Mar 13 2007, 04:05 PM
(Vince is in it)
Older country stars say they are being pushed offstage at the Grand Ole Opry
By: Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Grand Ole Opry showcases old-time country music every week, but some older country stars complain they are being shuffled off the stage at the historic radio show.
Charlie Louvin, Stonewall Jackson and others say they joined the Opry cast decades ago with an understanding: Faithfully make appearances at the Grand Ole Opry at the peak of your career for less than you could earn elsewhere, and the Opry would offer security and a place to perform when the hits stopped coming.
Now they say the Opry has reneged on that unwritten deal and is pushing older stars out. Jackson, 74, has filed an age discrimination lawsuit against the owners of the Opry, the storied home of country music.
"The only ones they want to see in the audience and on stage are young people," said Joe Edwards, a musician in the Opry's house band for about 45 years before he says he was asked to leave along with a number of other veteran musicians in 2000.
Gaylord Entertainment Co., which bought the Opry in 1983, denied all of Jackson's claims in court papers. It said Opry members are not Gaylord employees, and the company has no obligation to offer them a certain number of performances.
And, in fact, the Opry regularly features older singers like Little Jimmy Dickens, Porter Wagoner and Bill Anderson. But the cast of about 65 members also includes contemporary hitmakers such as Trace Adkins, Martina McBride and Brad Paisley.
"The Opry has been evolving for 81 years and will continue to evolve in the future," said Steve Buchanan, vice president for media and entertainment at Gaylord. "That evolution is what has helped the Opry remain a vibrant and relevant entertainment icon."
In the 1950s, when Louvin and his brother Ira were topping the country charts as the Louvin Brothers, the duo would hightail it back to Nashville many Saturdays to fulfill their obligations to the Opry.
Opry members were required to appear on the radio show at least 26 Saturdays a year. The acts were paid a small amount for their performances -- $15 a show as Louvin remembers. That was nowhere near what they could earn on the road.
If a country act was making $2,000 a night, it cost the act $52,000 a year to remain a member of the Opry, Louvin said. The artists did it because they thought the Opry was good for their career and for their future, he said.
"You definitely thought you were building loyalty," said the 79-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer. "Everybody was told that if you keep your nose clean, you always had a home at the Opry."
Louvin said his appearances on the Opry have dwindled to about 15 a year, causing him to lose health insurance coverage for his wife through The American Federation of Television & Radio Artists. The union provides coverage to members based on their performance income.
Jackson, an Opry member since 1956, sued Gaylord and 44-year-old Opry general manager Pete Fisher for $20 million earlier this year, claiming age discrimination and breach of contract.
Jackson echoes Louvin's claims about an unwritten agreement. He said that his appearances declined after Fisher was hired in 1998 and that he lost his health insurance.
The format at the Grand Ole Opry has changed little since it started in 1925. Performers march on and off stage, doing two or three songs apiece. Today there are three or four shows a week, each up to 2.5 hours long. Members and guest artists share the performance slots, which can range from eight on a Tuesday show to 18 on a Saturday night.
For many years, WSM -- the radio station that started the Opry and still broadcasts it -- helped members get bookings during the week. Even now, the Opry has a trust fund that helps members and others in the industry when they fall on hard times.
But it is unlikely they were promised lifelong security, said writer Craig Havighurst, author of the forthcoming book "Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City."
"I never heard one person indicate in any way any expectation of a retirement benefit or a lifetime ticket to the stage," Havighurst said.
Vince Gill, a 17-year member, balked at the suggestion of age discrimination, but said veteran members have some legitimate gripes. He said there were times in the Opry's long history when the hitmakers of the day did not join the cast, but stalwarts like Louvin and Jackson showed up week after week to keep the institution going.
"If I had been at that place 40 years and done the things those folks had done, I'd feel slighted too sometimes," Gill said. "But the management has bosses, too, and they want to see it grow and only have so many slots a night to get filled."
Gill advocates a return to a mandatory minimum number of appearances for cast members, plus a cap on the maximum. That would make more room for older stars, and ensure that the more contemporary members do their part, he said.
Mar 13 2007, 07:23 PM
I have to agree with Vince that they should return to a mandatory minimum number of appearances, because as it stands now, there are only a handful of members who joined in the 1980s/early 1990s who actually make Opry appearances. When was the last time Randy Travis, Ricky Van Shelton or Reba played the Opry? I can't even remember. A cap on a maximum number of appearances would definately work in order to include a lot of the older stars who have been slighted. After all, it seems like Little Jimmy Dickens and Bill Anderson are there almost all year round...I very rarely see their names *not* on the schedule. Heck, they should take a couple weekends off in order to make room for some of the other older stars.
