The Grand Ole Opry’s complicated role in Black history and what’s next

Over its 97-year history, the Grand Ole Opry’s has both struggled and succeeded with how to showcase and honor Black artists.

Over its 97-year history, there is a fair argument to be made that there could be no better place to understand America’s complicated history with Black people than the Grand Ole Opry.

Country music’s citadel crystallizes how far removed America has — or has not — grown past the twin impacts of antebellum stereotypes and the Nixon-era “Southern Strategy’s” grip on its past, present and future.

From Charley Pride to vocal trio Chapel Hart, from DeFord Bailey to bluesman Jontavious Willis, the Opry has highlighted a century of Black excellence. But the institution has also highlighted political leaders and artists often associated with racist ideologies, tempering greatness with antagonism.

The road ahead for the Opry is potentially better than the road it has traveled. History without awareness can repeat itself. It is vital to consider how the Opry as a stage presentation has occupied a flawed yet fighting stance for how country music best represents racial equity.

DeFord Bailey sets a complicated precedent

In 1982, Black harmonica player and Grand Ole Opry favorite DeFord Bailey drew one of the evening’s loudest ovations at the Opry’s 57th anniversary celebration with a performance that included his legendary “Pan American Blues,” plus the cuts “Fox Chase” and “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo.” Three months later, Bailey — the first Black performer to appear on the Opry (he played 49 of 52 possible dates in 1928 alone) — died.

He appeared at the Opry for 13 consecutive years. However, in 1941 because of a royalties disagreement between Broadcast Music Inc. and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, he was fired by WSM Radio. That led to him stopping making his living as an entertainer. He turned to shining shoes for three decades and didn’t return to the Opry stage as a performer until 33 years later, at the opening of the program’s current home off Briley Parkway in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1974.

Following Bailey’s death, longtime Opry host Roy Acuff noted in a Tennessean obituary that the beloved artist’s appearances with Acuff and his band helped him gain a foothold in Music City as a virtual unknown. A month later, in The New York Times, Acuff stated something different regarding the potential for Bailey’s enshrinement in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

“I think the Hall of Fame is, ‘What have you done to further country music?'” Acuff said. “When it comes to that question, DeFord would fall way down. He had a style of his own back at that time, others have copied it but never matched it. But he had nothing else to offer except his harmonica and two or three numbers to play. He couldn’t progress that much.”

Though not explicitly highlighting race-based bias, there’s a lack of awareness there of reciprocity for services rendered that still haunts race-based conversations about country music to this day.

Notable, too, is a statement made by venerable Opry member and comedian Minnie Pearl, who placed historical context around Bailey’s influence.

“The young people didn’t come on the scene until after country music had mushroomed,” Pearl said. “We didn’t start with people making $50,000 a night, rolling around in buses and making network television shows. They came in here and picked for nothing, played for the joy of it and were perpetuating a feeling. DeFord was one of them and I think he should get credit.”

Bailey was the Opry’s eighth inducted member on Jun. 19, 1926. In 2005, he joined the Hall of Fame.

The Opry as the pinnacle of the ‘Southern Strategy’

Sixty-seven years elapsed between the Opry induction of Bailey in 1926 and Charley Pride’s in1993.

In that time, conservative-leaning country music became a defining part of America’s socio-political fabric in the 1970s as the soundtrack of Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” of rural, blue-collar and Republican-voting “forgotten Americans.”

This was achieved by Nixon’s use of the “Southern strategy,” which allowed the Republican Party to frame Democrats as liberals whose expansive view of American society that supported Black civil rights was cutting into economic and social stability for conservative-minded whites.

One month before Bailey’s appearance at the Opry’s new venue, Nixon appeared at the new Opry building’s dedication ceremony. Highlighting the genre’s bedrock foundations in family, religion and patriotism, he stated that “country music is America.”

In a 2022 Tennessean feature, Lester Feder, a Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellow at the University of Michigan whose 2006 UCLA dissertation was titled “Country Music, Race, Region and the Politics of Culture, 1920-1974,” stated that the Southern strategy’s focus on “backlash politics” against the civil rights movement included making country music “the most important cultural arena to express a certain kind of ‘patriotic’ white identity.”

During this era, pioneering Black male country star Pride made his Opry debut in 1967, female country artist Linda Martell made her debut two years later, the Pointer Sisters (singers of Grammy-winning country track “Fairytale”) appeared five years later, and Porter Wagoner notoriously invited James Brown to bring an “exciting shot in the arm” to the stage in 1979.

However, the Opry’s place on a larger scale regarding issues of race may have been alluded to best five years after Brown’s appearance.

In 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan appeared at the Grand Ole Opry during his re-election campaign. At an Opryland Hotel press conference, he recited a list of Southern technological achievements — including the cotton gin.

Regarding the event at the Opry, The New York Times noted that “Reagan, who sang along with his partisans, had said the Opry was no place for his opponents. ‘They’ll just sing the blues,’ he said as the crowd laughed and applauded.”

In 1983, the Opry celebrated its 58th anniversary weekend with an appearance by two Black country icons: Pride and Country Music Hall of Famer Ray Charles, who was making his Opry debut. This came 21 years after Charles released the album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.” About that album’s cover of Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” Willie Nelson — himself a former Opry member — noted, “Ray Charles did more for country music than any other artist.”

The Opry’s attempt to reward Black excellence while doubling down on the genre’s authentic traditions was successful, yet potentially divisive.

