Why Sept 01 Was Important to Taylor Swift…and How I Got There 30 Years Earlier

Taylor Swift’s first single, Tim McGraw, came out in late 2006 and I was not particularly impressed.  The single only dented the top 40 charts but did manage to reach #6 on the Country charts.  Her second single was a different story: Teardrops On My Guitar did impress me.  I showed the video to Beverly and told her that Taylor had the potential to be a major star.  As my daughter Claire used to put it, everybody else in the family felt I was musically challenged so Bevie just nodded and went back to working on her crossword puzzle (Bevie prefers alternative rock and jazz and jazz-rock fusion and pretty much anything that she thinks is so much cooler than the Pop and Country that I like to listen to).

Taylor’s first album went on to produce five top ten Country hits but it would be another two years before her career really exploded.

September 01, 2006 was Taylor’s first appearance singing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.  The original Grand Ole Opry was Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, and in 1974 the new and improved Grand Ole Opry was opened at Opryland.  The Grand Ole Opry broadcast live radio shows featuring Country music starting in 1925, and it’s hard to imagine that Taylor didn’t grow up in Nashville dreaming of the day she might finally perform there.  It looks like she only got to perform her first single that first time; her first album didn’t come out until over a month later.

While I may not have been there to hear her perform, I knew what it was like to perform on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry: I sang at a concert there about 30 years earlier.

Through most of the seventies, I lived in Nashville and worked for the company that owned WSM and the Grand Ole Opry and Opryland (National Life and Accident Insurance Company).  In addition to the Grand Ole Opry shows, the new Opry House presented a constant stream of concerts by almost any musical act you can think of and a great deal of other live shows.  Back in the early sixties, a group named the Lettermen had a string of hits.  They only had one top ten record on the Hot 100, but they made it to the top ten on the Adult Contemporary charts at least 16 times.  Various versions of the group have spent over fifty years performing on the concert circuit, initially on the campus circuit and more recently on the oldies circuit (including periodic visits to Branson).  At least one of the original members has been with the group continuously, although for one song I took his place!

Kathy (my first wife) and I usually spent Saturday nights playing Mahjong with Rick and Cathy Maurer.  When a Lettermen concert was announced for the Opry House, Rick and I decided to get tickets so the four of us could go together.  I picked up tickets immediately, and somehow we got tickets in the center of the first row (that was back when mere mortals could simply walk up to the ticket office and buy great tickets; don’t try this now, kids).

As usual at concerts, I sat there and sang along with each song, probably matching the singers word for word.  After a few songs, Tony Butala came down into the audience with a microphone and invited several people to sing a few words from various songs.  There was lots of nervous laughter and off-key entertainment, and then he got to me.  He asked me to sing I Can’t Help Falling In Love, a song that was a big hit for Elvis.  At first, he simply held the mike in front of me, and then he handed me the mike and had me stand up and walk along to sing to several of the people in the front row.  Finally, I was instructed to get up on stage!  Tony sat down next to Kathy, and one of the other Lettermen handed me a Letterman jacket to put on, and we continued to sing the entire rest of the song.

I was a little surprised on the stage because unless the house lights were on you couldn’t see past the first few rows.  No wonder Tony picked on me – I was one of the few people he could see in the audience, and he got to sit in the audience with his arm around Kathy (who was smiling and laughing excitedly).

If you’ve almost anything I’ve ever written, you probably won’t be surprised that I couldn’t help clowning around while we sang.  Without missing a note, I somehow managed to spend time:

  • searching the pockets of the jacket to see if they were empty.
  • kidding the singer on the right when one of us started singing in the wrong key (I swear it wasn’t me, it had to be that would-be professional!)
  • holding one of the final notes for about forever until one of them slapped me on the back to break me out of the note.
  • joking about being paid scale to sing (Tony mumbled something about fish in response).

After I finished and the applause faded, the house lights came up and Tony wandered further back into the audience and found a woman with the voice of an angel and let her sing a song.  Great fun, but I hardly noticed anything the rest of the night. Iit was a once in a lifetime event for me – for a brief moment in time I was almost a rock star.

Taylor?  She probably gets to sing at the Opry any time she wants to now.  If I ever see her live I’ll probably hope she sits down with her guitar and no other backup and sings Teardrops On My Guitar.  Even if she doesn’t the crowd will probably love the show.

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