- Ralph Stanley and Grandson Making Gospel Album
- George Jones' widow wants fans to see tribute (video: autoplay)
- Funny: Honest Billboard Country Airplay Chart
- Scott Biram Announces New Album, Releases New Song
- Watch Loretta Lynn Being Awarded Medal of Freedom
- Good Read - Shopping for Hits: A Look at Music Row's 'Pitch Lists'
- Download Free Sample from Sturgill Simpson on NoiseTrade
- Stream "Foreverly" Norah Jones and Billy Joe Tribute
- Galleywinter Reviews Cody Canada's New Live Acoustic Album
- Bottle Rockets Reissue First Album and "Brooklyn Side"
- John Prine has operable form of lung cancer
- Shovels and Rope Documentary Captures the Life of an Americana Couple
- Loretta Lynn: 5 reasons why she earned Presidential Medal of Freedom
- If You Missed It: Nikki Bluhm on Conan
- Kellie Pickler Debuts in Top Five On Top Country Albums Chart
- Shovels and Rope to Reissue First Album. Listen to Revamped Song
- Ricky Skaggs Revisits Country Hits During Hall of Fame Performance
- The World's Highest-Paid Musicians 2013
- Justin Timberlake's Dreams of Country Music Stardom 'Still Alive'
- Ry Cooder Featured In The New Yorker, New Live Album
- Jello Biafra Likes Larry and His Flask!
In 2013, there is only one music artist who can say they’re officially banned for life from country music’s most storied institution: the Grand Ole Opry. No, it’s not David Allan Coe, Hank Williams III, or some other hothead, firebrand artist quick to call out the Opry and other mainstream country music institutions at any perceived slight. No, the offending party is none other than alt-country luminary Neko Case.
This may not be completely surprising seeing how Neko got her start in music as the drummer for a punk band, and has regularly collaborated with artists and bands outside of the country fold like The New Pornographers. But like many of the artists making up the alt-country movement in the mid 90′s, it can be argued that Neko had more respect for the roots of country music, and for country music institutions like the Grand Ole Opry, than many of country music’s artists did at the time, and certainly do today.
In October of 1998 when Neko’s first album The Virginian was blowing up in the alt-country realm, the Las Vegas Sun interviewed the young songstress, where she professed her philosophy behind country music, and her love for the Grand Ole Opry, in an article appropriately titled “Neko Case’s Quest for the Grand Ole Opry.”
I don’t play “alternative country” music; I just play country music. I want to have the same outlets, the same goals that all my heroes in country/western music have had. I want to play the Grand Old Opry in my grandmother’s lifetime, you know what I mean? I want to be played on mainstream radio. I’m not willing to change my music to get there faster, but I’ll fight for it anyway. I don’t think anyone gives a shit about country radio. It’s bullshit. It just makes me mad that (country radio) is using the term “country music,” when it doesn’t belong to them.
I think now is the time for change in country music; hopefully it’ll change for the better. It really burns that all the bands that inspired me were part of a national country music culture that was really admirable and fairly diverse at one time. I want to have the same avenues open to me. It’s like having this beautiful old building in your neighborhood and coming back to find that they’ve torn it down and built a Wal-Mart in its place.
Neko Case would get close to having her Grand Ole Opry wish granted when she was invited to perform at the Grand Ole Opry Plaza Party just outside the Grand Ole Opry House in the summer of 2001. Playing the Plaza Party was seen as a precursor to being able to play the Opry proper, and is the place where many Opry mainstays like Old Crow Medicine Show and Dale Watson got their Opry starts. With the respect Neko Case had for the Opry, she was excited for the opportunity.
“People who have gone to the Opry or are on their way to the Opry come by and check you out while they’re coming and going,” Neko explained to the Denver Westword that summer. “You get to go backstage at the Opry, which is the really cool part.”
Everything seemed to be going well for Neko and her Opry dream until one afternoon performance in July at the Plaza Party that was especially sweltering. The stage the Opry had set up for their Plaza performers was black, and right beside it was a barbecue pit that was pouring heat out onto the performers. With dreams of making it onto the Opry’s main stage, Neko Case persevered through the heat during her show, but it began to get unbearable and she started to wilt.
Neko Case started making requests for water from surrounding staff, but they went unfulfilled and she began to get dizzy. As Case began suffering from the effects odf heat stroke, she asked the staff if she could take a short break, and was told no. The situation became desperate for Neko, who was on the verge of passing out or suffering from some serious, long-term damage if she couldn’t resolve her rising body temperature. So in a panic, Neko removed her shirt to help cool off. As you can imagine, the family-friendly Opry did not look favorably upon this.
Exacerbating the shirt removal was the weight of Neko Case’s past in music and her statements about country, seeming to imply to the Opry and others that this wasn’t just an instance of heat exhaustion, but that Neko was making some symbolic statement by bearing her womanhood in public (though she still had a bra on beneath). As the stories swirled about Neko’s shirtless set, it was taken by some as an obscene gesture to cause a sensational outcry, or to stand against the direction of country music, or some other counterculture statement.
But that wasn’t the case. I wasn’t trying to be sexy or rebellious — I was just getting heatstroke up there,” Neko later explained to Rolling Stone. “I didn’t do anything obscene. I wouldn’t want to see me with my shirt off, either.” But the explanation didn’t do much good, and the incident resulted in a lifetime ban from the Grand Ole Opry—the institution Neko cherished so.
Neko has since come to peace with her fate. “I was pretty depressed for a couple of months after that happened, but I got over it,” Neko told The Guardian. Neko later memorialized the incident by naming her 2002 album Blacklisted.
She still hopes to return to the Opry some day and fulfill her dream. “They’ll forgive me one day,” she told Fairfax Digital. “I still love them.”
- – - – - – - – - – - – -
Neko Case just released a new album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.
Are you forlorn about what has happened to country music? Then look no further than Amber Digby.
Amber Digby’s gift is being able to hand select classic country songs from the past that never became full-on classics, but should have. And then with her band Midnight Flyer, Amber makes these songs classics by the power of her pure country voice. It’s part album making, part archeology dig, and then she adds a few newer offerings and self-penned songs to the mix for good measure. Helping her along the way is an A-list cast of contributors that includes duet partners Vince Gill and Randy Lindley, steel guitar player Lloyd Green, and piano playing Hall of Famer Hargus “Pig” Robbins, just to name a few.
It takes a certain amount of courage to make an album like The World You’re Living In–so unapologetically steeped in the traditions of country music, specifically many of the traditions that set Texas country apart from other classic sounds originating further east or west. Making an album that is so blind to trends or trade industry desires, without a care if 98.1 will show courtesy to it in their rotation is a sign of character from Amber and co-producer Justin Trevino. Besides, she’ll get plenty of love from the Texas country radio stations that matter. Amber Digby’s country music pedigree runs deep, instilling in her the inability to compromise. Her mother, father, and many other members of her immediate family were professional musicians, and an album like this only gets made when a sincere passion for the roots of country is ever-present.
The way to pull off making a successful classic country album these days is to make sure to include the right amount of spice. Amber Digby and company do this and show wisdom on The World You’re Living In in both the song selection and the style of approach for each track. They start with a breadth of material that goes from country Outlaw Johnny Paycheck’s “It Won’t Be Long (And I’ll Be Hating You)” all the way to the classic country pop of Lynn Anderson’s “How Can I Unlove You.” Throughout is a cohesion built from an insistence to build out from the fiddle/steel guitar/true country sound. Amber’s not afraid to mix it up though, like on her rendition of the Jack Greene/Connie Smith number “If It Ain’t Love (Let’s Leave It Alone)” where the Wah-Wah pedal makes an appearance and revives the late 70′s Jerry Reed funky country feel, keeping the album fresh and delivering one of the work’s funnest tracks.
It’s hard to gloss over the fact that Vince Gill thinks so highly of Amber Digby that he appears on this album in a duet of The Warren Brothers’ “The One I Can’t Live Without.” The two met backstage at The Grand Ole Opry when Amber introduced herself as a fawning fan, and was floored to find out Vince was a big fan of her. They ended up writing “One More Thing I’d Wished I’d Said” together– a track that appears on this album and Gill’s Guitar Slinger.
