Country music’s longest-standing institution, becoming a member of the Opry is a lifetime goal for almost any country artist, and once inducted, requires a certain number of performances and other commitments each year.
It’s an honor that can’t exactly be put into words, and though a member at one time, the red headed stranger is no longer an official part of the Opry.
He made his debut on the Opry stage on November 28th, 1964, which came less than two weeks after he had his first recording session at RCA Studio B in Nashville with Chet Atkins at the helm producing.
Willie had two albums out at the time, Then I Wrote (1962) and Here’s Willie Nelson (1963), and almost exactly a year after making his debut, Willie became a regular at the Opry, playing up to 26 shows a year in addition to his grueling tour schedule.
Though, just five years later, Willie decided to move back to Texas after his home burned to ground in a fire (he took that as a sign to move on), and honestly, he just wasn’t finding the success he wanted as an artist in Music City so it was time to try something different.
Austin, Texas offered him a more progressive musical atmosphere to play the music that was in his heart, and obviously, it was the right call, as he became a leader of the country outlaw movement of the 1970’s because of his decision to move back home.
His music could flourish there because he wasn’t bound by the same rules that exist in Nashville with most major record labels, but being the lone star state also meant that he couldn’t make regular weekend trips to the Opry like he had been.
So, after just five years as an official member, Willie had to unfortunately rescind his membership. In an interview with Texas Standard back in 2018, he reiterated that it was just too hard to play Texas on a Friday and get back to Nashville on Saturday.
Also, this was a very different time, and while maybe more doable in 2023, it still sound like a lot (and is also a large part of the reason George Strait isn’t a member, either):
“I left Nashville because you can’t play in Texas on Friday and get back to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night.
It just don’t work out that way.”
He also admitted that the more he toured, the more he thought about staying in Texas and playing more shows in his home state as opposed to trotting all over the world ever year:
“Just leave the bus in Austin – we can go out and play in Waco, come back, and go play in San Antonio and come back.
And I’m leaning towards that – the further we go – because it’s something we could always do. We don’t have to go to Alaska every year.”
Willie has continued playing at the Grand Ole Opry well after the 1970’s, even though he’s no longer a member, and there’s certainly no bad blood between anyone because of his departure.
And funny enough, even though Willie maybe thought about slowing down some in terms of his tour schedule back then, he’s still on the road pretty much year-round in 2023.
And if you’ve never seen this Grand Ole Opry performance from back in 1965, during the time of his active membership, you might not even recognize a baby-faced, clean-shaven Willie Nelson performing classics like “Hello Walls,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Night Life” and “Crazy”: