Steve Buchanan: The protector of all things Opry

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Steve Buchanan would prefer that people pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. It’s easier to work his magic and share the credit out of the limelight.

Over the past 28 years with the parent company of the Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Auditorium, the president of Opry Entertainment Group has resurrected the Ryman into a beloved performance space. Buchanan used his rebranding and rebuilding skills to lead the Grand Ole Opry into a popular rebirth. And he applied his bird’s-eye view of Nashville’s music community in the development of ABC’s “Nashville,” a scripted prime-time drama that depicts country music’s inner workings.

“He’s who I call when I feel like people are going a little bit outside of what I think would happen in Nashville,” said “Nashville” creator Callie Khouri. “We run a reality check. We know that we’re making a TV show, but we try to keep things as close to reality as we can and still be doing network television.”

On a mid-December day, Buchanan was hard at work on set on the Ryman stage. Blue-tinted lights beamed down on Buchanan as he and country star Brad Paisley talked privately just out of the spotlight.

Buchanan is relaxed in the hubbub, finishing his conversation with Paisley and asking about the next time he will be needed on set. Buchanan himself was set to appear in the episode, which features the induction of Hayden Panettiere’s character, Juliette Barnes, induction into the Grand Ole Opry.

“My No. 1 goal was that (‘Nashville’) would be something that would have a positive impact on the Grand Ole Opry,” Buchanan later said., seated on a couch in a dressing room. “And I also knew that if we did a show that made people more curious about Nashville and, thus, had an impact on visitation to Nashville, then that would have a positive impact on the Opry, the Ryman and hopefully countless other businesses.”

A passion for music

Standing on any stage is far removed from what the 56-year-old Oak Ridge, Tenn., native dreamed as a child that he would do. With a chemist mother and a nuclear engineer father, Buchanan grew up wanting to study forestry in a town where almost everyone worked for the government.

He was good at math and played trombone in his middle and high school bands. He hung out at local favorite Big Ed’s Pizza, and As he got older, he developed a passion for live music.

Like his parents, Buchanan went to Vanderbilt University, where he studied environmental engineering. In 1975, he met lifelong friend Ken Levitan in the freshman dorm. Now a power manager on Music Row, Levitan said he and Buchanan “learned the beginning of the music business together.”

“We lived and breathed school and music,” said Levitan, who also was best man at Buchanan’s wedding when he married music publisher Ree Guyer 22 years ago.

The men were active on the university’s live music committees, and Levitan said they “ran the concerts at Vanderbilt.” The friends also worked for concert promoters Sound 70, where they made $20 a night, which, Levitan said, “we would spend on beer.”

Buchanan called his involvement with the Vanderbilt concert program “career defining.” Until then, it never occurred to him that he could turn his love of music into a career.

Three-and-a-half years into his engineering degree, he switched majors to sociology and psychology. He joked the move put him on the “five-year plan” to graduate. After he got his diploma, Buchanan spent three years working at talent agency Buddy Lee Attractions before going back to Vanderbilt University to get his MBA.

Marketing the Opry

Buchanan’s stint at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Business gave Buchanan him confidence, and after graduation in 1985, Buchanan accepted a position as the Grand Ole Opry’s first marketing manager. When he started, there was literally no marketing budget.

“We printed a brochure every year,” Buchanan said. “It was the Opry’s 60th anniversary, and it is pretty extraordinary to be such a worldwide renowned icon and institution that it had never had to market itself. Everything had been driven off the broadcast distribution and PR. The artists really were what propelled it.”

Buchanan set out to make people want to visit. He organized the Ryman’s Centennial Celebration, which led him to overseeing the building’s renovation, creating its first business plans, being appointed general manager and relaunching the space as a venue outside of being a previous Opry home.

He acknowledges that many credit him with saving the Ryman Auditorium, which fell into disrepair in the 1970s and ’80s, but he gives that credit to Bud Wendell, president of Gaylord Entertainment Co., for earmarking the funds.

“I feel like I had a passion for (the Ryman) and that I tried to make sure that people once again realized we should be paying attention to this incredible place,” he said. “There are many that feel that there is no better place to perform on this planet, so it would be unfortunate if people didn’t have the opportunity to experience that not only as an artist but as a fan.” The stage at the Ryman Auditorium was built for the Metropolitan Opera. It was important that we continue that legacy. It’s something I’m extremely proud of.”

In the second half of 1998, Buchanan was promoted to president of the Opry Group, where he oversaw the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman and other businesses.

Buchanan described it as “a very difficult time” because Opry attendance was in decline as Opryland USA theme park closed and stars including Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones and Roy Acuff died. Buchanan had to figure out how to fill the seats without the stalwarts.

“It was critical that we change how people thought about the Opry,” he said. “Any business that’s been around 80-plus years has to continually be working to embrace a new fan base.”

Buchanan hired Pete Fisher as general manager and vice president of the Grand Ole Opry, and the two, along with their team, were able to “turn the Opry around.”

“It’s about the experience, you know,” Buchanan said. “People always remember who they were first introduced by. Those connections are stronger than having a fruit tray in your dressing room. They are the glue. It works when artists feel it in their hearts.”

The show goes on

The flood of 2010 caused deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in Middle Tennessee, and it rocked the Opry foundation again.

The Grand Ole Opry House suffered major damage as the nearby Cumberland River spilled over its banks. A photo showing water up to the stage of the Opry House quickly spread on the Internet, and many credit the venue’s damage with finally drawing national attention to Nashville’s devastation.

Again, Buchanan’s mettle was put to the test.

Sally Williams, vice president, business and partnership development for the Opry Entertainment Group, recalled that one of the buildings on the Gaylord property was already underwater when she arrived.