As with all classic country albums, you must preface it by saying that it’s probably not for everyone. But the world we’re living in would sound a lot better if The World You’re Living In was the industry standard for what country music was supposed to be.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
The brushup revolving around Blake Shelton’s recent comments about country music’s classic country fans has mostly died down. Blake apologized, at least to Ray Price and other artists, while excluding angry fans, and later clarifying further by saying, “Still sad that Ray thought I was talking about artists. I was only referring to people who don’t like the new direction country is going.”
This story grew many tentacles, but one worth following a little deeper is Blake Shelton and his current membership at The Grand Ole Opry. Opry historian Byron Fay of Fayfare’s Opry Blog, called for Blake Shelton’s outright firing after his inflammatory comments. This may seem like a reactionary, bellicose opinion, but Byron Fay raised an excellent point. By not making even one appearance at the Opry in 2012, Blake Shelton is in unquestionable violation of the Opry’s long-standing membership rules.
According to the bylaws of The Opry, membership not only has to be earned, but maintained. In April of 1963, The Opry implemented a rule stating that members must make at least 26 appearances on the show per year to keep their membership active. Over the years, the amount of required appearances per year has dropped, though the appearance rule is still in effect. In 1964, Opry management dropped the amount of required performances to 20. Then in 2000, they dropped the requirement to 12.
The Opry does its best to be flexible with their appearance rules for superstar members. For example, if you are a high profile member and make an appearance on a Friday or Saturday, they give you 3 performance credits. But members are still expected to do at least a minimum number of shows each year or risk losing membership.
Blake Shelton was invited to become a member of The Opry on September 29th of 2010, and was officially inducted on October 23rd. 6 months later Blake Shelton became a judge for the reality TV singing contest The Voice on NBC, taped in Los Angeles. The TV show has drawn Blake’s ire a number of times by insisting on running multiple seasons of the contest in the same calendar year. At one point, both Season 3 and Season 4 were being taped simultaneously, while Blake had just released two albums. Furthermore, unlike many Opry members, Blake lives in Oklahoma, not Nashville, making his ability to fulfill his Opry obligations even less likely.
It is understandable that for some Opry members who’ve paid their dues to the institution for many years, performance rules could be more flexible. But Blake never created a tenure with the Opry.
The problem with the Opry’s performance rule is the same problem with The Grand Ole Opry’s current practices for inviting new members. The last three inductees to the Grand Ole Opry were Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, and Darius Rucker–all high-profile, big name members who have touring and label requirements outside of the their Opry obligations. Keith Urban, who was inducted into The Opry in April of 2012, just took the position as an American Idol judge.
Meanwhile traditional artists like Elizabeth Cook are the ones making the most Opry appearances annually, including filling many last-minute slots for big-name cancellations. Yet these Nashville-based artists that have fulfilled The Opry’s membership requirements many times over seem nowhere close to induction because of the Opry’s exclusive focus on only inducting members with superstar names recently.
In August of 1952, The Grand Ole Opry fired Hank Williams for missing practices and showing up drunk. We all know The Opry is not going to fire Blake Shelton, but if Opry membership or the institution itself is going to have any meaning moving forward, they must either adhere to their rules, reform them, or reform the membership process. Otherwise, it may be The Opry that is ignored, not just their loosely-defined and ill-followed rules.
Marty Stuart is the man. More so than any other modern country music artist, Marty does everything right, from preserving the roots of country and helping to keep the traditions alive, to putting out fresh, fun, and relevant music, to taking up the cause of the oldtimers and the up-and-comers alike to keep the country music community both honorable and vibrant. You name it, Marty has done it, and done it many times away from the cameras and country writers, simply from a passion for country music, and from the kindness of his heart.
Marty Stuart breathes country music, and helps preserve it and pay it forward almost as if it was an involuntary action. He doesn’t know how to do anything different. The man is tireless, touring many months out of the year, and spending the majority of his time when home in Nashville on his Marty Stuart Show or playing the Grand Ole Opry, or other endeavors that many times seem to be about promotion someone other than himself. The amount of talent he has churning through the Marty Stuart Show set alone is boggling, and it is about the only place left in American popular media where you can see what real country entertainment once was.
You know, I’ve heard some folks say that Marty is “hokey,” probably partly in response to his RFD-TV Show. I’ve heard others remark that he’s just plain weird, maybe from his flamboyant hairdo or dress. What’s funny though is when it comes to Marty Stuart’s music, all of that stuff seems so superfluous. His recent output is responsible for some of the hardest-charging guitar music that exists in country right now, walking right up near the line of rock & roll, but cleverly knowing where not to cross it. The magic Marty is making with “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan and the double-barreled Telecaster twang-out sound is something that will go down in the annals of country music as one of its coolest eras.
Marty Stuart also has excellent ballads and beautiful instrumentals and traditionals that include some of the tightest musicianship and harmonies you will find, mostly the fault of his excellent band The Fabulous Superlatives. From gospel to Outlaw, Marty Stuart can work within all of country music’s colors, and practice the art of playing and living authentic country music that he preaches. As Marty says, “The most Outlaw thing you can do in Nashville right now is play country music.”
One thing that many folks don’t know about Marty Stuart is that he owns a vast archive of country music memorabilia, and not from a personal desire to horde expensive valuables, but a sincere desire to preserve these artifacts for future generations of country fandom.
I’ve heard many stories about Marty’s generosity from other artists over the years, but the one that sticks with me most was from 90-year-old Don Maddox, the last surviving member of the Maddox Brothers & Rose. When Don flew out from the West Coast to be a part of the opening of the Bakersfield Sound exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Marty acted as Don Maddox’s personal tour guide in Nashville, taking him to see the Maddox Brothers costumes Marty gobbled up years ago for safe keeping (some of which were given to the Hall of Fame for the Bakersfield exhibit), inviting Don to play with him on The Grand Ole Opry, and putting him on The Marty Stuart Show.
Marty’s generosity stretches out to all sectors of real country music, to up-and-coming acts like The Quebe Sisters and Justin Townes Earle that he’s invited on his TV show, to Hank Williams III who appears on a duet on Marty’s latest album Nashville Vol. 1 – Tear The Woodpile Down.
And in the end, Marty Stuart’s music is the reason he deserves this honor the most. The reason Marty is in a position to do all the great things that he does is because he is so revered by his peers, by country music’s historic institutions, and by the overall country music community.
Simply put, Marty Stuart is saving country music.
One of the most remarkable music events of 2012 must be how Nashville and some of its biggest, most bloated and notorious corporate citizens did the inexplicable: they began to tackle the issue of the massive talent glut in American roots music. As big record labels continue to tighten their ships, and radio companies like Clear Channel continue to buy up radio stations all around the country and nationalize programming, the ability for America’s major media companies to offer true choices in content continues to diminish. And when it comes to radio, the issue is likely effecting rural areas and country listeners disproportionately.
T Bone Burnett, renown music producer and the music director for ABC’s new television drama Nashville spelled out the problem in October, right before the Nashville series started.
Because the bottleneck of commercial country radio is so profound, there’s a wealth of incredible material laying around town. This is a big surprise to me, how many extraordinary songs we’ve been able to find. An industrial amount of bad songs, to be sure, but a surprising amount of really good, handcrafted, personal songs that people are willing to share with us because there’s no longer a platform for them to share their music at all. I hope that we become the platform for the people who are writing from their whole hearts.
And that is exactly what the Nashville show has become, pushing independent music from artists as varying as The Civil Wars, Lindi Ortega, and Shovels & Rope. In a recent article in The Tennessean, musician and writer Peter Cooper asked about Nashville, “How come the country music in a soap opera, sung by actors, is better than what I hear on mainstream country radio?”
When talking about Nashville, I often have to explain that I don’t “like” the show, and don’t even recommend people watch it. But that’s different from understanding the importance and power of an outlet like Nashville, and how its opening up tremendous opportunities for some independent artists.
And who owns ABC? Disney does, the largest media conglomerate in the world. Who is helping fund Nashville? Ryman Hospitality (previously Gaylord Entertainment), which owns The Grand Ole Opry and has been notorious for ignoring aging and emerging talent over the last few years.
And not to be outdone, another subsidiary of a massive media conglomerate based in Nashville, Viacom’s CMT, has figured out how to get on the independent music bandwagon by launching their new outlet with an emphasis on the legendary and the unknown, CMT Edge. 6 months ago, it would have been unfathomable to see an artist like Rachel Brooke featured on anything related to CMT. Now CMT Edge is digging deep, and doing what they can to shine a bigger light on music from the Americana world to aging greats.
