Come Nov. 28, the Grand Ole Opry will celebrate 90 years on the air at WSM-AM Nashville.
Pete Fisher has been the show’s vp/GM for 16 years -- his anniversary was June 28 -- and in that time, the Opry has expanded from two nights a week to additional shows on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, depending on the season.
The challenge, of course, in an era of great technological change is to ensure that the show does not become a historical artifact. Thus, in addition to bringing in new members who are making current hits -- such as Dierks Bentley, Little Big Town, Blake Shelton and Rascal Flatts -- the Opry is taking steps to put a new face on the brand. The ABC-TV drama Nashville has helped. Trace Adkins inaugurated an Opry circle throwdown, a marketing effort that brings a little Opry magic to a remote location.
Also new is Opry 9.0: Discoveries From the Circle, a new-artist series that will present live Opry performances from three acts per release. The first volume, featuring Chase Bryant, JT Hodges and Drake White, arrives June 30.
Fisher discussed the Opry’s unique past and hopeful future in a recent interview.
A 90th birthday is really interesting. How do you celebrate something that old -- or that established -- and have it not seem like it’s dated?
I’ve been in this job 16 years now, and I remember uttering the words, “Legacy can be an anchor or an asset.” I think one of the real testaments to the team here at the Opry is that we celebrate legacy, but we strive for relevance each and every day. We love celebrating the rich history of the Opry and country music, but equally we love finding ways to grow the Opry’s value composition to the music industry and thereby growing a value proposition to the fans that come and see the Opry or listen to us.
In terms of the value to the artists, the weekends are the best time for them to hit the road and maximize their earnings. How do you make it attractive so somebody like Carrie Underwood or Brad Paisley will make the Opry part of their ongoing plans?
It’s really a variety of things. We especially try to develop deeper relationships for the artists who share kind of a common set of values with the Opry, and Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban -- those are examples of artists that really share the core values of the Opry. So, there’s that emotional connection. But we also recognize that we can’t live on charity alone, or emotion alone, and so over the past 16 years we have focused on things like improving the production values of the show and creating an environment backstage that meets the needs of a real diverse community of performers. Our programming philosophy for the show is quite broad-based, and I think that broad base serves to celebrate the legacy, but also drive the relevance of the Opry. It’s new stars, superstars and legends sharing the same stage, presenting music from yesterday, today and tomorrow to the future. We have over 2,000 artist slots that we book in a given year, so we’re able to take chances and have a healthy offering of debuts throughout the course of the year.
What do you define as Opry core values?
I would say honoring tradition, celebrating legacy, respecting elders, certainly values that make America what it is -- patriotic values, and in differing ways, values of faith: God, family, country, so to speak. It’s perpetuating a legacy, being involved in something bigger than our own careers.
In addition to being the Opry’s 90th anniversary, this is the fifth anniversary of the Cumberland River flooding the Opry House. It’s impressive that the Opry has in some ways turned what was a really horrible tragedy into an opportunity to build the brand. Was any of that intentional?
We can talk about another core value, and that is resiliency. The Opry throughout its history has had various challenges to overcome, and the flood was probably one of the most significant, but I think it really showed the strong connection that the artists and the employees and the fans have for the Opry ... I think that everybody on our team was resolved to overcome this and bring the Opry back stronger than ever. We’re certainly enjoying that silver lining, so to speak, with a very beautiful [renovated] backstage [area], probably the finest of any venue in the world in terms of accommodations.
Your boss, Steve Buchanan, is executive producer of the Nashville TV show. What kind of impact has that had on the Opry?
We sought out a hit television series to help grow the Opry as a business. We recognized that if demand for the destination of Nashville grew, that could really help transform the business, and it really has. We have seen transformational attendance growth, starting with the first episode. More people started coming to Nashville, and then the ripple effect of the Nashville show has been tremendous when you think about the cast of performers who have graced the Opry stage. It’s really helped shine a spotlight on country music as well and shown that there’s a little bit of country music in everybody.
I’m not sure that the show’s characters have the type of values that you necessarily would want in the real, live Opry.
I think what you see are characters who are human, who make mistakes, and most of the time they come back with some sort of resolution or reconciliation about that ... There are many artists in the country format who have similar stories. And there’s nothing like dialing up the drama a little bit to keep the audience engaged, too. I think it does a remarkable job of representing the industry side. I really commend Callie Khouri and the writers, who really have hit a stride this year. A fourth season has been the reward.
Will a new Opry member be welcomed between now and the official 90th birthday?
I honestly do not know. It’s really interesting how the next member candidate kind of shapes up. The right people at the right time have come to meet the Opry. One thing that doesn’t change is we continue to reach out to the new artists in the community and nurture that relationship, and as their career grows, we hope that they grow even closer to the Opry, [but we recognize] how demanding that can be with all that an artist has to do to sustain their career. I remember back with Brad Paisley or Carrie making their debut on the Opry, or Taylor Swift even, and seeing them all fill stadiums now, so it’s fun to see that maturation of careers and to know the Opry’s played a part of it.
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.