The radio played George Jones at the barbecue joint where I ate lunch. I was eating Saint Louis ribs. Overhead, George Jones sang “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
Whenever George sings the opening lyrics to this tune, a chill dances up my spinal column and I get sentimental. Immediately, I remember sitting in my father’s truck cab, wearing my Little League uniform, listening to the staticky AM station.
I glanced around the barbecue joint to make sure I wasn't being watched during my musical moment. Then I dabbed my chin with a napkin and helped George remember the words.
I write a lot about old country music, and I’m sure the subject gets tiresome. But I do this for an important and well-planned reason:
Because I don’t have to do any actual research.
But also, because if you and I don’t keep these timeless melodies alive, who will?
As a boy, my family drove great distances to support the cause of Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff. We paid good money to watch Roy tear up his
apple-tree fiddle and crack jokes alongside Sarah Cannon. Ernest Tubb was still making appearances at the Opry when I was a babe. And I don’t want to let all that go.
The idiocy they’re cranking out on the radio today simply cannot compare to the country tunes of yore.
Classic country is folk art. Plain and simple. It is subtle lyricism based on a two-beat bassline, a steel-stringed rhythm section, and bottled malt beverages. This music was the poetry of stick welders, sharecroppers, and coal miners’ kids. And it’s ours.
When Loretta Lynn sang “Blue Kentucky Girl,” you weren’t merely listening to a radio. You were listening to one of your own take the microphone. This is why whenever Willie sang “You Took My Happy Away,” your daddy’s allergies always acted up.
I don’t mean to be critical, but new country is an embarrassment…
It all started in Georgia. There was a turtle blocking the highway. It was an old, rural highway. Two lanes. Way out in the sticks.
The turtle was the size of a tea saucer. And it wasn’t moving. The turtle sat on the yellow line, head inside its shell. Cars sped by faster than Chuck Yeager on a beer run. And yet the turtle—somehow—had not yet been crushed.
The year was 1991. Bill had just graduated college. He stopped to rescue the turtle, and flagged down traffic. He lifted the creature into his hands and marched it over to the shoulder.
He placed the creature in the grass and told the turtle to “Go home, little guy.”
But the turtle did not go home. The turtle turned and began walking toward the highway again.
So Bill decided to—why not?—take the turtle home. He had never owned a pet before. He was a 19-year-old guy, and his main hobby at the time was Budweiser.
He named the turtle Skidmark. But everyone called the turtle “Mark” for short.
was great fun at parties. They’d take him out of his aquarium and watch him wander through the apartment. Bill’s friends would balance beer cans on his shell, or slices of pizza, and let the turtle wander from room to room, making special deliveries.
Raising a pet had challenges. Bill had to learn how to feed Mark properly. Turtle care was not something they covered at the University of Georgia.
At first Bill was feeding his turtle Ritz crackers and cheese. But then he started reading books, and he soon realized that turtles very rarely eat Ritz crackers in the wild.
So he started feeding Mark sardines and turtle pellets.
Time marched on. Mark became a major part of Bill’s everyday life. Bill even took Mark on long trips with him.
“I took Mark to Rhode Island once, Texas, California, and Quebec.”
Doctors thought Mason Martin would never make it out of the hospital alive. It was almost a foregone conclusion. A kid like that, with injuries like that. It was only a matter of time.
Mason Martin. A 17-year-old high-school quarterback who was in critical condition a few weeks ago. It all started in Karns City, Pennsylvania, when something bad happened at a football game.
Karns City High School was playing Redbank Valley High School. Redbank was winning. The score was 35-6. It was a bloodbath. And that’s when Mason took a bad hit.
In the third quarter, the referee saw Mason get creamed. Shortly thereafter, the kid was staggering on the field, moving in zig-zags.
“I had to talk to him,” said the referee, “and when I asked if he was alright, he told me, ‘No.’ So that’s when I knew something was wrong.”
The boy collapsed on the field. The game was called off. And Mason was rushed to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh. Mason was suffering a brain bleed and a
collapsed lung. It was bad.
“The truth is we need a miracle,” Mason’s mother said. “I’m not saying that to sound grim, but to let you know that we need the strength of your prayers.”
Within days of the event, people were praying. All over the globe, they were praying. The news circulated via social media. People all over the world were offering up prayers for his deliverance.
I wrote about Mason, and within hours, I had received messages from readers in Kenya, Shanghai, Russia. “We’re praying for Mason,” they wrote. One man from Dubai wrote: “نحن نصلي من أجل ميسون.”
Mason began receiving letters from all over the planet. But for weeks, we heard nothing.
