At the risk of giving this story more oxygen then it deserves, a blatant misnomer has become a prevailing thought in certain circles, and deserves to be addressed with some important historical context and perspective.
As you probably heard, Elle King stirred quite a bit of controversy on Friday, January 19th during a Dolly Parton tribute on the Grand Ole Opry. She was clearly drunk, and admitted as much on stage before slurring and hard cussing her way through her performance as the family friendly crowd looked on in shock, and the FCC started ringing up infractions against the Opry’s radio partner, WSM.
But almost immediately as the news spread and outlets started reporting on King’s drunken performance, some came forward to claim that the criticism Elle King was receiving constituted a double standard compared to the kind of criticism a man would receive in the same scenario.
Though she is far from the only one, Dolly Parton’s sister and fellow performer Stella Parton said,
“I didn’t see nor hear the Grand Ole Opry birthday tribute to my big sister Dolly over the weekend. But some lil girl by the name of Elle King apparently cussed and insulted some of Dolly’s fans by not knowing a song. She did admit to being “hammered” her word not mine … But let me just say this, it wouldn’t be the first time a Hillbilly went on the stage of the Opry “hammered” but I guess it’s ok if you’re a male but good lord don’t ever let a girl behave that way folks! Double fucking standard if ya ask me. So the Opry is apologizing! Lol”
Stella Parton didn’t fully defend Elle King. Parton also criticized her for being ill-prepared and not showing respect for the Opry, but held fast to the opinion the Ell King criticism was a double standard.
Since we’re comparing apples to oranges on here. I’m still stewing and thinking bout how any lil spoiled brat with an opportunity to sing on the Opry to pay tribute to a legendary songwriter like Dolly Parton would just piss on the star circle on the stage. Taylor Swift wouldn’t … There’s many different ways for a female singer to make a name for herself like maybe doing your damn homework … For every singer, country or otherwise who has ever graced that stage and every fan who has ever sat in that audience we consider it a sacred space and a devine opportunity … Well, if ya think it works in Country Music for a female to get attention, about five minutes is it! . There’s a BIG double standard between men and women in entertainment and I’ve never seen it do men or women any good to disrespect an audience.
Stella Parton has been the most public and outspoken about it, but many others agree that if it was a man who had turned in a drunken performance at the Grand Ole Opry, we wouldn’t be making near as much of a fuss about it. Some have gone as far to assert that Elle King is the real victim here.
Are there double standards in entertainment for women, and in country music specifically? Of course there are. Women are judged much more on appearance compared to their male counterparts. They’re held to a greater code of conduct, and judged more harshly if they’re found to have be guilty of some impropriety. And this says nothing about how much harder it is for a woman in country music to launch a career, get signed to a label, get a song on the radio, and other benefits that often fall in the lap of their male counterparts.
But when it comes to the Grand Ole Opry and Elle King’s drunken performance specifically, to say she is being held to a double standard compared to male performers is categorically false from a very clear historical perspective. It also sets a bad precedent of calling out double standards when they don’t exist.
Hank Williams, The King of Country Music, was kicked out of the Grand Ole Opry in 1952, and not for drunken performances on stage, but for simply showing up to rehearsals inebriated, or not showing up to rehearsals at all. Being kicked out of the Opry broke Hank’s heart, and facilitated his downward spiral that resulted in his overdose death in the back of his powder blue Cadillac on New years Day, 1953.
For going on 20 years, the heirs of Hank Williams and now over 62,000 signatories have been attempting to get Hank Williams reinstated back into the Grand Ole Opry to no avail. Over this time, these Hank Williams fans have been told that you can’t make a dead guy a Grand Ole Opry member. But on October 14th, 2023, this is exactly what the Grand Ole Opry did by making Keith Whitley a posthumous member.
But Hank Williams is far from the only one who got sideways with the Grand Ole Opry. In 1965 shortly after Johnny Cash’s Opry debut, he showed up on stage drunk, and notoriously smashed out the footlights at the front of the stage with the microphone stand. The Opry kicked Cash out of the institution and banned him indefinitely, though he was able to return to the stage by 1968.
Hank Williams and Johnny Cash were not two pop stars who migrated to country later in their careers. They were Mt. Rushmore titans of the genre. And despite this, when they showed up drunk at the Opry, they were shown the door. They weren’t the only ones.