“Water was flowing around and through it. And there was Steve with one of the Opry audio engineers in a motorless johnboat fighting the current to get back to dry land after having worked to move valuables to higher ground,” she said.

As Buchanan worked in the boat, his own home flooded.

“I can replace my HVAC system,” he explained recently in an interview in his office, which overlooks the Cumberland. “I can’t replace Minnie Pearl’s shoes. For all of us, it was devastating.”

A group including Buchanan and and about 14 others went to several buildings, including the Opry Museum, working to move prized, historic possessions into what they thought were safe zones until water threatened to trap them at about 11 p.m.

Buchanan then went to the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, which had been evacuated, to shut down WSM’s studios and then to McGavock High School, where guests and staff had been moved.

“I stayed at the school for a few hours helping them,” he said. “I went to Kroger and spent more money than I had ever spent there buying supplies for them like Styrofoam coolers and bread. Then I went home for a couple of hours, and (the next morning the complex) had completely flooded.”

Buchanan teared up as he recalled the devastation. He said the first thing he did the next day was get on the phone with an executive at Tennessee Performing Arts Center to find a place to have the Tuesday night Opry. The show went on at the TPAC-managed War Memorial Auditorium downtown.

“The Opry has been continually broadcast since 1925, and what that represents to who we are as a city and a community and a fabric of our culture, it was really important to forge on,” he said.

The flood gave Buchanan a “clean slate” for redesigning the Opry House and serves as a pivotal moment in the building’s history.

“The Opry House had never gotten so much respect,” he said. “The Ryman had always gotten all of the love, and it was cool to see the Opry House get the respect that it deserved after 36 years.”

With full financial and visionary support from Ryman Hospitality Properties CEO Colin Reed, Buchanan helped spearhead the renovations. The work turned the backstage into what Buchanan feels is “one of the most comfortable, welcoming backstages in any theater in any venue in the world.”

Birthing ‘Nashville’

Within months of that project’s completion, Buchanan was pitching a concept for what is now ABC’s “Nashville” to television executives in California. He wanted a show focused on music that seamlessly incorporated live performance into the plot.

Buchanan had hired former Lyric Street label head Randy Goodman as a consultant for a variety of projects, and Goodman clearly remembers a lunch during which Buchanan handed him an outline on what would become “Nashville.”

“He said, ‘Talk me out of this. Tell me I’m crazy,’ ” Goodman recalled.

In the summer of 2011, Goodman traveled with Buchanan to Los Angeles for the first pitch meetings, and both “were astonished” by the positive reception from Creative Artists Agency (CAA). The pilot was shot in Nashville in March and April of 2012.

Buchanan got the call that “Nashville” was going to be picked up in May 2012 while he was moving his parents into their new Nashville home. His wife, Ree, picked up a bottle of Champagne, and the four of them toasted with plastic cups over cardboard boxes.

Goodman got the call soon after and described Buchanan as “giddy”: “He couldn’t control himself. It was really a uniquely exciting moment.”

Two months later, Buchanan showed the pilot to Country Music Association board members during a meeting. He cites that as another of his proudest moments.

“People came up to me and were like, ‘Wow, it’s really good,’ ” he recalled. “People then admitted that they were very skeptical. I was surprised. And I think that it’s because there are so many movies and television projects where ultimately as a community and an industry we are disappointed with how we are represented because we feel like we are stereotyped with dated perceptions or images.”

For Buchanan, the most important point was that his colleagues “feel good about how we are representing the music industry and the city.”

“I always couch that by saying, ‘It’s not a documentary,’ ” he said. “We’re not striving for an exact representation.”

As a part of his job as “Nashville” executive producer, Buchanan spends a lot of time with writers in Los Angeles to make sure they have a strong understanding of Nashville and its country music community. And when the show started officially taping, Buchanan also helped the cast and crew integrate themselves into daily life in Music City.

Charles Esten, who plays Deacon Claybourne on the show, said Buchanan invited him and other cast members to his home to watch the first episodes and even hosted a yard-games party.

“He became the face of Nashville to me,” Esten said. “I didn’t realize how deeply his roots were in the town. Steve is extremely — it sounds weak — but kind and gracious. And kind and gracious doesn’t do it. He’s also really unassuming. You wouldn’t know the position he holds and the things he’s in charge of, and you certainly would never hear it come from his lips.”

Goodman said that whether Buchanan realized it or not, making “Nashville” reality required Buchanan to pull from all of the skills he has acquired since his first job as the Opry’s marketing manager.

“Steve is a great leader, and he’s really good at bringing different teams of people together to meet a common goal,” Goodman said. “Moving the ‘Nashville’ project down the path, what kind of music should be involved and walking the line that it be commercial enough that it appeal to the country consumer, but not so commercial enough that it lacks artistic integrity. I think that because that’s something he has to deal with with the Opry year in and year out.” … whether he understood it or not, all that experience came to bare in a very unique and successful way for him in the television show.”

Since accepting that first job, the bulk of Buchanan’s decades-long career has been driven by one thing: keeping the Grand Ole Opry healthy.

“It’s like, ‘This is the window of Ryman. And this is the window of “Nashville.” And this is the window of the flood, which was 5½ months,’ ” Buchanan said. “But the thing that has a much longer gestation period is the thing that we’ve tried to do to make the Opry as vibrant as possible. I believe that the Opry has had a greater impact on defining this city than anything else. Nothing comes close.”

But he’s not about to take sole credit.

“I think most things in life are about the efforts of many,” Buchanan said. “I feel like that for all of the key milestones I’ve experienced personally and professionally, it’s always been about the people that were involved and a part of that experience.”

His team, he said, includes Williams, Fisher, vice president of marketing for Opry Entertainment Group Barb Shades and his wife Ree, who he said “influences me in outlook, ideas and trying to made good decisions.”