The Grand Ole Opry regularly loves to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and other such milestones for its members when they come around on the calendar. It’s a good reason for fans to tune in, and can build a good theme around a segment or an entire show. No anniversary for any Opry member might be bigger than the milestone for country music legend Dolly Parton. Celebrating her 50th Anniversary as an Opry member in 2019 (she was officially inducted January 4, 1969), the Opry has an entire week planned to commemorate the milestone coming up.
The second week of October has been dubbed “Dolly Week” at the Grand Ole Opry and its radio home WSM-AM. On Thursday October 10th, the Opry presentation will feature all Dolly Parton country music classics performed by Dolly’s contemporaries and current country stars. Friday October 11th will be celebrating Dolly’s bluegrass, roots music, and Americana contributions. And then on Saturday October 12th, there will be two Opry shows with Dolly Parton headlining both.
Also during the week, WSM-AM will transform into “Dolly Radio,” playing more than 3,000 songs from her catalog. Along with the audio presentations, the Grand Ole Opry has also set up a new exhibit on the Opry grounds called Dolly: My Opry that will include numerous displays, artifacts, and mementos from Dolly’s long history with the Opry institution, including the dress she wore during her Opry debut in 1969, and the dress she wore during the celebration of Reba McEntire’s 40th Anniversary celebration at the Opry in 2017, which also marked another important distinction (keep reading). Admission to the Dolly Parton exhibit will be an add-on to the Opry backstage tours given daily at the Opry House.
“It was always my dream to be on the Opry,” Dolly Parton said in a statement about the celebration. “I actually got to sing on the Grand Ole Opry when I was about 10 years old. I officially became a member back in 1969 and I cannot believe next year I will celebrate 50 proud years of being a member of the Grand Ole Opry! They call it the ‘Mother Church’ because the old Ryman was a church, but it’s sacred to me, wherever it goes—the church of my heart. For me, the Opry is like the song ‘New York, New York’—if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. I am excited to be coming back home to celebrate 50 years of membership!”
But Dolly Parton’s 50th Anniversary celebration is a lot more significant than simply marking a milestone. It’s one of country music’s greatest artists of all time reconciling with country’s most storied institution. As Dolly says herself, it is her coming “back home.” It’s home she has been either avoiding, or has been exiled from, for the better part of seven years.
Up until 2012, Dolly Parton would make regular appearances on the Grand Ole Opry as one of the institution’s most high profile members. Some years Dolly would make more appearances, some she would make less, dependent on her touring schedule and other obligations. But in September of 2012, her relationship with the Opry hit a rough patch.
In January of 2012, Dolly Parton held a press conference with Opry owners Gaylord Entertainment (now Ryman Hospitality) to announce the construction of a 114-acre, $50 million snow and water-themed park to be located near the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Grand Ole Opry House. As some country fans may remember, the Opry House used to be part of a theme park called Opryland USA with rollers coasters and other rides that was later torn down to build the current Opry Mills Mall. The Gaylord Opryland resort was the hotel portion of the theme park that still exists, and has expanded over the years.
Since Dolly Parton had expertise with theme parks from her successful venture with Dollywood in Pidgeon Forge, TN, she would be the brains behind the new theme park, with the Grand Ole Opry supplying the land and other logistics. It was a 50/50 partnership between the two entities, with the theme park expected to bring some 450 jobs to the area.
But subsequently in 2012, Gaylord Entertainment announced their plans to restructure the company into an REIT or Real Estate Investment Trust—a controversial move that cut 310 positions from the company, focused the owners of the Opry and historic Ryman Auditorium more on real estate as opposed to entertainment and media, and ticked off a lot of people, including Dolly Parton.
“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,” Dolly Parton said at the time. “Governor Haslam, Mayor Dean, and all the folks in government have been great to work with. I really appreciate their support through this process.”
Afterwards, Dolly Parton’s performances and even appearances at the Grand Ole Opry ceased to exist. Though no public mention was ever made of a beef between Dolly and the Opry, it was clear that behind-the-scenes animosity from the dissolved theme park deal kept the two entities from collaborating. That’s why it came as shock to some when Dolly Parton appeared on the Opry stage in 2017 to congratulate Reba McEntire on her 40th Anniversary. The first time Reba ever appeared on the show, Dolly Parton made a last minute drop-in appearance, and inadvertently took time away from McEntire performing one of her two songs. Parton joked she wouldn’t be taking any performance time from Reba this time.
When Dolly Parton takes the Grand Ole Opry stage on Saturday, October 12th, it will be significant for a couple of reasons. Not only will it celebrate her 50th Anniversary as a Grand Ole Opry member (even if it’s nine months late), it will also mark the reconciliation of two of country music’s most important institutions and icons.
…and who knows, perhaps they can rekindle plans for that theme park. It sure beats a mall.