Jerry Lee Lewis made his Grand Ole Opry debut on January 20th, 1973 in one of the most notorious moments in Opry history. At one point, Jerry Lee Lewis stuck his face into the microphone and proclaimed unabashedly, “Let me tell ya something about Jerry Lee Lewis, ladies and gentlemen: I am a rock and rollin’, country-and-western, rhythm and blues-singin’ motherf—-!” Similar to Cash and Hank, Jerry Lee Lewis was banned from performing on the Opry stage.
Dierks Bentley was banned from the Grand Ole Opry, and he wasn’t even drunk, and never even took the stage. Bentley was working for TNN at the time, which was located on the Opryland grounds. Whenever Dierks had a chance, he would sneak behind stage to chat with the performers. When General Manager Pete Fisher caught Dierks backstage one too many times, he banned Bentley from the premises. The ban was lifted once Bentley became a star in his own right.
The Opry bans haven’t solely affected men though. On December 8th, 1973, Skeeter Davis took the Opry stage and spoke about her disdain for seeing members of the organization Christ Is the Answer Crusade arrested at a local shopping center, criticizing Nashville Police before performing the song “Amazing Grace.” For this very minor infraction, Davis had her membership revoked and was banned. She was reinstated later in 1974.
Neko Case was banned from the Opry in 2001. She was playing the Opry’s “Plaza Party” outside in July. After her requests for water went unanswered, she started suffering from heat exhaustion. To cool down, she took her top off. She still had her bra on underneath, but the indecent exposure had the Opry crying foul.
Holly Dunn was expunged from Opry membership for no apparent reason at all, though lack of regular performances was cited, despite the fact that more prominent stars with less performances were kept on the roster.
The Grand Ole Opry has a long history of punitive punishments against performers, and a restrictive attitude against outsiders. This is a history that long time managers such as Pete Fisher kept going well into the modern era. But current Opry head Dan Rogers seems to have worked hard to distance the storied institution from such things, while trying to keep the reverence for the Opry alive.
Nobody behind the movement to reinstate Hank Williams into the Grand Ole Opry claims that Hank’s behavior didn’t warrant the Opry’s decision at the time to remove him as a member. The thought is that Hank never had the opportunity to redeem himself. The difference here is that Elle King does. Nobody is trying to “cancel” Elle King for her behavior. The Opry has made no formal proclamations about if she will be invited back to perform, or not. Ironically, The Opry has formally apologized to the public for the profanity and the performance. Yet so far, Elle King hasn’t.
It is a privilege to play the Grand Ole Opry, and to participate in something as high profile as a tribute to Dolly Parton, and that’s a privilege that was extended to Elle King over other women who are native to country music. Lauren Alaina—a Grand Ole Opry member—was also supposed to perform during the Dolly Parton tribute. But due to inclement weather, she did not make it.
Elle King has also been given big opportunities on country music award shows, and also hosted the major “Nashville Big Bash” New Year’s Eve television special on CBS, which also had some concluding she was heavily inebriated. Again, these opportunities could have gone to women native to country music. Sure, double standards most certainly still persist in country music for women. But this is all the more reason to support the women of country music first.
As academic/activist Amanda Marie Martinez states, “I’ve never respected Elle King & her chance to make an easy transition to country music (CMAs/ACMs, hosting opportunities). She has a fake Southern accent, is a product of industry nepotism, & country’s racial double standards. I hope she gets help, but she must face consequences.”
What consequences should Elle King face? All Saving Country Music has asked for is a simple apology. We shouldn’t get so bent out of shape over this situation that we overlook the human element to this story. Elle King may need help with her issues with alcohol, and she should be extended that grace. The Opry’s history of kicking people out, cutting all ties, or sometimes not letting folks in should be just that: history.
Pushing the Grand Ole Opry aside, would people be proclaiming similar behavior was “badass” or “Outlaw” if a man was doing it? In this instance, probably not. Toby Keith, Hank Williams Jr., and scores of other performers have been criticized for drunk performances over the years. Saving Country Music has called out Toby Keith Evan Felker of the Turnpike Troubadours, Pat Green, and others specifically.
People forget that the George Jones nickname “No Show Jones” was not a term of endearment. He was roundly criticized for years for his inconsistency and behavior. It was only after his sobriety that fans looked back upon The Possum’s behavior with humor and forgiveness.
This is also not about “gatekeeping.” When Elle King first began to make the transition to country music, she was praised by Saving Country Music for her rendition of “Jersey Giant” by Tyler Childers.
But to get respect, you must give respect. And now in a number of instances, Elle King has failed to show the respect country music and its legends and institutions deserve. And anyone, man or woman, deserves to be held to that standard of respecting country music before being extended big opportunities by the genre.