Sony ATV, Nashville’s biggest music publisher, just announced a new program called Nashville Guitars and Bars meant to showcase budding talent coming up in the singer/songwriter ranks.
All of a sudden the big boys in the media business are playing a part in re-populating the country and roots music farm system that for years has been anemic and ignored. Why?
Because as I and others have asserted for years, there is commercial viability in independent music. No, of course it is not as financially lucrative as artists like Tim McGraw or Toby Keith, but that doesn’t mean that companies cannot create revenue by either helping to manufacture this music, or promote it or cover it. And as time goes on and the ranks of listeners disenfranchised with corporate music and its inherent lack of choice continues to grow, the trends favor independent music becoming even more popular in the coming years.
There is money in independent music, no matter how much independent fans might want to grovel over its monetization. Fans and artists have a right to be speculative of the intentions of some of these Nashville institutions wanting a piece of the action, seeing how their closed doors and derelict attitudes towards artistic expression and creative freedom is part of the reason an independent movement in music exists in the first place.
For years people have thought of Nashville as the home of corporate music, and that’s still true. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a rapidly-growing independent scene on Nashville’s east side and in other spots around the city. The word from many of the folks on the inside looking out is that Nashville has long surpassed Austin as the epicenter for independent roots music, despite Music City still being the home of Music Row and many other trappings of the mainstream music business.
I was as speculative as anyone about the intentions and viability of outlets like ABC’s Nashville or CMT Edge, and will probably continue to keep one suspicious eye turned in their direction. But for now, they appear to be working from a sincere approach of broadening musical perspectives and choices.
I’ve always said that all that independent, up-and-coming artists need is a chance. You put the good stuff right next to the stuff people are force fed through Clear Channel radio and they will begin to make better choices. Finally here in 2012, those choices are being made available through mainstream outlets, and the glut of viable artists and credible content pushing at the edges of Nashville like a balloon ready to burst is finally being alleviated by new outlets channeling real music to hungry ears. Without question more needs to be done, but this is a good start.
The fight for the purity of country music is almost as old as the genre itself. The conflict between pop and traditionalism, and the fight for creative control for artists runs like a thread throughout country music’s history, defining it as much as the twang of a Telecaster, or the moan of a steel guitar. Here are some of the most iconic images of country music revolution, and the stories behind them.
Fanning The Flames
Charlie Rich was tapped to present the trophy for Entertainer of the Year at the CMA Awards in 1975. Knowing what name the little envelope contained (and not being too happy about it), Rich pulled out his bic and lit it on fire, announcing the winner as “My friend, Mr. John Denver.” Denver wasn’t in attendance and accepted via satellite, unaware of the pyrotechnics. Rich, who’d won 5 CMA Awards in the past, was never invited back to the CMA’s, and was never nominated again.
Flipping The Bird
Johnny Cash’s famous middle finger photo was shot by photographer Jim Marshall at California’s San Quentin prison during a concert in 1970. The pose was the response to Jim’s request: “John, let’s do a shot for the warden.” Where it became an iconic image of American culture was years later, when Johnny Cash was making his American Recordings records with Rick Rubin. Cash’s album Unchained had won the Grammy for “Best Country Album”, but was being virtually ignored by country radio. So Rick Rubin ran an ad with the obscene image, along with the caption, “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to thank the country music establishment and country radio for your support.” (read full story)
On March 17th, 18th, and 19th of 1972, The Dripping Springs reunion, aka the “Country Music Woodstock” went down just outside of Austin, TX. It was a commercial flop, but a fundamentally-important event nonetheless because it established Austin, TX as a serious alternative to the restrictive environment of Nashville, with Willie Nelson leading the charge. Similar to the underground/independent movements in country music today, The Dripping Springs Reunion paid respects to the older legends like Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Buck Owens, and Roger Miller who all attended and performed, while establishing in earnest the Outlaw movement with native Texans Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson at the helm.
Tompall Glaser saved his pennies from his days in The Glaser Brothers and bought himself a renegade studio / clubhouse that would later be known as Hillbilly Central. Located on 19th Ave. right off of Music Row, it broke the monopoly RCA, Chet Atkins, and Studio “B” had on country music at the time. It allowed artists like Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver to record their music the way they wanted and use their own bands as opposed to Nashville’s unionized studio musicians. In the words of Outlaw writer Michael Bane, it was “the home of all those records Nashville really didn’t want to make,” including such iconic albums as Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes and John Hartford’s Aereo Plain.
Though the Grand Ole Opry continues to use the likeness of Hank Williams prominently, he was never reinstated as a member after being dismissed in 1952. The understanding was that Hank would sober up and make a triumphant return to the Opry that he so loved, but he died on New Year’s Day 1953 at the age of 29 and never got the opportunity. Hank’s grandson Hank Williams III started a movement called “Reinstate Hank” that now boasts over 54,000 signatures on its online petition. (photo courtesy of minnemynx)
Wanting to take creative control of his music and to be released from the budgetary restraints of the studio, Hank Williams III did the unprecedented for an artist signed to a major country music record label under the CMA umbrella. He took a a Korg D-1600–a consumer-grade piece of recording gear–and cut his record Straight to Hell in the house of his bass player, Joe Buck. It was the underground mentality brought to the mainstream, with the result being Hank3′s magnum opus.
(from left to right: Andy Gibson, Hank Williams III, Joe Buck)
Don Maddox, the last surviving member of the wildly-influential Maddox Brothers & Rose, will be recognized in his hometown of Ashland, Oregon for his 90th birthday at the Don Maddox Birthday Celebration on Saturday, December 8th.
Don Maddox moved to Ashland, OR from California in the late 50′s after The Maddox Brothers & Rose disbanded, and bought a 300-acre cattle ranch where he’s been “hibernating” (in his words) from the music business for the last 54 years. Don still works and lives on the remaining 80-acre parcel, where one of Ashland’s landmarks, Don’s “Maddox Revolution Angus” barn sits prominently on a hillside on the east side of town.
The Maddox Brothers & Rose are one of the most influential bands in the history of American music. Don and his family migrated from Alabama in 1933 during the Depression to California, and became the first band to formulate what would later become known as the California country, West Coast, or Bakersfield Sound. They were called “The Most Colorful Hillbilly Band” and played shows with folks as far ranging as Ernest Tubb and Elvis Presley.
It is said that Elvis when playing a show with The Maddox Family in Beaumont, TX was inspired by The Maddox Brothers’ colorful uniforms and adopted the fashion style himself. The Maddox Brothers and Rose were there at the beginning of the formation of country, rockabilly, and rock and roll music, and are given credit for influencing them all equally.
Don Maddox has been enjoying a major resurgence in his musical career thanks to the re-popularization of the music of Maddox Brothers & Rose, and his own music he’s been releasing on his record label “Revolution Records”. Don and The Maddox Brothers and Rose are heavily featured in a brand new exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, TN showcasing the Bakersfield Sound from California that Don and the Maddox Brothers were seminal in creating.
When Merle Haggard was asked to be part of the opening ceremony for the Bakersfield Sound exhibit, he said, “If you don’t have Don Maddox out here for this, you may as well not have it at all.” During Don’s trip to Nashville for the opening of the exhibit, he was also invited on to the Grand Ole Opry where he received two standing ovations. He also has headlined the Muddy Roots Festival in Tennessee the last two years.
Don Maddox’s 90th Birthday Celebration will feature performances by the Oregon Old Time Fiddlers, Sage Meadows and her band High Country, Don Maddox himself, and the legendary Ashland bluegrass group Siskiyou Summit, who was the backing band Don’s sister Rose Maddox for many years. Rose, who passed away in 1998, is buried in Ashland, as are all the members of Maddox Brothers & Rose.
Don Maddox’s 90th Birthday Celebration will be from 2 to 6 PM, December 8th at the Ashland Community Center, located just across from Lithia Park at 59 Winburn Way, Ashland, OR 97520. Don’s actual birthday is Pearl Harbor day, December 7th.
For more information and to purchase tickets, go to www.donmaddox.weebly.com.
Presentation to the Ashland, OR City Council at part of the Don Maddox 90th Birthday Celebration:
Don Maddox on the Marty Stuart Show:
In early October, a 92-year-old retired engineer named Bobby Hogg passed away in the little town of Comarty, Scotland. The death was significant because Mr. Hogg was the last speaker of a local dialect called “Comarty fisherfolk” that now only exists in a few brief audio clips. Many of the villages of northern Scotland have distinct dialects, and as time goes on, they become lost forever as elders pass away and the younger generations slowly drop their native accents in place for the more common pronunciations.
