On Friday night (Jan. 11), Mark Wills — a country fan favorite since the mid-1990s via such hits as “I Do (Cherish You),” “Wish You Were Here,” “Don’t Laugh at Me” and “19 Somethin’” — will make his 257th appearance at the Grand Ole Opry. But this one will be special: It will mark his first time as an official member.
It’s a career milestone for the Georgia native — and one he’s glad he’s achieving now. Billboard caught up with Wills on his big day.
“Mark Wills, Grand Ole Opry member” — how does that sound?
I’ve always said it’s a career goal and a dream come true to be invited to be the next member of the Grand Ole Opry. As a kid, being a country music fan, and watching the great artists and shows like Hee Haw and the Opry on television, this has always been the pinnacle of what I wanted to achieve in my music career, and here I am.
What are your memories as a child of the Opry?
It was just the great level of entertainment that went on. The Grand Ole Opry has been a variety show for a long time. There’s the greats like Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones, Stringbean, and Porter Wagoner. There’s such a plethora of entertainment that has graced that stage — princes, presidents and artists from several different genres of music. To be one of the guys who has a place in that history and will always have my name solidified with it is pretty amazing.
Just like he has done with so many, including Chris Young recently, Vince Gill was the Opry member who extended your invitation to join. What did that mean to you?
Many times throughout my career, I thought how it would feel to have had Porter Wagoner or Little Jimmy Dickens to ask me to be a member. I never really thought at the [time] where I would become a Grand Ole Opry member that all of them would be gone. Vince has become one of those new faces of the Grand Ole Opry. He’s one of the ones that has put in a lot of time and continues to be the goodwill ambassador to the next generation of the Opry. For him to be the one to extend the invitation to me is truly the coolest thing ever. I grew up a Vince Gill fan and still am a Vince Gill fan. So, it doesn’t get any better than having someone you have idolized as a singer and somebody you have become friends with to extend that invitation to you to join their club. It’s amazing.
There is no rhyme or reason to Opry membership, with Chris Young and Dustin Lynch being new members the past few years, along with veterans such as Crystal Gayle and Bobby Bare. At this point in your career, does Opry membership mean something different than when you first broke onto the charts in 1996?
Absolutely. I think that as a young artist, I held the Opry in high regard. But I’m not 19 anymore; I’m 45. I feel like I still am young enough to have many years ahead of me to perform at the Opry. I also feel I’m old enough now to embrace more of the tradition, and really look at it as a career milestone. My first song was top 10 and my second album was double-platinum. I felt like it’s always supposed to be. I think now, when those moments come along, we appreciate them a little bit more than if they had come along earlier.