Grand Ole Opry V.P. & Exec Producer of Grand Ole Opry Dan Rogers: ‘We Have 95 Years… And We’re Just Getting Started’
Chris Hollo / Courtesy Grand Ole Opry LLC. – Opry Lifer
Dan “Opry Dan” Rogers, who in the late ’90s worked as an intern at the Opry.
Dan Rogers, Vice President/Executive Producer of the Grand Ole Opry, is called “Opry Dan” for good reason. Having started his career at the seminal country music institution as an intern in 1998, few people know as much about not just the history but the ethos that goes into making the Opry such a magical place. After all, Rogers – who came out of the communications department – has lived through the 2010 Nashville Floods that submerged the stage of the hallowed Opry, Fan Fair turning into the big business CMA Music Fest, shifts in technology and the shutdown of live entertainment due to the COVID-19 pandemic and, now, its impressive livestreaming run.
POLLSTAR: Let’s start with the obvious: What makes the Opry so special?
DAN ROGERS: The first thing I think of is the great, committed artists and fans. I know it sounds trite, but it’s absolutely the truth. From Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Henry Bandy, Humphrey Bale, Uncle Dave Macon and DeFord Bailey to Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline to Old Crow Medicine Show, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and Luke Combs, the connection between the artists and the fans, the fans and the artists is everything.
Even artists who’ve never met each other, there’s an instant thing. And the connection to those fans who’ve tuned in or bought a ticket, is so powerful to experience. The artists here care so much about those fans. At the end of the day, it would be nothing without the artists who’ve stepped up to the microphone.
Is there a special trick to it?
It’s a big red curtain going up… A variety of artists of different generations, making a parade off and on that stage… hits from back when to right now to up next. It all comes together here.
One of my favorite advertising agency pitches that we’d use in New York, the line was: “The Grand Ole Opry: It always changes. The Grand Ole Opry: It never changes.”
That’s kinda true.
That’s the case for the artists and the fans. Look at Mother Maybelle back in the ‘40s and ‘50s; Jeannie Seely in the ‘60s; Dolly and Barbara Mandrell in the ‘70s; Martina McBride and Trisha Yearwood in the ‘90s right through to Little Big Town and Kelsea Ballerini today. They may look different, but they all are motivated by the same thing!
It’s a forward-looking tradition to ensure the music goes forward without losing what made it special, something that made them love the music in the first place.
Chris Hollo / Courtesy Grand Ole Opry LLC. – Kindergarten Dreams
Dan Rogers (far right) on stage with Dolly Parton whom he first saw at the Opry in grade school, along with Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Colin Reed, chairman and CEO of Ryman Hospitality Properties.
Love is a big piece of this.
That’s the Opry, too. When Minnie Pearl made her debut, she received a piece of advice from George D. Hay when she did the Opry for the first time.
I think it was 1948 when she made her debut, and they put her on late in case she bombed… She wasn’t a name. They’d seen her in her hometown, but she’d never done anything like this. In case it didn’t work, they wanted to protect her. So before she went out, she was nervous, and Mr. Hay said, “Well, Minnie, just love them, and they’ll love you back.” She went out, and the telegrams came in from all over.
And over time, she came to really embody that Opry love.
She dispensed love and advice like that at every turn. She’s the face, or the heart that calls you home to the Opry. When you’re walking up the walk outside the stage entrance, there’s a bronze sculpture of her still welcoming everyone.
Do you remember the first time you came to the Grand Ole Opry?
[laughs] I came with my parents the Christmas break in kindergarten. We were on our way home from Florida. We had tickets for the second show on Saturday night, because that was the greatest chance Marty Robbins would show up.
So, the only thing I remember about that night was my dad telling me, “We are going to the Grand Ole Opry,” and having this sense of how important it was.
He’d sat me down by the campfire at the KOA, to make sure I understood … We had seats on the Main Floor, Section 2, Row K. The only other thing is somebody saying, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Dolly Parton …” She had on a green butterfly pantsuit, and was just so shiny and pretty to a 5-year-old.
Chris Hollo / Courtesy Grand Ole Opry LLC –
Marty Stuart, Stuart Duncan, Chris Scruggs and Sierra Hull play the Opry Sept. 26.
Before we get into the mechanics and this crazy year, are there any other secrets to why the Opry endures and is so special?
Definitely the different styles of music that exist here and that the Opry brings together under its roof.
You’re going to hear “Rocky Top” by a member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, then “Jesus Take The Wheel,” followed by Dierks Bentley, followed by a new artist debuting a song they hope to take to No. 1 at country radio. That may be followed by a comedian, or the Opry Dancers.
It’s all part of it. Different values, outlooks, styles, ages, but we’re all in this together. Everyone loves music, the fans. Every artist on that wall has one thing in common: they wanted to be part of the Grand Ole Opry; they wanted to be part of something larger, to belong and be part of pushing forward this incredibly rich legacy.
And an incredible future! Between what you’re doing, Circle TV streaming it across every platform imaginable and WSM-AM, this has been a scary, but awesome time for the Opry. You’ve spent seven weeks at No. 1 on our Streaming chart, and No. 1 overall since Pollstar started the Livestream chart.
It’s funny, when the order came on March 13 and we paused doing shows for people, the radio is the reason we had a show on Saturday, March 14. If the Opry had been on for two or three years, we’d have paused like everyone else. When you think about the fact that on Oct. 31, it will be our 4,947th consecutive broadcast, you don’t want to break a streak like that.
