On Monday morning (1-9) the big news in the country music community was that Pete Fisher, the long-time Vice President and General Manager of the Grand Ole Opry, had accepted the job as CEO of the Academy of Country Music in Los Angeles. After 32 years in Nashville, Pete Fisher will be moving to California to helm country music’s second-biggest awards show apparatus and country music institution. Long-time ACM CEO Bob Romeo left the position in May of 2016, leaving the post vacant ever since. Pete Fisher will only be the 2nd CEO in the ACM’s 53-year history.
“As I enter my 30th year in the Country music industry, I am extremely grateful for all of the opportunities I have been given to serve those who both create Country music and those who help connect that great music with fans all over the world,” Fisher says. “I want to thank the Officers and Board for giving me this exciting opportunity to lead the ACADEMY into a new era. I look forward to collaborating with them and our passionate and talented staff, charting an exciting course into the future.”
But the fact that Pete Fisher is the new skipper of the Academy of Country Music is burying the lead. The real story here is that Pete Fisher is out at the Grand Ole Opry where he’s been presiding over everything Opry related for the last 17 years, making him one of the most powerful, influential, and at times, vilified men in all of country music. As the most storied institution in country, the direction of the Grand Ole Opry is always a hot topic, especially among traditional country fans. And many were unhappy with how the Opry functioned under the Pete Fisher regime.
During the Pete Fisher tenure, the Grand Ole Opry invited more modern pop country entertainers into its ranks of members that ever before—acts such as Blake Shelton, Darius Rucker, Rascall Flatts, and Little Big Town. Also during this time, many of these big names shirked their performance obligations to the Opry like never before with no real consequences. By accepting membership, artists agree to play the Opry stage at least 10 times a year. Out of the new batch of current country stars, Carrie Underwood is the only one who regularly meets her performance obligations.
Another big marker of the Pete Fischer regime was how apparent ageism took hold at the Opry beginning with his tenure in 1999. On September 29th, 2002, in an article that appeared on the front page of The Tennessean, long-time Opry members Charlie Louvin, Del Reeves and Stonewall Jackson blasted Fisher for cutting back on their performances after years of loyalty to the institution. Stonewall Jackson notoriously said Pete Fisher told him he “would work as hard as possible until no gray hair was in the audience or on the stage.” Eventually Stonewall Jackson sued the Opry for age discrimination. The case was settled privately.
Hank Williams III also had a very public run in with Pete Fisher. The 3rd generation performer was hoping the Grand Ole Opry could show their respect to his grandfather by symbolically reinstating him. Hank Williams was fired from the Opry in 1952 for drunkenness and missing rehearsals. The Opry promised to let Hank Williams back if he cleaned up his act, but Hank Williams died before he was reinstated. Hank3’s Reinstate Hank campaign continues to work towards the goal of having the Opry show their final respects to Hank Williams, but Hank3 says Pete Fisher swore to him, “We will never reinstate a dead guy.”
Performers have also complained through the Pete Fisher era about how they were not allowed to play with their own bands, and photographs (and later video) of performances were heavily restricted. Performers would get their first ever opportunity to play the Opry stage, but in many cases were not be able to share the experience through photographs or video. The Opry has released more videos of performances in recent years.
As the Pete Fisher era continued, the makeup of the Grand Ole Opry changed. Many of the most famous country stars of the day began to ignore the Grand Ole Opry, and the institution has relied more and more on older stars to fill performance slots. However that loyalty by older performers was not reciprocated in new member invitations … until very recently.
Traditional country fans were shocked when Crystal Gayle, the sister of Loretta Lynn and singer of “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” was asked to become a Grand Ole Opry member by Carrie Underwood in November, 2016. And then on December 30th, bluegrass duo Dailey & Vincent was shocked by a similar invitation.
After years of trying to coax today’s country stars to play the Opry by giving them the institution’s highest distinction, the Opry clearly had a shift in attitude about how to approach membership. And now that Pete Fisher has announced he is leaving, it could perhaps mean more shifting of policies.
Pete Fisher’s reign at the Grand Ole Opry wasn’t all negative though. Due to the tight ship he ran and some of the rules he implemented, Opry attendance increased dramatically from before his tenure. Fisher also helped shepherd the Grand Ole Opry through the devastating flooding in Nashville in 2010, and the Opry house’s $20 million restoration. Pete Fisher was business first, and that allowed the Opry to prosper financially under his leadership.
Of course the biggest question for Grand Ole Opry fans is who will be Pete Fisher’s replacement, and what direction will the new leadership take the institution? It seems like the sea change started before Pete Fisher’s resignation, and it will be interesting to see if it will continue under new leadership. The top spot at the Opry is an easy job to criticize from afar, but counts on someone who can respect the institution’s history, while also luring new artists and fans to the stage and audience to keep the Opry fresh and relevant.
As mainstream country and Nashville continues to see a resurgence in artists of a more traditional leaning and deeper substance to their music, as well as the rise in commercial viability in Americana, it will be interesting to see if the Opry can be fleet of foot enough to adapt to these changes, respect the elders of the genre, while reasserting its place in country music as an institution that doesn’t just honor the stars, but also launches new ones.