When President Obama won re-election last Tuesday, he said in his speech that what makes America strong is not that it has the greatest wealth in the world, or because it has the strongest military, or because its culture is the “envy of the world.” Obama cited America’s diversity, and the bonds that hold that diversity together as the reason the United States remains the most powerful nation on the planet.
But where the greatest diversity of culture exists in America, especially when it comes to dialect and musical styles, is in the rural states and counties; that red area that Obama didn’t take in the election. Cities and suburbs are much more likely to be gentrified to the more common American culture spread by popular media and entertainment than rural areas are, obviously with some exceptions.
In fact when you look at the culture of America’s rural areas, it’s is usually lampooned by the rest of the country’s culture, especially the dialect. “Rednecks” and people from the country have been a mainstay of comedic fodder for over 50 years. And now, entities like CMT, who are supposed to be for people of the country, by people of the country, are themselves formulating television series around making fun of “rednecks” in shows like Redneck Vacation and Redneck Island.
Meanwhile the negative connotations in media about redneck culture are making many people in rural areas flee from their native habits to adopt customs more indigenous to urban locales, giving rise to country rap with artists like Colt Ford. Jason Aldean’s country rap “Dirt Road Anthem” was the best-selling song in country music last year for example. At the same time, the power of pop country is causing similar gentrification in suburban and urban zones as it encroaches into areas it is not indigenous to either.
I’ve always found it perplexing how Americans generally look at the varying cultures of the rest of the world with interest and appreciation for their diversity, but seem to be unwilling to do so in their own country and community. Our differences are something that need to be resolved, whether by promulgating our political or religious beliefs on other people, or trying to promote our products or culture to people who it might either be foreign to or downright unhealthy for, usually for the purpose of financial gain.
Similarly there is a demonstrative focus on preserving rare or endangered animals and plant species, or historic buildings or artifacts. We will stop the whole of human progress for concerns over an endangered strain of the titmouse. But those rednecks living out in the rural part of the county need to understand that the old-school agrarian life is gone and they better contemporize or risk being branded closed-minded. Yes, many racist, judgmental customs should be a thing of the past, but not at the sacrifice of what makes these people and their customs unique.
When the American South was populated, many times by native Scots and Irish that brought their folk instruments and musical learnings with them, a vibrant tapestry bloomed all across the Southern region with distinct musical dialects representing the geographical and genealogical makeup of the areas where they were founded. As people moved West during the gold rush and the Depression, they carried their musical cultures with them that then intermixed with the landscapes and labor they found there, giving birth to even more individual musical dialects.
Many of these varying styles and dialects would come together at institutions like the Grand Ole Opry, and this in part was how the big umbrella of country music was formed. But the differences in styles was something that was always celebrated instead of something that was attempted to be resolved to increase the economic potential of the music. They understood that the loss of the diversity may result in long-term decay of the musical format, even though it may garner short-term financial gain.
Ironically, it is not the mainstream, nationally-focused musicians that say they want to destroy the diversity in American music. Many go out of their way to tell you how country they are, citing very specific artifacts of rural life to prove it, many times to take the sting away of the actual music itself being more rooted in rock or hip-hop modes. It is the roots-based musicians who do not have the benefit of the country genre’s industrial machine that tend to speak out and say that genres don’t matter any more; artists in the loosely-defined “Americana” world.
Meanwhile radio may be the the most-obvious place where our differences are disappearing. When Clear Channel cut hundreds of local positions at stations in rural media markets last year in favor of nationally-syndicated programming, this also disproportionately effected the rural/red zones that are so rich with cultural diversity. Just like rainforests and wild areas around the world that are held back from development in conservancies cited as being vital to ecological and economic sustainability, America’s rural areas as robust cultural generators are just as important in sustaining the overall health of the greater cultural landscape.
Things are always evolving, changing, and coagulating together, and wringing your hands over it in some respects is foolish. At the same time, if the “melting pot” theory of how America became the greatest nation on the planet is true, then there’s nothing more important than protecting that diversity for the long-term preservation of the world’s greatest economic engine and mouthpiece for freedom. And this would also be true in protecting the diversity of any country or region for them to live up to their greatest potential.
In other words, the destruction of America’s distinct musical dialects is not just a musical problem.
That’s right ladies and gentleman, you want to go see a show at the Wal-Mart Ryman, or maybe at the Grand Ole International House of Pancakes? Well that’s exactly what country fans could be facing in the future now that Ryman Hospitality (previously Gaylord Entertainment) has partnered with Creative Artists Agency to attempt to sell their naming rights, Billboard reports.
Congratulations ladies and gentlemen, your most coveted country music institutions are now officially whoring themselves.
The deal encompassing “title sponsorships, on-site branding, and national marketing partnerships” between Creative Artists Agency, and both The Grand Ole Opry and the Ryman Auditorium could for the first time make these historic institutions and the programs they house a suffix after nationally-recognized sales brands.
Creative Artists Agency has also reached a deal with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to sell their naming rights, but as a non-profit, the Rock Hall could only use a corporate brand at the end of their current name, like “presented by” or “sponsored by.” But as for-profit institutions, the Ryman and Grand Ole Opry are free game to do whatever they want.
And if you’re not too worried about the news because the Opry could partner with some cool, local Nashville company, think again. The reason for the naming rights sale is not just the money that could be generated from the sponsorship, but to supposedly increase brand awareness for it on a national level, meaning only huge, nationally-recognized brands need apply.
Though the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation and the Grand Ole Opry Group have partnered with sponsors at a regional and national level in the past, both organizations are looking to expand their reach. “They rely on attendance, and a good partner could help them promote and align with what they’re doing in the long term as well as put more people in seats,” says Tom Worcester, head of CAA’s music sponsorships group.
Gaylord Entertainment, the longtime owner of The Grand Ole Opry and the Ryman Auditorium was sold to Marriott International earlier this year, and has since restructured from an entertainment company into a REIT, or Real Estate Investment Trust, and changed their name to Ryman Hospitality.
Gaylord’s two biggest investors opposed the restructuring, with one having to be bought out to go along with the deal, and the second opposing the deal specifically requesting the Grand Ole Opry assets be spun off from the company as part of the sale, believing they would prosper better as an autonomous unit as opposed to being managed in a real estate and hospitality structure. The deal also destroyed a partnership with Dolly Parton to build an water/winter amusement park in Nashville.
This naming rights sale, and the induction of Darius Rucker as a Grand Ole Opry member could be just the beginning of the changes we see from the Grand Ole Opry as the new parent company attempts to market the brand for maximum profitability.
You can probably make a pretty good case that no matter what ABC’s new drama Nashville served up I was predisposed to not like it. I’m one of those non-TV snobs whose never had cable, and though I’ve attempted to be vigilant over the years separating the City of Nashville from Music Row, the erosion of many music values has happened within the confines of that fair city’s four corners. And being an individual who grew up in Dallas but lived most of his life away from it, I know just how hard it is to slay negative stereotypes hardened into the brain by pop culture and television specifically (no, I don’t own cattle or work in the oil business), and cringe at what a series like this could do to the perception of what I have found over the years to be a beautiful and diverse city.
The early reviews of Nashville have been of the nature where you can sincerely call it “critically acclaimed” and I concur that at least from the perspective of the first episode, it was well written. And aside from the obvious, and at times horrifically out-of-sync lip syncing during the singing parts that took away from the value of the songs themselves, the show was superbly acted. With only 40-something minutes to work with, the writers did well in presenting complex characters and scenarios, though there were a few of those moments that gave you that dirty, gossipy feel that TV will when they were presenting the numerous love triangles that then intertwine with each other to the point where even Isosceles would be asking for a breather.
In a series that could have been potentially filled with cliche characters, the only obvious one so far is the young, up-and-coming starlet Hayden Panettiere whose hitting on anything with an outie to get ahead. But I understand, this is drama and you need your villains. You don’t keep the masses engaged with subtly.
Judging the Nashville premier episode solely based on its entertainment value as a television show, I would give it a solid 1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
As for the musical impact, I would say that at this point, this is the thing the least to be determined so far, and that it may take months to gauge what a plus or minus Nashville might have on the sonic world. It was cool to see Del McCoury get a cameo and to hear the tail of a Tammy Wynette song being played in prime time. At the same time, all of this stuff is being portrayed as the old, “has-been” music that is fighting for its life against the young blood looking to steal the spotlight in Nashville.
