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Bill's success as a songwriter is equal to that of his recording career, as he wrote many of Connie's hits, including 'Once a Day' and 'Cincinnati, Ohio.' He received a Grammy nomination for the Steve Wariner song 'Two Teardrops,' and won CMA Vocal Event of the Year in 2001 with his song 'Too Country,' which was recorded by Brad Paisley, Buck Owens and George Jones. The next year Kenny Chesney cut 'A Lot of Things Different,' which Bill wrote with Dean Dillon.
In 2004, Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss recorded a song he penned with Jon Randall, 'Whiskey Lullaby.' 'Give It Away,' recorded by George Strait and co-written with Buddy Cannon and Jamey Johnson, won both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association Song of the Year honors in 2006 and 2007, respectively. In November 2002, BMI honored Bill as its first country songwriting Icon.
Bill took time out of a very hectic schedule to talk with The Boot about his celebration, special memories and how he views the Opry today. Not only will there a reception at the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday (July 16), 400 members of Bill's fan club are coming to Nashville from all over the world to help him celebrate the event. There will be a private dinner and show on Friday night, and on Saturday a special meet-and-greet will give the fans an opportunity to chat with Bill, get his autograph and have their picture taken with him. Then, on Saturday night they will all attend the 50th anniversary celebration at the Opry, where Bill will be honored with a reception backstage. "Sunday I plan to sleep in," Bill quips. "I'll be tired, but it will be a good tired."
What do you remember about the first time you stepped on the Opry stage?
I was on the Opry several times before they made me a member, but you never forget the first time you sing there. It was at the Ryman, in January 1959. I was on the 10:45 show -- they put me on real late at night -- and Porter Wagoner introduced me. I sang 'That's What It's Like to be Lonesome,' which was my first Decca record that came out the preceding fall. The reason I remember the date is that when I was doing some research for the new Bear Family set that they are getting ready to release on me, I found a copy of the first check I ever got from the Opry, for $12. It was dated January 1959.
How nervous were you?
I was looking for a wheelbarrow for somebody to put me in to wheel me out there, because I didn't think I could make it on my own two feet! [Laughs] I still sometimes can't really believe it. The first time I was on the Opry, it had been less than five years from the first time that my mother took me to the Opry when I was a teenager, to sit in the audience and see it. That was the summer of 1954. The first time I was on the Opry, I would have been 21.
As this anniversary approaches you must have a flood of memories coming back to you?
There are a lot of them. Of course, I remember the first night at the new Opry house, and the last night at the Ryman. I joke all the time about a fly going doing my throat, but that actually did happen to me at the Ryman. I was onstage singing, and it was way before the building was air-conditioned. The windows were open of course, and a bug flew down my throat while I was singing. I was choking and trying to keep on singing and one of Ernest Tubb's musicians, who was standing behind me, leaned over and said, "Let the bug sing!"
If I had to pick my most favorite moment ever, it would have been at the Ryman. I had my first No. 1 record, 'Mama Sang a Song,' and my mother and dad came up from Georgia, and I performed it and got a standing ovation. I cried like a baby. The song was written about my mother, and to have that whole thing coming down at one time, to be there in that building where they had brought me when I was a teenager, meant so much to me.
People speak of the Grand Ole Opry as a family. Do you think that has changed through the years?
It is a family, it always has been. Was it more so back then? I don't necessarily think so. The membership list was a little smaller. We were closer as a group but that was caused by a lot of things, like traveling in cars instead of buses. You get close under those circumstances. If nothing else it was a support group. You came home, you've had a rough week, your check bounced, and there was a group of people at the Opry who understood. You could go backstage and talk about it and they would nod their head and smile and say, "Yep, but let me tell you what happened to me." Someone could always top your story! There is a certain amount of that feeling there today, because we're all in this together.
Who are some of the folks you introduced to the Grand Ole Opry audience for the first time?
