While Steve Buchanan has spent the better part of 2015 working on the 90th anniversary of the Grand Ole Opry, which broadcast its first weekly music concert on WSM-AM on Nov. 28, 1925, becoming president of the vaunted country-music institution was the furthest thing from his mind when he first arrived in Nashville.
The Oak Ridge, Tenn., native came to town in 1975 to attend Vanderbilt University with an eye to becoming an environmental engineer, but those dreams quickly shifted after joining the school’s concert committee. He soon became co-chair — succeeding now-veteran artist manager Ken Levitan, who handles the careers of Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris and Hank Williams Jr. as co-president of Vector Management — and after graduation worked as a booking agent for Buddy Lee Attractions, securing dates for such acts as Merle Haggard and Bill Monroe. Buchanan returned to Vanderbilt to earn his MBA before joining the Opry as marketing manager in 1985. In his current role, which he has held since 1998, he also oversees WSM; the 2,362-seat Ryman Auditorium (the home of the Opry from 1943 to 1974), which underwent a massive renovation in 1994 and a recent $14 million renewal; and developing properties that expand the Opry brand.
Buchanan’s experiences at the Opry served as an inspiration for the ABC drama Nashville, for which he is an executive producer and consultant. Exported to more than 80 countries, the series, now in its fourth season, is credited with increasing Nashville’s allure as a tourist destination (according to TripAdvisor, it is the most-searched U.S. city by Europeans). Buchanan also will be taking the Opry to the big screen with the organization’s first theatrical release, American Saturday Night: Live From the Grand Ole Opry. The film opens Dec. 4 and stars Brad Paisley, The Band Perry, Blake Shelton, Darius Rucker and others performing at the 4,400-seat concert hall and describing its rich legacy, which has seen virtually every major star in country music history, from Patsy Cline and Hank Williams to Blake Shelton and Carrie Underwood, perform under its marquee. Buchanan, 58 — who is married to music publisher Ree Guyer Buchanan, head of Wrensong Publishing — is also producer of Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical, which premiered in Dallas in September with a five-week stint and is now planning a Broadway run. Billboard caught up with Buchanan in his Music City office ahead of the Country Music Association Awards.
How do you keep the Grand Ole Opry relevant for younger generations of artists and fans?
It’s something that we have been focused on since I became president of the Opry. We wanted to rebuild our relevance to the artist community and, thus, to fans. To accomplish that we needed to be much more proactive in embracing new artists [for membership, which is invite-only], like Carrie Underwood, Darius Rucker and Rascal Flatts, and in embracing multiple generations and diversity of artists, because there were gaps in terms of artists like The Oak Ridge Boys, Charlie Daniels and Old Crow Medicine Show, who we brought in. [It’s also about] including artists in the early stages of their careers and inviting them to play. There were people that had the perception that the Opry was sort of a closed door, and we have worked hard to try and eliminate that perspective and make people feel welcome.
Nashville has received $46.5 million in incentives, mainly provided by the city and state, to shoot in town. How difficult is it to keep the show in Music City, especially when Georgia and Louisiana offer greater incentives?
The reason we’re able to be here is because of the state incentives — it’s critical to the show to keep the incentives coming in. We [film] on location regularly and the show employs a lot of people in this community. We record all of our music here, so we’re utilizing studios and local musicians, and a lot of the songs are written by songwriters that are a part of this community. It’s an expensive show to produce.
As executive producer, how involved are you with the series?
Early on, I tried to be really involved in working with the writers, but [now] they have a good sense of things. They have to create a drama, but I think they want to represent things as they are. [Creator] Callie Khouri is still heavily involved and living here. She has been directing quite a few episodes.
Following its run in Dallas, is taking Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical to Broadway still the goal?
We still have our sights set on getting to Broadway. We want to make sure that it is great: We’re continuing to work on our character development and fine-tuning the story.
What’s the Broadway timeline?
It’s hard to predict. We’ve got our work to do, and then the planets have to align in terms of theater availability. It’s a show that can have a life on Broadway and a long life both touring and as a licensed property.
What was the biggest show you promoted in college?
We did Bob Marley in the Vanderbilt gym. It was incredible, like the coolest possible cultural exchange on a university campus.
What is your proudest accomplishment in your 30 years with Opry Entertainment Group?
The renovation of the Ryman. It has a heart and soul unlike any other venue. There is just something about the building itself, how it sounds and the whole scene that you experience when you’re standing on that stage. In many ways it kind of transports people — both artists and fans — to a place that is beyond just the experience of the music.
With Taylor Swift embracing pop music, do you think there would be a negative reaction if she played the Opry again?
Everyone loves Taylor Swift. She is a great entertainer and she would be welcomed anywhere she performed, and she definitely would be at the Opry.
When no one else is in the Opry house, do you ever stand on the hallowed circle onstage — which was cut from the original floor of the Ryman after the Opry left the venue in 1974 and embedded in the stage of the new Opry house — and sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”?
I have not done that! I have witnessed many amazing experiences when people stand in the circle, whether it’s for the first time or every time. It’s very satisfying to me to see how much it means to them.