And though one of the story lines in Nashville is the cronyism that permeates the city, cronyism is exactly what is making the music in this series purr. The show’s music producer is T Bone Burnett, who is the husband of the show’s executive producer Callie Khouri. In the first episode, a song clearly picked from The Civil Wars was showcased, and Burnett has said he wants to work with people he’s worked with before on the show, like The Civil Wars, Lucinda Williams and others. Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine label is exclusively distributing the music showcased on the show, and Gaylord Entertainment, now Ryman Hospitality is one of the big money entities behind the series.
And this gets me to the icky feeling that I have about this whole thing. Nashville smacks of the same type of tactic used by Music Row’s major labels to re-integrate and monetize anti-Nashville sentiment through “new Outlaws.” Instead of trying to tackle and resolve the issues facing the country music industry–like how to deal with aging talent, the intrusion of industry into the creative process, the use of Auto-tune, and the all-too-common practice of kinky sex being used to evaluate music instead of the music’s creative value–they are using these negative aspects present in mainstream country music as dramatic fodder, with the backdrop being many of Nashville’s historic institutions like The Grand Ole Opry, The Ryman Auditorium, and the Bluebird Cafe.
Is it compelling? Sure. Is it right? Of course not. Will it result in either the increased exposure of good music as T Bone Burnett hopes, or the greater awareness of the issues plaguing mainstream country? Well have to see. But I remain skeptical. I would rather see Nashville attempt to fix their problems as opposed to try and make money off the drama they create. But of course, that doesn’t make for compelling television.
A lot is still to be determined about Nashville, but I continue to believe the show’s impact could be massive in one direction or another. So I will be fighting through lip-syncing, bad love scenes, and general modern television bullshit to keep a close eye.
Even if he never made a dime doing it, even if nobody ever doted on him for it, Tom VandenAvond would still be out there traveling around the country playing songs for whoever he could get to listen. He’s unique to the music world in how there appears to be no ego. Instead the quiet, raspy-voiced troubadour is driven by the simple urge to share stories.
VandenAvond, whose originally from Green Bay, Wisconsin, lived in and around Austin, TX for about 8 years before moving to the small town of Oakdale in interior California to “be amongst the cowboys” with fellow songwriter Willy Tea Taylor. “Willy had an airstream open,” Tom explains.
Songs become timeless by having the uncanny knack of feeling relevant no matter when they are performed. The title track from Tom’s latest album Wreck Of A Fine Man falls into that lot. Last week when it was announced Darius Rucker would be the newest member of the Grand Ole Opry, “Wreck Of A Fine Man” seemed to be the best salve for the old soul struggling with the short-sightedness of today’s society.
“I was sitting around one afternoon, and I think I took a nap or something, but I was thinking about Hank Williams and if he was still alive.” Tom explained to me before his set at the Cattlemen’s Saloon in the small town of Rogue River, Oregon last Wednesday. “I think I actually had a dream that he was still alive, and I was kind of thinking about what his life would be like, if people would accept him today. I pictured him living outside of Nashville a little bit, out in the woods you know, kind of keeping to himself. So that was a big inspiration for that song.”
“Wreck Of A Fine Man” mentions the Ryman Auditorium, aka the “Country Music Mother Church” that was the home of The Grand Ole Opry for many years and where Hank Williams made his hay. VandenAvond went on to explain that Ol’ Hank wasn’t the only iconic country singer to inspire the song. James Hand, who has his own album Mighty Lonesome Man set for release on October 16th, also was an inspiration for the song.
“He reminds me of Hank Williams. If Hank Williams hadn’t of died, he would be James Hand. I used to see James Hand every Thursday in Austin at the Saxon Pub. I looked forward to those days. It helped me and my buddies through some hard times listening to that beautiful music.”
“Wreck Of A Fine Man” was featured in Saving Country Music “Best Songs of 2012 So Far” and barring the Mayan Apocalypse, will be on the end of year list as well.
On Tuesday night (10-2-12) Brad Paisley popped out of the crowd at the Grand Ole Opry and surprised everyone by presenting former Hootie & The Blowfish frontman turned pop country star Darius Rucker with an invitation to become the Grand Ole Opry’s newest member. The invitation came a week after Gaylord Entertainment’s $210 million sale to Marriott International was approved by shareholders.
As a frame of reference, you can cull through the vast Saving Country Music archives, and aside from maybe a passing comment, you will find no ill will towards Hootie around here, no negative reviews or features of any sort. No matter what you think of the man, he’s generally kept his nose clean over the years, understanding that he is privileged to be amongst the mainstream country ranks, and no, not because of his race.
The problem with this invitation is that he is a country interloper, a carpetbagger who came to the genre like so many others to save a dying pop rock career. And we don’t even know how long he will stay. He said in late July that Hootie & The Blowfish are reuniting and recording new music. But here we are, handing Hootie country’s most coveted invitation with a lifetime guarantee when there’s so many other artists out there so much more deserving.
And the invitation is so obvious. It’s a headline maker. How about showing the man some respect by letting him earn the invitation, as opposed to using him as a prop for a publicity blitz? It is good that the Opry finally has another black member, but not that it is being done this way.
SCM’s Top 25 Artists Deserving Opry Membership
- Hank Williams
- Willie Nelson
- Merle Haggard
- Dwight Yoakam
- George Strait
- Miranda Lambert
- Jamey Johnson
- Lee Ann Womack
- Hank Williams Jr.
- Zac Brown
- Kellie Pickler
- Rosanne Cash
- Ronnie Dunn
- Dale Watson
- Mark Chesnutt
- Jo Dee Messina
- Sam Bush
- Elizabeth Cook
- Easton Corbin
- Jack Ingram
- Gene Watson
- Josh Abbot
- “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan
- Eli Young
- Aaron Tippin
And after sleeping on this list, 6 other names that probably deserve to be on it somewhere:
- Billy Joe Shaver
- Kris Kristofferson
- Robert Earl Keen
- Asleep At The Wheel
- Gary Stewart
- And though nowhere near the top for sure, but still probably more deserving than Darius – Taylor Swift
And just in case you were wondering where Hootie would be on my list? Well, you have to fast-forward pretty far…
722. Goo Goo Dolls
723. 80′s one hit wonder band “Mister Mister”
724. Limahl – The guy that sang the theme song to The NeverEnding Story. This dude:
725. Darius Rucker
726. Billy Ray Cyrus’s mullet
727. Garth Brooks’ enlarged prostate
728. Kid Rock
I tried to be practical when making my list, but if all things were equal (and taking into consideration the Opry’s family friendly environment), here are some names from the underground/independent country world that would deserve an Opry nod:
- Wayne “The Train” Hancock
- James Hand
- Caleb Klauder
- Rachel Brooke
- Lucky Tubb
- Caitlin Rose
- Justin Townes Earle
- Whitey Morgan
- JB Beverley
- Chris Scruggs
Who would you like to see in the Grand Ole Opry?
Fallout from the sale of Gaylord Entertainment to Marriott International continues. Shareholders approved the $210 million dollar deal on Tuesday (9-25-2012) despite one of the leading investors in the company wanting Gaylord to spin off its Grand Ole Opry assets. Now the deal has ruffled the feathers of a country music heavyweight: Dolly Parton.
In January, Dolly Parton and Gaylord announced intentions to partner up and build a snow and water-themed amusement park in Nashville. The 114-acre, $50 million park was to be located near the Gaylord Opryland hotel on an entertainment zone off Briley Parkway. But when Gaylord Entertainment let it be known they had plans to sell the company to Marriott International and restructure the company into an REIT or Real Estate Investment Trust, Dolly Parton began to get cold feet, saying at an August 10th press conference:
There are a lot of changes going on. Gaylord is actually involved at the moment with some changes of their own, so we are just kind of waiting until they get their things straightened out before we go forward with that.
Now Dolly Parton has completely pulled out of the deal and is not mincing words about why, apologizing to the City of Nashville and the State of Tennessee, but seemingly laying fault at the feet of Gaylord.
Gaylord makes decisions that they feel are good for their company and their stockholders and I have to make decisions based on what is best for me and the Dollywood Company. Governor Haslam, Mayor Dean, and all the folks in government have been great to work with. I really appreciate their support through this process.
