I remember going to see the Grand Ole Opry as a boy. My father drove through the busy city of Nashville. I was five, he was thirty-six.
“Daddy,” I said, “Do you think that there will be anyone famous there?”
“Do I?” he said. “You better know it. There’s always famous people at the Opry, and famous ghosts, too.”
My daddy always was good with a ghost story.
“Why sure,” he said. “The ghost of Hank Williams, for one thing. And Hank Snow, and Lefty Frizzell… There’s always ghosts at the Opry.”
“Are they nice ghosts?”
“Depends on what?”
“On if you’re a nice little boy or not.”
“What happens if I’m not a nice little boy?”
“A ghost will swoop down from the rafters suck out your soul, and send you to Hell and make you listen to classical music for eternity.”
Daddy’s ghost stories always were a little offbeat.
Then he would laugh. My father had a laugh that sounded like Mister Ed.
My father and I walked into the amphitheater and were greeted by the smell of hotdogs and popcorn. I had the greatest evening of my life.
Men in ten-gallon hats. Women in rhinestones. Steel guitars, dueling fiddles, the sound of Keith Bilbrey’s silky announcing voice.
We were suspended from the real world for a while. It was a star-studded dream, wrapped in a beehive hairdo, with a guitar strapped to its chest. Onstage we saw Jerry Clower, telling jokes.
My father laughed, slapping his armrest. And there was that Mister Ed laugh again. His odd laugh was funnier than any joke that ever inspired it.
But the height of our evening was not the music, nor the laughs, nor the sparkling rhinestones. The apex of this memory happened after the show.
We made our way to the lobby. There was a horde of people waiting in line. We couldn’t see what they were excited about. Maybe the president was in town. Or even better, George Jones.
When we got closer, I saw her. It was Minnie Pearl. The price tag on her hat dangled from the brim. Her voice was unmistakable.
Soon, we were standing in line to meet her. When she saw my father, she kissed him right on the cheek.
My father was so dumbfounded he could only mumble her classic one-liner. I heard him say to her, “I-I-I’m just so proud to be here.”
Minnie laughed and answered, “Hey, that’s MY line, Sugar.”
Sugar. She called my daddy Sugar. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.
Anyway, not long after my twenty-fifth birthday, I had a bad week. No, make that a bad year. I lost my job, and my confidence, and I was starting to feel pretty sorry for myself.
If my father had been alive, maybe I would have asked him for advice. Maybe he would’ve given me a beer and assured me that everything would be okay. Maybe he could have treated me to that Mister Ed laugh one more time.
But life doesn’t work that way. So I left one morning for a three-day trip to Tennessee. It was just me, an overnight bag, and some Chili Cheese Fritos.
That Saturday night, I paid a few bucks to sit in a balcony at Opryland and become part of a dream.
The lights dimmed. I felt myself tapping my foot with downhome music. The folks onstage were the sort I’d grown up admiring. They were the kind who used more hairspray than allowed by the EPA. People who played fiddles like they’d been born with bows up their noses.
One woman wore so many rhinestones she looked like an aircraft landing light with a two-dollar perm.
Afterward, I exited through the lobby feeling a little better than before. That’s when I saw a crowd gathered. I couldn’t see who they were swarming.
Maybe it was the president. Or even better, George Strait.
I waited to get a better look, but I never got close enough. So I turned to leave. On my way out, I was interrupted by a voice. It was a woman wearing a large hat with a price tag hanging from the brim. She locked eyes with me.
“Well, hey there,” Minnie Pearl said to me.
“Who me?” I said.
“Yes, you. Thanks for coming tonight, Sugar.”
I walked to my truck and felt like I was floating. And somehow within these moments I knew that no matter how crummy my life got, no matter how bad I screwed things up, everything would be all right.
And when I looked into the night sky, I saw the stars of Nashville, twinkling like rhinestones never could. And I could almost swear I heard Mister Ed laughing.
Well. I’m not as good with ghost stories as he was.