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  • BUD WENDELL: COMPANY MAN
  • Copyright © 1999 Stacy Harris

  • All Rights Reserved

    Bud Wendell has a winsome grin, a firm handshake and great eye contact.He exudes enthusiasm and in an age where companies and employees no longer feel a traditional loyalty toward each other, Wendell's career path has proven by example that once-conventional two-way loyalty can still be upheld.

    When Earl Wade Wendell was born on August 17, 1927, his sister, close in age and unable to pronounce "Earl," began calling her little brother, "Buddy."

    "As I grew up that kind of stuck. My father's name is also Earl (though father and son do not share middle names) so it made more sense to stick with "Bud."

    And, as he grew from Buddy to Bud, Wendell rose through the ranks of boy scouting, becoming an assistant scoutmaster. Only the rank of Eagle Scout-the Boy Scouts' highest achievement award- eluded him.

    "I discovered girls before I could become an Eagle Scout," Bud explains, but even with that uncharacteristic diversion from Wendell's life-long pattern of working his way to the top, in retirement Bud has managed to earn the Silver Buffalo Award: the highest honor Boy Scouting can bestow on its volunteers.

    A graduate of Akron, Ohio's public schools, Bud came of age just as World War II was winding down, fulfilling his military service obligation via a stint in the Navy that allowed Bud to go on Wooster College in Wooster, Ohio (about 40-50 miles from Akron) under the G.I. Bill. (The G.I. Bill of Rights- also known as the Servicemen's Readjustment Act- was enacted by the United States Congress June 22, 1944. The bill financed college educations for millions of U.S. war veterans.)

    Wendell graduated from Wooster in 1950 with a B. A. Degree in economics. Then, as his father before him, Bud went to work for the National Life and Accident Insurance company. (C.E. Craig, a distant relative of bandleader Francis Craig (of "Near You" fame), bought an insurance company in 1901. C.E.Craig created National Life in 1902.)

    While Earl Wendell worked as a manager for the National Life's Akron office, Earl's son got around company rules that discouraged nepotism by beginning his career in Hamilton, Ohio; as a door-to-door salesman: "Each salesman had a small geographical area and you sold insurance by so much a week. They'd buy a $500 policy for a quarter a week, or 50 cents a week, depending upon their age and so forth, and [I'd] go around door-to-door and collect the premiums. I'd knock on new doors and try to sell to the next-door neighbor.

    "It used to be very, very common. In industrialized areas, where people got paid by the week, they paid a lot of their bills or obligations by the week and insurance was one of them. It's not the easiest way to make a living. I think it's a lot harder than what people seem to do today with all of their mass-telephoning, which really gets to me. You had to hone your craft and salesmanship and be willing to take a lot of "noes," but that was the way you made a living."

    In 1952, Wendell was transferred to Charleston, West Virginia as a staff manager supervising five or six salesman.

    "I did that for a number of years, assuming a similar position in Logan, West Virginia and then I was transferred back to Chillicothe, Ohio where I had a little larger route (another supervisory position)."

    Along the way, Bud married (Wendell and his wife met at Wooster College) and he and Lila started a family that would eventually include four children: Lindy, Danny (now TNN's and CMT's operations/production manager), Andy and Beth Anne.

    Then, in 1962, National Life again transferred Wendell, this time to its home office in Nashville where he became an agency supervisor. Not long into that job, Bud received another opportunity when WSM, Incorporated executive George Reynolds died suddenly of a heart attack.

    At that time, what later became self-promoted as the WSM-pire included both a radio and television station bearing the WSM call letters. The radio and TV stations were owned by National Life and the station's call letter stood for National Life's slogan, We Shield Millions.

    When Reynolds died, National Life began looking within its ranks to fill the position of administrative assistant to WSM Radio's president Jack DeWitt. Company man Wendell agreed, when asked, to fill the vacant position with National Life's broadcast division, even though he brought no direct job-related experience to his new position (Reynolds had been an engineer).

    But "they wanted somebody{who}was not an engineer. They wanted somebody that had more of a background in administrative activity- or they thought I did or could, at any rate.

    For all of National Life's faith in Bud, exchanging his work on commission for a salaried position did not constitute a promotion.

    "Actually, I had to take a cut in pay," but Wendell gladly accepted the pay cut, because "I thought it had a great future and I was committed to this company and I had come to make a career and stay with the company.

    "That sounds kind of odd to some people, [but} I intended to stay there until I retired and if they thought it was in my best interests and in the company's best interests for me to go over and do that job I thought 'They know what they're doing and I'm in it for the long haul."

    "It sounds like a peculiar move, but, in effect, our offices at WSM were adjacent to the claims department at National Life. We were all in the old five-story building downtown and we were just a department of the broadcasting division and a department of the insurance company, so [the job change] was not quite as abrupt as it might seem to be now. Other than the fact that WSM had to be incorporated in order to be licensed to broadcast, we were just a division like the claims department, the marketing department or all of the other [National Life] departments."

    While overseeing "personnel, budget and all of the things that had to be attended to" in a small company of less than 100 employees, in the performance of his duties Bud also had a growing awareness of another National Life property: The Grand Ole Opry.

    While the Opry originated from WSM's Studio A on the fifth floor of the National Life building on Seventh Avenue North, from its first broadcast on November 28, 1925 to about 1928 (when National Life built a larger Studio B in order to accommodate a studio audience of about 200), by the time Bud Wendell joined WSM, the Opry had made several moves (including another to what became the station's Studio C in February, 1934, followed by moves to the Hillsboro Theatre in October, 1934, East Nashville's Dixie Tabernacle in June 1936, and downtown Nashville's War Memorial Auditorium in July, 1939) before beginning its longest tenure to date at downtown Nashville's Ryman Auditorium (where the Opry would remain from June, 1943 through March 15, 1974).

    Despite its rich history and endurance, Nashville had yet to embrace the Opry at the time Wendell became a resident of what the city later claimed, first reluctantly and then proudly, as Music City, U.S.A. Even National Life's interest in the Opry was largely limited to its being yet another mechanism that, through its station IDs and promotions, could be used to sell life insurance.

