I was a kid. The “Grand Ole Opry” had recently moved to Opryland. My old man was working in Spring Hill, Tennessee, building the GM plant. We were living nearby. It was a July evening and my father was young. Younger than I am now.
My father came home from work one evening, covered in soot and sweat. His red hair was a mess from wearing a welding helmet all day. He had raccoon eyes and the artificial sunburn that come from wearing goggles and holding an oxyacetylene torch.
He announced that we were going to the Opry. Just me and him. To see Ernest Tubb.
Mama dressed me in red Dennis-the-Menace overalls, a Willie Nelson T-shirt, and teeny Converse Chuck Taylors. Then she combed my hair with one of those black nylon hairbrushes that shredded your scalp and gave you a subdural hematoma.
We piled into my father’s truck. It was an F-100, forest green, with a welding-machine trailer attached to the back.
It was a 40-minute drive into Nashville proper. We entered the city. It was magnificent. The lights. The people wearing cowboy hats. The scent of French fries and pork fat in the air.
My father took me to get ice cream before the show. We sat outside on the curb and I spilled my vanilla on my Willie shirt. So he took my shirt off. I was bare chested beneath my little red overalls.
We pulled into the Opryland parking lot before showtime. We were walking into the building when a man approached my father. He had white hair. He was dressed in rags. He asked my father for money.
My old man never carried much money, for his own protection. Not protection against thieves, but protection against himself. “If I have money I’ll spend it,” he always said.
So he never carried much more than a few tens. He was a notorious tightwad. He was so tight, my mother said, that if you fed him King Arthur flour he would squirt No. 9 spaghetti out his backend.
My father gave the oldster a few bucks and apologized for not having more to give. Then he explained to the old man that he was taking his son to the Opry tonight, and that’s why he couldn’t give the rest of his cash.
The old man said he understood, and he started to walk away.
I could see the struggle on my father’s face. He told the man to wait. Then he opened his wallet and gave the man everything in it. I don’t remember how much it was, but I know that Opry tickets weren’t cheap. I know that during this era, roughly 2.5 million people visited the Opry annually and Opryland raked it in hand over spur.
I also know that on that particular night, as I say, Ernest Tubb was playing the Opry, and my father loved the Texas Troubadour something fierce.
The homeless man took the money and thanked my father. He swore to my father that he was going to use it to buy food. My father told him he didn’t care how he used it. He just wanted the man to know that he mattered.
The man walked away. My father and I walked into the opulent hotel like two beggars. We looked around, we oohed and ahhed.
There would be no show for us.
Daddy squatted on his bootheels and was about to explain to me why we couldn’t go see the performance. He was about to tell me that he was out of cash, and that we would not be seeing Keith Bilbrey, Jerry Clower, nor the Troubadour himself. No twin fiddles, no shouting “How-deeeee!” when Sarah Cannon took the stage in her price-tag hat.
So we just sat there in that hotel for a little while. A hick and his boy, admiring the velvet luxury and the gilded furniture.
We were about to leave when we passed a large group of finely dressed people in the lobby. We saw a man wearing a white hat and a blue Nudie suit with a red scarf.
When the entourage passed by, my father whisked me into his arms and nearly had a coronary event. He jogged right up to the man and shouted, “Sir, excuse me, sir!”
The man stopped.
My father said, “I just wanted to introduce you to my son. We love your music, sir.”
The man turned to look at us. He was tall. He had a large smile and crystalline eyes. The man said to me, in a baritone voice, “Nice to meet you, son.”
And he shook my little hand.
When the man left, I asked my father who that was.
My father said, “It doesn’t matter who that was. He’s no more important than the man in the parking lot. And don’t you ever forget it.”
I never did.