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Country girl at heart

Even when I get really mad at the country music industry for selling its soul and producing a bunch of Barbie and Ken clones in tight leather pants with achy-breaky voices, singing inane tunes about how sensitive they all are, I still love the real thing: country music that celebrates manual dexterity on the strings of a fiddle, a guitar or a banjo; country music that moans about cheating, drinking, leaving or being left behind; country music that honors Mama, wears polyester pants stretched over a pot belly, deplores fashion and yearns always toward home.

Country music was a real and natural part of my life growing up, living always within the reach of the WSM airwaves and the Saturday night broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry from Nashville. And sometimes country music rubbed elbows with real life in unexpected ways.

My first best friend was a beautiful, willful girl named Lynn, granddaughter of Sam McGee, half of the original duo Sam and Kirk McGee, one of the earliest string bands to be a part of the Opry. Some Saturdays, we'd ride in Lynn's mother's station wagon from Bowling Green, Ky., to Franklin, Tenn., where we'd have dinner on her granddaddy's farm before driving on to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The Opry was broadcast in half-hour sets, and we'd arrive just before Sam and Kirk were due to go on. We sat on hard wooden pews on the wings of the stage, just beyond the curtain.

One Saturday night, a nice old man in a spangled suit asked me if I'd hold his fiddle while he pulled on his cowboy boots. I did, then handed him a paper napkin, asking for his autograph. He signed it, then passed it to the group of musicians he was standing around talking to. They passed it back to me. I saved it in a box of memorabilia and discovered it years later when I was packing to move away from home for the first time. The signatures were: Tex Ritter, Loretta Lynn and Roy Acuff.

Sixth grade, Nashville. I'm the new girl at Paragon Mills Elementary School, and a kind, lazy-eyed girl has invited me to sleep over. I'm fascinated with her exotic name, Lajuana Byrd, and her older sister's even more exotic name, Leilani. The walls of her living room are covered with laminated plaques and pictures of guitar players and singers in spangly suits. Her daddy makes us pancakes. He is Jerry Byrd, the best pedal steel guitar player in Nashville. A few years later, he packs up his family and moves to Hawaii, where he becomes the world's most famous player of Hawaiian music on steel guitar.

Eighth grade, Jackson, Tenn. I get to know a quiet girl with champagne-colored hair who's one of the smartest people in my science class. She keeps to herself, is really nice, doesn't mingle much with the crowd so busy trying to collect boyfriends and have fun. It isn't until after I've left Jackson and moved to Memphis that I realize what sets her apart from the rest of us -- her father is Carl Perkins. In Jackson, he is her father. In Memphis and across the world, he is a legend.

Many years later, more grown-up than I ever wanted to be, the mother of four children, including two rambunctious 2-year-olds, I am wrestling my kids through breakfast at our favorite Nashville restaurant, The Pancake Pantry. We come here often, and I watch the parade of country music executives, session musicians and the occasional star. One morning, Lyle Lovett sat nearby, whispering across the table to a sleepy-eyed Vanderbilt coed following a concert on the college campus the night before.

This morning, the twins are bouncing up and down in the vinyl booth, reaching across the back and, with their sticky little hands, messing up the hair of the people sitting on the other side. I scold and correct them. They stop for a while, then get wound up again.

"Don't bother those people," I say.

A petite, gray-haired man with bushy eyebrows stands up and walks around the booth to pat the twins on the head.

"Don't worry, honey," he says as he puts on his cowboy hat. "They ain't bothering me." A woman in a church-going suit takes him by the elbow. They smile and wave as they walk away.

He is the King of the Grand Ole Opry, Mr. Roy Acuff. On his arm is Miss Kitty Wells.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

This essay first appeared in the Independent in October 2002.

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