Ninety-seven years into its history and the Grand Ole Opry — via its groundbreaking NextStage program — is three years into ensuring that country music’s future continues to expand the idea that the genre is accessible enough to be enjoyed by all.
“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,” said Jordan Pettit, the Director of Artist Relations and Programming Strategy for Opry Entertainment Group.
“We’re attempting to speak to a broader array of audiences about [country music’s] vibrant, diverse future across the Opry Entertainment Suite brands.”
These brands count WSM 650 AM, the Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Auditorium among a dozen national holdings.
So far, three artists: BRELAND, Elvie Shane and Morgan Wade, have been named for the 2022 iteration of Opry NextStage. They’re joining an already impressive crew of 11 previous NextStage performers who are now on the cusp of achieving dynamic success.
NextStage has had a solid grasp in tapping into country music’s current emerging artists since the program’s 2019 inception. The inaugural year highlighted Riley Green, Tegan Marie, Tenille Townes and Travis Denning. After taking a year off for COVID-19, 2021 saw Parker McCollum, Yola, Niko Moon, Hailey Whitters, Lainey Wilson, Jameson Rodgers and Priscilla Block named to the program. Notably, Green and McCollum (2020 and 2022 ACM Best New Male Artist) plus Townes and Wilson (2020 and 2022 Best New Female Artist) have shined on country music’s award show stages.
Artists — and the Opry itself — extensively building their social media presences via constant live and online content development has been one of the program’s early hallmarks. For example, Pettit notes that 2021’s “Opry NextStage: Live In Concert” featured only artists in the program and sold 80% of the Opry’s 4400 seat house. Plus, the event had 400,000 overall live streamers via Twitch.
“The Opry doesn’t just put your name on a flyer — they actually do the work of promoting you as an artist, and that’s important,” says Morgan Wade. Wade’s currently achieving greater renown as her indie-to-Sony Music Nashville-signed artist story now sees her debut album “Reckless” receiving a renewed push.
Like Elvie Shane, Wade is an honest, earnest, tattooed free-thinker whose art reflects traditional country values but perhaps with a renewed focus on expanding past preconceptions of what successful artists look and sound like in the genre.
Opry NexStage’s cosign of their work has already proven hugely influential.
“Even in the past few months, I’ve heard from more ‘traditional’ country fans who find it cool to see someone who is not a ‘cookie cutter’ country artist [achieving success]. When you have the Opry’s support, there’s more love than hate, and it helps people believe that country’s changes will continue, and be embraced by, future generations.”
Like Wade, Shane — known for the breakout 2021 ballad “My Boy”– is excited about what being aligned with the Grand Ole Opry means for his career. He highlights artists like Johnny Cash and Steve Earle, having storied histories with the venue as important to him.
“Playing the Opry is like medicine for the soul. Stepping in that circle is a great way to keep yourself charged up and prepared for live events,” he says.
In regards to recent country radio chart-topper BRELAND, Pettit notes that the artist best known for songs including “My Truck” and “Cross Country” is an “energetic performer” who has “received a rousing standing ovation” every time he has been featured on the venue’s stage.
For BRELAND, the impact of potentially joining Charley Pride and Darius Rucker as the only African-American Opry members is a “career goal” that, for him, would “expand” his genre and perspective-broadening “Cross Country” artistic and professional aims.
Ultimately, Pettit believes that Opry NextStage succeeds because it is an ideal blend of the values that always will define country music best.
“The Opry, foremost, is a community of performers. So we want to see them perform on the Opry, connecting with past generations of Opry favorites like Bill Anderson, Jeannie Seely and Connie Smith. Then, one day, we even hope that they’ll become Opry members, too.”