For centuries she has stood her ground. She has opened doors of opportunities. She has created memories shared by only a selected few. She is well known and well loved by many. That “she” is none other than the Grand Ole Opry. However, is the Opry Grand as it once was?
To play on the stage, or perhaps become a member, one would gain acceptance amongst the country music community. However, it seems as though the Opry has started to step away from its roots within the last few years. Rather than build a strong foundation that country music built, the Opry has made some unusual decisions.
“Honor Thy Music” can be seen and heard throughout Nashville. The Opry has recently inducted a new “fresh” set of country performers lately. Just look at the last few inductees – Carrie Underwood, Charlie Daniels, Craig Morgan, Mel Tillis, Josh Turner, Montgomery Gentry, and most recently, Blake Shelton. Out of the last 6, only two are considered legendary performers. The more modern inductees are still green as compared to the accomplishments of Charlie Daniels and Mel Tillis. In fact, it is a shame that Pam Tillis would be inducted in 2000, prior to her father in 2007.
It is a fact that the Opry is a business that is out to make money. When Carrie Underwood performs, it is pretty much a guaranteed sell out, even without a convention or tour buses lining the pavement. Furthermore, there are the infamous missteps and questions of “why” did they make the decision. In the past it was Elvis who came on stage to sing “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” but his rendition was noted by legendary Bill Monroe from Kentucky. Management would not invite Elvis back to the stage, and yet his career would soon boom. Legendary singer, Hank Williams, Sr. played on the Opry stage for the first time on June 11, 1949. The crowd responded with not one, but six standing ovations. Years later, the Opry would go on to fire Williams in hopes that he would sober up. Sadly, he would pass away one haunting evening in the backseat of a car. Over the years, the Grand Ole Opry would continue to use his image in promoting their history over the years. Even with a campaign to reinstate Hank, the Opry has shunned away any progress to re-induct Hank Sr as a member of the Opry.
In 2009, Jessica Simpson, Jack Black, and Kevin Costner tried to branch out to country music. All of the performers failed to impress not only the Opry audience, but the country music audience as they left quicker than they came in the town on the horse (or limo) they rode in. However, at the same time, a young man who was famous for playing lead vocals for Hootie & the Blowfish has gained acceptance among the community. Darius Rucker was welcomed with open arms and has played on stage of the Opry while showing he is here to stay, not to stay for the night.
Even with those that are already members, whatever happened to the tradition of performing a set number of performances each year to maintain membership? When is the last time you saw Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, etc, to name a few that have graced the Opry Stage? Have they gotten “too famous” for the wooden circle? Why are they still allowed to be members, whereas Opry Management told Holly Dunn several years ago that she must give up her membership as she was unable to keep up with the required number of performances (exclusive interview with Holly from the 9513).
Who will be the newest inductees of the Opry? That question is up in the air as to what direction the Opry wants to lead. If they want to sell out performances and attract a younger audience, then it couldn’t come to a surprise if they ask country-pop sensation Taylor Swift to join. But the Opry really needs to “honor thy music” by inducting those who have earned their keep in the business and have left a lasting impression on country music.
It makes you ponder when, if ever, will we see George Strait, Oak Ridge Boys, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Jr., Kris Kristofferson, Don Williams, John Anderson, Lynn Anderson, Asleep at the Wheel, Bobby Bare, TG Sheppherd, T. Graham Brown, Glen Campbell, Rodney Crowell, Janie Fricke, Crystal Gayle, the Judds, Brenda Lee, Kathy Mattea, Willie Nelson, Randy Owens or Alabama, Ray Price, the Statler Brothers, Kenny Rogers, Earl Scruggs, Larry Sparks, Tanya Tucker, Dwight Yoakum, and more to grace the stage as an Opry member. We constantly hear about the younger generation has “paid their dues” but what about those that influenced today’s generation? Why have they not been honored yet?
If the direction of the Opry is seeking modern stars to help fill seats to make more money, they should keep an eye out for folks like Jamey Johnson, Lee Ann Womack, the Grascals, Ashton Shepherd, even Sunny Sweeney, Elizabeth Cook, and others who jump at the chance to play the Opry because they know what an honor it is to play.
As the circle remains unbroken, it will be interesting to see who the new class of Opry members will be in the coming years. Will they continue the country music tradition and leave a footprints on our musical souls? Who do you think should fill the shoes of George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, or even Little Jimmy Dickens?
Jessica Blankenship is the owner and founder of Kentucky Country Music website with over 20 years experience in music journalism, concert planning, photography, and promotion. Jessica is a Kentucky Colonel and alumni of the 2019 Leadership Kentucky BRIGHT Class and a recipient of the Laurel County’s Ten Under 40 Award. Listen to her each week on WFKY on Friday mornings for the Nashville News Roundup.