Executive Profile: Sally Williams Rules The Nashville Roost (And Beyond) At Opryland Entertainment

Sally Williams
Robby Klein
– Sally Williams
Sally Williams oversees programming and artist relations at Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music, among many other venues for Opryland Entertainment.

Sally Williams has been a fixture in Nashville’s music world so indelibly it’s hard to believe there was ever a time she wasn’t running the Ryman Auditorium or booking a show at the Grand Ole Opry or helping move the music forward with the Country Music Association.

It’s hard to believe she’s not even from Nashville, or that she didn’t grow up wanting to do exactly what she’s been doing for so many years. But Williams, now the senior vice president of programming and artist relations for Opry Entertainment, thought she’d give journalism a try at college in Columbia, Missouri. But like so many now leading the industry, she wound up on the student concert committee instead of sleeping through student government meetings.

Before long, she was heading that committee, and journalism was a just a tiny dot in her rearview mirror. Williams got into the business after college, moved to Nashville in 1999 to be with her now-husband, CAA’s Brad Bissell, and worked with Pace Concerts on producing a festival called Nashville River Stages. Then the Opry came calling.

She’s worked with the company in one capacity or another ever since, including runs as General Manager at Ryman Auditorium, arguably the most historic building in American music. But she’s also overseen  the Grand Ole Opry House, booked the historic Grand Ole Opry radio show, produced events for Opryland Productions including on river showboats, overseen production on milestone anniversaries for the Opry (its 100th year as a music institution is coming up in 2025), served on staff as well as chair of the CMA board, and now gets to pal around with Blake Shelton as she oversees artist relations for his three (soon to be four) Ole Red restaurants-slash-music-venues stretching from Shelton’s hometown of Tishomingo, Okla., to Orlando.

So, given that Williams’ days are just packed, Pollstar was fortunate to be able to grab some time with her on the phone to talk about everything from life changes to Nashville changes to booking Wu-Tang Clan at the Mother Church of Country Music.


Pollstar: You’ve had a varied career, almost all with the same company. Can you give us a short timeline of how you worked your way into a mouthful of a title?

Sally Williams: For a short period of time, I was an event producer for a division called Opryland Productions, which did a lot of corporate events. We even had a showboat! In 2000, when Grand Ole Opry celebrated its 75th anniversary, they tapped me in that role with Opryland Productions to produce all their special events associated with that celebration. There were festivals, television shows and all that sort of thing.

The company went through a reorganization, shuttered Opryland Productions and moved me into a new role of events manager for the Opry Entertainment complex which, at that time, was the Opry, a smaller theater called the Acuff Theater, which we demolished after the flood, and a museum. So from 2000 to 2007 when I left [to join Ryman Auditorium], I was actually housed in the Grand Ole Opry House and handling everything from concert booking to private event booking to festivals. Everything other than the Grand Ole Opry radio shows, I was handling for that period of time.

I’m well-versed in the overall mission of the company. I also have strong ties within the country music community – both because I book all country concerts inhouse, but also because of my work within the community, including a term as Chairman of the Country Music Association.


Sally Williams
Hunter Berry/CMA
– Sally Williams
Sally Williams, in her role as Country Music Association board chairman, addresses a vigil gathered at Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheater in Nashville Oct. 2 following a mass shooting in Las Vegas the previous night.

With the name changes, the portfolio of hotels and convention centers, and the historic theaters, please give us a quick breakdown of what parent company Ryman Hospitality operates.

Ryman Hospitality Properties, which is our parent company, owned and operated all those properties and now is a real estate investment trust. We still own hotel and convention properties but they are managed by Marriott, with a long-term management agreement. But we still operate our entertainment division which is the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman Auditorium, WSM-AM which is the radio station that started the Opry, and now Ole Red.

You now are SVP of Programming & Artist Relations Relationships for Opry Entertainment and GM of Grand Ole Opry. What does that entail?

I lead a team responsible for all creating and executing entertainment strategy for the company including booking, programming, artist relations, artist collaborations and show production across the company including: Grand Ole Opry, Grand Ole Opry House, Ryman Auditorium, Ole Red Nashville, Ole Red Tishomingo, Ole Red Gatlinburg and Ole Red Orlando (opening in 2020). As General Manager of the Opry, I oversee the show’s programming, lineup and member relations.

You were GM at Ryman Auditorium for several years. How did that prepare you for your new role?

I was GM at the Ryman from 2008 until 2017 as well as Vice President of Concerts & Entertainment for the entire company, meaning I actually looked after concerts – booked and produced for the Ryman and the Opry House. I never had really anything to do with the Grand Ole Opry show. I worked at the Ryman, which hosted the show three months out of the year. I was always around the show, but I never really participated in any of the decision-making around the show.

