An Open Letter to New Grand Ole Opry General Manager Sally Williams
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.
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.
Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos
March 14, 2017 @ 8:17 am
The Opry doesn’t seem legitimate to me without Hank Sr.
March 14, 2017 @ 7:18 pm
Well then the Opry has not been legitimate for 75 years.
March 14, 2017 @ 8:36 am
March 14, 2017 @ 9:01 am
Well done, Kyle.
This would be great PR for the Opry and open it to a new generation of interest. In pop, nothing lasts. Things get old fast. The Opry has the opportunity to say: we know things change, but here’s a forum where the best of the past and present can always meet and learn from each other. The Opry likes to be the torch-passing institution — it’d be a shame if it tried simply to chase momentary flickers.
That said, the photo of Ms. Williams does little to connote, er, gravitas.
February 17, 2020 @ 3:25 pm
It seems older acts out of sight out of mind please respect the pioneers and honor hank and others with this small but high honor.
March 14, 2017 @ 9:05 am
Well said Trigger and my thoughts exactly.
March 14, 2017 @ 10:05 am
I honestly don’t have strong feelings on this. The firing was deserved, but it’d be a nice sign of acknowledgement to re-instate him posthumously. I think inviting Hank Jr as a member could be cool, except I don’t think he’d fulfill his membership requirements any more than many of the recent members. I actually feel the same way about Sturgill (though maybe he’d decline for that reason).
I hope that as one of Sally’s first decisions, she invites Rhiannon Giddens as a member, for a variety of reasons, but firstly her talent and musicianship.
Fat Freddy's Cat
March 14, 2017 @ 12:10 pm
re: Rhiannon Giddens: I second that. Her album blew me away.
March 14, 2017 @ 1:56 pm
best album of the year, will be stunned if anyone tops that
March 14, 2017 @ 7:22 pm
Just heard that “Julie/Mistress” song. Just phenomenal. Giddens deserves more attention.
March 14, 2017 @ 1:18 pm
Hank should be forgiven & reinstated.
March 14, 2017 @ 1:27 pm
March 14, 2017 @ 1:28 pm
He is the king of country music and paid his dues for him not to be in the HOF is a disgrace reinstate HANK !!!
March 14, 2017 @ 7:19 pm
He IS in the HoF.
jessie with the long hair
March 14, 2017 @ 3:01 pm
I’ve seen Sally at work behind the scenes. She’s just another corporate climber that’s more interested in what people can do for her career than she is in music.
March 14, 2017 @ 5:32 pm
Great letter! Hank Sr’s music is what initially drew me to country music. I grew up in the suburbs (although 50% of my extended family are farmers…don’t know why I feel like throwing that in there, I don’t claim to be country in the least) so wasn’t exposed to country. Luckily Hank permeates culture enough for a few of his songs to make there way to me and get me curious about older country. Since then, I’ve fallen in love with a lot of the older legends in addition to the more underground country and roots bands. He definitely deserves the reinstatement and it would be an awesome promotional opportunity.
March 14, 2017 @ 6:44 pm
Reinstate Hank….is Sally Williams kin to Hank???
March 15, 2017 @ 7:20 am
No, but she’s the sister of two of the greatest women tennis players of all time. They call her the white sheep of the family.
March 16, 2017 @ 9:01 am
Now THAT is some funny shit right there.
March 14, 2017 @ 7:28 pm
This move to “reinstate” Hank Williams to the Opry is inane.
Why not repair the crack in the Liberty Bell? Or have some engineers come to Pisa and fix the “lean” in the Tower? And put the arms back on Venus de Milo. I mean it’s 2200 years. Enough already.
How ’bout we work on fixing what’s wrong today and leave history alone.
March 15, 2017 @ 12:33 am
I understand that some don’t see the point of Reinstate Hank, and I respect that. All that I would say in response is that if it means something to the family of Hank Williams, that’s all I need to know. Also, I think reinstating Hank Williams would be a great gesture of good will to many people that would help fix what’s wrong with the Opry and country music today.
March 15, 2017 @ 5:47 am
Plus, it gives us all an opportunity to hear a great on-stage ceremony. Put Hank in the middle, so to speak, and many things start to clarify around him. You can’t put mealy-mouthed writing in the same room with old Hank.
March 15, 2017 @ 7:16 am
Gotta still disagree with you, Trig:
I’m not swayed by what the “family” of Hank Williams wants. Hank–like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Sinatra, Waylon, even Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.–are now “assets” that the “owners” of (heirs to) these legacies are looking to “monetize.”
