This is the fourth installment of Rolling Stone’s series At Work, in which we explore the fast-changing music business from the perspective of a different industry leader each week. Read earlier pieces in the series here.
No matter how Nashville evolves, the Grand Ole Opry remains an unwavering constant. At 95, it’s the longest-running radio show in the U.S., and earning a performance slot on the Opry House stage — which barely survived a disastrous citywide flood in 2010 — is a rite of passage in a country artist’s career. Dan Rogers, vice president and executive producer of the Grand Ole Opry, is responsible for maintaining the gravitas and legacy of the institution. With his team, Rogers oversees as many as five weekly live shows and also helps decide who gets asked to become a member.
The Xenia, Illinois, native first came to the Opry as an intern in 1998 and worked his way into director of communications before being installed in his current position last August. But Rogers first visited the office at age four, when his father brought him to the Opry to see Dolly Parton. “I remember where we were seated,” he tells Rolling Stone. “But I really remember that moment of her taking the stage and her being larger than life.”
What’s the first thing you do every day?
I feed the dog that the Opry adopted from Miranda Lambert’s MuttNation Foundation for our 90th anniversary. There was a plan for integrating him at the Opry and have him backstage — that was five years ago. But we’ll get there hopefully in the next couple of months. So I feed him, feed me, catch up on the news, usually via the 90 second intro on CBS This Morning, and then I try to be here as early as I can.
When is that?
Depending on what happened the night before, between 8:00 to 9:30.
The Opry inducts a select group of new members throughout the year. Do those induction nights keep you here later?
Or [if there are] two shows on a Tuesday — when we’re doing a 7:00 show and a 9:30, and that show ends at 11:30. At our peak season, there will be a three-week stretch where we do a show Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
Walk us through your most demanding day.
My longest day ever was the night the Opry returned to the Opry House post-flood. I met Good Morning America here for a live shot at 3 a.m. and was here through two shows. We invited Blake Shelton to become an Opry member that night. We finished the press releases and sent those around, and I was among one of the last people to walk out that next morning. If it wasn’t 24 hours, it was close. That was the longest day, but it was also just the perfect day in terms of Nashville having accomplished something, Blake Shelton having a dream come true, and the Opry getting back home where it should be.
On show days, what’s required of you when you get in?
There are so many show days that [they are] almost my typical day. It’s a two-edged sword in that 40 years ago when there were only two shows a week. I think, “What did they do on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday?” But I also think, “I can’t imagine trying to put this show together with just a telephone and snail mail.” Which clearly was the case, because I’ve been completely enchanted by looking back at old business that was done via mail — writing to artists’ management.
There are so many new artists in country music right now. How do you keep informed?
As we discover new artists, we feed them into a [database] system and then get together and say, “Is this person ready for an Opry debut? Is this someone we should have come out and play for us?” It’s impossible to keep up with, and it gets more impossible each passing day as artists have more means of sharing their music with the world.
Now they have YouTube, TikTok, and streaming platforms, as opposed to just country radio play.
Absolutely. We have a list of 200 artists, a mix of folks with label deals, folks that we’ve heard at the Bluebird and thought were awesome, folks that maybe one of our management friends said, “Hey, we just signed this person and wanted you to be aware of them.” We work to make sure there is an Opry introduction for as many people as possible. Over the past year, we’ve developed a means by which most people come and visit the Opry before they make their Opry debut. Some folks have been coming here for years playing as sidemen or coming with friends and family. But there have been a lot of folks who have never been here, and it can be overwhelming. We want to make sure that they know the ABCs of the Opry and how special we think it is before they come out here.
What are the criteria for an artist to make their Opry debut?
Like a lot of things Opry, there is some subjectivity and, hopefully, a lot of objectivity. The phrase we throw out a lot is, “They feel like they’re ready.” We have a great incubation system now at Ole Red [a honky-tonk in Nashville’s Broadway entertainment district that is owned by Opry parent company Ryman Hospitality]. Our team will discover those folks and say, “There is something here.” When Hannah Dasher played Ole Red last fall, we said, “That feels right,” and we went and invited her. Then she debuted and was a part of our Dolly Week, doing a couple of Dolly songs at the Ryman as part of our Opry Country Classics show. So you have your numbers you’re looking at, your successes, but you also have the group gut. There is a lot of conversation happening.