Sally Williams
Rick Diamond
– Sally Williams
Sally snaps one with country legend Roy Clark at the Academy of Country Music Honors backstage at Ryman Auditorium Sept. 1, 2015 in Nashville.

But you are involved in the Grand Ole Opry radio show now, correct?

Yeah, the Opry show, which is different from the Opry House, is the longest continuously running radio show in history. We’ll do 225 Grand Ole Opry shows this year. That’s just the radio show. They happen every Friday and Saturday, most Tuesdays, some Wednesdays, and many Thursdays – and every show features eight to 12 artists per show. Do the math on that and it’s a lot of artists!

So, yes it is very different. How you put the shows together is different, obviously, for a two-hour show with that many artists performing fewer songs. But it’s wonderful. We’ll soon celebrate 100 years since 1925.

The Grand Ole Opry used to air from the Ryman, along with television shows like “The Johnny Cash Show,” so there must be a lot of shared history and similarities.

The original Opry started in the radio station studio and went on to four other buildings before it landed at the Ryman. It was at the Ryman from 1943 to 1974, and the Ryman is its most famous former home, prior to the opening of the Opry House in 1974. Now, the Opry has been here at the Opry House longer than it was anywhere else.

When Johnny Cash did his variety show at the Ryman, he brought in all kinds of artists; not just country. Everybody from Louis Armstrong to Eric Clapton.

It’s interesting, because the Grand Ole Opry House also has a history of non-Grand Ole Opry show programming. Since 2000, when I took over as the events manager, I’ve been trying to build that back up again. I think we are at 13 concerts this year, which is a far cry from the 190 concerts we’ll do at the Ryman. But we just had Hozier, we have Santana coming up. We’ve got Alice Cooper and Halestorm; Sara Bareilles just announced – all performing full concerts at the Grand Ole Opry House.

They are very similar buildings in many ways. The Ryman is just shy of 2,400 seats and the Opry is just shy of 4,400 seats. When they built the Opry House in 1974, they wanted to take some of the really great things about the Ryman and use them here, too. The Opry House has church pews and the slant to the balcony is very similar. It gives you a similar intimacy in a bigger building. But obviously, the Ryman, … there’s nothing like it.

I believe these are such great venues for experiencing music and entertainment in intimacy. It’s not just  intimacy between artist and performers but, because you’re in pews – you know how intimate that is if you’ve sat in pews at a church – you know just how intimate that experience is.

You are also, in addition to programming the Ryman and the Opry, working with Blake Shelton’s Ole Red venues that are under Opry Entertainment’s umbrella. That must be an insane number of shows.

Jordan Pettit, our director of artist relations and programming strategy, and Dolly Chandler, our talent buyer, who are part of my team, book all of the artists and oversee all video programming at Ole Red Nashville and Ole Red Gatlinburg.

In Nashville we program live music from open to close – that’s over 100 hours of live music each week. In Gatlinburg, depending on the time of year, we’ll program over 70 hours of live music each week. Similar to the Opry, we program a large variety of styles of country music – from contemporary to bluegrass.

We’ve just kicked off a residency program with a great new artist named Anna Vaus. She’ll play several nights at Ole Red Nashville and several nights at Ole Red Gatlinburg over the course of the next couple months. We also have a lot of pop-up performances – Blake, Shenandoah, Chris Janson, Levi Hummon, Mac MacAnally, Craig Campbell. And we regularly book contestants from “The Voice” – so far we’ve seen a couple dozen – some on a fairly regular basis.

The goal is to develop a system whereby artists play all of our venues as they grow their careers. We want to nurture artists as they grow from playing to a few hundred people at Ole Red to hopefully headlining the Ryman and performing on the Grand Ole Opry. This isn’t exactly new – Old Crow Medicine Show, is a good example.

So in essence you’re able to build an artist development feeder pipeline to your larger venues. Given Blake’s role on “The Voice,” is he able to find performance homes for contestants at Ole Red venues?

Ultimately what we want to see is more of that sort of thing and also artists growing into playing the Grand Ole Opry. Old Crow Medicine Show came in here to start working with me in 2000 when we were doing some of the events around the 75th anniversary of the Opry, and then they started headlining the Ryman. And then they started headlining the Opry, and then they became members of the Grand Ole Opry and now they will play three or four nights at the Ryman every year.

Blake and his team are great partners, both in terms of trying to help us find which markets to pursue to helping us source new artists. We have had at Ole Red a slew of contestants from “The Voice” which has been great.

Then Blake will play from time to time. Blake has done a couple of pop-up shows, and they range from Shenandoah which is a more established artist to Levi Hammon, a new artist. We’re still sorting through it all, but the gist of it is we are hoping and we are planning on helping artists through their careers with our various venues.

Sally Williams
Rick Diamond/Getty Images for IEBA
– Sally Williams
Sally Williams accepts IEBA’s Venue Executive of the Year Award during the Honors and Awards Ceremony at the IEBA 2015 Conference Oct. 13, 2015 in Nashville.

