Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Most Impressive Man in Nashville

The night air hung hot and humid, the thick darkness punctuated by the occasional soft flicker of a firefly. Hanging light bulbs glowed in the huge tent “green room,” where the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders laughed and talked, waiting their turn to perform. From an open doorway of the nearby auditorium came the booming bass lines of the Oakridge Boys. And in the truck alongside, audio engineers monitored levels, as two massive machines spun reels of 24-track audio tape, locked in synch with each other and the video.

I checked my watch as the Boys resolved their final chord, the bass vocal sliding down the scale, Gospel style, an octave below what was expected, or even thought possible. Nine P.M. We had been at it since morning, and there were still several numbers to tape. The show was Nashville Palace, an NBC series being produced at Opryland, with a star-studded line-up that included Mickey Gilley, Hank Williams, Jr., and other top names from the world of Country Music.

The tight harmonies brough
t a smile, and I almost forgot how hot and tired I was. My body felt caked with dust, my hands grimy from handling mic cables, and my throat was parched. Offstage, out of camera view, I sensed an old man standing to my side. I wasn’t sure how long he had been there; he seemed to just blend into the backstage clutter. Coveralls, well-worn work shoes and an old denim shirt. Standard custodian attire. His weathered face was turned to me, and a pair of kind old eyes seemed to speak, even before his lips moved.

“Don’t know as I’ve s
een you here,” he drawled. “What do you do?” And I told him the company I worked for made the microphones and stage monitor speakers. I was there to see how they were being used, gain input for marketing and product development, and build relationships with important users.

The old man’s eyes lit up with interest, and he asked me more questions about myself and my work, listening intently to every word. When I commented on the heat and humidity of Nashville, he looked concerned and said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I should have realized you must be thirsty. Would you like some lemonade?”

“You have no idea how good that sounds,” I said.

“Well c’mon, then,” and I followed him through a backstage door, into a long hallway. I expected to find a serving cart there, with refreshments for the crew. But instead the old man led me into a large, well-appointed office. The walls were covered with autographed pictures, plaques, gold and platinum records. And I immediately thought, “Boy, are we going to get in trouble.”

A large cherry desk stood at the end of the office; alongside it against the wall, a matching credenza. Seemingly unconcerned about whose territory we were trespassing upon, my new friend picked up a sweating pitcher of cold lemonade from a tray on the credenza, and poured me a glass. I thanked him and waited while he poured one for himself. My body was immediately renewed by the cold refreshing treat.

As we emptied our glasses, I thanked him. And still a little nervous about getting caught in some recording executive’s office, I suggested that they must be about to roll tape again, and that I thought I should get back. “Oh, I didn’t mean to keep you so long,” he
apologized, “but I just enjoyed talking to you.” I thanked him again, and returned to the stage.

After the next number, I headed out to the truck, where I told the two engineers about the old custodian, and the lemonade pilfering adventure. “That’s odd,” one of the men said, “there wouldn’t be a custodian around now. What did he look like?” And I described his attire, his kind eyes and his smile. “That’s no custodian,” one of them said. “Shoot no,” the other continued, “that’s Roy Acuff.”

My blank stare gave it away: I knew nothing of the greats of Country Music
. My engineer friends explained to me that the large building behind the one in which we were shooting was the “Roy Acuff Theater,” and that “Mr. Acuff is considered the Granddaddy of the Grand old Opry and The King of Country Music.”

What a strange way for a King to act, I thought. The greatest Country Music performer of all time didn’t give a hoot whether I knew who he was. He didn’t try to impress me with his credentials. He seemed interested only in finding out about me.

“I just enjoyed talking to you,” he had said. But in truth, he had talked very little, and said nothing about himself. He didn’t consider stardom a thing to hold tightly in his grip, but humbled himself, and found joy in serving others. Sure, someone had set the example for him nearly 2,000 years before, but Roy Acuff wasn’t content with just hearing, or even
singing the grand old story; he had learned to live it. Indeed, he had become a living example of what Christ taught us to be.

Many talented performers sparkled like diamonds in the Nashville Palace spotlight, impressing hundreds of thousands of their fans. But when my mind goes back nearly 28 years to that warm Tennessee night, I see only the flicker of fireflies and the kind smile of a humble servant. And I recall the most impressive man in Nashville. Truly a sermon in coveralls.