Naysayers messaged me. One man in Dayton, Washington, wrote to me, “I wish you wouldn’t give people false hope, prayer doesn’t work. I just can’t stand to see people…
Today, I watched “The Andy Griffith Show” all day long. I had the day off, so I visited Mayberry.
I started with the very first episode, when Andy welcomes Aunt Bea to Mayberry. I watched a handful of others until it was time for bed. The last episode I watched was the one where Barney joins the choir. A classic.
Over the last twelve hours, I’ve seen it all. I watched the Mayberry Bank almost get robbed—twice. I’ve seen Barney muff things up with Thelma Lou. I tasted Aunt Bea’s god-awful pickles.
And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, Andy taught Opie to stand up to a bully.
During my childhood, the Andy Griffith Show came on the local station every weekday at five o’clock. Our TV only got three channels, and two of the stations came in fuzzy.
So I watched Andy Griffith each afternoon until I’d practically memorized the dialogue, the closing credits, and even the commercials between segments.
Commercials like the one with Coach Bear Bryant advertising for South
Central Bell. “Have you called your mama today?” Bear would say. “I sure wish I could call mine.”
And the advertisements which all featured some unfortunate kid named Mikey, eating Life cereal at gunpoint.
And of course, there was the commercial with “Mean” Joe Greene, tossing his sweaty football jersey into the face a child who was offering him a Coca-Cola.
My childhood was not an easy one. After my father took his own life, I was a lonely boy who watched a lot of TV. I think I was trying to escape my own world by living inside a console television set. I enjoyed all the classic reruns.
“Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke,” “Twilight Zone,” “I Love Lucy,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Batman,” and I pledged my eternal love to Barbara Eden. “The Beverly Hillbillies” were okay in a pinch. “Green Acres” was okay. And the “Partridge Family”? Gag…
I am walking my blind dog in a public park. We are on one of those community tracks. There are people exercising everywhere.
Joggers. Walkers. A few cyclists. One woman is power walking, wearing earbuds, having an animated phone conversation, talking to an invisible person. She looks like she is hallucinating.
My dog, Marigold, and I have been working on walking a lot lately. It’s not easy, walking. We have very few “good walks” inasmuch as walking in a straight line is nigh impossible when you can’t see.
So mainly, we walk in zig-zags until both of us are dizzy and one of us needs a carbonated malt beverage.
When I near the tennis courts, I meet a woman with a little girl. They are sitting on a bench. The girl sees my dog and she is ecstatic.
“Look at the pretty dog!” the kid says.
So I introduce the child to Marigold. Immediately the child senses there is something different about this animal.
“What’s wrong with your dog?” the kid asks.
“She is blind,” I say.
The child squats until she is eye level
“How did this happen?” the girl asks.
I’m not sure what I should say here. So I keep it brief.
“Someone wasn’t nice to her,” I say.
The kid is on the verge of tears. “What do you mean?”
This is where things get tricky. I don’t know how much of Marigold’s biography I should reveal. Because the truth is, Marigold was struck with a length of rebar, by a man in Mississippi who purchased her as a hunting hound.
“She was abused,” I say.
The little girl’s face breaks open. The girl presses her nose against Marigold’s dead eyes. She feels the dog’s fractured skull with her hands.
“Oh, sweet baby,” the child says.
That’s when I notice the mottled scars on the child’s neck. They look like major burns. I say…
I arrive at the Grand Ole Opry with my guitar case in hand. Sound check is in an hour. I am parked beside a tour bus in the parking lot that is approximately the size of a rural school district.
The bus is rumbling. I have no idea which famous person is inside. The windows are tinted with roofing tar. A bodyguard stands before the bus. This man wears a stern look on his face which suggests he either suffers from life-threatening constipation, or he enjoys it.
A guard leads me past metal detectors before entering the building. In the backstage lobby, a ginormous portrait of Minnie Pearl hangs. And that’s when it starts to sink in.
You are at the Opry.
You are remembering when your mother told you, a long time ago, that God had a great sense of humor. In fact, he was the one who invented comedy. And he invented it so life, even when it was full of sorrow and soreness, would still be interesting.
I think I’m starting to understand this.
backstage liaison is an older woman named Lemonade. She wears a headset microphone, and leads me through a labyrinth of halls.
“Here is your dressing room, Mister Dietrich,” says Lemonade.
“Mister Dietrich has been dead for 30 years,” I say. “My name is Sean.”
“Is there anything else you need? Sean?”
“No, thank you.”
“Really? Usually performers have a long list of specific needs. You don’t need anything?”
“Well, there is one thing.”
“Can I get my picture made with you?”
Soundcheck is surreal. You walk out there, on stage, into an empty arena and it starts to settle in your brain. You’re at the Grand Ole Opry. You.
