An Open Letter to New Grand Ole Opry General Manager Sally Williams

grand-ole-opry

 

Dear Sally Williams,

To begin, let me offer my sincere congratulations to you for ascending to the position of not just the new General Manager of the most esteemed and storied institution in all of country music, but as the General Manager, and Senior Vice President of Ryman Hospitality’s new Programming and Artist Relations Division. This must be a huge honor, and a well-deserved one after all of your efforts as the General Manager of the Mother Church of Country Music, The Ryman Auditorium for the last few years, taking that historic venue and shepherding it into a new era, and bringing it to new heights with the talent gracing its stage, and the fans filling its galleries from the love of authentic American music.

I don’t need to tell you about the honor and reverence many country fans, especially traditional country fans, hold for the Grand Ole Opry. The history of the franchise is so incredible, it’s hard to even quantify and fathom it in one sitting. All of those legends, all of those legendary moments over the years, all of those songs and collaborations that went on to shape what country music was for generations, and all in one place, under one name, that unlike so many historic cultural institutions didn’t fall into disrepair or go forgotten over time, but has been passed from generation to generation, growing in prominence and stature as its storied lineage continues to elongate with the awesome talent lending its name to the Opry stage.

It is from this heavy and momentous history of the Grand Ole Opry that a passion swells up in the hearts of many traditional country fans every time the WSM signal goes live from the Opry House, or whenever these fans walk out into the bowl of the audience to behold the expanse of the stage and gallery of the Opry, that iconic barn backdrop, and the talent that stands inside the circle. The space seems to harbor the very ghosts of country music’s past with all those memorable songs and performances hanging in the air with such a thickness, a sense of reverence immediately strikes the soul, and at times can overwhelm one with emotion.

It’s is from this passion from country music fans that often concern is brought upon the doings and direction of the Grand Ole Opry. Sometimes the Opry, and the management specifically are put under scrutiny for certain decisions. Your predecessor Pete Fisher, who as you know has now moved on to Los Angeles to help with the ACM’s, knew this all too well, and early on in his career as the Opry General Manager.

I’m sure you know about the accusations against Pete Fisher and the Grand Ole Opry of ageism and other charges that dogged Pete Fisher early in his tenure. Rumors of him uttering such things as he would “work as hard as possible until no gray hair was in the audience or on the stage,” made by Stonewall Jackson and others started Fisher’s era at the Opry off on bad footing with certain country music fans. This was only exacerbated by a host of Opry membership invites that seemed to go to more mainstream-oriented performers. Many feared these performers would not uphold their duties to the institution, and time has borne those fears out.

Of course the Grand Ole Opry has to stay relevant and reach out to the popular names of the day. But if the Grand Ole Opry is going to maintain its mystique, it needs to make sure that whomever it lets into the fold as a member will reciprocate that respect by showing up upon occasion to lends their talents to the stage, not in spite of the hardship it may cause a high-profile touring artist who could make more money elsewhere, but because of it. Carrie Underwood, for example, has set a precedent for how popular contemporary artists can still uphold their obligations to both the bookkeepers of the industry, and to the torchbearers working to preserve country music’s lineage through institutions like the Grand Ole Opry.

As time passed on, the early tests of Pete Fisher’s stewardship of the Grand Ole Opry faded from current events to history, and many of his perceived transgressions were at least allowed to fade, if not to be forgotten or forgiven. Wounds were allowed to heal when it seemed the Opry became more open to older performers in recent years, especially when so many of the newer performers continued to shirk their duties. Now there is plenty of representation on the Opry stage from country music’s past, and we’ve seen with the last two recent membership invitations to Crystal Gayle and Dailey & Vincent that the Grand Ole Opry is serious about representing all the facets of country music in its membership, and is making sure to bring people into the circle who will reciprocate that honor with efforts to give back what the Opry has given to them.