Mar 13 2007, 08:00 PM
Me too Valerie. I remember a few years back George Strait was invited to join the Opry and was very honored but declined because he said he could not meet the mandatory appearances .
I know a guy who was born and raised in Nashville and he lives here now.He used to play in Nashville and knows and keeps in touch with some of the older stars and he was telling me the other night about the situation with the older members. He said someone told him that they were heading toward no one over the age of 50 .Now you want an uprising ? I can't imagine them being that hard on the people who play there. There again ,I couldn't believe Gaylord was going to turn WSM into a sports station. I signed that petition along with about 10,000 others.
I feel bad for the older members. They can still play good and most of them can sing good. It's a business like any thing else just seems a shame .
Another story I read about Marty Robbins was racing at the track in Nashville and he was leading "for a change" but it was time for his Opry spot and he just drove off the track
and went to The Ryman for his portion of the Opry. Wonder who would do that today ? Can't you see Vince leaving the golf course when it's time to play the Opry. Of course he would if he played golf at night.
Mar 14 2007, 11:03 AM
Well...if they enforce a rule of age 50, then Vince will be out shortly. I would also love to see them enforce a mandatory # of appearances per year for members. But, I have always loved seeing the older Opry members perform. I think they are what makes the Opry what it is...and I would be sad not seeing Little Jimmy, Bill Anderson and Porter Wagoner.
Btw, has Porter returned to the Opry??? Was wondering if anyone knew how he was doing???
Mar 14 2007, 11:41 AM
Very Interesting article. I just fear that the Opry is a fading institution. I hope I am wrong but over the years of going I see a decline in people everytime I am there. It may have to do with the increase in price of the tickets. I still enjoy the opry, both the newcomers and the old timers.
Mar 14 2007, 01:52 PM
I know the last time we were there, back in 2005, the floor section was just about sold out. I think we got some of the last tickets for the floor section. But then again, the lineup included Vince, Gretchen Wilson, and Mark Wills that night. I think they do get a better 'crowd' with the more current artists on the show, but even though people might go to see a certain artist, they stay for the whole show and get a little bit of everyone. That's what I like about the Opry is that it's not just one or two artists performing, you get a good variety.
Mar 14 2007, 04:32 PM
If I remember correctly, there was one person who suggested 50 as an age limit. It was a totally crazy idea, he obviously didn't think it through. If there was a 50 age limit, they couldn't put on the Opry. The over 50 artists are the ones that are keeping the Opry going. They are ones showing up every week.
I can kind of see both sides of this. They have to keep bringing the younger artists in, or eventually the audience will die out, and nobody will show up. After all, at one time, Vince was a young hotshot and if they didn't bring the new people in, Vince would have never been inducted at the Opry. I also agree with Vince about when the older people joined they gave up so much and the music industry was different then.
I like Vince's idea of a minimum number of appearances if they really inforce it, but don't think a maximum number would work. You would never be able to get the new hotshots of today to take the place of the older artists when they aren't appearing.
Mar 14 2007, 05:08 PM
They used to have a minimum number of appearances that each artist *had* to make in order to remain a member, which is one of the reasons George Strait turned down the offer when he was invited to join. Now, it seems like nobody gives a darn as to if some of the current members show up or not...and in some cases, management doesn't *want* them to show up (i.e. Stonewall Jackson). Let's see...there are 52 weeks in a year, at least 3 Opry shows every week, 4 during spring & summer, so let's say there are 180 shows during a year...it seems like Bill Anderson and Little Jimmy Dickens are there for 90% of the shows...so they might be averaging around 150 shows a year...a max number of 100 shows a year would definately be plenty for each artist to do. I think the minimum used to be 12 shows a year..heck, that averages out to 1 show a month...I don't know of any artist living in Nashville (or has a residence in Nashville) that couldn't fullfill that requirement...after all, most artists finish their touring in November, and don't start up again until February (I'm not including Christmas tours in that, because there are a lot of artists who don't do Christmas shows), so any artist could fulfill the Opry membership requirements in a month.
Mar 14 2007, 05:10 PM
Well,I have been listening to the Opry since I was a kid. My Grandma had a battery operated radio and I would pray every Saturday night that the battery wouldn't give out. That's where I got my love of country music.Then if I was lucky enough to be awake I'd listen to Ernest Tubb's Record Shop. I remember when Roy Acuff and Hank Snow were young.
People like that made the Opry and left the legacy for the young ones who play there now.Sure would be a shame if they lost all the older ones. Had it not been for them we wouldn't be hearing Vince,Alan,George , Kenny and Tim . How does Gaylord or whom ever is at the bottom of all this think these young ones will have the staying power of some of those older ones. Seems as though every time I watch any of the videos there are so many new artist. I don't even know 1/2 of the names who will be playing the Stadium shows at Fan Fair this year.
Just glad Vince is in there.
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