    "Shortly after going with WSM, I became very interested in a lot of different areas of broadcasting-I'm very inquisitive, as you might guess- and when cable television came along during that period of time it turned out to be my responsibility to try and get WSM involved in cable television.

    Of course, it would be a couple of decades before cable TV would find popular acceptance, so Wendell's main focus remained on his administrative duties at WSM and overseeing its broadcasts (which included the Friday Night Frolics, a radio stage show that had originated from National Life's Studio C from 1948 until it moved to the Ryman and was rechristened the Friday Night Opry in 1963) until April, 1968 when Bud succeeded Ott Devine as Grand Ole Opry manager.

    Wendell's appointment as Opry manager may have seemed to National Life as the next logical step in a succession of successful career moves that were mutually beneficial to the company and its loyal company man. However the buzz among what would later become known as the country-music industry was that Bud was a corporate "suit" who had no special devotion to the music that was so much a part of them.

    Wendell dismisses such thinking: "That is not right. I enjoyed country music, [though] I was not a student of it."

    A product of the Big Band era, Bud was drawn to the music of Tommy Dorsey. Wendell admits that while he never boasted a "big collection of country music" to a degree, I enjoyed country music. That came about because WSM had the clear-channel radio station, which was owned by the company that my father worked for and then that I worked for. That was before the FCC duplicated all of the clear-channel stations and so WSM's signal was a very good signal up in Ohio where I lived.

    "So I was very familiar with country music and listened to it even back in the '30s" when it was an annual tradition for one of National Life's founders to deliver a late-night Christmas message over WSM Radio to company employees, I enjoyed country music, I would probably say second to Big Band music."

    But it wasn't Wendell's dedication to country music that was tested when he assumed the task of coordinating Grand Ole Opry shows that first week in April. It was his ability to rebound from his new place in history as the first Opry manager ever forced to cancel a performance- and before that performance- actually back-to-back Friday and Saturday night performances- had even gotten off the ground!

    That decision was made for him due to the events of the evening of Thursday, April 4,1968. Martin Luther King had been gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee and the ensuing threats and actual incidences of rioting all across America made downtown Nashville- just 208 miles from Memphis- a danger zone.

    On Friday, April 5, as marches began in Nashville, Mayor Beverly Briley (for whom Briley Parkway, the highway leading to what would become the current home of the Grand Ole Opry, was later named) declared a city-wide weekend curfew beginning at sunset.

    "The streets were to be cleared. I called him and I said "I understand all this, but you must mean for everybody except for us,"and he said, 'No, you're included.'

    "So we had no alternative. I mean, we couldn't get artists together, bands together, even if we had wanted to do something. There was no way for people to get out. So we did the best thing we could."

    Mindful of the show business tradition that the show must go on, that best alternative was to reach into the Grand Ole Opry's ample archives of taped broadcasts and air them April 5 and 6 during the Friday and Saturday night Opry's regular time slots.

    Those tapes existed because by the time Wendell became the Grand Ole Opry's general manager, it was customary to tape all Opry performances, edit, chop, reposition and transfer them to a disc. Disc transcriptions were then sold to over 400 radio stations in the United States and Canada where portions of the full. original Opry broadcasts could then be heard on a delayed basis.

    "We had all of this tape already done. That was no big deal, but those were scary times, because we were having marches and we were very sensitive to the danger.

    "As it turned out, the path of the marchers was directly by the Ryman Auditorium, so we made the right move."

    In the weeks to come it was up to Wendell to prove that he had what it took to deal with a residue of unpleasantness having nothing to do with the King assassination, but rather events that had their beginning while he was still selling insurance.

    For once Wendell took the reins, his first duties were to continue the process of rebuilding the morale of an Opry cast that been slowly rebounding since his predecessor, Jim Denny, who had also headed the WSM Grand Ole Opry Artists Service Bureau from the late 1940s until he was fired from that position September 24, 1956, set the stage for the defection of many of the Opry's most popular artists.

    Nashville-based artist management and booking was not the competitive business it is today and most country stars did not sell enough records to attract the interest of Los Angeles or New York agents and managers.

    Consequently, Opry manager Jim Denny (a rather unpolished figure whom famed songwriter John D. Loudermilk says "was raised by prostitutes") headed the WSM Artist Service Bureau, a booking agency specifically formed to book every Opry stars' road dates: "Jim would book these people out Monday through Thursday and he'd book 'em back in Nashville on Friday and Saturday night. They'd have to be there to play the Opry.

    "As the business was growing, that turned out to be sort of a conflict, because the big money was for these artists to work around places other than Nashville on Saturday night. The Opry was payin' 'em $10-a-night or something, but they could go out and maybe make $200-a-night. So there was this conflict." (Roy Acuff charged Denny with misappropriation of funds and artist favoritism.)

    "The resolution was that Jim Denny separated himself from WSM and walked away from being manager of the Opry."

    Beyond that, Denny who with Webb Pierce) had formed the Cedarwood Publishing Company in 1953 (Carl Smith later became part of the Cedarwood partnership), formed the Jim Denny Artists Bureau, upon being fired by the same man who would become Bud Wendell's boss, WSM President Jack DeWitt.

    As Denny branched out, other booking agencies such as the Atlas Artists Agency, Lucky Moeller Talent and Lavender-Blake, to name a few, sprang up and "a lot of the artists saw the opportunities to work somewhere else on Saturday night and make a heck of a lot more money then they could make playing the Opry, so a lot of them left the Opry.

    "Well, WSM said "Gee, we've still got to have artists here on Saturday night,' so they put in a rule that you had to be at the Opry a certain number of weeks per year or you were no longer going to be a member of the Opry.

    "I would be less than honest if I didn't say that there were some hard feelings involved. Some of the artists were unhappy with the way that the Opry was going."