The proposed theme park was one of the Gaylord Entertainment assets that was scheduled to be re-aligned under Marriott International control like other Gaylord properties in Nashville, including the General Jackson Showboat and the Wildhorse Saloon. Gaylord is keeping managerial control of its large hotel properties and The Grand Ole Opry under the new Marriott umbrella, and renaming the company to Ryman Hospitality.
Dolly Parton owns the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, TN, and Gaylord was hoping for the country music legend to bring her high-caliber name and theme park expertise to the new amusement project. Now they are left looking for new partners. The Nashville theme park was originally planed to be a 50/50 venture between Gaylord and Dolly.
The Gaylord/Marriott deal is also turning out to be a job killer, at least for the Nashville area. The dissolution of the Dolly/Gaylord deal could cost Nashville as many as 450 jobs the theme park was hoping to create, and that doesn’t include the construction jobs to build the park. That is on top of the 310 positions expected to be cut in Nashville in the coming days with Gaylord restructuring into Ryman Hospitality.
Tuesday morning (9-25-12), Gaylord Entertainment shareholders approved a $210 million dollar deal to have Marriott International buy the company and take over management of certain Gaylord assets. The vote also sets in motion Gaylord’s plan to covert the company into an REIT, or Real Estate Investment Trust. Shareholders voted at an 85 percent rate in favor of the deal according to The Tennessean.
As part of the SEC filing, Gaylord also revealed plans to change the name of the company to Ryman Hospitality Properties, the “Ryman” being from The Ryman Auditorium; the “Country Music Mother Church” and the first major home of the Grand Ole Opry. The name change also solidifies the company’s hold on The Grand Ole Opry and it’s assets, which includes The Ryman and radio station WSM-AM. According to The Nashville Post, then name change is part of the company’s “plans to have the Ryman brand, along with the Grand Ole Opry and WSM-AM, play a prominent role in their future operations.”
Whether The Grand Ole Opry assets would be part of the deal was called into question when large Gaylord investor Gabelli Funds LLC suggested Gaylord spin off the Opry assets, believing they would thrive better outside of Gaylord’s new structure that will be focused on real estate instead of entertainment, but Gabelli did not hold enough stock to thwart the deal. Gabelli’s Gaylord holdings are near 15%, but it is unclear if he comprised the 15% that opposed the deal. A call to Gabelli by Saving Country Music was not immediately returned. The largest Gaylord stockholder, TRT holdings, also opposed the deal before being bought out by Gaylord to allow the deal to go through.
“Nothing will change at these iconic assets,” said Gaylord CEO Collin Reed last week. “And we look forward to continuing to offer the same level of world-class entertainment that has made them such prominent music institutions.”
Though Marriott International is the new umbrella organization Ryman Hospitality will reside under, Ryman Hospitality will continue to own its assets and manage its resort hotels and the Grand Ole Opry. Marriott will take over management of other Gaylord assets, including Nashville’s General Jackson Showboat and Wildhorse Saloon.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -
The sale and ownership change at The Grand Ole Opry represented a unique opportunity for the institution to break free of from corporate control for the first time since 1982, and refocus its assets on the business of music. With the name change, Gaylord’s mark on the Grand Ole Opry now becomes indelible, and the possibility of Opry autonomy unlikely.
On Tuesday morning (9-25-12) Gaylord Entertainment, the owners of The Grand Ole Opry and its various assets will conduct a board meeting to finalize their sale to Marriott International for $210 million and restructure the company into an REIT or Real Estate Investment Trust. Though the deal has been opposed by the two top investors in Gaylord, TRT Holdings and Gabelli Funds, the deal is expected to go through by most experts, but you never know what can happen.
TRT Holdings, Gaylord’s biggest shareholder, had to be bought out make Gaylord’s REIT restructuring possible, and the other big investor Gabelli wants Gaylord to spin off the company’s Grand Ole Opry investments before the restructure, worried these assets will get smothered in a real estate model. With the TRT buyout, Gaylord will likely have the shareholder votes to make the deal go through.
But sitting on the sidelines seems to be the fans of country music and their best interests. Tuesday will be the first time since 1982–when Gaylord purchased The Grand Ole Opry, WSM, and all of it’s various properties–that The Opry will have an opportunity to be free of a larger company’s control, a company that must meet shareholder’s demands, and figure out how to fit an old, historic institution into a modern-day corporate management structure.
Many diehard and purist fans of country music have been saying that The Grand Ole Opry has been mismanaged for years. They feel disenfranchised by the Opry’s recent moves of showcasing more pop, and more younger members of the country music industry. Others cite various causes like the Stonewall Jackson lawsuit that exposed the Opry dilemma of how to handle aging talent, or the campaign to Reinstate Hank to the Opry.
But where is this opposition in the argument for the Opry’s fate that could very well be decided tomorrow? They seem curiously absent. Instead of anger at what has become of arguably country music’s most important institution, there seems to be apathy and resignation to the fact that it is over, that the Opry will never return to its prominence of the past, or to a healthier balance, where both young, up-and-coming talent, as well as aging and traditional country artists share the billing.
But this quite possibly is the moment when the tide has turned. How much influence can the country music public have on the sale of a company? None if they don’t speak up in favor or opposition, but for the first time, they have the business men who make the decisions on their side, echoing the same sentiments Gaylord detractors have for years about Gaylord mismanagement.
The shuttering of The Ryman Auditorium for 20 years would have never happened without the complicit nature of the country music public. The Opry will never fit well in a modern-day corporate structure, and like shareholder Gabelli points out, things could get worse under the new system.
When Gaylord initially purchased the Opry in 1982, there were concerns then about how it would be managed in Gaylord’s complex and diverse portfolio. Marriott showed interest in the Opry in 1982 also, and so did MCA and Anheuser-Busch before passing on the deal, unable to resolve how to take the complex Opry assets and manage them fairly and efficiently. That’s when Gaylord recognized the power of the “Opry” brand and pounced, and since has been poorly managing assets that don’t fit in its structure as a media company, and now as a real estate company.
The folks opposed to the current direction of the Opry should be salivating at this opportunity instead of being resigned to the loss. Maybe it is because of the complexity of the Opry/Gaylord/Marriott deal; they just don’t understand how ripe the moment is. This is the time to be in full throat, to be most vocal. This is the time to be marching on the temple and overturning the tables of the money changers who’ve set up shop in the Opry institution.
Shareholders and bylaws can say whatever they want about who owns the Opry, but the true owners of the Opry will always be the people of country music. Without them attending the shows and listening to the programs, the Opry doesn’t exist. And for the first time in years, there’s allies in the boardroom, parroting similar sentiments to Gaylord’s detractors, not from a heartfelt love from the traditions of country music, but from very cold and concrete analyses of business and management.
At the same time, it is also time for pragmatism. Bad words and calls for bowls of blood have done nothing to re-engage the Grand Ole Opry with the roots of the music, they’ve only typecast the arguments against Gaylord’s ownership regime. The Opry must keep the institution relevant by showcasing younger, popular stars. What must be yearned for is balance, where young, traditional and neo-tradional stars, as well as older stars still putting out relevant material are given equal footing. The Opry needs to re-emerge as the fulcrum in a country music farm system to evaluate and develop emerging talent in an industry that has become creatively stagnant.
And this vote on Tuesday may not be the end of this fight, but only the beginning. As Gaylord restructures into an REIT, the opportunity will linger, if not present itself even more that the Opry assets must be spun off for the health of the Opry, Gaylord, and the new Marriott parent company.
This is not the time to sit back and let Gaylord tighten their reigns on Opry control, it’s time to point out that Edison Research says folks want more classic country, that the Reinstate Hank petition now has over 53,000 signatures. And that what the Opry needs, just like Gabelli says, is autonomy, or an owner who cares.
The Grand Ole Opry is the founding institution of country music, and will always be worth fighting for.
Back on April 30th, Saving Country Music asserted that The Grand Ole Opry was ripe to be spun off and sold from its parent company of Gaylord Entertainment, to the humor of many. Then a month later, lo and behold, Gaylord and The Grand Ole Opry were officially sold to Marriott for $210 million. But apparently the two top shareholders in Gaylord are unhappy with the Marriott deal, with the first one having to be bought out, and the second one Gabelli Funds LLC with a 15% percent stake in Gaylord, specifically asking Gaylord to spin off its Grand Ole Opry assets for the exact reasons Saving Country Music has asserted it should.
