The Grand Ole Opry Celebrates 2017 Grammy Nomination As It Looks Back on 91 Years
Making its debut in 1925, The Grand Ole Opry has had an inarguable impact on American culture. Artists such as Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Garth Brooks and Carrie Underwood have performed their songs on the stage of the historic WSM Radio show.
Having just celebrated its 91st birthday, the iconic brand continues to break new artistic ground. The show received its first-ever Grammy nomination when the 2017 crop was announced, getting a nod in the best music film category for the feature American Saturday Night: Live From The Grand Ole Opry. For the show’s vice-president and general manager, Pete Fisher, it’s definitely a moment that everyone associated with the program takes pride in.
“All of us were thrilled. For the Grand Ole Opry to be a part of a Grammy nomination, after 91 years of existence, is really a testament to its relevance and staying power,” he tells Billboard. “It also is not only a reflection of the incredible work our team at the Opry does, but the great work that George Flanigen and Robert Deaton did on the film. It really speaks to something that the entire country music industry can celebrate."
Fisher admits that seeing the Opry represented among all musical genres is very satisfying. “When you see the Grand Ole Opry’s name next to The Beatles and Beyonce, you can’t help but be thrilled by it all. I think it speaks beyond everything the Grand Ole Opry represents, it’s also a reflection of how mainstream both country music and the Grand Ole Opry have become over the years."
A film documenting the Opry experience is not a new thought -- Fisher said the company had been approached by various companies before DigiNext Films, LLC, a division of Carmike, reached out to them. As it happened, the pitch took place as the show was about to celebrate its 90th birthday in 2015. “In a lot of ways, the timing was perfect as The Opry was approaching its 90th anniversary. To mark that, we wanted to do something larger than life, beyond what we normally do.” The film takes a look at the Opry experience through the eyes of three of its members – and two of the frequent guests to the stage. “We were fortunate to have artists such as Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, The Band Perry, Brett Eldredge, and Darius Rucker step up. The entire industry from the record labels to the music publishers stepped up to support the effort.” American Saturday Night was just released on DVD, so the nomination happened at a fortuitous time, says Fisher. “To have the year capped off with a Grammy nomination for best music film exceeds our always-high expectations for what the Grand Ole Opry can accomplish.”
One of the key elements that Fisher feels the movie projects is the complete aura of an Opry show -- on stage and behind the scenes. “We’ve done a lot of television for years. The Grand Ole Opry was a television series between 1985 and 2012, so there are many years on the books of capturing the Opry on television, but we knew that with capturing it on film, we really needed to capture the 'X' factor, and anyone who has experienced the Opry – whether it be out front or behind the scenes, there is a real magic there that is really tough to bottle up. I am extremely proud that Deaton and Flanigen and the artists really delivered what that special magic of the Grand Ole Opry is all about.”
How would Fisher describe that vibe behind the red curtain? “I’ve been in this job over 17 years now, but even so, it’s difficult to describe,” he admits. “If I were to use words to do that, there is certainly a family atmosphere backstage. It feels like – and it really is – the home of country music. So it’s like when your family and relatives come home, there’s a feeling of warmth. It’s a place to be authentic and spontaneous. It’s almost as if everyone backstage plays a musical instrument, so the music just really echoes down the halls. Just like we do with our families, we share stories about our friends, our siblings, about our grandparents. So, there’s story-sharing across the generations among the performers that are on the show on a given night. But, you never know when someone is going to say something magical. So, we kept the cameras rolling and the cameramen running all night to follow where the magic was happening backstage that August night that we shot this film.”
While Paisley, Rucker, and Shelton have all been Opry members for awhile, Fisher felt it was also important to show the reverence that acts feel towards the show that have yet to be inducted. “Kimberly Perry made a comment in the movie as she and her brothers were waiting in the Women of country dressing room, saying something the effect of she wanted to be on that wall someday. She was staring at portraits of these incredible and legendary female country performers and Grand Ole Opry members. The Opry reflects a lot of things, but one of those attributes that really jumps out is about dreams coming true. It’s very similar to a Major League Baseball player getting up to bat for the first chance. When that player has a storied career, and enters the Hall of Fame, that’s what membership represents. The Opry is about dreams coming true – not just for the performers, but also for the audience. A lot of fans who travel to the Opry come from far away, and many of them have stories of saving every dollar they have for the trip. They will talk about their family, because I think the Opry really reflects the power of the country music family.”
What makes that membership even more special is there is no official blueprint for the invitation. Since Fisher took over the job in 1999, several of the hottest acts in the business have became members, such as Rascal Flatts and Little Big Town. But, at the same time, legends such as Mel Tillis, The Oak Ridge Boys, and Crystal Gayle (who will add her name to the show’s cast in January) have been asked to join the family. “The decision of Opry membership has always been made by the management at the time,” Fisher said. “As managers have come and gone at the Opry, that criteria has evolved,” he said, stressing that at the end of the day “It’s about accomplishment, connection, and commitment. It’s an achievement, a distinction like no other. For a country artist, it’s a designation that underscores artistic and professional accomplishment. Induction into the country Music Hall of Fame comes later in someone’s career, but Opry membership is considered an act of relationship. We look for artists that not only have that accomplishment, but also a heartfelt connection with the Opry and its legacy. We also hope that connection manifests itself into a real commitment to play a key role in perpetuating the history and the legacy of the Opry.”
That history has continued to grow over the years – from the studios of WSM in 1925 through a variety of homes, such as the War Memorial Auditorium, all the way through to the show’s current home, The Grand Ole Opry House, where it moved in 1974. Fisher laughs when he is reminded that many in the industry and around Nashville still refer to the current home as the “New” Opry House, saying “We’re actually approaching a dozen years that the Opry House has been the home of the Grand Ole Opry longer than the Ryman [1943-1974]. Of course, the Ryman is the most famous of the Opry’s former homes, and is a magical place where incredible country music history was written. But, to many Nashvillians, they see the Opry House as the New Grand Ole Opry house. But, it’s 42 years old, and having been renovated six years ago, it certainly feels new to me. We have an opportunity through the 18 dressing rooms to really tell the story of the Grand Ole Opry in how the rooms are furnished and designed. It’s our home, and there’s been an ample amount of history made in this building as was made in the Ryman.” The show returns to the Ryman for a few months each year, offering fans a chance to enjoy both locations -- not a bad problem to have. “Fortunately, we have two incredible homes to talk about and to celebrate.”