The Morgan Wallen debacle

February 2022 saw three decades of the Opry’s attempts at de-emphasizing its lockstep connectivity with conservative, white America, including 1993’s induction of Pride and Darius Rucker’s 20 years later, appear all for naught.

On Feb. 1, Morgan Wallen appeared alongside his Big Loud label-mate, ERNEST, as the latter debuted at the Opry. The tandem sang their collaboration “Flower Shops.”

Wallen’s appearance sparked a backlash due to the perception that the top-selling artist had yet to atone for his use one year prior of a racial slur. 

To many, this flew in direct opposition to a Jun. 9, 2020, tweet from the Opry’s Twitter account at the onset of the post-George Floyd/nationwide riots era of the Black Lives Matter movement stating, “Racism is real. It is unacceptable. And it has no place at the Grand Ole Opry.”

Even deeper, the Opry’s history of highlighting cast member Lee Roy “Lasses” White and his partner Lee Davis “Honey” Wilds — white artists who performed in blackface from 1932-1949 — was revived in social media posts by Black female country performer and Apple Music Radio host Rissi Palmer.

Race, America, and the Opry’s future

The Opry currently crystallizes an unprecedented scenario that country music faces as the genre meets an expanded and inclusive presentation of American pop music and culture in the modern era.

Acts like Allison Russell, Blanco Brown, BRELAND, Brittney Spencer and Willie Jones have all recently achieved acclaim via country music’s redefined scope of success. That success was almost immediately feted via Opry debuts.

In an interview last year, Jordan Pettit, the director of artist relations and programming strategy for Opry Entertainment Group, stated, “The Opry is trying to offer country music credibility to bold artists with unique backgrounds and life experiences whose originality comes to the forefront under the spotlight.”

The Opry, as much as mainstream, commercial country music, has one question above all others to answer regarding issues of race: What value is owning the power of a dynamic moment if it can be wasted as soon as it succeeds?

Although he’s country music’s best-selling and most infamous artist, Wallen has not appeared on the Opry since February 2022.

Instead, in the past year, the Black female vocal trio Chapel Hart, highlighted on “America’s Got Talent” has received more standing ovations at the Opry than times they’ve appeared on the program. Moreover, on Dec. 3, 2022, a moment occurred that was similar to the Opry’s 58th anniversary in 1983, when Charles and Pride appeared on the same weekend with no race-related marketing, but both representing the finest country music had to offer.

Newly signed Black country artist Dalton Dover debuted on the Grand Ole Opry the same night that Chapel Hart made their third appearance. Mexican American performer Frank Ray also made his return to the Opry’s stage. They all appeared with no particular fanfare alluding to their race but more to their varying levels of stardom in the genre.

Moreover, Palmer made her third Opry appearance on Aug. 12, 2022. She was joined onstage by fellow Black female country artist Miko Marks.

In a moment as much sparked by claiming time and space with country music’s history as it was by highlighting their vocal artistry, they performed the Judds’ collaboration “Flies on the Butter.” Palmer’s note about the performance gives a sense of where all things race, the Opry and country music could best next arrive.

“That song and the Judds have always meant so much to me,” she said, “and I knew that if I was going to sing it, it had to be with Miko — someone I adore and respect as an artist. I knew she would get the subtle vocal nuances of Naomi’s part, and our voices blend well together.”

In final, there’s the story of Frankie Staton. The four-decade Nashville resident and head of the Black Country Music Association in the 1990s — whose Music City career began in 1981 as a house musician at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel & Convention Center — made her Opry debut on Feb. 7.

Regarding her debut, she notes the following to The Tennessean.

“I was shocked. 25 years ago, when I asked [Opry executives] why [many Black artists] had not been asked to play there, they told me you have to be ‘good’ to play at the Opry.

“So I asked if they [were hearing what Black artists were playing],” she said, laughing. “My debut was exciting, but while I was in the circle, I thought back to those who were on our Black Country Music Association showcases [in the 1990s]. [Nevertheless], standing in that circle, where so many iconic superstars have stood — Black and white — was surreal.”

Dan Rogers, the Opry’s vice president and executive producer, cites “the Opry’s proactive, forward-looking approach to reinforce the Opry’s commitment to diversity.”

“I believe the Opry has a unique and important opportunity to be a leader in creating a welcoming and inclusive future for country music,” he stated in an email. “Several years ago, we committed to using our platforms to showcase more diverse talent, and I’m pleased with the progress we have made so far. The Opry provides a special space for artists and fans of all backgrounds to come together each week, and we will continue to work both on and off the stage to ensure everyone feels like they have a place in the circle.”

Rogers’ remarks follow a statement issued by the Opry last summer.

“Neither country music nor the Grand Ole Opry would exist without the impact of diverse artists and multiple cultures,” the statement reads. “But over the course of nearly 100 years, the Opry has at times been part of a problem within country music suppressing the contributions of our diverse community. This included the use of blackface by some artists in the Opry’s first three decades and the dismissal of early Opry star DeFord Bailey more than 80 years ago. Few artists of color played the Opry’s stage until more recent years and in the past, the Opry did not show gender equity on stage or backstage.”

The statement adds: “More recently, the Opry has worked towards positive change. We are committed to growing, listening and learning. While the Opry cannot change the mistakes of the past, we acknowledge them. We are sorry for the hurt those decisions caused then and now and we vow to be a leader in creating a welcoming and inclusive future for country music.”

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