Hal Durham, who helped assure the Grand Ole Opry's transition into the modern era, died over the weekend at his home in Cape Coral, Fla. Mr. Durham, a McMinnville, Tenn., native who also served as a WSM announcer and executive, was 77.
"Our deepest condolences are with his family," said Jean Shepard, a member of the Opry since 1955. "He was a great manager of the Grand Ole Opry. One of the best."
Mr. Durham's contributions to the Opry were substantial and necessary. He served four years as manager and began his 15-year run as general manager when he succeeded E.W. "Bud" Wendell in 1978.
By that point, country had evolved well beyond its roots as an acoustic music format, and top country artists were drawing arena-level audiences that necessitated playing lucrative tour dates away from Nashville.
The general manager reacted to these factors by altering both the Opry's stage setup and its membership rules.
Under Mr. Durham's leadership, full drum sets were allowed on the Opry stage.
Mr. Durham also significantly relaxed membership requirements with regard to required personal appearances, clearing the way for artists with heavy touring schedules to become Opry members without having to commit to multiple Opry appearances each month.
Among the notables Mr. Durham signed as Opry members were Garth Brooks, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, Alan Jackson, Riders in the Sky, The Whites and Reba McEntire.
While attending the University of Tennessee, Mr. Durham began working at Knoxville's WROL radio. He was an announcer at Atlanta's WSB, then moved back to McMinnville to become a program director beginning in 1960.
Four years later, he moved to Nashville's WSM and worked as an on-air personality and as a Grand Ole Opry announcer.
"He had a voice that harkened to an earlier era," said WSM-AM on-air personality and Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs.
"And physically, he had a towering presence. He commanded your respect without ever having to verbally ask for it."
Mr. Durham became WSM's program director before moving into the ranks of Opry executives.
"Hal's time at the Opry was a heyday of the Opry feeling like a family," said Country Music Hall of Famer Bill Anderson.
"He was low-key, and he was one of us to start with: Because he'd been an Opry announcer, it wasn't like an outsider coming in. I don't know of anyone who didn't like Hal Durham."
Mr. Durham's tenure as general manager ended in 1993. He then became president of the Grand Ole Opry Group, and served in that role until 1996. All told, he was a part of Opry history for 32 of the show's 84 years.
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