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 out older stars. 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 onstage 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 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 Louvin, a 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 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 2½ 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.