to entertain us. There weren’t
    the big & beautiful buses back in those days! And now, not
    even the radio stations will play their music anymore!! This is all
    just so stupid and dumb. What’s this world going to have to come to
    before it realizes the mess it’s making of peoples’ lives, or the
    loss this is to this country?

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