    For example, when Rose Maddox, who had joined the Opry in 1956 had established herself as a TV star (of the Opry's short-lived one-hour regional taped broadcast and Red Foley's ABC Network "Ozark Jubilee"), a jealous Roy Acuff complained, threatening to quit the Opry unless Rose's TV appearances ended. (Maddox' response was to leave the Opry.)

    But then Opry artists had been pressured with the prospect of "better" opportunities two decades before, when then-Opry manager Harry Stone called the Delmore Brothers into his office when Stone received a tip that "some WLS (Radio National Barn Dance) big shots are [about to] make you a lot of promises and tell you a lot of lies."

    As Alton Delmore wrote in his autobiography, Truth is Stranger Than Publicity, After first offering Alton and Rabon a raise, Stone pressured the Delmores to accept the raise, telling them that the rival barn dance would only use the popular duo, fire them "within two or three months and where will you be then? Without a job, because if you leave I will never take you on the Opry again. Your career will be ruined."(Alton Delmore also complained that Stone's predecessor, George D. Hay, while heading the Artist Services Bureau, would not allow the Delmore Brothers and Uncle Dave Macon to make personal appearances together.)

    Wendell is philosophical about the events of the years preceding his Opry tenure: "The grass is always greener on the other side. Some of those who left regretted it. It was an emotional time.

    "The whole industry was changing: record companies were moving in here and managers were moving here, publishing companies were moving here and it was during that time that television finally discovered country music and we were doing a lot of the syndicated television shows. I think in some ways we were trying to figure out how to reposition the Opry to keep it strong and make it attractive to artists of some stature to come in an play and walk away from those big dates.

    "Some of the managers, publishing companies and so forth felt that the Opry was no longer meaningful to [artists' career longevity]; that they were wasting their time to go with it and that sort of thing, so there was a lot of turmoil. But the Opry was strong enough to survive that and continue to be more accommodating and sensitive to artists' careers."

    However, not before the defections of some of the most popular artists on its roster, including Chet Atkins, Johnny Cash, Moon Mullican, Ray Price, Kitty Wells and Ferlin Husky.

    And not before some relaxation of the rules about instrumentation. As Bud indicates, "By the time I got to the Opry in the '60s, the management had allowed a stand up snare to be seen. In earlier years, there was a snare drum, but it was behind the commercial backdrop and the stand up snare couldn't be seen by the audience.

    "By the time I got there, the Opry had gotten liberal enough that you could stand up but you couldn't sit down. You couldn't have a stool. No cymbals, just a stand up snare with two sticks.

    "We also had, at that time, one center mike. If there was a group, you all huddled around it. There were no hand mikes- I don't think they existed at that time. The rhythm guitar was amplified but you had to use a stand up bass. You couldn't use an electric bass.

    "You had to have an upright piano. We didn't use a grand piano until we got to the new Opry House. Part of that was tradition, but part of it also was the performing area at the Ryman was so small that we couldn't accommodate a grand piano. For awhile there we owned four or five Steinway upright pianos. Every time I could find a Steinway upright Id buy it, because they were all old, to begin with, they just didn't hold up."

    The Opry resisted drums and amplification because it wanted to distance itself from rock music, "but as our record industry and our records became more sophisticated, what were you going to do then? The artists wanted a different sound. They wanted a more current sound.

    "The Opry had been run in a somewhat autocratic fashion, because it had the only game in town: If you wanted to make records and wanted to be a star you had to be on the Grand Ole Opry. So we went from that kind of an atmosphere and a posture on the Opry to one that was much more sensitive to the needs of the artists.

    "It had to recognize that there were other, very significant exposure media equally as significant [as the Opry] in building a career; understanding that [Opry members] could make a heckuva lot of money, instead of being here on a Saturday night. It was still an important piece, but it wasn't the only way to get to the top.

    "For many years, you could not be a major star without being a member of the Opry. Finally, the Opry woke up and realized that you could go around the Opry and become a superstar. So it had to kind of change its posture and change its relationships."

    Wendell attempted to do his part by increasing the size of the Opry's roster, reducing the number of required weekly appearances from 26 to 20 in a given year and adding matinee performances that made it easier for artists initially to acquire the necessary but variable points-per-performance, enabling them to make their quotas before quietly eliminating the points system altogether. This move all but acknowledging a longstanding double standard re: the issue of required appearances that was a source of resentment, particularly among the Opry acts whose dedication to the Opry exceeded that of the mostly-absent headliners.

    Wendell admits that "None of it really made much sense. When road dates got so lucrative, you couldn't ask an act to come in and play the Grand Ole Opry for $100 or $200 or when they were making $20,000 or $30,000 and now they're making $10,000, so it now becomes a situation, in my judgment where, if they really want to be part of the tradition or the family, they'll cut out enough dates, or balance their schedule, where theyll be there on Saturday nights and make it worth their while and worth the Opry's while." (In 1999, tradition remains the primary motivation for the Opry roster's most popular members to perform, since they only receive union scale amounting to less than one percent of what they'll receive working a single date on the road.)

    Further, "the outlets for exposure for the artists today are so much greater than there used to be. It used to be that the Opry was just about the only exposure of any significance. The clear-channel radio [signal]-that was the power to sell records."

    Wendell adds that he can't point to any one incident, event or artist that convinced the Opry to relax the number of members' mandatory appearances (though, again, rumors of selective enforcement must surely have undermined the high standard).

    "I don't recall any what I call 'grumbling,' or whatever, I think it was more recognition that if you relaxed the rule and add a few more people to the roster, we could do that."(sic)

    With happier artists, Wendell sought to be a goodwill ambassador (with apologies to George Hamilton, IV) by bridging the gap between the WSM Radio, the Opry and the rest of the country music industry: "The Country Music Association and WSM were almost in two camps for a number of years. When the Country Music Association was formed, nobody with WSM was involved with it. They weren't invited to be a part of it, I would say.

    "The D.J. convention was a 'WSM project.'   The industry saw that and said 'WSM is not the fertile grounds that it should be. We can make a country music association.'

