Where the Grand Ole Opry took a hit to its reputation amongst traditional country music fans in the late oughts for trying to get too young and too quickly, the last couple of years have seen a resurgence of interest in the institution from traditionalists as it seems to have shifted to making sure the roots of the genre are well exposed on its slew of weekly shows. The quote attributed to Opry General Manager Pete Fisher for years was that he wanted to see less gray hairs on the stage and in the audience, but in the last few years the trend has been anything but.
This may not be a symptom of a change of heart in the Opry management however. It may be out of necessity as more an more of the Opry’s newest members continue to shirk their obligations to the show, and older artists who are more available and willing to play the hallowed stage for minimal pay slide in to fill the void.
Grand Ole Opry historian Byron Fay runs the always curmudgeoney, but equally well-researched Fayfare’s Opry Blog, and his yearly recap is always a must-read for Opry fans and industry types. In 2014’s installment, Byron explains that the Opry performances continue to be handled more and more by older artists—something older country fans may applaud, but something that may not bode well for the institution moving forward.
Every Opry member is expected to make at least 10 appearances on the show each year. That’s way down from previous requirements. For example in 1963, the requirement was 26 appearances, and by 2000 the number had dropped to 12. Though the exact way appearances are tabulated depends on who you talk to, with some saying weekend performances by a big star can count for additional appearance credits, when some younger artists are appearing only once or twice, it becomes pretty clear their obligations aren’t being met.
For example in 2014, Darius Rucker, the former frontman of Hootie & The Blowfish who was a controversial pick in 2012 as a new inductee, only appeared twice at the Opry, despite the adulation he spilled out when his membership was announced. Blake Shelton, who might be the Opry’s most famous side stepper of duties amongst recent inductees, also made only 2 appearances, as did Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley. And Rascal Flatts, 2011’s controversial pick for induction, made 6 appearances. The newest inductee Little Big Town made 8, but wasn’t inducted until later in the year.
Out of the 67 current members of the Opry, only 25 of them fulfilled their 10 appearance obligation, and three of those (“Little Jimmy Dickens, Jimmy C. Newman, and George Hamilton IV), died during the year. 11 members didn’t make any appearances at all.
But what may be more interesting is who is appearing on the Opry to take up the slack. Out of the Top 11 members of the Opry in 2014 in regards to the number of appearances made, calculated by Opry historian Byron Fay, there were no artists who were in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, or even 50’s in age, and there were only three artists in their 60’s out of the Opry membership. That means the majority of the top Opry performing members are in their 70’s or older. Of the Top 11 performing members at the Grand Ole Opry in 2014, the average age was 79-years-old, taking in account that a couple of the top performers are groups and can change the math with individual members.
- Jeannie Seely -88 Appearances – Age: 74
- Riders In The Sky-68 Appearances – Age: (Leader Doug Green) 68
- Bill Anderson -67 Appearances – Age: 77
- John Conley -67 Appearances – Age: 68
- The Whites-67 Appearances – Age: (Leader Buck White) 84
- Connie Smith-64 Appearances – Age: 73
- Jim Ed Brown-50 Appearances – Age: 80
- Bobby Osborne-47 Appearances – Age: 83
- Little Jimmy Dickens-39 Appearances – Age: 94 (deceased)
- Jesse McReynolds-37 Appearances – Age: 85
- Jean Shepard-34 Appearances – Age: 81
So much for Pete Fisher’s plan to reinvigorate the Opry with younger talent.
Zooming out even farther and looking at the 25 members who played the Opry their appropriate 10 times, only one is below 50-years-old, and that’s Carrie Underwood at 31. She is the only current top tier mainstream artists who consistently meets her Opry obligations. No other member in the Top 25 in appearances is even in their 40’s, and only 4 of them (Vince Gill, Lorrie Morgan, Craig Morgan, and Mike Snider) are in their 50’s.
Old Crow Medicine Show, who was 2013’s new inductee, played the Opry 9 times in 2014.
Meanwhile as many Opry members are shirking their duties, non members are also taking up much of the slack. Chris Jansen made 32 appearances in 2014, and The Willis Clan made 30. But they are not members. Elizabeth Cook, Sarah Darling, and The Henningsens made 16 appearances each throughout the year. As historian Byron Fay points out, “Would the Opry be any worst having these folks as members versus those who are members and do not show up?”
So what does this all mean? It’s sort of a mixed bag, depending on your perspective. In the end, the word out on the street is that The Grand Ole Opry remains profitable, and so as long as that’s the case, the higher ups are likely to be happy with the way Pete Fisher is managing the institution. And older artists playing the Opry generally means a more traditional sound emanating from WSM come Opry time. But for the institution to remain viable, it must bring in new blood, and it must entice mainstream-relevant talent to at least pay attention to the institution. What good are rules if nobody follows them? There may be a lot of loyal Opry listeners and attendees who are happy Darius Rucker and Blake Shelton aren’t making more appearances, and that older artists are getting more opportunities. But that doesn’t make it right that these artists have signed up to be members, and are not fulfilling their quota to country music’s most storied institution.