As Reuters reports, Gabelli’s concern is that with Gaylord transforming from a broadcasting and entertainment company to a real estate holdings company, Gaylord management will be unable to deal with the specific needs of The Grand Ole Opry. Gabelli said to a letter to Gaylord that under the Marriott deal, The Grand Ole Opry would suffocate and be neglected, but if it was spun off…
…with dedicated and focused management, Opry should better flourish and be an enormous success for shareholders.
Over the last 15 years, Gaylord Entertainment has dramatically shifted their business model from a broadcast and entertainment company, to a hospitality resort-holdings, real estate-based model. Gaylord used to own over 10 local television stations, as well as CMT, TNN, WKY Radio in Oklahoma City, The Daily Oklahoman newspaper, and the massive Acuff-Rose music publishing firm (now Sony ATV). All of these have now been sold off, with The Opry’s WSM the only remaining broadcasting arm of the business.
Today Gaylord’s core business is its 5 resorts and convention centers in Nashville, Orlando, Grapevine, TX (Dallas), National Harbor, MD, and Denver (scheduled to open 2014), as well as other real estate assets. If you take away the real estate and tourist component from The Grand Ole Opry, the Opry franchise sticks out like a sore thumb in the current Gaylord Entertainment business structure.
As part of the sale to Marriott, Gaylord wants to officially restructure into an REIT, or Real Estate Investment Trust, to unlock certain tax incentives, but both Gabelli, and the previous #1 investor in Gaylord, TRT Holdings, think that Gaylord negotiated a bad deal, and that restructuring into an REIT is a bad idea, especially because of Gaylord’s Grand Ole Opry assets. To satiate TRT holds, which owed a 21% stake in the company, Gaylord bought back 5 million of its shares for $185 million in July, making Gabelli now Gaylord’s #1 investor. Now that Gabelli is opposing the deal, and specifically because includes the Grand Ole Opry asset, the possibly the Grand Ole Opry will be spun off from Gaylord has never been greater.
The sale of Gaylord to Marriott comes up for a shareholder vote this week, where the fate of Gaylord’s future as an REIT and the status of The Grand Ole Opry will be big topics.
Why Is It Important Who Owns The Grand Ole Opry?
As Gabelli explains, if the Grand Ole Opry is buried in a corporate structure managed by people that are not aware or not used to managing a historic institution like the Opry, the likelihood is that it will not reach it’s fullest potential, as an institution or as an investment. If The Opry assets were either owned autonomously (if The Opry owned itself), or by another company that is better suited to understanding the specific needs of the Opry, it is more likely to earn a greater return for investors.
Hypothetically this would also be a better outcome for country music fans who have been frustrated by the current management and direction of The Opry. As it stands, many Opry decision are run through a corporate structure designed to manage hotels and real estate, not stage performers and country music personalities. Hypothetically, Gaylord coming under the Marriott umbrella would only make this worse, and The Opry being spun off could only make it better.
Last week The Grand Ole Opry, along with its parent company Gaylord Entertainment, were purchased by Marriott International for $210 million. Though Gaylord reportedly will remain in charge of most of the day-to-day operations of the Opry, some fans of the historic country music institution are afraid of what may happen as Gaylord restructures from the entertainment business to a real estate holdings firm owned by a big hotel chain. So Saving Country Music reached out to Marriott to find out what effects if any the new ownership will have on The Grand Ole Opry experience.
“Well first we want to assure everyone that all of us here at Marriott are huge country music fans!” says Marriott representative Nancy Frankenfurter. “We all grew up listening to great country bands like John Denver and The Eagles. And we really like the real country music, with violins and ukeleles and stuff. We are committed to showcasing all the great country music performers from the past like Eddie Rabbitt, Rich & Big, and the Mike Curb Congregational Choir, as well as all the hot up and coming acts, like Kevin Bacon, Jessica Simpson, and Jamie Lynn Spears!”
What changes can Opry goers expect to see?
“As you know we’re really excited about activating synergies between Marroitt Hotels and The Grand Ole Opry,” Frankenfurter explains. “In that spirit, we will be offering all Opry attendees new incentives for attending. All visitors will now receive a complimentary bar of facial soap, travel size bottles of shampoo and conditioner, and a disposable shower cap with every ticket. We pledge to have more ice machines for our guests, and we will be installing heated pools both at The Grand Ole Opry House and Ryman locations. Every seat will have free wi-fi as well, instead of having beverage stands outside of the performance hall, we will now have complimentary wet bars in all the seat backs. And after every Opry performance a hot continental breakfast will be served.”
Continental breakfast? Aren’t most of The Opry performances at night?
“Sure, but any time is a good time for milk at room temperature and a wide selection of refined carbohydrates. And we want to emphasize that this is a “hot” continental breakfast. We will have warm oatmeal and waffle irons set up. Anybody who is familiar with the Marriott hotel experience probably knows that we love to customize our waffle irons for the geographic regions of our hotels. The kiddos love this. For example, in Texas our waffle irons make waffles shaped like Texas. In Orlando and Disney World, they’re shaped like Mickey Mouse. Well for The Grand Ole Opry, we are developing a special iron that will make waffles the shape of Garth Brooks’ enlarged prostate.”
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
Eddie Rabbit and Garth Brooks’ enlarged prostate could not be reached for comment.
As first theorized here in late April, Gaylord Entertainment, the parent company of the iconic Grand Ole Opry and radio station WSM, has been sold to Marriott International for $210 million. On May 16th, the company allowed a “poison pill” to expire, making the possibility of a sale a reality. According to a press release by Gaylord about the sale, the company will retain its Grand Ole Opry holdings for now, however will be reorganizing into an REIT, or Real Estate Investment Trust, meaning Gaylord is no longer an autonomous, shareholder-owned entertainment company, but a real-estate holding, and a subsidiary of the Marriott hotel chain.
The theory behind the sale and restructuring of Gaylord is to better manage the current Gaylord business that has gone from a company that predominantly owned radio stations, newspapers, and entertainment outlets, to owning 5 huge hotel properties in Nashville, Orlando, Grapevine, TX (Dallas), National Harbor, MD, and Denver (scheduled to open 2014). By restructuring into an REIT, Gaylord will receive certain tax benefits, and will be able to run more efficiently in a larger hotel corporate structure.
“We are thrilled to be aligning with Marriott, an organization that consistently receives the industry’s highest praise among group customers and meeting planners.” says Gaylord CEO Colin Reed. “The REIT structure allows us to benefit from a more efficient tax structure, and establish a platform to grow our distinct asset base through organic growth of our existing portfolio and, in time, through strategic acquisitions. Moreover, we believe that by working with Marriott International, our shareholders will benefit from significant property efficiencies and corporate overhead reductions, as well as revenue synergies which include Marriott’s ability to attract and market to large group customers.
The press release from Gaylord about the sale expressly states the Grand Ole Opry and its real estate assets will remain assets of Gaylord.
Gaylord will continue to own and operate the Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium and other attractions as taxable REIT subsidiaries. Nothing will change at these iconic assets of the Nashville community, and Gaylord is fully committed to maintaining the legacy of these historic attractions.
However as Gaylord restructures into a real estate holding company over the coming months, an Opry sale could still be a possibility, if not a greater probably in the long term as the company continues to move away from the entertainment business.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
Barring a Grand Ole Opry sale during restructuring, this all could be bad news for friends of the Grand Ole Opry hoping for a return to the institution’s roots, or maintaining the roots that have been left in tact during Gaylord’s management regime. Becoming part of an even larger corporate structure, especially one not focused on entertainment, means even more focus of efficiencies and revenue, and less understanding of the Grand Ole Opry’s unique importance and place in the legacy of country music within the corporate structure The Opry finds itself in. The Opry’s business model was conceived nearly 85 years ago, and its viability depends on retaining certain values and traditions from that original structure that many times clash with today’s for-profit environment.
When Gaylord and Marriott talk about “significant property efficiencies and corporate overhead reductions, as well as revenue synergies…” this means The Grand Ole Opry could be be susceptible to even more rigorous oversight and revenue goals that do not reflect the institution’s original or core values. Even though Gaylord retains ownership in name of The Opry and its hotels in the larger Marriott structure, what Gaylord is selling is the rights for Marriott to manage Gaylord assets, including The Opry. And as Gaylord says in in the press release, it is not focused on entertainment as it restructures to an REIT, but is “focused primarily on group-oriented destination hotels in urban and resort markets.”