    While Wendell invigorated the Grand Ole Opry by adding to its roster such stars as Barbara Mandrell, Dolly Parton, George Jones, Jack Greene, Jan Howard, The 4 Guys and Jeanne Pruett, he regrets that during his tenure as manager that he was not able to convince West Coast-based artists such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard to join the Opry.

    Though Bud feels the Bakersfield contingent could have bolstered the Opry's cast, during the outlaw days circa 1975 he insists there was neither the inclination nor the pressure to sign, say Waylon Jennings. This, despite the fact that for all of its tradition, by the mid-1970s the Grand Ole Opry realized the need for continual change in order to sell tickets.

    "It was a concern, because we wanted to put on the best country-music show you've ever seen. We wanted to do it every Saturday night. We were less concerned about Friday night, because that was overflow. Friday night was created because we couldn't get enough people in on Saturday nights.  Also we had more sponsors than we could accommodate on a Saturday, so it made more sense to accommodate more sponsors and more audiences. But, in the desire to do a good show, you wanted to make sure you had good, face card acts there."

    The pressure built with the advent of Nashville as a tourism center. Wendell believes that Nashville's tourism industry had its genesis in the ABC television network's decision to add "The Johnny Cash Show" to its lineup of summer replacement TV shows.

    The first regularly scheduled weekly network program to originate from Nashville (ABC-TV's monthly series, "Grand Ole Opry," aired "live" from Nashville from October,1955 to September, 1956), Cash's show was taped late in the week at the Ryman Auditorium.

    Johnny Cash's crew would strike the set after each show, beginning the Opry crew's race with time to replace Cash's backdrops with the backdrops representing the logos of such Opry sponsors as Standard Candy and Coca-Cola, just in time for the Friday night Opry. (Ironically, the first half hour of Johnny Cash's 60-minute Saturday night hour competed for the attention of both tourists who wanted to see an entire Opry show and radio audiences who would otherwise be listening to the last half-hour of the Grand Ole Opry's first show of the evening.)

    Replacing The Hollywood Palace, another ABC-TV variety series, the Cash show was such a ratings winner during its initial run (from its first broadcast on June 7, 1969 until The Hollwood Palace returned in September) that ABC brought the program back to the Ryman where it was broadcast on Wednesday nights from January, 1970 through May, 1971.

    Johnny, himself a defector from the Opry cast (Or, more accurately, one who had been asked to leave years before when his erratic behavior included kicking the footlights during an Opry performance), revitalized country music through the success of his TV show.

    Cash, his regulars including the Carter Family, Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers, only added to Bud's pleasure of coming to work at the Ryman: "Cash was so hot. They were the Garth Brooks of that day. They were just the hottest thing going. Those were just such great times."

    Occasionally, the Opry has been too successful: Friday night audiences have, at times, rivaled attendance the following evening, as when the Grand Ole Opry's most popular acts, Garth Brooks being perhaps the best example, or even guest artists, have committed to a full weekend of Opry performances. (For years the tourist-driven Friday night Opry has maintained flexible scheduling of either one or two shows, depending upon tour schedules of both tourists and the big-name acts.)

    None of these nuances were of interest to Ernest Tubb. Bud recalls that he would receive an annual visit from Ernest Tubb's manager and booking agent: "Haze Jones would come and see me the first of the year and lay out Ernest's schedule for the year and say 'Here's the Saturday nights he is going to be here.'

    "And there would be 26 of them. Ernest believed that if you were going to be a member of the Opry you ought to be there 26 weeks: 'I don't care what the rule is: Even if it's only 10 weeks,  I'm going to be there 26 weeks."

    Wendell "had a different relationship" with (Lester) Flatt & (Earl) Scruggs (Lester and Earl were commercial spokesmen for Martha White, the flour company that sponsored the 8:30 p.m. portion of the Grand Ole Opry. Martha White insisted that the bluegrass duo appear on Martha White's half-hour of the Opry.)

    "Flatt & Scruggs didn't have any voice in it at all: If they wanted to retain the sponsorship of Martha White, they were gonna be there.

    "So we had different kinds of dynamics.   Marty Robbins would tell you, 'I don't care what you order, I'll be there. I'm gonna be there 26 weeks-a-year. Maybe 13 in the summertime, because I'm gonna do this in the wintertime'   Or 'I'll be there in the winter, but I'm gonna race in the summer.'

    "So different things motivated different artists."

    In Robbins'case, hosting the Opry's final segment became an opportunity instead of a chore: "What happened was that none of the artists wanted to do the 11:30 show, 'cause it was late at night. But from a clear-channel radio standpoint, the signal was the strongest. The later at night it was, the stronger the signal and the greater the reach.

    "Marty realized that, so he wanted to do the 11:30 show whenever he did the Opry, because it did the most for his career."

    Typically, Marty would arrive at the Opry having come from the racetrack "dirty and smelly." On at least one occasion when Robbins was leading a race he "just pulled his car off, parked it and jumped in his automobile to make sure he did the 11:30 show.

     "So it worked well and he built up that tradition. Even when we split the Opry into two shows, we never asked him to do the first show, because he wanted to race and he wanted to do that 11:30 show when nobody else wanted to do it.

    "Ultimately, it turned out that he was pretty smart to do that 11:30 show. Other artists asked to be on his show."

    Robbins' infusing a spark into the Opry's final portion kept the number of audience members leaving as the evening progressed to a trickle, while it kept Opry officials and the crowd gathered at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, scene of WSM's post-Opry Midnight Jamboree, awake and wondering if Marty would end his show at midnight.

    With classic understatement, Wendell remembers Robbins as "a jokester. He was a little bit of a clown and if you boil it all down, we always tried to get the shows off on time. But if you stepped back and said 'Well, all right. At midnight the Opry's over, so what are you going to do? Well, we're going to go over to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop at midnight and at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop you're going to have a disc jockey playing records,' there was nooverriding reason why the Opry had to end at exactly midnight, other than it [delayed programming from] the Ernest Tubb Record Shop and [toyed with] people's schedules and listening habits.