“[The Opry’s] greatest hurdle is staying relevant while always respecting our past. When do you say something is such a part of the Opry’s legacy that it needs to be a part of every show?”
What goes into booking a show for you, as executive producer, and your team?
There is a template for what we think is a great show: that you have the best of yesterday’s music, today’s music, and tomorrow’s music. That’s the perfect Opry show to me, and that you have all these different styles of music under the country music umbrella. On Tuesday, we’ll have 8,000 people with many of them here because they love Luke Combs. But hopefully we’ve created this show in which they leave going, “Oh, that Maggie Rose is really phenomenal. Or I had heard Jimmy Allen’s Number One hit, but it was great to see him.” Or maybe Darius Rucker does a classic and they think, “Oh, Darius Rucker is more than ‘Wagon Wheel’ or his current hit single.” It’s that mix of new stars, superstars, and legends — and hopefully some discovery.
What’s the biggest threat to the longevity of the Grand Ole Opry?
Its greatest hurdle is staying relevant while always respecting our past. That is what makes the Opry unique, but with it being unique comes that unique challenge as well. When do you say something is such a part of the Opry’s legacy that it needs to be a part of every show? And when does something maybe become a part of the Opry’s treasured past?
What makes for a good Opry member? Is there a set number that you try to induct each year?
There is not a certain number, although I will say that I hope our Opry membership ranks can increase, because there are so many opportunities for artists beyond the Opry. We want them to visit us as much as they can, but I understand that maybe they’re on The Voice or American Idol or on a tremendous tour that takes them around the world several weeks of the year. While that is happening simultaneously, we have shows five nights a week because there is great interest in the Opry and in Nashville, so we need more artists from the new stars, superstars and legends groups to come be with us and be committed to playing the Opry often.
Hank Williams was famously fired from the Opry in 1952 — might he ever be reinstated?
Hank Williams will always be a treasured past member of the Grand Ole Opry. The Grand Ole Opry is made of living, breathing artists who can contribute to the show, and to whom the Opry can give back. We have a long list in the member gallery of folks who have been members of the Opry from Uncle Jimmy Thompson, who preceded what Opry membership even meant. When he started playing the fiddle in 1925, on a WSM broadcast, I’m sure he wasn’t thinking I’m the first performer on a show that is going to take the world by storm and be known as “the show that made country music famous.” So that wall honors everyone from Uncle Jimmy Thompson to Little Big Town to Hank Williams.
Had Hank Williams lived, there is little doubt in my mind that…I would hope he would have returned to the Opry and all would have been great and right in the world. Unfortunately, he didn’t. And now he’s a beloved past member of the Opry, as is Porter Wagoner, as is Kitty Wells, etc. I hope the world knows how everyone at the Opry is thankful for and respects all of his contributions. There is not a single Opry night that happens where his influence isn’t felt. And there are many, many, many Opry shows where his music is sung.
And there are thankfully for us also many Opry nights in which his descendants are on the show. We had Sam Williams on twice now, and it was a little… you can go through your day and then things just hit you in your face. I walked into his dressing room at the Ryman and he was sitting under a photo of his grandfather, and it was just surreal in terms of all the history that had happened in that building, on our show, and just how quickly time passes.
Yet even when members are not physically onstage at the Grand Ole Opry, they’re identified with the Opry when on tour or on TV.
My favorite email the other day was from Luke Combs’ folks saying that he saw a Brad Paisley tour a few years ago where Brad brought the Opry mic stand out for a song and could he possibly do that on his tour. Those are the emails you love to get. I said, “We would be delighted. When do you need that?” — thinking we can work it out next week. And they said, “We’re leaving tonight.” But we got it to them.