Furthermore for communities like Nashville, this restructuring will mean job losses as Gaylord trims the fat, and eliminates redundant positions Marriott can already manage. The Marriott press release from CEO Arne Sorenson mentions, “We will continue to focus on building careers for Gaylord’s “STARS”, whom we will welcome to the Marriott family,” but positions will be cut as the two companies merge and attempt to benefit from business synergy. This move also has specific effects on Gaylord’s Denver, CO property still under construction. According to Gaylord, the scope of this property will be scaled down during this process, two weeks after an $81.4 million tax incentive was approved by local officials for the already controversial project.
What escalated the potential sale of The Opry from a theory to a very real possibility was a procedural vote earlier this week by Gaylord shareholders to let what’s called a “poison pill” in the company’s bylaws expire, making a takeover of Gaylord by another entity a real possibility, if not inviting it to help bolster Gaylord’s sagging stock value that dropped 33% last year. Gaylord has posted two straight years of losses, and is potentially looking to raise capitol to continue to expand its hotel and resort business.
How The Grand Ole Opry could factor into a potential sale is how it could be spun off and sold separately from Gaylord’s resort holdings. Gaylord’s core business is its 5 resorts and convention centers in Nashville, Orlando, Grapevine, TX (Dallas), National Harbor, MD, and Denver (scheduled to open 2014). Many of Gaylord’s big shareholders are holding companies that own other hotel chains, including its biggest shareholder, TRT Holdings, which owns the Omni and Host hotel chains.
As Saving Country Music explained when asking if the Country Music Hall of Fame should take over The Opry, “If you take away the real estate and tourist component from The Grand Ole Opry, the Opry franchise sticks out like a sore thumb in the current Gaylord Entertainment business structure.”
If Gaylord is sold to a larger hotel holding company or otherwise forced to split its assets, this makes it even less likely that Gaylord will keep control of The Grand Ole Opry, especially if the sale is to TRT Holdings. As Nikhil Bhalla an analyst at FBR & Co. told Bloomberg, “The aim would be to realize synergies between Omni and Gaylord. You’ll have a larger portfolio of hotels and you can trim down the corporate overheads to manage both.”
Saving Country Music also theorized on April 30th about a partial Opry sale:
Gaylord is probably less likely to sell its Opry real estate assets of The Grand Ole Opry House and The Ryman since real estate is Gaylord’s new core business, but these properties could be split, or leased to The Hall of Fame or another entity as part of the sale of WSM and The Opry radio show.
According to Chris Jones, an analyst at Telsey Advisory Group in New York, this is a very real possibility…
Instead of seeking a buyer for the whole company, Gaylord could sell its assets while still maintaining managerial control over them. You could do a partial sale or a sale of a single asset whereby Gaylord would hold onto some form of a management contract of the facility.
This scenario would allow Gaylord to retain ownership of the real estate assets of The Grand Ole Opry House and The Ryman Auditorium, while still selling The Grand Ole Opry as a radio business along with its flagship station WSM in Nashville.
Whatever may or may not happen with Gaylord Entertainment and The Grand Ole Opry, the time is right for restructuring and selling assets. Gaylord stock is valued at a 28 percent discount compared to other hotel owners according to Bloomberg, and even though Gaylord has posted losses over the last couple of years, the company’s net income is expected to triple this year to $36 million as the economy improves. Gaylord’s stock has risen 43% this year, yet still remains grossly undervalued according to most analysts. It sits at roughly $34 a share, while analysts believe it would be worth $45 a share in a sale, giving Gaylord the capitol it needs to complete its Denver resort, its new Nashville Theme Park, and continue its resort expansion.
Gaylord CEO Colin Reed on a May 8th conference call said to shareholders, “Over the last six months, we’ve been looking at all options available to the company to unlock value…Over the last 12 months, our stock price has traded substantially below its true value.”
Gaylord Entertainment has owned The Grand Ole Opry since 1983. The company’s need to post profits for its shareholders has put it in occasional conflict with country music fans who expect country music’s oldest institution to stay in line with the traditions of the genre instead of chasing current fads to keep the public engaged in a business model that was originally constructed in 1925. Earlier this week, a new Gaylord venture was announced, a drama scheduled to air this Fall on ABC called Nashville.
ABC has announced that a new TV drama called Nashville has been picked up for their Fall season. The show intimately involves Nashville’s mainstream music scene, with former Friday Night Lights actress Connie Britton portraying an aging country star trying not to be overtaken by the up-and-coming young starlet Hayden Panettiere from NBC’s Heroes. The pilot was written by Callie Khouri of Thelma & Louise fame and shot in Nashville last month.
A look at the trailer for the series seems to hint that Nashville will follow a similar story to the 2010 country music movie Country Strong starring Gwyneth Paltrow, though Nashville may even get more specific and more salacious, with the young Hayden Panettiere nailing anything not tied down, and producers mentioning Auto-tune out in the open. The themes and characters look like they could have been ripped out of a Dale Watson song or a story on Saving Country Music.
The biggest difference between Country Strong and Nashville will be that the TV version dramatizing country music’s eternal culture war will have to fill hour-long segments for a whole season. Old vs. young, twang vs. pop may be explored with greater detail than ever before, though many times television dramas as they age (hospital dramas for example) tend to veer away from the hard information that creates their setting, and focus more on love threads and side stories between characters.
It will take the airing of the show to really flesh out what Nashville‘s impact will be on the greater country music world, but just from watching the trailer it is safe to say that country music’s culture war has gone mainstream, a development that has been evolving for a while now. The idea that country’s aging talent is being unfairly pushed aside and its roots being neglected for the crossover flavor of the month is no longer a fringe, underground idea. It now goes without saying, and to Nashville‘s similarity to Country Strong, it may even be cliche.
This also speaks to the commercialization of the anti-Nashville sentiment. A few years ago, Music Row and Nashville’s major labels saw this anti-Nashville trend growing, and to commercialize it and reintegrate those fans they launched a new generation of “Outlaws” with songs complaining about pop stars and how nothing on the radio is country anymore, in songs that ironically sound way more like rock and originate from the same labels as the pop country performers do. Nashville could be the television version of anti-Nashville monetization. That leads us to who the big money is behind the Nashville series: Gaylord Entertaiment.
Gaylord is the owner of The Grand Ole Opry (which is featured prominently in the pilot) and many other core Nashville country music and non-music institutions, and reportedly is a big producer and financier of Nashville. Anyone concerned about what impact this series may have on country music and the city of Nashville should focus in on this relationship first.
The Grand Ole Opry stage is one of the biggest theaters in the country music culture war, with constant battles being fought over who deserves stage time and membership to country’s most important institution. It could be argued that without the drama Gaylord has already created through its management of The Opry, the Nashville series would not be possible. It seems only appropriate that the initial conflict between the series’ two main characters in the pilot happens at The Opry. Instead of answering or resolving the issues many country fans and performing artists have with the way The Opry is run, they appear to be using it as plot for a television show.
It is in the portrayal of the cultural divide that polarizes country music where it will be deemed if the Nashville series’ impact will be positive or not on country music, on The Grand Ole Opry, and on the city of Nashville. It appears from the pilot that a mayoral race is involved, so Nashville’s political dynamic will be part of the drama as well. As someone who grew up in Dallas, I can attest to how a single television series can create very strong, and sometimes very negative stereotypes about a city and its people that sometimes takes generations to erode and unwind afterwards.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -
UPDATE 10/09/12: Scott Borchetta and his Big Machine label continue to empire build in Music City. They have signed an exclusive deal with ABC to market the music from Nashville.
“Music has to feel organic, appropriate and authentic when it is paired with on-camera visuals,” said Scott Borchetta in a statement about the deal. “When I saw the pilot for ‘Nashville,’ I knew instantly we needed to be part of it. Not only does our partnership make sense given how closely the show reflects the nature of the music business, but the show’s talent has created some incredible music.”
The music on the show is being produced by industry powerhouse T Bone Burnett. Some of the original songs for the series have been written by The Civil Wars, Lucinda Williams, and Elvis Costello.
Saving Country Music will be keeping a close eye on Nashville.
- Karl on Circumstances of Wayne Mills’ Death Leave Many Questions
- Will on Circumstances of Wayne Mills’ Death Leave Many Questions
- That Guy on Wayne Mills of the Wayne Mills Band Shot Fatally in Nashville
- That Guy on Wayne Mills of the Wayne Mills Band Shot Fatally in Nashville
- Michael Burkhalter, San Diego on Destroying The Dixie Chicks – Ten Years After