Even when I get really mad at the country music industry for selling its soul and producing a bunch of Barbie and Ken clones in tight leather pants with achy-breaky voices, singing inane tunes about how sensitive they all are, I still harbor love for the real thing -- country music that celebrates manual dexterity on the strings of a fiddle, a guitar or a banjo; country music that moans about cheating, drinking, leaving or being left behind; country music that honors Mama, wears polyester pants stretched over a pot belly, deplores fashion and yearns always toward home.
Country music was a real and natural part of my life growing up, living always within the reach of the WSM airwaves and the Saturday night broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry from Nashville. And sometimes country music rubbed elbows with real life in unexpected ways.
My best friend was a beautiful, willful girl named Lynn, granddaughter of Sam McGee, half of the original duo Sam and Kirk McGee, one of the earliest string bands to be a part of the Opry. Some Saturdays, I'd ride in Lynn's mother's station wagon from Bowling Green, Kentucky to Franklin, Tenn., where we'd have dinner on her granddaddy's farm before driving on to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The Opry was broadcast in half-hour sets and we'd arrive just before Sam and Kirk were due to go on. We sat on hard wooden pews on the wings of the stage, just beyond the curtain.
One Saturday night, a nice old man in a spangled suit asked me if I'd hold his fiddle while he pulled on his cowboy boots. I did, then handed him a paper napkin, asking for his autograph. He signed it, then passed it to the group of musicians he was standing around talking to. They passed it back to me. I saved it in a box of memorabilia and discovered it years later when I was packing to move away from home for the first time. The signatures were: Tex Ritter, Loretta Lynn and Roy Acuff.
Eighth grade, Jackson, Tennessee. I get to know a quiet girl with champagne-colored hair who's one of the smartest people in my science class. She keeps to herself, is really nice, doesn't mingle much with the crowd so busy trying to collect friends and have fun. It isn't until after I've left Jackson and moved to Memphis that I realize what sets her apart from the rest of us -- her father is Carl Perkins. In Jackson, he was her father. In Memphis, he is a legend.
High school, Memphis. My best friend David and I leave the city and drive to the countryside every Friday night where we sit in a hot community center eating poundcake and drinking black coffee, listening to some of the sweetest bluegrass music ever made. Two shy teen-agers, The Morton Twins, Greg on guitar and Randall on banjo, bring down the house every week with their breakneck picking.
One night David and I drive to Nashville to see the Rolling Stones in concert. When David's daddy's car breaks down after the show, we have to spend the night at an all-night garage off lower Broadway. Wandering down a side street at about 2 a.m., we hear the haunting resonance of a strange sounding guitar, coming from a sign painting company. The door is open so we walk on in. A round old man with freckles on his bald head is bent over a shiny guitar with a silver pie plate over its center, stretched across his knees. His son is busy painting a sign. The old man's name is Tut Taylor. Some say he's the greatest Dobro picker that ever lived.
Many years later, more grown-up than I ever wanted to be, the mother of four children, including two rambunctious 2-year-olds, I am wrestling my kids through breakfast one morning at our favorite Nashville restaurant, The Pancake Pantry. We come here often and I watch the constant parade of country music executives, session musicians and the occasional star. One morning Lyle Lovett sits nearby, whispering across the table to a sleepy-eyed Vanderbilt coed following a concert on the college campus the night before.
This morning, the twins are bouncing up and down in the vinyl booth, reaching across the back and, with their sticky little hands, messing up the hair of the people sitting on the other side. I scold and correct them. They stop for a while, then get wound up again.
"Don't bother those people," I say.
A petite, gray-haired man with bushy eyebrows stands up and walks around the booth to pat the twins on the head.
"Don't worry, honey," he says as he puts on his cowboy hat. "They ain't bothering me." A woman in a church-going suit takes him by the elbow. They smile and wave as they walk away.
He is the King of the Grand Ole Opry, Mr. Roy Acuff. On his arm is Miss Kitty Wells.