This story has been updated (see bottom).
Kimber Engstrom, an employee of the Ryman Auditorium’s recently-opened CafÃ© Lula, has been fired after she attempted to set up a prayer vigil in the Country Music Mother Church for Joey Feek of the singing duo Joey + Rory. Joey Feek was diagnosed with abdominal Cancer in 2014, and is currently in hospice care after receiving a terminal diagnosis from doctors in late October and deciding to cease treatment.
Kimber Engstrom tried to organize the prayer vigil after she found out the Ryman was available on November 19th, however the management insisted she would need to pay $18,000 to rent the facility. So Engstrom printed up posters and set up a Go Fund Me campaign to attempt to raise the funds for the prayer vigil. Apparently the problem arose with Engstrom’s use of the “Ryman” name as part of her promotional efforts, and she was terminated from the company for the infraction on November 12th after arriving to work.
The communications manager for the Ryman, Lisaann Dupont, told Wide Open Country, “We did receive an inquiry, but no formal request was made. The inquiry did not come from [the Feeks]. Without our knowledge, a Go Fund Me campaign was started using the Ryman name. The campaign has since been removed and our understanding is that refunds have been issued. We have been blessed by our relationship with Joey + Rory for many years and our thoughts and prayers are with them at this difficult time.”
The Ryman Auditorium, located in the Lower Broadway portion of downtown Nashville, was constructed as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892, but became the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 until 1974. It is still used for Opry shows, and is owned and operated by Ryman Hospitality Properties—a Real Estate Investment Trust under the larger umbrella of Marriott International, who purchased the Grand Ole Opry and its real estate holdings in 2012. The parent company was previously known as Gaylord Entertainment.
The Grand Ole Opry is notorious for strict rules on the use of its name or the name of its properties, as well as filming and picture taking at its shows, and other perceived slights by performers and patrons alike. This is not the first time the institution has been accused of being callous by country music fans. In the mid-90’s, Neko Case was banned from the Opry after removing her shirt while suffering from heat exhaustion on an outside stage. Classic country performer Stonewall Jackson sued the Opry for age discrimination in 2006 after he said the Opry cut his performances and he was told by General Manager Pete Fisher he “didn’t want any gray hairs on that stage or in the audience, and before I’m done there won’t be any.” Johnny Cash also publicly clashed with the Opry, and Hank Williams was fired from the Opry shortly before his death an never reinstated despite the efforts of his grandson Hank Williams III.
The firing of Kimber Engstrom has caused a big stir on social media from fans wondering why the space had to be rented for such and exorbitant amount, especially since Engstrom’s event was going to be of a charitable nature, and the space was not rented for the evening. Fans, friends, and family of Joey Feek also participated in a universal moment of prayer for the singer on November 5th. There’s also an effort underway to get the Joey + Rory song “When I’m Gone” to #1 on iTunes by purchasing the song.
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UPDATE (11-17): The Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Management have announced they will conduct a prayer vigil for Joey Feek at Monday night’s (11-17) Opry show at the Ryman Auditorium at 9:30 p.m. Central.