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New GM Sally Williams Considers The Grand Ole Opry's Synergistic Future

Sally Williams
Heather Brand

Sally Williams

The Opry's realignment creates a mini-circuit around a landmark country radio show.

When bluegrass act Dailey & Vincent was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry on Dec. 30 at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, Opry vice president/GM Pete Fisher oversaw the process. Sally Williams, the GM at the time, had no idea that she would, in fact, see the induction through to its end.

Dailey & Vincent were officially installed March 11 at the Grand Ole Opry House in the first Saturday broadcast of the show after Williams received a promotion that includes a role as Opry GM. It was a fortuitous addition. Even before she ran the Ryman, she had booked the duo for numerous performances, so she had a lengthy history with the act.

“It’s a lovely induction for my first,” says Williams.

The moment hints at how her new responsibilities in a realigned Opry executive team are expected to be a boon to the company, which plans to offer more synergistic opportunities to work with a variety of Opry-owned properties. The Dailey & Vincent announcement came around the same time that the Ryman unveiled its lineup for its summer series Bluegrass Nights at the Ryman, which includes the duo. That cross-promotion hadn’t been planned between Fisher and Williams, but it’s symbolic for the future.

“It was a really good example of the goal of this department,” she says.

“This department” is programming and artist relations, a new division that Williams oversees as senior vp. It puts her in charge of the Opry’s roster and weekly lineups, but also makes her responsible for concerts and events at the Ryman, the Opry House and three forthcoming venues: New York’s Opry City Stage, opening this summer; Ole Red in Tishomingo, Okla., expected in the fall; and Ole Red in Nashville, due in 2018.

It creates a mini-circuit that provides artists multiple ways to latch on to an established brand that now has tentacles in the largest media market in the United States, in addition to Music City and a symbolic heartland locale.

“For new artists, that’s going to be an amazing opportunity,” says Williams. “With Opry City Stage in New York, the place is not huge — we’re not going to be doing the same size concerts there that we do at the Ryman — but it’s such an important place. And now with [WNSH’s] presence there, it’s a really important country music market, so that space will be an instrumental addition for artists of all sizes as they begin to launch a record or celebrate a No. 1 or whatever may be happening in their world at the time.”

The department came together after Fisher turned in his resignation in January, when the Los Angeles-based Academy of Country Music named him the new CEO. In her new role, Williams gives up the building operations function she had at the Ryman, but focuses more on creating opportunities for Opry Entertainment and for the artists who interact with the company. That heightens an attitude that was already being voiced within Opry Entertainment.

“We had been looking more holistically at how we program and work with artists in a way that would help us create the best experience for the guests walking in through the front door, but also the guests walking in through the back door,” she says.

Partnering with Blake Shelton in the new Ole Red venues is one example of that effort. So is the Little Big Town residency at the Ryman, which Williams instituted in conjunction with the venue’s 125th anniversary. Part of their partnership involves band-affiliated merchandise that will be sold at multiple Opry retail locations and online. Other programmatic content is still being developed with LBT for later in the year.

Williams becomes Opry GM at a time when the brand has been revitalized. Since debuting on WSM-AM Nashville in 1925, the show has become the longest-running radio program in history. It has had its share of ups and downs, from boasting a plethora of the era’s biggest stars when it was a national radio show in the ’40s and ’50s to becoming a dated, nostalgic vehicle in the ’70s and ’80s, when the lineup was dominated by stars of yesteryear.

An effort was made beginning in the mid- to late-‘80s to freshen up the Opry roster, with Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Vince Gill among the key ’90s additions. The new millennium has included such inductees as Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban. Fisher encountered some significant bumps when he took over as GM in 1999 as some senior Opry members resented having their slots reduced to make way for newcomers. But the youth injection has updated the brand, and Williams is optimistic that those issues are behind the Opry.

 “There’s nothing better than that generational connection being on the side of the stage when a new artist is meeting Bill Anderson for the first time or Jeannie Seely is loving on somebody that’s been playing on the Opry for a year and telling the stories of how it’s changed,” Williams says. “More than ever, we have an understanding and an appreciation — both Opry members and guest artists — of how important that is.”

The Opry has aired annually for five years from the Country Radio Seminar, and it was broadcast from Carnegie Hall in 2005. The Opry City Stage would seem to lend itself to more out-of-town installments, though Williams says that has not been discussed. She does hint, however, that the multiple venues could create the building blocks to reignite the Grand Ole Opry American Road Show. A 2004 package featuring Gill, Patty Loveless, the Del McCoury Band and Rebecca Lynn Howard harkened back to another era when artists such as Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl and Little Jimmy Dickens performed out of town under the Opry banner.

Whatever roads the new Opry department travels, Williams expects it will affect not only the company but also its home city and country music in general.

“Genres don’t have homes, right?” she says. “One of the things that I have loved so much about Nashville and the Opry and country music is that we have a home and a community.”

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