Grand Ole Opry Aims to Give Rising Country Stars a Boost With Opry NextStage: Exclusive

Chris Hollo for the Grand Ole Opry
The Grand Ole Opry

“I really think that we’ll be able to serve as a third-party champion for these artists," Opry Entertainment's Sally Williams tells Billboard of teaming up with Riley Green, Tegan Marie, Tenille Townes & Travis Denning.

The Grand Ole Opry has long been known as a great vehicle for introducing new artists, and that mission becomes more intentional with the launch of Opry NextStage, a yearlong collaboration with country newcomers Riley Green, Tegan Marie, Tenille Townes and Travis Denning, Billboard has learned exclusively.

The campaign aims to boost the careers of these four rising artists through strategic marketing support, short-form documentary-style storytelling created by Opry Entertainment’s content team and, of course, live performances. Each of the four artists will kick off their Opry NextStage participation on the Grand Ole Opry in December, and additional performances will take place throughout 2019.

“We wanted to have artists involved who appreciated the Opry and the opportunities and relationships that come from the Opry,” general manager, Grand Ole Opry / sr. vice president, programming & artist relations, Opry Entertainment Sally Williams tells Billboard in an exclusive interview. “We wanted artists who were really pretty early in their careers. We didn’t look at artists who had complete albums out. This is really about wrapping our arms around artists on the very front end. We wanted artists who have not only compelling music, but really strong stories, because we want to champion that artist in total -- not just a piece of their music, but their artistry -- and help them tell their story to the audience so that there is a deeper connection. There were dozens of artists that we considered because there are so many great new artists out, but for us, these four were the top. They are all writing their own music, which is fantastic, especially for artists who are so young, and they are all different.”

The inspiration for this new campaign arose from the emotional responses generated by new artists making their debut on the Opry and the video series that has been capturing those experiences. “The Opry has been doing a content series called ‘My Opry Debut’ for a couple of years now,” Williams says. “That series was a result of how special debut performances are for artists. ... So we started producing this series that features the performance, but is really about preparations leading up to the performance, telling the story of how the artist got to the point where they could play the Opry and then reflecting on that actual performance. We started seeing how impactful that series is and it got us thinking about how impactful the Opry really can be in a new artist’s career.”

Debuting on the Grand Ole Opry is an emotional experience that stays with a young talent. “It was the biggest night of my life to that point, no doubt about it,” says 15-year-old Tegan Marie, who recently was featured in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. “To sing in the circle at a place I’d visited and was in awe of was unbelievable. It just filled my heart and inspired me on a level it’s hard to describe. It’s a major honor to be selected by the Opry [to be part of Opry NextStage]. It’s the place I feel most at home performing and they’ve been kind and supportive to me from day one.”

Townes’ Opry debut was also a memorable life event. “Before the moment, I remember Sally telling me to take a deep breath and really look around before stepping in that circle for the first time, so it would always be a strong memory to look back on. I'm so grateful I did, because I'll never forget what that felt like,” recalls Townes. “It was emotional to me to think about all the heroes of country music who stepped in that same circle. It’s a sacred place. You can feel angels all around you looking out from that stage. My family and friends used to joke that one day they’d all come to Nashville to see me play the Grand Ole Opry, and they truly weren’t joking because when we found out that dream was coming true, they filled an entire 737 airplane and 140 of them traveled from Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada, to be there and it was so special. It meant so much to share that moment with all of those people who have been believing in this with me from the very beginning.”

Townes will perform at both Opry shows at the Ryman Auditorium on Dec. 7. Tegan Marie is scheduled for Dec. 8. Green will make his Opry debut Dec. 11. Denning made his debut performance on Nov. 16 and will return to the Opry on Dec. 15.

The Grand Ole Opry is a multi-generational experience, and Williams enjoys seeing the newcomers interact with the legends. “The fact that we do engage country music artists at all levels of their careers and across the spectrum is really unique for these four artists, because they are actually getting the opportunity to play with those artists and learn from those artists,” says Williams. “Travis debuted on Friday [Nov. 16], and one of his idols is Charlie Daniels. We made sure that they were on the show together and Charlie welcomed him and gave him one of the bows he performed with that night. Steve Warner was on the show and wants to have him over to his house to play guitar.”

“It was quite a whirlwind,” Denning says of his Opry debut. “In a weird way, the fact it was held at the Ryman kind of made sense. I’m such a fan of country music and want to respect the history as much as possible, so it only seemed right to kick off this relationship there. Of course, it didn’t come without your standard Opry moments, which for me included being introduced by Steve Wariner and getting to take home Charlie Daniels’ bow he played that night. Not a bad way to spend a Friday night!”

Williams recently had a chance to introduce Tegan Marie to Carrie Underwood. “Carrie was telling Tegan about Danita's Children and how important that charity is to her,” Williams says. “We walked out and Tegan started talking about the Girl Scouts, which she’s really involved with and fundraising for that. To have Carrie instill in Tegan the importance of that was touching for me. There’s a lot of great stuff that could come from this. There are some very tangible benefits, but the intangibles are pretty great as well.”

Green’s debut performance is coming up, and the Alabama native is thrilled to be part of this new campaign. “The idea of having the Opry be a part of my team and me part of theirs is the most exciting part,” Green says of being part of Opry NextStage. “To have my Opry debut in December and then find out that I’ll actually be partnering with the Opry in some way is a dream come true for me. Forming a lasting relationship with the Grand Ole Opry is something I really look forward to. I think my first performance at the Opry is going to be a very special moment for me. You don’t get many firsts like that in your life, so I’m really excited about getting that opportunity. My grandparents will finally think I’m famous now.”

Opry NextStage will officially launch with a kick-off party featuring performances by the inaugural class on Jan. 8 at Ole Red in Nashville. Tickets for that event will go on sale Thursday. In addition to performing on the Opry throughout 2019, the Opry NextStage artists will also perform at Ole Red locations in Nashville and Gatlinburg, Tenn. The new artists will also benefit from customized digital activations utilizing Opry web and social assets, including Opry.com, OleRed.com, WSMOnline.com and Opry Entertainment’s millions of combined social followers.

“Our social reach is going to be a great amplifier,” Williams says. “We’re going to have these guys on billboards throughout Nashville. We also have a billboard in Times Square where we’ll be pushing out some images, so they will have the social reach with some of our more traditional marketing and then of course all of the people that we know will see them when they play on the Opry and Ole Red.”

Williams is looking forward to working alongside each artist’s team to maximize efforts for each newcomer. “I’m really excited about the Opry working with the artists’ teams,” she says. “We’ve had numerous meetings with the labels and managers for each of these artists and are communicating on a really regular basis. We want the Opry audience to make a connection with those artists, but we also hope that our efforts will be able to help push singles up the charts and help with touring. We’ll be talking a lot about how the artists are engaging with us, so of course when they play Ole Red or when they play the Opry, we’ll be talking about that, but we’re also going to be collaborating with their team, so whatever priorities they have in a year -- whether it’s a new single or an album launch or some special television performance -- we’re going to be helping them spread that word too. So the goals are going to differ in terms of each artist because we’re trying to be very good collaborators with their teams.”

In elevating each new act, Williams says the entire Opry team is engaging. “It’s also exciting because it’s taking a village at the Opry. It’s multiple departments who are coming together to make this happen, and so to see all of that work is really exciting,” she says. “I really think that we’ll be able to serve as a third-party champion for these artists and what their teams are doing in a way that I do think will have some great impact. I hope it’s going to be fun for everybody, because I’m super excited about it and thrilled that we’re able to get it going.”