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SMITH: A lot of country gold passes backstage at the Opry

Loran Smith

Loran Smith

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, Little Jimmy Dickens, age 88, is always cracking jokes, just like he has done on stage for more than six decades.

The "Riders in the Sky" were harmonizing, and Vince Gill was vocalizing and subsequently singing the praises of Bob Wolcott, a former Bulldog golfer who gives him golf lessons. Holly Williams, with long flowing blond hair -- the granddaughter of the legend himself, Hank Williams -- was there along with an up-and-coming group called Steel Magnolia, veteran performer Stonewall Jackson and the Opry square dancers.

In dressing room No. 11, Bill Anderson had gathered his six-member band to rehearse -- five guys and a brunette. I took a particular interest in three members. Vocalist James Freeze, drummer Cotton Payne and violinist Kemzie Wetz. Bill often introduces his competent vocalist as the son of "Tasty Freeze." If Kemzie, dressed in black, isn't the prettiest violinist in country music, I'd climb the highest mountain to see the one who could outrank her.

Cotton, with a crop of white hair, got my attention during rehearsal. He had a suitcase on wheels, used its frame as a drum, and led the band into rehearsal. "One, two, one, two," he grinned softly and tapped his drum brushes against his makeshift drum. I've always wondered why drummers aren't exceptional athletes. They have the most conspicuous hand-eye-foot coordination: both hands doing two different routines with the drumsticks, the right foot thumping the bass drum and the left engaging the cymbals.

Backstage, people come and go -- artists, stage hands, technicians, and guests of all of the above -- without direction or orchestration, very much akin to rush hour at Grand Central Station. Nobody becomes frustrated or edgy. Just polite, "'Scuse me, pleases" as they come and go, sometimes hurried, but always in measured control.

Guests invited backstage sit on aging church-style pews, which begged for June Carter and Johnny Cash to appear and warm hearts with "Will the Circle be Unbroken?" Johnny Cash, in his all-black ensemble, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Minnie Pearl have all gone to that Grand Ole Opry in the sky, but the Opry continues to fill up its 4,400-seat auditorium most weekend nights yearround.

Anderson, the Decatur native with a journalism degree from the University of Georgia, now qualifies as the mayor of the Opry. When he's in town, he's here. He's got time for everybody. A silver-haired lady politely smiles and asks, "Whisperin' Bill, would you sign this picture?"

As he obliges, she is aglow. "I love your music. I listen to you all the time back home."

When it comes to courtesy in scenes like this, the grand ole Bulldog can't be out done. "Thank you, ma'am," and then gives her a polite hug. He has just made her day.

He's never short tempered, even with the fan at some venue in the Midwest who exclaimed to him, "My daddy got the guitar you threw in the trash, and I'm still playing it." Bill's reply, "Well, not exactly. I've never thrown away a guitar in my life. They are too expensive."

Then, "Oh, yes you did. My daddy saw you throw it in a Dumpster and went it got it."

"What good does it do to stand the guy down that he is dead wrong? Just let him believe what he wants and move on," Bill grins, taking the attitude that "the customer is always right."

In addition to his popularity as a country performer, Bill is highly regarded for his songwriting, dating back to his No. 1 hit "City Lights." But because he has music in his soul, you'll likely find him at the Opry when, like Little Jimmy Dickens, he's 88.

It will never go unnoticed that Bill Anderson, who worked as a DJ at WGAU -- owned by candlelight and silver aficionado Randolph Holder -- slipped on a country platter one night. Randolph promptly fired him. What happened next is legend in music circles in northeast Georgia.

Randolph got a license for an FM signal, went on the air with WNGC (North Georgia Country), and became rich off country music -- a classic story in the Classic City.

Loran Smith is co-host of "The Tailgate Show" and sideline announcer for Georgia football. He is also a freelance writer and columnist.