    "Marty could excite a crowd as much or more than anyone else, so he would get 'em all riled up-and we'd play with them. Hal Durham was the announcer through most all of those years and Hal would make a face [of mock impatience and consternation] and Ernest Tubb thought he'd get in on it. He was down there walkin' the floor of the record shop [pun intended?] wonderin' why he can't get the signal down there to start broadcasting.

    "Then when [Ernest] would come on the air he'd criticize Marty:  'Why can't we get Marty?'  'Why won't  Bud Wendell turn the mike off?'  And he'd be part of the game!   It was great!"

    During the Wendell era, each weekend's Opry lineup was kept a surprise until released on Friday, carrying on the tradition of the show rather than any particular artists being the incentive to buy tickets.

     Still, Bud would occasionally add a "surprise" act that wasn't mentioned on the released program lineup.

    "If you surprised an audience (with an unannounced addition to the show),  I don't care who it was- whether it was what you might call a 'B' act or someone who was not a red hot star; if you didn't have the name on the lineup and just ran [the act] in as a surprise, the audiences would just go crazy. They'd think 'Oh, we're getting something extra for our money.'

    "Several times I knew Loretta [Lynn] was coming by but I wouldn't put her [name] on the program. Ernest [Tubb]'s name would be on the program, so Ernest was out there doing his show and he'd start up with 'Sweet Thang' and all of a sudden we'd run [Loretta] out. The audience just went nuts.

    "Then we'd try a lot of things. Like, we'd put Hank (Williams),Jr. with Flatt & Scruggs and we'd put acts together that didn't  necessarily record together 'cause they like to do that. Artists, I guess, they still enjoy that (sic)."

    Expanding on his point about the value-added nature of Opry tickets, Wendell indicates that at least twice during Johnny Cash's network show's Ryman run (Cash's second self-tilted show, a four-week CBS summer series, ran during August and September of 1976), "John and June [Carter Cash] would show up Saturday night unannounced (Possible penance? After all, Johnny's longterm sobriety notwithstanding, Cash never rejoined the Opry roster.)

    Whatever prompted Johnny Cash, a good working relationship with Bud Wendell didn't hurt and the relationship even diffused a potential confrontation: Nothing was said when Cash used a full set of drums on the Ryman while taping his ABC-TV show, but it was a different story when Johnny brought The Tennessee Three to join him during an Opry guest appearance: "Somebody told me that Fluke [Holland] was back in the Ryman's (makeshift) dressing room settin' up this full set of drums.

    "I went back and said  'Now, what are you doing?'

    "And Fluke said 'We're doing a couple of John's songs.'"  

    The implication was that those songs required the use of a full set of drums and that if Opry management tried to interfere that "'John won't allow that.'

    "So I went 'Whoa!.'

    Wendell left the dressing room, heading "across the other way, because John was in my office. We didn't have any dressing rooms then- my office was the hangout for John and June with John Carter, who was a baby.

    "As I recall, there was a little playpen back there so they hung out back in there.

    "I went back to John and I said 'John, Fluke's over there settin' up those drums. We can't do that.'  He said 'OK. '  It was fine with John..

    "The full sets were already coming on. We just didn't allow them at the Ryman.   Today we use two sets."

    While such diverse performers as opera star Marguarite Piazza, comedian Jack Benny and The Byrds had played the Ryman stage (The Byrds had been about as well-received when they played the Grand Ole Opry on March 15,1968 as Elvis Presley had been when the future Country Music Hall of Fame member appeared on the Ryman stage over two decades earlier and was told by Jim Denny to go back to driving a truck), Wendell wanted to make sure Opry audiences were ready for a guest appearance by James Brown and vice versa.

    At Porter Wagoner's urging, Bud met the Godfather of Soul at "the old RCA studio on Saturday afternoon. I met him, talked to him, gave him some guidance on what to do or how to do it on the Opry;  that it was a live show and 'Don't  use any four-letter words, you'll  have four or five minutes and it's a timed show' and that we didn't  have all night.'   Boy, we got a lot of comments on that one, I tell you!"

    Did Brown flaunt convention or just do his "normal" show?

    "He just did his normal show- down on his knees.  He was different."

    Did that experience dissuade Wendell from testing the waters with equally flamboyant acts?

    "I had Jerry Lee [Lewis] on.  Eddie Kilroy told me that Jerry Lee really wanted to be on the Opry. I said 'I'd love to have him, but if he turns up this high piano, you guys are going to be in trouble'  'cause, again, it was the good ol' upright pianos that I was having trouble finding.

    "Kilroy said, 'I'll tell you what: If you have him on I'll  make sure he behaves.

    "And he did."

    Not that scheduling Lewis' appearance was worry-free: Lewis and "Marty Robbins were good friends and [Jerry Lee] wanted to be on the 11:30 show with Marty."

    Hardly wanting to risk being upstaged, "Marty wouldn't do it. So we put Jerry Lee on the 11:30 show when Marty wasn't doing it that night."

    Booking a gospel group called The Oak Ridge Boys was an easier task. Even in their pre-country days the Oaks "would light a fire under that crowd when they would take those coats off and twirl [them]; throw them out into the audience and just really get excited!"

    Despite his love of gospel music, Wendell drew the line when, in late 1973, Skeeter Davis chose the Ryman stage as the forum for her announcing to the "live" Opry audience her support of 15 "Jesus people" who had been arrested while demonstrating at Nashville's 100 Oaks Mall.

    "The thing that really led to [Bud's suspending Skeeter's Opry membership for over a year after Davis refused Metro Nashville's Police Department's request for an apology]; the thing that really got me was it was at a time when we were still trying to find the killers of Stringbean and his wife, Estelle. And I, along with a lot of the other Opry people were working hard with the police.

    "The police were there almost every Saturday night still working on the case; trying to develop leads. If they had a few leads, they'd come down and talk to some of us.

    "We were all emotionally upset by that. String and Estelle had been there on Saturday night I had coffee with them sitting around some of those little ol' drugstore tables I had put in there. These guys were out there ransacking the house and listening to the Opry knowing that they weren't going to get caught because they could hear Stringbean pickin' on the show.