Yes, probably a promoter and marketing team could come up with a way to generate money by “reinstating” Hank Williams to the G.O.O. : A concert, (or a series of concerts), a stage show, videos, CD’s–and Hank Jr. and Jett–and THEIR children–would share in it. They have a right to do that. I wouldn’t try to stop them, but I wouldn’t lobby on their behalf, either.
But as an outsider and fan, I’d prefer to just say that the great Hank Williams was fired from the Opry in 1951 and leave it at that.
March 14, 2017 @ 8:03 pm
Muddy Roots takes over the Grand Ole Opry House Sunday May 21st, 2017 for the grand finale of the Nashville Boogie Vintage Weekender. It’ll be classic.
March 15, 2017 @ 5:33 am
And hopefully your gonna announce that headliner soon good sir!!! You already know I’m coming. Shameless plug alert : Jason puts on a first class festival…if you are a fan of rockabilly, western swing and old timey country you will love it!
Back on topic….please reinstate Hank for cryin out loud!
March 14, 2017 @ 10:37 pm
I went to high school with Sally and I have great respect for her. Have you met her Trigger?
March 14, 2017 @ 11:45 pm
No I have not.
March 15, 2017 @ 1:04 pm
Do you have any interest in an interview? Because I would advocate for that. Before she returned to the Opry I thought it would be great to have you interview her in her capacity at the Ryman. Now seems an even better time.
March 15, 2017 @ 3:03 pm
Perhaps the next time I’m in Nashville I might try to arrange a meeting, if she will see me. I don’t do a lot of interviews, and I’m not sure that would be the best forum to continue this discussion, but I’m also not opposed to it.
March 15, 2017 @ 4:29 am
I don’t think I actually signed the petition yet-so I just took care of that!
Surname notwithstanding, I suspect Ms. Williams will just kick this can down the road.
But now’s a good time to try! Good on ya Trig!!
March 15, 2017 @ 1:45 pm
Hank Snr had a problem with drink and pills etc, like a lot of country stars after, Johnny cash, Waylon Jennings, but they all had time to grow up get sorted and carry on with great music. Merle Haggard was pardoned for attempted robbery, So why is this such a big deal to the Opry.
Like a lot of country music fans I believe Hank Snr gave so much great music in such a short span of time, that I think a massive show dedicated to his legacy and reinstatement would be great for Country music AND the Opry management to start off with a statement of intent.
March 29, 2017 @ 12:49 pm
The Fact That The Grand Ole Opry STILL uses Hank Sr.’s Likeness/music in the establishment is a TRAVESTY if they are NOT going to reinstate him ! Enough is Enough !
April 28, 2017 @ 4:47 am
Well written Trigger… and classy even.
I signed the petition a decade ago…
… maybe one day.
May 3, 2017 @ 3:40 pm
No doubt Hank Williams Sr. has received a lot of accolades for his contribution to Country Music by legends like, “The king of Country Music,” George Strait and the 2017 Grand Ole Opry inductee, Alan Jackson, with the song, “Music On Death Row.” However, the greatest injustice is why George Strait, who embody everything Country and his main music collaborator, Dean Dillon, have not yet been offered an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry Family. Both are successful in their own rights for more than thirty years and counting contributing to make everything Country, great and relevant. Please honor them somehow with an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry Family in order to prevent their families from going through what the Hanks family are going through in the future. A concerned fan from Texas. Thank you greatly.
Pastor Cherrie DiPonziano
February 15, 2020 @ 6:40 pm
Why not start a brand new organization of Country Music to be named such as Grand New Opry, or Grand Old Opry Original, and honor those that have been discriminated against, implying and showing mercy always triumphs over judgement, if there is ever a question about who can or cannot, or should or should not be inducted and honored into the organization? I am sure you will get the support of those that truly honor musical talent, ability, and genius, and recognize the true roots of Country Music. Since when does personal life problems Or weakness, gender or even death, influence and designate a persons level of talent and ability, and genius, and influence, and limit an artist, or audience’s abilty to recognize, honor, and to show love and support of which artists whom they choose? We have laws that protect discrimination against that on every other platform including employment, except it seems in Country Music, and certain people that think they are the controlling elite, and have total control over who is or who is not honored? It should be determined by the majority of artists that are members, not one, two, or a few figure heads etc. Also I think there should be voting from current musicians, singers, etc.That testify how the inductee influenced their music! That is the true legacy, and legend of Country Music: The freedom to speak without restraint on who influenced, inspired, or encouraged another talent to come forth in the industry, leaving all the artist’s personal, and private life, and personal struggles aside!