It’s just a number.
Some folks may say that about the Grand Ole Opry’s 5,000th Saturday show on Oct. 30. But Bill Anderson, who fought back tears when he celebrated his 60th anniversary as an Opry member this year, expects an emotional night when the WSM-AM Nashville show reaches the 5K mark.
“How many anythings last 5,000 performances or 5,000 times?” he asks rhetorically. “I mean, look at all that’s happened during the time of those 5,000 performances from 1925 to 2021. My goodness, the world has changed and the Opry has changed, and yet it’s been able to endure. It’s really amazing when you stop and think about it.”
Anderson is expected to kick off the ceremonial night with “Wabash Cannonball,” a song associated with late Opry icon Roy Acuff, preceding performances by Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Darius Rucker, Marty Stuart, Connie Smith, Terri Clark and Chris Young.
The number 5,000 means something because it’s such an outrageous one. The Opry didn’t survive 96 years without challenges. The show has managed to remain through a series of wars, downturns in attendance, changes in genres, the arrival of multiple new media platforms, the sometimes tragic deaths of numerous Opry members, a flood in 1975 and another in 2010, and the current pandemic. Only a resilient operation could make it through all those major events to 5,000 Saturdays.
“There’s flood resiliency, and then there’s everyday Opry resiliency and blizzard resiliency,” says Opry vp/executive producer Dan Rogers. “There have been nights that I’ve been a part of where Nashville’s been hit with 5, 6, 7 inches of snow, and one by one, artists say they can’t make it in from Hendersonville [Tenn.], flight’s canceled, et cetera. And we end up with a handwritten schedule that looks absolutely nothing like it looked at nine o’clock that morning.”
Pulling together the artists — and, at times, the logistics — can be monumental. It’s one thing to call Martina McBride on an off-day to stand in at the last minute for Loretta Lynn. It was another to book artists and venues for a parade of facilities after the 2010 flood. It has been an even bigger challenge to steer the show through the pandemic, as the end date for the crisis remains unknown and the safety guidelines frequently evolve.
“It’s not an option for the Opry to cease, as far as we’re concerned,” says Opry talent director Gina Keltner. “So the show will go on in some form or fashion. Always.”
There are two known exceptions. On April 6, 1968 — the Saturday after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis — Nashville city officials expected riots and installed a 7 p.m. curfew. The station aired a previous edition, though Acuff gave an impromptu concert downtown for tourists that afternoon. Similarly, WSM pre-empted the Opry on April 14, 1945, for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s memorial, though the Opry itself was conducted without being broadcast. The possibility exists that another Saturday or two may have been missed, though that doesn’t diminish the significance of the milestone.
“Something could have happened in the 1920s, ’30s or during World War II, and probably did,” says Rogers. “That wasn’t earth-shattering at that point, simply because the Opry hadn’t been around for 96 years, and you could have missed a Saturday broadcast without raising a lot of eyebrows.”
The Opry’s staying power grew, of course, the older it got. Its biggest threat, believes Anderson, was neither the pandemic nor the flood, but changing tastes in the 1950s.
“There were other country music shows scattered around the country, and most of them didn’t survive when Elvis and rock’n’roll came in in the late ’50s,” recalls Anderson. “Elvis was the greatest thing that ever happened to The Louisiana Hayride, but he was also the thing that killed it. I mean, people came to see Elvis, and then when he wasn’t there anymore, they didn’t come back to see the Hayride.”
The Louisiana Hayride disappeared from KWKH Shreveport in 1960, around the same time that barn dance programs began to decline at WLS Chicago, WSB Atlanta, WLW Cincinnati, KXLA Los Angeles and KRLD Dallas. The Opry experienced its own dip in popularity — Anderson remembers attending a show as a fan circa 1958, when a raft of girls stayed just long enough to see The Everly Brothers, then left.
The Opry bounced back in the 1960s, but sagged again when it was allowed to become something of an oldies show. In the late ’90s, management made a concerted effort to program current hitmakers and new artists among the established members, and that decision — combined with Nashville’s growth as a tourist destination — revitalized the brand.
“We need to have something for everyone,” says Keltner. “That’s important to me when I put the show together, that if a grandparent brings their grandchild to the Opry, that there’s going to be a little something for both of them.”
The big, strategic decisions, the day-to-day resilience and the dedication of the artists have helped the institution accumulate its 5,000 shows, creating a longevity — and a reliability — that Opry originator George Hay could not have predicted in 1925.
And it’s a fairly safe bet that fans can count on the Opry being around long enough to reach another numerical milestone — its 100th anniversary as a live radio show — on Nov. 28, 2025. It’s not entirely impossible that it could begin its second century by introducing another new star.
“There’s some kid sitting in a high school English class right now tapping his pencil or her pencil on the desk, wanting to be writing a song instead of taking an English exam,” says Anderson. “That kid, in four years, could be on the stage at the Opry. You just don’t know.”
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