    "So we had all of that going on at that time and that was in my mind. The police were really working hard on this thing and what really got me was that the people that were out there at that shopping center- I don't remember their cause anymore- the police were trying to control them or do something or other and Skeeter came on there and was very critical of the police department for their actions against this protest march out there.

    "That just hit me wrong: That she was critical of the police and here they were and here they are over here trying to help us solve this murder.   That's what caused me to react the way I did."

    Bud concedes that the Bill of Rights include Skeeter's right to free speech, but "I really resented her" using the Opry stage and its airwaves."

    Wendell also acknowledges that Davis didn't link the two events together as he did. "I probably overreacted, but it just hit me the wrong way and I just told her 'Don't come back.'

    "I think I just said 'I'm going to suspend you and we'll talk about this sometime' and that's what we ultimately did and [following Jean Shepard's intervention] she came back."

    Bud was relieved when Jean Shepard convinced him that it was not right to leave Skeeter's Opry status in limbo (Shepard felt Davis should be either reinstated or fired), since while there was always a rivalry between male members for the limited slots on the show, female members, so proportionately few in number, were essential to the radio stage show's diverse presentation.

    "I can remember scurrying to try and find a girl singer or two or three to do a show, because there really weren't that many. There's a lot of girl singers today, but there weren't back then."

    Bud stresses that booking the old Opry package shows didn't pose the same problem since, "each show had a girl singer and a comedian {e.g. Jan Howard and Don Bowman were part of Bill Anderson's road show. Dolly Parton and Speck Rhodes worked with Porter Wagoner}, so it wasn't that difficult to find a girl singer. Maybe the audience had never heard of her, but she was at least a girl singer who went along with the pack."

    Apparently Jan Howard was too much a part of Bill Anderson's "pack." In her 1987 autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow, Howard recalls attending a March, 1971 party at Anderson's house. Bud Wendell also attended the soiree.

    Upon leaving the party, Bud told Jan "See you tomorrow night."

    Howard, who not only toured with Bill Anderson but was also a featured performer on his self-titled syndicated television series, assumed that Wendell thought Anderson was scheduled for the Friday night Opry.

    When Jan told Bud "Bill won't be there tomorrow night," Wendell rhetorically asked if Howard would appear. Jan indicated she would not and Bud wanted to know why, since she was a member, wasn't she?

    "'No, I've never been. I guess I've just been on so long I'm a fixture.'"

    Wendell was shocked and remedied the situation that same weekend when, on Saturday, March 27,1971 he surprised Howard by officially inducting her into the Grand Ole Opry.

    Bud doesn't remember remedying any inequity by making Jan Howard a member. Indeed, Barbara Mandrell, who was inducted in July,1972, remembers that "when I was asked to become a member I asked the question 'What must one due to be able to host a segment of the Opry?'  And I was told 'You must have gained enough status and you must be a man.'"

    As American society changed, so did the Opry and drastic change was in the air when the Mother Church moved its performances from the Ryman to the "new" Opry House in March, 1974.

    "As I mentioned to you earlier, I have always felt that the Johnny Cash television show was really the start of Nashville as a tourist destination.  So all of a sudden we found ourselves at the Ryman- just inundated. The Opry had always had good, strong attendance, but all of a sudden it was just inundated with people wanting to come in, ticket (requests), tour operators and that whole thing.

    "At the same time that was going on, downtown Nashville deteriorated. We were having shootings across the street.

    "Now there's a convention center, but there used to be a string of bars across the street; panhandlers, a line for each show; It was a horrible scene downtown. The major retail businesses had left downtown and we had the same problems as any urban centers were having at that time."

    Grand Ole Opry management, leery of both liability and attendant publicity that might result if guests were "mugged or killed," decided that the Opry's future was not in downtown Nashville. (As early as 1968, National Life, which in its day grew to become a Fortune 500 company with 10,000 employees, considered building a new Opry House. That same year N.L.T. Corporation was created as a holding company, with National Life as N.L.T.'s primary subsidiary.)

    "Well, here we are, owned by an insurance company; very sensitive to [its] public image. So, they said to us, 'If the Opry is going to continue, we have to find a new home for it.''"

    Several sites were considered. "Our goal was a brand new home for the Grand Ole Opry, including [a] pioneering television facility." (As indicated, Johnny Cash's ABC-TV series had originated from the cramped Ryman facility "while during the same time we had been doing eight or 10 of these syndicated show out of our WSM television location between the 6 o'clock and 10 o'clock news at night. I look back and wonder how we could do all of those things.)

    "We sensed that there was a real opportunity for major television exposure if we had first class television production facilities,  but we also realized that we had all these people coming down to see the Opry; coming from an average of 450 miles. Well, we had to have a park out here to take care of some of these people who've come these great distances, because they're going to have to come and spend the night."

    Lodging requirement required a motel, "so our original zoning platforms had the park and the Opry House and then this 200-room motel."

    Initial plans for a motel were scratched and a hotel was required, for when Opryland U.S.A. opened on May 27,1972 "we grossly undershot the attendance." (Amusement park guests learned in 1975 of plans to build what became the Opryland Hotel, but what would become a hotel and convention center did not open until 1997 when its 600 guest rooms became available.)

    Wendell attributes conservative projections to the energy crisis and gasoline rationing of the early '70s.

    "The insurance company was a little timid about going ahead with plans for this motel because "If people can't drive 450 miles they're not going to need this motel. We've already got the park, so we're  stuck with it.'

    "We put the motel on hold, but as those energy problems and gasoline shortage problems eased, we went ahead with our plans on the hotel and finally convinced ourselves that more people would come to the park than we anticipated, so we could build as much as a 600-room hotel. I hired Jack Vaughn to develop that property.'

    "He said 'You all are going the wrong direction. You're talking about building overnight motel accommodations. There's an opportunity for Nashville to become a convention destination and instead of building this motel that charges $49.99 a night, we could build a major convention facility, attract organizations, build major exhibit space and make Nashville a real convention destination.'

