Age Discrimination at the Opry?

The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville is coming under fire from a performer who alleges it discriminates against elderly acts.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The Grand Ole Opry is to Nashville, but the La Scala is to Milan. It's the spiritual home of country music. Right down to the red velvet pews that lie in the Opry Concert hall, and it hosts one of the nation's longest running radio shows - more than 80 years and counting.

(Soundbite of archived radio broadcast clip)

Unidentified Announcer: From Nashville, Tennessee, Prince Albert, the world's most popular smoking tobacco brings you the South's most popular program, the Grand Ole Opry.

(Soundbite of horn)

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: The Opry has been the primary showcase for country music superstars and new comers and legends. But now, some of those artists in the legends category say the Opry is treating its oldest members unfairly.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: Like all good things, Stonewall Jackson's relationship with the Grand Ole Opry has come to an end.

(Soundbite of song "Waterloo")

Mr. STONEWALL JACKSON (Singer): (Singing) Waterloo, Waterloo, where will you meet your Waterloo.

CORNISH: As a young man, Jackson's 1959 song "Waterloo" topped the charts just three years after he was invited to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry.

Mr. JACKSON: Well, I call myself a poor man's hideaway.

CORNISH: Now, Jackson says, he hasn't appeared on the Opry show in years. And he has filed a $20 million lawsuit against managers at Gaylord Entertainment. Sipping black coffee at a diner, off the highway with his trucker's cap pitched high and t-shirt marked Belford Tuft, the stocky 79-year-old says he's more than able to wow the crowds at the Opry today. But Jackson claims managers aren't giving him the kind of respect that artists of his age and stature are used to at the institution.

Mr. JACKSON: When I came here back in 1956, and here they didn't get rid of Ernest Tubb or Roy Acuff. And nobody like that. They weren't until their body wore out. And then they quit.

CORNISH: Jackson pretty much planned on doing the same. And the Opry show is one of the few places where someone like him could expect a guaranteed audience, says Paul Kingsbury, an expert on the Opry and country music.

Mr. PAUL KINGSBURY (Opry and Country Expert): There is nothing like this elsewhere in music. I mean, can you imagine in rock music, can you imagine a Justine Timberlake next to a Billy Joel next to Chuck Barry? That doesn't happen. But in country music, it does.

CORNISH: Standing on the corner of Nashville's busy lower Broadway, Kingsbury points out that many of the musicians who get their start playing this neon-lit strip the honky tonk forest do so with the dream of being on the Opry stage. Membership means you're invited to play several shows a year.

Unidentified Man: Would you make welcome our superstar in country music, Tim McGraw.

(Soundbite of audience applauding)

Unidentified Woman: So, I'm just going to simply say, ladies and gentlemen, the newest member of the Grand Ole Opry, Dierks Bentley.

(Soundbite of audience applauding)

Unidentified Man: And give her a wonderful welcome to our Grand Ole Opry, the one and only, Ms. Dolly.

CORNISH: Kingsbury says, as a fan, he wants the Opry to be a blend of old and new.

Mr. KINGSBURY: When you got quite a few AARP members in the cast of the Grand Ole Opry, how is it that Stonewall Jackson can say well, there is age discrimination.

Mr. CHARKLIE LOUVIN (Singer): Well, we were told - when we joined the Opry -this is your home as long as you keep your nose clean.

CORNISH: Charlie Louvin is friend of Jackson's and at 79, is a long-standing member of the Opry. At the height of the Opry star-making power in the '50s, artists like him were required to come back and do Opry shows at least two dozen times a year.

Mr. LOUVIN: Even I know that things don't last forever, and you grow old. And -but we thought that if we were loyal to the Opry, that they would be loyal to us when the hits quit coming.

CORNISH: Currently on tour with a new album, Louvin is not part of the lawsuit, but he says the issue is not whether older artists are on the bill but how frequently they appear on stage. Louvin says these days, he and other performers find they aren't getting scheduled enough to maintain healthcare benefits with their union even though the Opry puts on more than 200 shows a year.

Gaylord Entertainment disagrees. Company Vice President of Music and Media Steve Buchanan.

Mr. STEVE BUCHANAN (Vice President of Music and Media, Gaylord Entertainment): You know, there are people that really have the opposite opinion. There are people that feel like that the Opry program's too many older artists and it doesn't do enough to present what is currently happening today in country music. And we believe that we present a balance.

CORNISH: Buchanan calls Jackson's lawsuit absurd, and denies any allegations that managers commented about the singer's age. But Stonewall Jackson says he'll continue with his suit and if he wins, he wants to set up a fund to help out artists retiring from the Opry spotlight.

(Soundbite of song, "Waterloo")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing): Everybody has to meet his Waterloo.

Audie Cornish, NPR News.

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