It all kind of runs together after a while, but of course Connie Smith was someone I introduced for the first time. I know I invited Brad Paisley to become a member of the Opry, and of course he teared up.
Do you think younger artists have the respect for the Opry today as artists did when you were coming on board?
I absolutely do, I feel it from a lot of them. Carrie Underwood has really floored me as to how many times she has performed at the Opry since she became a member. I said this the last time I introduced her, I said, "Here is this lady who could be on any stage in the world tonight, and here she is devoting this night to be on the Opry." I think I introduced her the first time.
Carrie, Brad, Vince [Gill], these are the people who will carry it on. I understand when the people can't come and be there a lot, because there were times in my career when I couldn't be there. You'd get that rare night off and all you might want to do is be home, but you'd feel the Opry tugging at you. If I was in Nashville on Saturday and not at the Opry, I'd feel guilty. Look at Trace Adkins, he's been there a ton. I'm not too sure every single artist respects the Opry, but there is a core that it definitely does. I'm really proud of that and pleased and happy to see it.
There has been controversy over the years about the number of times a person should perform on the Opry if they are a member. What do you think should be the minimum requirement for Opry members to perform each year?
I think the requirement right now is realistic. Now with the Tuesday night Opry, that counts. Everyone is not out touring on Tuesday, so they can make those mid-week shows. Sometimes I think the new people seem to show up and it's some of the ones who have been members longer who slack off and don't come. I think most of the new ones are conscientious, and they try to honor that commitment.
I've told Pete Fisher [Vice President and General Manager of the Opry] several times that I wouldn't have his job. It's tough to balance what he has to balance. He still has to have Jean Shepard, Jimmy Dickens, Bill Anderson, Jim Ed Brown, Jack Greene, but he also has to have the newer Opry members. The great nights at the Opry are when you have a perfect mix of old and new. That's when I've seen the audience most responsive. It's incredible to see young kids learn about us, and some of our older fans will look at these young singers and say, "Hey, they're pretty good. It's magic to me, you can feel something in the air when that happens.
Who do you think deserves to be the next member of the Grand Ole Opry?
I have no idea, that's way out of my department, out of my hands. I think they've done a pretty darn good job of identifying the people they've made members. I certainly don't want to try and do their job. I'm sure there will be some new Opry members, maybe before the year is over. I know they investigate it pretty thoroughly, and know the new member is willing to make that commitment, before they are asked to be a member.
Do you feel a change in the the mood or vibe backstage since the post-flood renovations?
It's quieter back there, because of the new décor. I think it absorbs the sound. We used to have metal lockers, and I think the sound reverberated. It feels much quieter, calmer, and it's a great feeling. They just outdid themselves with the renovation; they did a great job. Backstage they made it into a place that we really want to go and be and hang out. And what a great job they've done to make backstage a tourist attraction.
What do you see for the future of the Grand Ole Opry and the role it will play in country music?
I certainly have no reason to think that it won't be around. I certainly hope it is. I think people have tried to bury it, and it's always bounced back and kind of reinvented itself. I think as long as there are the Vince Gills, Brad Paisleys, Trace Adkins, people of that era that are devoted to the Opry and love the Opry, it will be here. When they're through touring or their traveling slows down, they'll have a home there. We all went through that. Many times I couldn't be there, but when I slowed down a little bit there was always the comfort of having that home to go to.
You never know in the corporate world what could happen, but if it's up to the public, the pickers and singers, the Opry will always be there. It's a one-of-a-kind thing, and you don't have to like country music to appreciate the Grand Ole Opry. It's a slice of Americana. I'm not a racing fan, but I got a kick out of going to the Indy 500 one time, because it is one-of-a-kind. That's part of the charm of the Opry.
Do you know what you'll sing Saturday night?
No, I can't say that I have absolutely decided. It would be hard not to sing 'Po' Folks,' the song that got me on the Opry. And it would be hard not to do 'Still,' which is the best-known song of my career. But when I walk out there, you never know.