NASHVILLE — Steve Buchanan would prefer that people pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. It’s easier to work his magic 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. Paisley appeared on Nashville in January.
"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."
‘An amazing passion’
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.
Like his parents, Buchanan went to Vanderbilt University. 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."
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.
Marketing the Opry
Buchanan’s stint at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Business gave Buchanan confidence, and after graduation in 1985, Buchanan accepted a position as the Grand Ole Opry’s first marketing manager.
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. Buchanan described it as "a very difficult time" because Opry attendance was in decline as its 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. His team was able to "turn the Opry around."
"It was critical that we changed 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."
The show goes on
The flood of 2010 caused deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in Tennessee. The Grand Ole Opry House suffered major damage as the nearby Cumberland River spilled over its banks.
Sally Williams, vice president, business and partnership development for the Opry Entertainment Group and general manager of Ryman Auditorium, recalled that one of the buildings on the Gaylord property was already under water when she arrived.
"Water was flowing around and through it. And there was Steve with one of the Opry audio engineers in a motorless jon boat fighting the current to get back to dry land after having worked to move valuables to higher ground," she said.
Buchanan teared up as he recalled the devastation. But the flood also 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."
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 in the summer of 2011, Goodman traveled with Buchanan to Los Angeles for the first pitch meetings. Both "were astonished" by the positive reception from Creative Artists Agency. 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, music publisher Ree Guyer, picked up a bottle of Champagne, and the four of them toasted with plastic cups over cardboard boxes.
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."
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 — 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."
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 5 1/2 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."