NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - For the first time in its 82-year history, the Grand Ole Opry is embroiled in an age-discrimination lawsuit, officials at the venerable country music palace said on Friday.
The $10 million lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on Thursday by Stonewall Jackson, a 74-year-old singer and guitar player who also alleges breach of contract and retaliation.
Jackson claimed his appearances at the Opry in Nashville had been cut back since 1998 and his income had declined drastically.
“I asked (general manager Pete Fisher) what I had done wrong and he told me, ‘I don’t want gray hairs on the stage or in the audience,’” Jackson said. “He said I was too old and too country.”
The Opry’s owner denied the charges in the lawsuit.
“The allegations of age discrimination are without merit, as is shown by the mix of ages in our shows,” said Steve Buchanan, vice president of media and entertainment for Gaylord Entertainment.
Buchanan cited Porter Wagoner, Little Jimmy Dickens, Jimmy Newman and Jesse McReynolds as examples of veteran performers.
Since country music’s mass appeal slumped after boom years in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Opry has incorporated new crossover performers to attract a younger generation.
“But we still use older acts,” said Buchanan. “We strive for a balanced program suitable for all ages.”
There have been other changes in keeping with the times, he said.
In its early days, the Opry required member artists to be available 26 times a year, regardless of other commitments, or lose their membership. The rule was relaxed to 10 appearances annually when new members were recruited, Buchanan said.
Jackson, whose hits in the 1950s and 1960s include “Waterloo” and “B.J. the D.J.,” has been a member of the Opry since 1956.
The show, which began in 1925, has a live audience and is broadcast on the Great American Country cable television channel and on Nashville radio station WSM, according to its Web site www.opry.com.