Originally created 03/09/06

Country singer graciously shares his memorable night at the Opry



About 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17, country music legend Bill Anderson arrived backstage at the Grand Ole Opry to perform on the show, as he has done numerous times before.

It was a special night for him, though, because the Opry was being broadcast from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., where the Country Music Association Hall of Famer became an Opry cast member 45 years ago this July.

And it was a special night for me, because Mr. Anderson was letting me follow him around.

Entering the Ryman through an alley door that Hank Williams and Patsy Cline once used, I encountered receptionist Becky Sanders, who told me, "Bill's already here on the third floor in Dressing Room 6. He told me you were going to be his guest tonight."

I climbed the stairs and found Mr. Anderson alone, still wearing his black winter jacket. He said this dressing room was a tribute to Johnny Cash, who became an Opry cast member in 1956, the same year he met June Carter backstage at the Ryman. The walls of the dressing room are covered with photos and posters of Cash.

"So, where and when did you meet Johnny for the first time?" I asked.

"Right out there in the alley, when I still was a disc jockey in Commerce, Ga. I came up here in 1957 after being selected Mr. Disc Jockey U.S.A.,'' Mr. Anderson said.

"Johnny was getting in a taxi cab to take an overnight train to Chicago. I'll never forget: He had on a red sport coat, black pants and black and white two-tone shoes. He was not the Man in Black in those days.

"He was in a hurry, but when I told him I was Mr. D.J. U.S.A., he stopped to talk with me. He was nice to me, and we got to be good friends."

At 8 p.m., the curtain rose, with senior cast member Little Jimmy Dickens as the host for the first 30 minutes. He was joined by Opry members John Conlee and Tracy Byrd during that segment.

While that was taking place, Mr. Anderson was tracking down British rocker Elvis Costello, who was making his first Opry guest appearance.

"Elvis recorded my song, Must You Throw Dirt in My Face, and he told me that he is going to sing it on the Opry tonight," Mr. Anderson said.

When Mr. Dickens' portion ended, the heavy red curtain came down to prepare the stage for the next 30-minute segment, with Mr. Anderson as host.

Just before going on stage, Mr. Anderson - now wearing a dark-green stage jacket highlighted by black designs - introduced me to Opry staff band guitarist Kerry Marx, who had grwon up in Aiken. We talked about songwriters Archie Jordan, Niles Borop and Stewart Harris, also from Aiken.

When the curtain went up, Mr. Anderson was joined by Opry members Jeannie Seely, Riders in the Sky and The Whites.

With his Po Boys band, Mr. Anderson performed several songs, including Whiskey Lullaby, which he sang as a duet with his 21-year-old fiddler and backup vocalist, Kenzi Wetz. The song, written by Mr. Anderson and Jon Randall, won the Country Music Association's 2005 Song of the Year award in October.

After finishing the segment with his classic 1960s song (I Love) Bright Lights and Country Music and coming off stage, Mr. Anderson told me he had to leave for a late supper with songwriter Gary Nicholson.

"I'm going to listen to Elvis sing my song on the car radio," he told me. "Stay as long as you like."

The following 9 p.m. segment was conducted by Opry member Emmylou Harris. She was joined by guest artists Mr. Costello, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Sure enough, the first song Mr. Costello performed was Must You Throw Dirt in My Face, with great background harmony from Ms. Harris, Ms. Welch and Mr. Rawlings.

As I stood just off stage and watched them, I visualized Mr. Anderson somewhere in Nashville listening on his car radio and thought how appropriate that was.

About 10 p.m., I left the Ryman. As the cold wind hit me, I smiled, thinking of the wonderful and memorable night at the Opry, thanks to Bill Anderson.

Don Rhodes has written about country music for 35 years. He can be reached at (706) 823-3214 or at don.rhodes@morris.com.

Listen up

Hear Bill Anderson's Whiskey Lullaby from the CD The Way I Feel