The Grand Ole Opry ~ Sean of the South

by Sean Dietrich
Sean of the South

“Get in, partner!” said my old man. “We’re late.”

My father was seated behind the wheel of a 1977 F-100. He was dressed in work clothes. Denim. Muddy boots. My father was building the GM plant. He had raccoon eyes from wearing welding goggles, and he smelled worse than a chicken plant burning down.

My father and I piled into the Ford. We drove across Nashville. Whereupon Daddy immediately stopped at Dairy Queen to buy ice cream.

My father was fanatical about his ice cream. In fact—this is true—on weekends when my mother was out of town, my father would eat three square meals of ice cream.

The lady behind the Dairy Queen counter handed us two chocolate-dipped cones and an order of fries. We ate them while speeding through Davidson County traffic at dusk.

When we arrived at Opryland, the place was about as big as a subtropical continent. Opryland is home of “The Grand Ole Opry.” It is America’s country-music theme park.

Think: Disneyland with cheating songs.

People filtered into the auditorium to see the Opry. Families. Kids. Winnebagos with gaggles of Midwestern tourists. Guys wearing cowboy hats. People in gaudy T-shirts. The smell of hotdogs and peanuts was in the air. It was like a baseball game, but with fiddles.

“Well, here we are,” said my father.

I was so excited I almost peed my Levis. I was wearing an oversize cowboy hat.

My father slapped my shoulder. “You practice your guitar hard enough, one day you’ll be up there on that stage.”

We found a seat. I watched the show with slack-jawed wonder. Because I’ve always been attracted to music. My music obsession began when I was 3, I watched my aunt play “Lo How a Rose ’Er Blooming” on the piano.

It changed my life.

You don’t choose to play music, music chooses you. It’s an affliction. A problem. An obsession. A compulsion.

I’ve played in bands since I was 9 years old. The first band was in church. I was on piano. Our band consisted of Miss Lynn (age 87) playing a 20-horsepower Hammond organ; Mister Dan (79) playing mandolin, and Miss Lula Mae (178) on the accordion. Our band sounded worse than a Peterbilt diesel falling into a canyon. But it worked.

Then, my life fell apart. My father killed himself when I was 11. After that, music became my berm.

I would lock myself in the basement and play my piano for, sometimes, 8 hours per day. I did this so I wouldn’t have to speak to anyone. I played because as long as I was playing, I wasn’t thinking. Thinking is what hurt the most.

By the time I was a young man, I had dropped out of school. I made a total wreck of my life. My peers were going to football games and learning about hickeys; I was working a job to help Mama.

In the evenings, I played music in establishments my deepwater Baptist mother would have preferred I avoided. Places where the patrons drank their suppers and lost money on Iron Bowls.

My first beer-joint gig was at age 15. I briefly played with a band who named themselves—this is true—“Free Beer.” Whenever the band’s name was spelled out on the marquee (Tonight at the VFW! Free Beer!), we drew huge crowds of greatly disappointed people.

Throughout the years, life would take me on a weird journey. I would play in lots of bands. I would complete my high-school equivalency. I would attend community college.

Eventually, I would become an author. Me. Of all people.

Then I started traveling around and speaking and telling jokes and stories for a living. Music became part of my schtick. For about a decade, I’ve traveled around the United States trying to make people laugh a little.

I am not an impressive musician. In fact, I’m not even very good at what I do. I simply try to make people feel better. The reason I try is because the one thing I know for certain is that life can suck sometimes. And sometimes there’s nothing you can do but laugh about it.

I can trace my whole career back to that fateful evening when my father took me to the Grand Ole Opry. Daddy, in his filthy clothes, smelling badly. Me in my boots. For all his faults, the man believed in me.

And on March 24, 2023, the year of our Lord, I will be performing on The Grand Ole Opry stage, believing in him.

After which I’m going to Dairy Queen.

And I hope you know that you’re invited.

Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, The Tallahassee Democrat, Good Grit, South Magazine, Alabama Living, the Birmingham News, Thom Magazine, The Mobile Press Register, and he has authored thirteen books.


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