There have been 212 country acts invited to join the Grand Ole Opry since Henry Bandy became the first member in 1925. There are 68 performers living today who belong.

In those days before television there were very few opportunities for national exposure outside of the Opry. A few high power radio stations developed their own Saturday night live country shows:

  • Chicago's WLS featured the "Midwest Hayride" ,
  • The "Louisiana Hayride"  covered the southern US from KWKH  Shreveport
  • The second oldest Saturday night country show after the Opry was heard on another 50,000 watter-"The Wheeling Jamboree" WWVA Wheeling West Virginia
  • Atlanta had the "WSB Barn Dance"

And there was the one I remember listening to with my grandpa - "The Renfro Valley Barn Dance" from Renfro Valley Kentucky broadcast over WLW in Cincinnati.  All the broadcasts have faded away into history except for the first one-The Grand Ole Opry.

For many decades after the Opry's inception, it was almost a requirement for success as a country performer to be heard on Saturday night on 50,000 watt WSM. Most of the great early performers were there:

  • Bob Wills
  • Pee Wee King
  • Roy Acuff
  • Minnie Pearl
  • Eddie Arnold
  • Ernest Tubb
  • Red Foley
  • Grandpa Jones
  • Hank Williams Sr (for a while-before he was banned)

...and many more. But there have been a few big names that were never made opry members. Let's take a look at a few big stars who never signed on for the big show:

Jimmie Rodgers - The Father of Country Music - He recorded songs right up to his death in 1933 so he would have had several years to make the opry but he never even appeared as a guest. Jimmie was not on record as having played any major radio show.

Conway Twitty - When Conway opened Twitty City in 1982 he became a competitor to Opryland. Add that to the fact that Opry members must play at least 12 Saturday nights a year for a few hundred dollars you can see why Conway passed on the Opry.( yes, Opry performers get union scale of $140 for their performance no matter how popular they are).

Elvis Presley - On October 2, 1954 Elvis made his first and only appearance on the Opry and was told by Opry manager Jim Denny to go back to Memphis and continue his truck driving career. Elvis vowed never to come back and he didn't. After a few months following his Opry show, he never needed to.

Merle Haggard - He had no problem with the Opry and did many performances there but never became a member. Merle lived in California and didn't fly so doing 12 shows a year in Nashville would have been difficult. Here's Merle Haggard in one of his last appearances at the Opry:

 

Buck Owens - He had very much the same reason as Haggard to not be an Opry regular--he also lived in California and operated his own club in Bakersfield called the Crystal Palace. Buck was also busy with his own weekly TV show and later with the very popular Hee Haw.  He did make several Opry appearances. Here he is on Hee Haw;

George Strait - Here's another megastar that made his home in Texas which made it a long trip Tennessee to make those 12 shows a year and honestly, King George didn't really need the Opry :

Hank Williams Jr. has never had a love affair with the Opry (his father was fired by that organization) but he has made some appearances there. Waylon Jennings graced the Opry stage once  in 1978 but was never a member. Alabama was never asked to belong to the Opry cast.

The most recent Opry member is classic country artist Gene Watson. As soon as the Coronavirus scare is over and the Opry resumes performances before a live crowd, Rhonda Vincent will become the newest (and youngest) Opry member. She will be the 69th living Opry member.