Opry Not So Ole Anymore?

The Grand Ole Opry has made a name for itself by showcasing good old fashioned country music for more than 80 years. However, several Opry regulars have recently raised the question of just how old is acceptable to the venue and its trademark shows.

Charlie Louvin, Stonewall Jackson and others say they joined the Opry cast decades ago with the understanding that if an artist paid his dues when his career was hot, he’d be rewarded with a place to continue playing when the hits stopped coming. They say that’s no longer the case.

"You definitely thought you were building loyalty," Louvin, a Country Music Hall of Fame member, said. "Everybody was told that if you keep your nose clean, you always had a home at the Opry."

In the past, members were required to appear on the Opry’s radio show at least 26 Saturdays a year, for a fee that was a drop in the bucket compared to what they could potentially make on the road. Louvin, 79, said artists cooperated because they thought it was good for their career and their future.

Louvin said his appearances at the Opry have been cut to about 15 a year, which has caused him to lose his health insurance for his wife because coverage is based on members’ performance income.

Jackson, 74, has filed an age discrimination lawsuit against the owner of the Opry, Gaylord Entertainment, which bought the Opry in 1983 and Opry GM Pete Fisher. The $20 million suit accuses the Opry and Fisher of age discrimination and breach of contract.

The singer agrees with Louvin’s claims about an unwritten agreement between artists and the Opry. He said his appearances declined after Fisher was hired in 1998, and that he also lost his health insurance.

Gaylord denied Jackson’s claims, arguing that since Opry members are not technically Gaylord employees, it has no obligation to guarantee them a certain number of performances.

While the Opry still regularly features performances by older singers like Jimmy Dickens, Porter Wagoner and Bill Anderson, its cast of about 65 members is heavily stacked with contemporary hit-makers like Martina McBride, Brad Paisley and Vince Gill.

Gill, a member for 17 years, said that while he doesn’t necessarily agree with the accusations of age discrimination, the veteran members do have some legitimate complaints.

"If I had been at that place 40 years and I had 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 [the Opry] grow and only have so many slots a night to get filled."

Gill suggested a compromise of sorts: a return to a mandatory minimum number of shows for members, plus a maximum cap to help guarantee room for older stars and make sure younger members do their part.