A circular section of wood lies centerstage, a WSM microphone perched before it. The wooden circle consists of chewed up floorboards, scuffed by one century of boots and high heels. Roy Rogers.…
The radio was on. WSM 650 AM. It was a summer night. The crickets were out. The garage door was open.
Daddy was changing the oil. He was lying beneath the Ford. I was sitting there, watching him work. Because that’s what kids did before TikTok.
The garage was peppered with posters of fighter jets, and model airplanes. My father was obsessed with planes. All kinds. He wanted to be a fighter pilot as a boy. But he was deaf in his left ear. So he became an ironworker.
His voice came from beneath the car. “Be a pal and get me another one from the fridge?”
He wasn’t talking about Coca-Cola. He wanted another bottle of Weekend Lubricant. I didn’t have far to walk. The fridge was beside his workbench. Our family’s beer fridge was always kept in the garage because we were Baptist.
I fetched another bottle. I handed it to my old man, who slid from beneath the car on one of those slider things with the wheels.
was still wearing work clothes. Denim. Boots. He was still covered in soot from a day of welding column splices. It was Saturday. He had worked overtime, but still somehow had energy enough to cut the grass, paint the shed, and change the oil after work. Just how he was.
“Turn up the radio, Opie,” he said.
He called me that because I had red hair. Although the truth was, I was pretty chubby and looked nothing like Ron Howard. In fact, I looked more like I had eaten Opie Taylor.
The radio was playing the Grand Ole Opry. The garage swelled with the sounds of steel guitars and twin fiddles.
My father discovered that I was a musical child from a young age. I was 4 when he marched me into the music minister’s office and said, “My boy can sing. I want you to learn him…
“Hi, Sean…” the letter began—people are always calling me that. “...I just read your article in the newspaper about angels!
“No offense, but I laughed the whole way through. I wasn’t laughing with you, I was laughing AT you! I cannot believe in the 21st Century, humans still believe in angels. It’s stupid. I’ll take my answer off the air.”
I love it when people say “no offense.” It’s a lot like when the doctor tells you to drop your trousers, then he flicks his syringe and says, “You won’t feel a thing.”
The truth is, friend, I used to doubt the existence of angels, too. But then I realized I was in the minority.
Did you know that nearly eight out of every 10 Americans believe in angels? For the math challenged, that’s a whole dang lot of people. When it comes to global figures, seven out of 10 humans believe in angels.
This is remarkable when you figure that only 33 percent of humans classify themselves as Christian; 10 percent
are Protestant, and only 3 percent call themselves SEC fans.
What I’m getting at is that more humans agree on the existence of angels than they do on any other topic, with the exception of their mutual hatred of Miracle Whip.
I know this is true from first hand experience. When I started writing this column, about a decade ago, I was much more handsome, and my metabolism was like a hummingbird’s.
But also, back then I was on the fence about angels. This all changed when I wrote my first column about the supernatural, based on stories sent in by readers.
After the column ran in our local paper, my inbox was flooded with angel stories. The stories have kept coming in from all over the U.S. Just this week, I have received nearly 40 stories on angels. They have come from people all over. Including Canada.…
Late afternoon. The grocery store was busy. It was a big weekend, hurried customers played demolition derby with shopping carts.
I saw two young men shopping together. Their basket was overflowing with bachelor food. Microwave dinners, hotdogs, potato chips, Mick Ultra, spray cheese.
The youngest man was wearing cargo shorts. His right leg was disfigured. Below the knee, his leg was mostly shinbone without any visible muscle, covered in scars.
I followed the men around the supermarket because I am a writer, and writers are intrusive people.
When they reached the self-checkout lane, I was a few customers behind them in line.
An old man approached the men. They had a brief conversation. I tried to listen to their words but their voices were too quiet.
The only thing I heard the elderly man say was: “Where were you stationed?”
“Afghanistan,” the young man answered. Also, I heard the words, “ambush,” “explosion,” and “physical therapy.”
When the young men finished scanning items, the old man removed his wallet and swiped his credit card.
The young men tried
to stop him, but they were too slow. The man replaced his wallet, then winked at them and said, “You snooze, you lose, fellas.”
I can still see that old man when I close my eyes. Some things stick with you, I guess.
Just like the time I saw an elderly woman in Franklin, Tennessee. Her car wouldn’t start. Three men from inside the gas station rushed to help her.
They were large men with long beards, dirty clothes, and work boots. They crawled over her car until they figured out the problem beneath the hood.
“It’s her serpentine belt!” one man finally shouted.
That was all it took. They leapt into their truck and left. After a few minutes, they returned with a new belt from the auto parts store.
The woman tried to pay them, but they refused. I heard one…