“I grew up remembering when a sitcom would celebrate 100 episodes, and they’d wheel out the cake,” says Dan Rogers. For the Grand Ole Opry, which he serves as executive producer, they’re gonna need a bigger bakery. The weekly Nashville-based show, which has been a radio program since 1925 and a TV series on and off for many of those years, is about to have its 5000th weekly Saturday night broadcast on Oct. 30. Eat your heart out, “NCIS,” “Simpsons,” “Gunsmoke,” “Meet the Press,” “General Hospital,” et al. — there’s an old kid in town.
“It’s unprecedented, and you’ll probably never see it again, especially with a radio show,” Rogers says. “Five thousand Saturday nights is astounding when you begin to think about each of those Saturday nights and what was happening on those Saturday nights — civil unrest, World War II, the Depression. But even the past 80… you know, think what we’ve been through just since March of 2020.” Only once in history was the Opry’s live broadcast canceled, when a curfew was imposed following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Quarantining was not about to cause a second cancellation; the Opry carried on as lockdown kicked in by broadcasting acoustic performances with stars placed apart on stools, no live audience and skeleton crews, so the circle could remain unbroken.
The Oct. 30 lineup will span generations, with performers who made their first impact in the 1960s (Bill Anderson, Jeannie Seely, Connie Smith), ‘70s (the Gatlin Brothers), ‘80s (Vince Gill, Garth Brooks), ‘90s (Trisha Yearwood, Terri Clark), 2000s (Darius Rucker, as a solo artist, and Chris Young) and 2010s (Chris Janson). But then, the Opry does that every week, carefully mixing legacy artists who go back decades with newcomers who just released their first singles. “It’s not just generational, of course, either,” says Rogers. “What really makes the Opry tick is about giving people a little sample of as much as we can under the country umbrella.” On the weekly show, perhaps more so than in this superstar-filled special, “it’s a mix of musical styles, so you have Americana, bluegrass, comedy, classic country, contemporary country, and Western all in one hopefully tremendous show.”
One thing that may be misleading about the 5,000 figure is that it only counts the weekly Saturday broadcasts, not the number of actual live Opry shows — which keeps expanding exponentially, now that there are a minimum of three nights at the Opry in a week and sometimes as many as five. Scott Bailey, the president of Ryman Hospitality Properties’ Opry Entertainment Division, says they do 230-240 shows on an annual basis now. That’s partly due to Nashville’s booming tourism and convention business. Sixteen million tourists visit Tennessee every year, and the Opry is the No. 1 state tourist attraction, so the Opry House can only stay dark so many nights. (There are new wrinkles yet to be tried: Later this year, they’re going to experiment for the first time with a handful of all-Christmas weeknight shows, educating attendees about the holiday chestnuts most people wouldn’t know were written and recorded in Nashville.)
There’s a curious symbiosis that happened when Opry Entertainment, in conjunction with Gray Television, launched a new TV network, Circle, centered around Opry broadcasts — in February 2020, of all times. “I’m not sure that launching a television network on a streaming platform would have been the best idea during a pandemic, but ironically it had the opposite effect than I would’ve thought,” Bailey said. “There was no other live programming that was out there. And we had just put the Opry on some platforms where new, younger consumers are finding themselves.” That included newer streamers like Peacock and Roku but is now also expanding to cable and satellite platforms like Dish and Charter. With patrons now back in the seats, it’s hard to know which experience of the Opry is boosting which more, since, as Bailey says, “we wanted to make sure that we were beginning to influence (streaming) consumers to come in and see the actual product live.”
Rogers realized that the Opry was a lifeline for some during the pandemic, for fans craving anything musical, intimate and professional happening in real time. “You can go back and look at the comments: People were saying, ‘We set our alarm clocks’ — halfway around the world! — ‘to get up and watch.’ And they could have watched it the next day when they woke up, but they wanted that connection with live, with Nashville, Tennessee.” You could almost picture 1930s Opry listeners gathered around the radio, looking for a cure for pandemic depression, not the Depression.
The Opry has proven so savvy in appealing to modern country audiences while making tradition a big part of the draw that it’s hard to imagine anything at present that’d be a roadblock on the way to, say… 10,000 episodes? “The heart of the Opry is still the artists who come and play here and their connection to the fans who either tune in or come to see them,” says Rogers. “And if it makes it to 10,000, that will still hold true.” Rogers laughs. “I won’t be here for that. But if I had the choice, I think I would be.”
Rogers points to a placard outside his office door counting down the days to Oct. 30. “I literally cannot go to the bathroom without being reminded how few days we have left before the show — in the middle of everything else that’s happening, just trying to work through pandemic-related things.” Yet he admits he’s thinking beyond this particular milestone, to the next. “We’ll celebrate 5,000 Saturday night broadcasts, and then everything we’re doing from there forward will be about making sure that this show is in the best place it can be to mark its 100th anniversary in 2025. It’s crazy to be in a job where you talk about setting things up as a springboard for the next century.”