It’s important to point out that the criticisms Pete Fisher received while at the Opry were not bred from hatred for Pete Fisher, but from love for the Grand Ole Opry. It’s that passion stirred from the daunting history of the Opry that inspires some to become vocal with their concerns. But it feels like the Grand Ole Opry was already reaching into a new era even before the departure of Pete Fisher, from the recent membership invites to other positive signs. The appointment of an new General Manager gives us even more opportunities for fresh air, open dialog, and understanding among all the fans and concerned parties of the Opry to bring us all again under the common purpose of promoting country music and shepherding its traditions into the future.

Sally Williams (photo: Heather Brand)

Sally Williams (photo: Heather Brand)

That is why I am hoping that with this new era dawning at the Opry, perhaps you and the other principals and concerned parties at the Opry and Ryman Hospitality would consider one specific distinction that is very important to many country music fans, both traditional and contemporary, dealing with an often-overlooked piece of Grand Ole Opry history.

Hank Williams was arguably country music’s first superstar, and was one of the primary individuals responsible for making the Grand Ole Opry the cherished and storied institution it is today. But unfortunately Hank’s tenure at the Opry ended on a sour note. Fired for justifiable reasons of missing rehearsals and drunkenness, Hank was promised that if he were to sober up, he would always have a home in the Opry and would be reinstated. However, Hank tragically passed away on New Years Day 1953 at the age of 29 before being able to take advantage of that opportunity to return to the Grand Ole Opry stage he loved so dearly.

A few years ago, the grandson and spitting image of Hank Williams, Shelton Hank Williams III, reached out to Opry management to attempt to get his grandfather reinstated to the Grand Ole Opry. According to Williams III, he was told by former Opry General Manager Pete Fisher, “We’ll never reinstate a dead guy.” Because of this, Hank Williams III started a movement called Reinstate Hank, and began to circulate a petition book and an online counterpart to let the people of country music voice their opinion about whether Hank Williams should be reinstated. At the moment, the online petition is nearing 60,000 signatures, while many more have been captured in writing from fans all over the United States and world.

Within those signatures are the names of Hank Williams III, as well as Hank Sr.’s other grandchildren Holly Williams, and Hilary Williams. Hank Williams Jr. has been spotted wearing Reinstate Hank T-shirts, and has also voiced support for the movement. If the distinction means nothing to anybody else, it means something to what is arguably the most important family in country music.

Please understand that nobody is under the impression that the reinstatement is somehow permanent since Hank Williams is no longer alive, or that there should be worry of setting the precedent that deceased members of the Opry should be expected to be reinstated at some point, causing other factions of fans to rise up and demand the same distinction. Most of those other members weren’t fired, and none of them were Hank Williams.

What’s being asked for is not something that should be seen as a burden on the Grand Ole Opry. It should be seen as a promotional opportunity. Think of the weight in the room, and the spotlight that will shine on the Grand Ole Opry stage when the memory and legacy of Hank Williams is evoked one last time through the honor of symbolically reinstating the King of Country Music back into country’s most vaunted club while the Hank Williams family and throngs of fans from around the world celebrate.

The Grand Ole Opry faces many challenges for the future. It must attempt to remain relevant in the modern era. It must continue to entice younger, and more popular talent to its stage to introduce itself to new generations of fans while preserving the roots of the institution and keeping older fans and performers happy. It must navigate the constant progress of technology that looks to undermine the appreciation for radio programs and stage shows like the Grand Ole Opry.

This is all the more reason that country music fans of all stripes should come together to celebrate and support the Grand Ole Opry, and put any past grievances from previous eras aside, whatever they might be. What better way to bring everyone together than to celebrate the life and legacy of Hank Williams in a reinstatement ceremony.

Sally Williams, I want to once again congratulate you on your promotions and honors, I want to offer you the best of luck with this new position at the Grand Ole Opry and within Ryman Hospitality, and I hope you sincerely consider this request to symbolically Reinstate Hank for the respect and honor of the Hank Williams family, and for Hank Williams fans all over the world. After all, how fitting it would be that someone sharing the last name of “Williams” could be the one to allow this dream that has been fought for and championed for going on 15 years now to finally become a reality.

Sincerely,

Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos

savingcountrymusic.com