Chris Hollo / Courtesy Grand Ole Opry LLC. –
The Grand Ole Opry was just part of $1.5 billion worth of damage done in the 2010 Nashville floods.
And after the flood, you all kept going.
The Tuesday after the flood, we were at War Memorial [Auditorium]. It took everything we had just to get the show on: we projected the logo onto a backdrop, had a portrait of Minnie Pearl on the stage. Marty Stuart, once again, knew what to play. He came out, started “Let The Church Roll On,” and we were back doing shows.
With COVID and playing to empty houses, you’ve come full circle with a broadcast that brings people together across the country, even around the world.
I’ve heard people saying during this time, they’re waiting for the Opry, that it’s become this important event in their lives – all around the world – and I’ve never heard that in my 22 years. People are writing in, saying, “I’ve been looking forward to this all week.” There are people setting their alarm clocks for 2 or 3 a.m. to get up and watch or listen live.
How does that make you feel?
I don’t fool myself. If it wasn’t for the Circle “Opry” show and it just happened and the world was suddenly home on a Saturday night with hardly anything else happening, we wouldn’t be here. But, to your point, people are feeling disconnected – and this gives them a way to feel part of something larger.
The Grand Ole Opry was just part of the $1.5 billion worth of damage done in the 2010 Nashville floods.
What was it like?
That first night? Just really quiet. We went about our jobs, masked and distanced. But there was such a sense this was something important. Marty, Vince and Brad sat on their stools distanced and ran through their songs. Seven p.m. came, the cameras turned on and the show went out live to America. It was all we could do, and it was all we needed to do. Throughout this pandemic, our artists have always known just what to do, what’s needed. It was important to get it right, under circumstances we couldn’t imagine. Especially in the beginning, some of the shows had so much gravity. Vince came out the day Kenny Rogers died and I don’t know if “Sweet Music Man” would be as sweet as that night.
And the week before a limited audience, Marty Stuart curated that incredible show with Connie Smith and a steel player doing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” which was just chilling.
Marty probably called in June, ready to do a show. We went from having five shows a week, and always having a place to slide people in, to one hour a week … He knew long before anyone else to have Connie sing that with just steel and it would say something about how we all felt.
We were talking, and I went, “We need to get that in before we have an audience.” I never thought I’d say that.
Chris Hollo / Courtesy Grand Ole Opry LLC. – Not Just Country
The Godfather of Soul Himself, James Brown, takes the Opry stage in 1979.
On a lighter note, the Opry has hosted some amazing people over the years.
John Fogerty for one. Through the years, James Brown, the Pointer Sisters, Stevie Wonder … Dionne Warwick. Elvis Costello has played it several times. Kevin Costner, Rita Wilson have both appeared. They may have a favorite country music song to play, or even one of their hits on the longest-running radio show in America. And I think there are more to come. James Taylor has said he grew up inspired by and listening to the Opry. He’s visited quietly with Vince Gill, but it would be awesome to have him in the Circle.
Eddie Vedder is another one. I can see myself driving down the road, listening to him playing a Louvin Brothers song or a Johnny Cash song. Our doors are always open for people you might not expect, but love the music.
You’ve taken the Opry to Bonnaroo, too.
It’s not as crazy as it sounds. First, we have Ketch (Secor), whose Old Crow Medicine Show was the first act to play at the first two Bonnaroos, as an Opry member. When we started talking about it, we realized maybe this wasn’t our typical audience, but they have all the right qualities: they love music, they love tradition and roots, they’re curious.
So, we take our traditions with us when we go anywhere! In 2018, Ketch curated a show for us that would give that audience a sense of what the Opry is. For the people at Bonnaroo, we bring Steve Earle and Ricky Skaggs, but then we have Riders in the Sky in their suits, bluegrass’s Molly Tuttle, Ashley Monroe, Wendy Moten – and the Opry Dancers. We broadcast it live the first night. The listeners love it, too.
Americana is a big part of the mix.
It’s interesting that the walls between country and Americana are walls the industry’s created. The fans and the music aficionados can go from one genre to another seamlessly. They don’t seem to even notice. However they stream their music, it’s all good. When people are sitting in the audience with their popcorn, they’re not worried about the labels. They want to hear, “Live from the Grand Ole Opry, in Nashville, Tennessee…”
The Circle. It always comes back or around to those transitions and history. Blessing or curse?
As long as I’m here, the Opry will always be “the show that made country music famous.” Emphasis on country. In my mind, the tradition and history don’t serve as an anchor, but a springboard. It is the key to everything here, the million-dollar factor – and what the fans and artists all want.
Without the tradition and history, the Opry becomes far less meaningful really quickly. When Carrie Underwood won “American Idol,” she wants to come to play the Opry show. She could’ve done anything, but that’s what she wanted – and we’re always looking for the next artist who will sweep the audience off their feet. It lends itself to diversity and the unexpected, because people are starting with something they know.
It’s a crazy mix.
When we’re doing five shows a week, there’s lots of opportunities to try things. We’ll have 8-10 artists in a show, mix things up, have fun. I like to say I’m the luckiest guy in the world. When an artist has an idea, I can say, “What do you need?”
I live in Nashville. Someone says, “Do you know the McCrary Sisters?” We do. Or you’ll see a young artist and think, “Vince would love to introduce them…” Every day, so many opportunities, so much music.
We have 95 incredible years to build on, and five years to build to the 100th Anniversary. [laughs] We’re just getting started.