Does Blake involve himself in the booking / business operations of these venues? Do you work with him at all? If yes, how?

Blake and his whole team are terrific partners – from helping us determine what markets to pursue to turning us on to new artists to book.

It was important to Blake that the first Ole Red open in Tishomingo, his home town – it’s had a significant impact on the community. As part of the grand opening we presented a check for $32,000 to a Tishomingo organization called J.C. Reaching Out which helps families of people battling cancer. And of course the business has created some great new job opportunities for residents of the area. AND, its a great place for Blake to hang out and play with his buddies when he’s in town.

Blake comes across as pretty awesome, and it’s true; he’s pretty awesome. Obviously, he’s very talented and funny. But he’s also such a huge music FAN – of both contemporary music and music of yesterday – and super knowledgeable about the history.

And he’s a GOOD human too. I mentioned the impact that Ole Red has had on the town of Tishomingo. When we decided to open another in Gatlinburg, it was again important to Blake that we do good work for that community as well.

During the grand opening celebration, we presented a check for over $50,000 for the local high school’s music programs. The funds were raised via an auction for tickets to see Blake perform plus a matching contribution by Ryman Hospitality Properties.


You have venues at different ends of the spectrum – historically significant ones like the Ryman and Opry, and nearly brand new ones at Ole Reds. How do you approach programming and management duties at each?

Yes, both the Ryman and Opry are historically rich institutions, but at each we continue to make that history each night. My overarching goal is to ensure that what we’re doing now will be talked about 50, 75, 100 years from now just like what was happening 50, 75, 100 years ago resonates with us today.

We hope to build that same status with Ole Red. The programming approach is similar in that we strive to book what an audience wants to see while balancing the introduction of new artists. The Opry has always led the way with this approach. Even programming at the Ryman is not strictly country and hasn’t been for a few years.

What kind of changes have you made and how have they been received generally?

The Ryman hasn’t been strictly country at any point since it reopened in 1994. In 2018, just over 25% of the shows we did, not including Opry shows, were country.

When I started managing the Ryman in 2008 I took my inspiration from Lula C. Naff, who managed the Ryman from 1920-1955. All are Welcome. I want each Nashvillian to have their chance to see their favorite artist at the Ryman.

I’m excited that we’ve got The Wu-Tang Clan coming up in June because they’ll be the first hip-hop artist at the Ryman.

One of the things that’s been working really well is the growth of our multi-night performance runs. We really started focusing in on trying to grow this when we had our three nights with Mumford & Sons in 2012. We celebrate each time we have a run of three or more – do full-page trade publication ads thanking the artist and team, frame the Hatch prints for the artists, etc. Now we have a slew of multi-night runs each year.

Of course we had our Little Big Town residency in 2017, six shows with Jason Isbell, and for the 12 Christmas shows with Amy Grant and Vince Gill, and many more.

Sally Williams
Steve Lowy
– Sally Williams
Sally meets backstage with two late legends of country music, Glen Campbell and Merle Haggard, at Ryman Auditorium in 2011.

Where you at the Opry when the Cumberland River flooded Lower Broadway into downtown Nashville about 10 years back? Let’s talk about saving those buildings and contents.

It was an incredibly frightening time. I wasn’t worried about the Ryman. Tom Ryman was a Riverboat Captain. He understood the river and built the Ryman up on a hill.

The flooding at the Opry House was another matter. My husband and I were out at the Opry House and Opry Museum helping move things to safety. Brad actually moved a pair of Minnie Pearl’s shoes out of the path of the flood, which is pretty special.

But it made me so proud of this community – everyone came together. And the Opry didn’t miss a beat. We moved the Opry show to War Memorial (one of the Opry’s former homes) the night after the flood and held the Opry in numerous buildings around the city (including the Ryman, of course) while the Opry House was being restored.


Nashville has exploded in the last few years not only as Music City but as a tourist and destination city. How has that affected you and your venues?

It’s been tremendous. People come to Music City to experience music and learn about its history. We’ve got lots of ways for them to do that.

The good news is that in addition to tourism growing in Nashville, so is the city’s overall population. And people who live in Nashville love and value live music. So thus far, we’ve seen an increase in shows and ticket sales, not a decrease because of competition.

We are trying to be the best at everything we do. The fact that we have this pipeline from Ole Red to the Opry to the Ryman is helping us bring in what I think is the best talent on Lower Broadway. I’ve practically lived down there and spent a lot of time coming in and out of those honky tonks, and the good news is the tourism right now in Nashville is tremendous and we are seeing that there is plenty to go around and our goal is to create the best experience that we can.

I think we have the biggest stage, the most comfortable experience both for the audience and the artists, and now we’re trying to cook the best food! That’s the goal.