Forty years ago, I was a young journalist working at my first real job for Grit, a nationally circulated newspaper headquartered in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
Grit carried a lot of entertaining content, including feature stories on popular show-biz personalities.
Readers assumed that Grit sent staff reporters all over the world to interview stars and write articles about them. Actually, almost everything in Grit was written in-house using wire stories and other printed material — those were the days before the internet — or by free-lance writers from whom we purchased features.
So I was astounded when a Nashville publicity agent suggested I fly to Music City to do stories on several country music stars ... and Grit said YES!
The main reason for my trip was to interview Dolly Parton about her new TV show, “Dolly,” one of those syndicated country music programs we usedtoseeon localstations.
The Nashville agent, Charlene Bray, also set up interviews with Grand Ole Opry stars Jim Ed Brown and Dottie West and promised me a backstage pass to an Opry performance.
While Dolly Parton was wellknown in country music circles in 1976, she wasn’t the international star she is today. (It was probably my article about her in Grit that catapulted her to worldwide fame. Just kidding.) My trip was an incredible experience for a 24-year-old guy who loved country music, travel and meeting celebrities. It resulted in feature stories on Dolly, Dottie and Jim Ed and a longer article on the Grand Ole Opry, the longtime WSM radio show that fans can see and hear in person.
Charlene guided me around backstage at the Opry, a show where stars take turns in the spotlight as the program progresses and otherwise hang around chatting and sometimes jamming in their dressing rooms.
I remember meeting Roy Acuff, the “King of Country Music”; Hank Show, the “Singing Ranger,” and a very pregnant Barbara Mandrell. All are in the Country Music Hall of Fame now.
Dozens of stars performed on the Opry that night (as they do on every Opry performance), but my most vivid memories are of “Hee Haw’s” Archie Campbell shaking hands with fans who approached the stage as he performed his opening number, Jumpin’ Bill Carlisle actually jumpin’ as he sang and the “Grand Lady of the Grand Ole Opry,” Jean Shepard, exulting “Whew!” as she walked offstage after another crowd-pleasing appearance.
At the two tapings of “Dolly” that I attended, I met guest stars Jim Stafford (“Spiders and Snakes”) and Ronnie Milsap, the blind singer and pianist .
The production’s photographer offered to take my picture standing with Milsap, and I remember that when the camera flashed, Ronnie said to me, “Man, she’s gonna blind us yet!”
As Charlene and I left the studio after one of the tapings, it was snowing — a rare event in Nashville. I had rented a Ford Pinto to drive during mystay,and wastakingCharlene back to her office when traffic came to a halt on our snow-covered freeway.
The two- or three-inch snow had brought Nashville to a standstill, with semi-trailers jackknifed on the slippery highways and cars in ditches alongside the roads.
Southerner Charlene, who was not used to snow, told me she was glad I was driving since I had experience navigating highways during winter weather in Kansas and Pennsylvania.
But experience didn’t matter. After traffic came to a stop, Charlene and I were stuck in my Pinto for nearly five hours with nothing to do but talk.
I learned a lot about the country music industry that night.