Dear Grand Ole Opry Executive Producer Dan Rogers,
First off, I want to offer you a sincere thank you and congratulations for all of the work that you have done at the Grand Ole Opry during your tenure in this important leadership position, not to mention for everything that you did before to ascend to such an important post. It has been under your leadership since 2019 that you have taken a historically significant—but if we’re being honest—a rather decrepit institution of country music, and made it viable and relevant once again.
During your tenure, we have seen an evolutionary and forward-thinking approach that can only be characterized as transformational. Where before the Opry was often too miserly with allowing coveted debuts in the hallowed circle to up-and-coming artists, now it seems there is an Opry debut on nearly every presentation, creating meaningful career support behind performers who don’t always receive equitable consideration from the rest of the country music industry.
Where before the Opry was equally as stingy with handing out meaningful and deserved membership invitations, we’ve also seen significant improvement in this direction as well, addressing the backlog of deserving artists awaiting membership, while also not being too liberal with invitations as to dilute the weight and importance of the distinction. There is still some work still to be done in this direction, but it is in such better shape compared to previous Opry eras.
You’ve also done so much to make sure the Grand Ole Opry is representing the entertainers of country music and the greater roots music world equally, no matter who they are, or where they’re from. Whether it’s Black or Brown artists, traditionalists, older artists, younger artists, Texas and Red Dirt performers, they’re all receiving opportunities right beside the hot mainstream performers. It feels like the people’s Opry in 2023.
You especially deserve credit for the way the Opry navigated the COVID-19 era, allowing the Opry to be one of the few institutions that was able to still provide entertainment to the masses like it’s done for 100 years, offering a diversion to the “sick and shut in.” It was both completely unexpected and totally heartening to see the American culture reconnect with the Grand Ole Opry in that moment, and for the Opry to carry that momentum beyond the pandemic.
All of this has led to the Grand Ole Opry serving country fans not just with performances, but with “moments.” Whenever someone makes their debut, whenever someone is simply invited to make their debut, whenever someone is surprised on stage with an official Opry membership invitation, or sometimes just the performances themselves that transpire on the Opry stage, the weight of these moments never cease to stimulate chill bumps in the audience, and validate the efforts of deserving artists in a way that is honest and real.
The grandeur of the Grand Ole Opry endures, even after all of these years.
But there is still a point of contention that comes up regularly whenever the name of the Grand Ole Opry is evoked in certain circles. I’m sure you know where this is headed. I’m talking of course about the strained relationship between the Grand Ole Opry and the Hank Williams legacy.
I read right before the pandemic and shortly after you took the position when you said,
“Hank Williams will always be a treasured past member of the Grand Ole Opry. The Grand Ole Opry is made of living, breathing artists who can contribute to the show, and to whom the Opry can give back. We have a long list in the member gallery of folks who have been members of the Opry from Uncle Jimmy Thompson, who preceded what Opry membership even meant … So that wall honors everyone from Uncle Jimmy Thompson to Little Big Town to Hank Williams.”
You then went on to say, “Had Hank Williams lived, there is little doubt in my mind that…I would hope he would have returned to the Opry and all would have been great and right in the world. Unfortunately, he didn’t.”
This is all that Hank Williams III and supporters of the Reinstate Hank movement have been saying for the last 20 years. There is no qualm with Opry members vacating their membership role when they die. It’s about how when he was living, Hank Williams meant more to the Opry arguably that anyone else in the institution’s history, and the Opry meant a lot to Hank Williams. As you said yourself in the interview, “There is not a single Opry night that happens where his influence isn’t felt. And there are many, many, many Opry shows where his music is sung.”
Ceremoniously Reinstating Hank would be a way to mend wounds, and incidentally, would make for a good piece of positive publicity for the Grand Ole Opry. As you say yourself, it would make everything “right in the world” when it comes to Hank Williams and the Grand Ole Opry. It wouldn’t stimulate a flood of families of deceased members clamoring for their loved ones to be reinstated as well. It’s the fact that Hank was never reinstated in life that makes the case for Reinstating Hank today a viable one.
As I’m sure you know, Hank Williams III started the Reinstate Hank movement back in 2003 in an effort to get the Grand Ole Opry to recognize his grandfather who was kicked out for drunkeness and missing rehearsals in 1952. Nobody holds it against the Opry for not putting up with Hank’s behavior at that time. The Opry promised that if Hank could clean up his act, it would welcome him back with open arms.
But of course, Hank Williams never got that opportunity. He passed away in the back of his Cadillac on New Years Day, 1953. The Reinstate Hank online petition now has over 62,000 signatures on it, with even more signatures in the physical Reinstate Hank book that Hank3 would take around with him on tour. Hank’s grandchildren and performers Holly Williams and Hilary Williams have signed it. Hank Williams Jr. has been spotted wearing Reinstate Hank T-shirts, and has also voiced support for the movement. If Reinstating Hank means nothing to anybody else, it means something to the Hank Williams family.
On September 17th, country music fans from around the world will mark the Centennial of the birth of Hank Williams. The Country Music Hall of Fame, along with the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Alabama will be holding festivities to honor Hank, as will artists, fans, and venues from all around the world.
Yet so far, we’ve heard nothing from the Grand Ole Opry about any plans to even mark the occasion. The Opry celebrates all kinds of anniversaries every week, including some that seem a little silly if we’re being honest. It was during an Opry tribute to Hank Williams on the 50th Anniversary of his passing in 2003 that Hank Williams III first spoke out about Hank Williams not being a member, and realized why it was important.
I understand this all might be on short notice, or that you’re surely busy with other things. It almost feels like the Opry is afraid to even say anything about the Hank Williams Centennial in fear of stirring up negative sentiment about the Reinstate Hank issue. But it seems to me that the 100th birthday of Hank Williams would be an excellent time to finally and forever extinguish this concern that some have with the Opry. And again, it would be a great opportunity to help promote the Opry, and mend wounds of the past that you’ve done such an excellent job addressing during your tenure.
Once again, congratulations and a sincere thanks for all you have done revitalizing the Grand Ole Opry institution, modernizing it to the digital world, making it viable and important to all country music fans, and shepherding it into the future as a vibrant, viable, and valued part of American culture. It would be great if you were willing to resolve this one final piece of the puzzle that makes some believe that the Grand Ole Opry ain’t so grand any more.
As Hank Williams III said, “That would be a dream come true for a lot of people.”
Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos of Saving Country Music
…and 62,059 co-signees.