    "He convinced us that and he said 'We need to build 1,000 rooms.'  The insurance company, which had never been in this business before, said 'Whoa! No way are we going to build 1,000 rooms, but we'll let you build the 600 rooms' and overbuild the exhibit areas and the restaurant space, the retail area and the public areas,  so that we could (eventually) add the 400 rooms.

    "But with the 600 rooms [actually, 467 rooms were added to the original 600 in 1983] it got to be so successful that we had to add more ballrooms and more exhibit space, so to that extent the plan didn't work out, but then we added another 1,000 rooms and then another 1,000 rooms.

    "The whole plan worked very nicely because we got the Opry House built and open and we were able to utilize all of those wonderful television facilities at a time when the networks still had prime time variety shows, entertainment shows and all of those specials.

    "There was still wonderful exposure for the artists in Nashville, Tennessee,  but it also gave us a wonderful facility for the CMA awards show."

    With all of these incentives, in 1972 "we cranked up Fan Fair."

    The April 12-15 event "came about because WSM was looking to create a huge event that would draw people to Nashville for the opening of the park every spring. At the same time, we were looking for a second annual television show."

    While that show or perhaps "a string of them" each with the theme, like the annual CMA Awards Show, of being "just another entertaining show with country acts" never materialized (neither Wendell nor current CMA Executive Director Ed Benson could pinpoint any specific proposal), "but that's how WSM and CMA co-sponsored the creation of Fan Fair.

    "We at WSM said it's probably going to take some years to build [Fan Fair], but we're not going into it to make money. So we'll eat the loss: WSM will underwrite it, but if it ever makes any money we'll give it to the CMA.

    "That's why WSM ran Fan Fair for a number of years. We were writing the losses off of it. Then as it began to make money, we gave back the funds to the CMA to put in a special fund that they couldn't spend without our okay.

    "I did not allow the CMA to spend very much of that money- it accumulated a pretty good nest of it- because I always thought that if the annual awards show ever fell apart, if the network ever canceled it for any reason, it's such a big revenue source for the CMA that I wanted a rainy day fund, meaning the Fan Fair profits.

    "But nowadays, the CMA show is so successful and gets such good ratings and they get such a good licensing fee out of it that we didn't need a rainy day fund. So I said 'You don't need our approval any more. Spend the money. But also, I want to take $2 million of the fund as your contribution to build the Hall of Fame.'

    "When I retired I did away with that agreement."

    Retirement was not yet on the horizon when, during Bud Wendell's final National Life years, [WSM execs] "Tom Griscom, David Hall and I felt that there really was an opportunity to create a cable channel of country music. Cable was in its infancy, but we were watching it very closely and we just felt that there was an opportunity there.

    "So we went to our owners [at] National Life and said to them 'This is a high-risk proposal; a very high-risk proposal.'  Because their business plan we put together [indicated] that if we did as [well] as we thought we could do, that it would take us five years to turn a profit. And in that five years we were going to lose about sixty million dollars.

    "But if it worked the way we thought it would, from that point on it was going to be fabulously successful. And they believed us, so they said 'OK. Go ahead.'

    "So we built that [Nashville] network and while all of that was going on we were adding another thousand rooms to the hotel. We were building the network, spending the money and NLT was taken over by American General[Corporation in 1982]. American General 'saw what was going on and it scared them to death, so they put us up for sale.'

    "At the same time, I had been acquainted with [Gaylord Entertainment Company Chairman] Ed Gaylord, because we were producing Hee Haw  for him, so as soon as American General said that they were going to sell us, [Gaylord's] people came to me and said 'We really would be interested in looking at this.'"

    [Following Gaylord Broadcasting Company‚s purchase of the Opryland properties from American General (resulting in the creation of Opryland, USA, Inc.), Gaylord Syndicom was launched on July 15, 1984 as a division of Opryland, USA, to develop shows- like the pre-existing "Hee Haw"-for broadcast syndication.]

    In order to assuage any doubts Wendell might have about the corporation that had been established in Nashville (with its first public stock offering) on October 24,1991, Oklahoman Ed Gaylord told Bud, "Minnie [Pearl] and Roy [Acuff] will vouch for me."

    "Ultimately, [Ed Gaylord] felt very comfortable with our management, very comfortable with me- 'cause we knew one another, he knew my style and he knew the television business (as the owner of stations in Texas, Washington and Oklahoma) and he saw a reason to be here.

    "So he said 'Go right ahead with it,' but at the time he came here, we were losing money hand over fist. But it grew exactly like we thought it would- in fact, it grew a little faster than we thought it would. Sponsors came in and along the way [on March 6,1983 country singer] Stan Hitchcock [who had once hosted his own TV series]and a business partner started CMT."

    The pair "didn't have any money, but it didn't take a whole lot of money to get a signal up. But then what are you going to do with it?

    "You have to have people to market it, sell it, feed programming into it and all of those things.   All they had was a name and a signal, so we bought it.  ¶ We had pretty deep pockets¶ and [were able to get CMT out to] cable systems.

    By February, 1997 Gaylord Entertainment Company decided that it had taken both TNN and CMT "about as far as they could go," selling those assets to Westinghouse for $1.55 billion in stock (retaining only CMT's international division).

    "The way the cable industry has grown, you have to have a lot of muscle, or you're going to get pushed off.   More and more of the individual channels are owned by a group or agency.   The channels are pretty well gobbled up by groups.  We had two channels and not enough muscle and we were afraid that we couldn't retain our coverage on as many systems as small operators, so we sold 'em. [Back when The Nashville Network first started, Ralph Emery, host of TNN's flagship show, Nashville Now, had been hosting a program called Nashville Alive, for Turner Broadcasting Systems and but for some bad blood TBS/CNN mogul Ted Turner, who had expressed interest, might also have purchased TNN and CMT.]

    As it was, in 1985 Gaylord Broadcasting acquired "Acuff-Rose[Publications] from Wesley [Rose] and Roy{Acuff], neither of whose children were interested in taking over."

    Bud says Rose and Acuff "were increasingly concerned" about the future of the company" but felt it would prosper under Gaylord's administration. [Gaylord renamed Acuff-Rose Publications Opryland Music and made it a part of Gaylord's Opryland Music Group before reverting to the original Acuff-Rose name in 1998.]

    Bud credits Wesley Rose's interest in expanding Acuff-Rose's influence worldwide as a factor in the eventual international focus of Country Music Television.

    "Wesley had always been a believer in the international arena. He had the Everly Brothers contracted overseas and so forth, the Hank Williams catalog and those that were very marketable (internationally). He had an office in London and he had some publishing arrangements in Italy, Germany, Scandanavia,(the) Benelux (countries), Japan (and) Australia that gave us an opportunity to have our finger on the pulse of country music and its success around the world.

    "As the years have gone by, we've seen a tremendous growth in the popularity of our music around the world through our publishing company. We could see it growing. The overseas royalties in the Acuff-Rose catalogue are greater on the international side than they are on the domestic side.

    "It's growing to that extent, so I've been a big believer in the overseas opportunities. As we were developing CMT, to me it was only logical to put this thing up around the world. Why not? It's another gamble, but I thought there was real potential and there is real potential.

    "Where I made a misjudgment, however, was that I thought that it would be a [more salable], well-received [venture] in the UK [and nearby countries] than it has been.

    "There is a growing basis for it. More and more artists are going over there...We're getting a greater amount of acceptance. The working relationship is better between the Nashville record companies and their counterparts."

    Not long ago, it was difficult to "promote, merchandise and market" country music in Europe. "You couldn't even get shelf space over there.

    "There has to be commitment on the part of the record industry. [American country artists] are playing smaller venues, but it's going to grow just phenomenally."

    CMT International was launched in Europe on October 19, 1992, in the Asia-Pacific region on October 4.1994 and in Latin America on April 1, 1995.

    All of these launches involved "separate signals, separate networks," and Wendell sites "overexpansion" as the reason for canceling CMT's European signal.

    Still, Bud believes CMT's markets in "Brazil and South America are growing by leaps and bounds." Wendell voices similar enthusiasm for CMT International's future in Europe, Australia and Latin America.

    Last year "Kenny Rogers and Reba toured Australia. [Reba] was so pleased she's going back alone.  Garth [Brooks]and Alan [Jackson] are going to Brazil. The Mavericks, Trisha- you can just see those things are happening.

    "It's no secret that country music has plateaued in this country right now. So where's the growth potential?  If it's not in this country, it's the rest of the world. It's a great investment but it could bring great benefits."

    Wendell says Cindy Wilson, CMT International's vice-president and general manager (who is also a member of CMA's International Committee)is "the strongest supporter [of expanding country music's impact internationally] of anybody in Nashville."

    [CMT International is now a subsidiary of Idea Entertainment, Gaylord's  music and entertainment division. Idea Entertainment also overseas Idea Sports, Idea Films, the Word Entertainment music group, Blanton/Harrell (a Christian artist management company).]

    In 1994, Bud Wendell's work of a lifetime was honored by Gaylord Entertainment as the new E.W. Wendell Building became the edifice housing all of Gaylord's corporate departments. (Coincidentally, that same year brought about the revitalization of downtown Nashville which, with the renovation of the Ryman Auditorium and the opening of the Wildhorse Saloon, gave the area a look and feel Wendell could not have envisioned when he was worried about muggings and murders some two decades before.)

    Three years later, Bud Wendell stunned Music Row with the announcement of his retirement, but again, professionally, Bud determined that his upwardly mobile career had gone about as far as it could go: "Ed Gaylord has passed the baton on to his son. It was time for me to step aside."

    But even in retirement, Wendell has continued his philanthropic work which ranges from his many civic and charitable endeavors to leading a $15 million fundraising effort for relocating Music Row's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to a larger facility to be built in downtown Nashville.

    In 1998 Wendell was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Fellow Hall-of-Famer Jimmy Dickens presented Bud with a Hall of Fame medallion, given only to members of their select group, on a telecast TNN telecast honoring Hall of Fame members. Titled "An Evening of Country Greats," the program (taped in September, it aired December 1) gave Bud the opportunity to express his gratitude for receiving the country music industry's highest honor.

    As he glanced into an audience that included Lorrie Morgan (there to accept a medallion on behalf of her late father, George Morgan) and Lorrie's mother, Anna, Wendell reminisced about Lorrie's Opry debut at age 13 and then told those watching that 'Anna makes the best strawberry shortcak. George used to bring it down to me (at the Opry) because I was a strawberry shortcake freak."

    Marty Stuart, who first met Bud Wendell during the early '70s when Stuart was Lester Flatt's teen-aged mandolinist told viewers that his friendship with Wendell was so strong that back in 1990 the 1992 Grand Ole Opry inductee bought a used car from Bud.

    Wendell has kept his friendships with other Opry artists, many of whom are like Bud, avid hunters and fishermen.

    In fact, the desire to be able to do more hunting and fishing was one of the reasons Wendell decided to retire- at least to the extent that anyone as active as he is in his community is able to slow down.

    Beyond that, "I'm 71 years-old" and Bud would like to be able to spend more time with his wife, Janice (whom Wendell married "about 15 years ago") and his family, which now includes six children (Bud is now stepfather to Janice's daughter Lisa and son Eric) and nine grandchildren.

    A millionaire, E.W. Wendell certainly has no need to be on anyone's payroll. At the time he left Gaylord Entertainment he was one of Nashville's most highly-paid executives.

    Pointing out that he is in good health and that "ultimately as WSM, Inc. evolved into Opryland, Gaylord and so forth, we became bigger than the National Life and Accident Insurance company," this company man has worked long worked hard enough and long enough for one lifetime and is more than entitled to some time to call his own.

     


    An edited form of this article first appeared in London-based Country Music People's June, 1999 issue.



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