One of my favorite people and favorite music journalists, Jim Bessman, tweeted a note marking the passing of Charlie Collins, the last surviving member of Roy Acuff’s Smokey Mountain Boys. It reminded me how often we brush near people in the music industry, but maybe never directly connect… and yet you have incredible connection.
Fact is I never met Charlie Collins. However, as a young journalist myself, I saw him perform with Roy Acuff the many, many Saturday nights that I hung out in a dusty corner, next to dark bundled and roped velvet curtain backstage at the old Ryman Auditorium. These were the days when Roy Acuff was the absolute reigning King of the Opry and the Senior Statesman of Country Music. He presided over the last show at the Ryman on March 15, 1974, before the Opry moved to the new Opryland complex the next evening. I had the opportunity to be in the audience for both of those shows, including Roy’s presentation of his yo-yo to then President Richard M. Nixon, who highlighted the nationally televised festivities. And though I never thought a moment about it until now, Charlie Collins was on the stage for all of it.
Those were memorable times, but my most memorable and probably only albeit indirect encounter with Charlie Collins and his fellow Smokey Mountain Boys came in 1978. And I didn’t think of this one either until Jim’s tweet on Charlie’s passing.
It was early that year that I started a fledgling artist management company in Nashville, with a business partner Don Cusic, who is now a long-time author and professor at Belmont University. We started managing country/pop/rockabilly great Dickey Lee and we added one of the original country/rock successes of those days the Tennessee Pulleybone to our roster. Still looking to get our struggling company off the ground, Don and I were scouring the streets for someone, anyone who might be able to generate some revenue.
One Sunday, Don and his family were having dinner with friends and they invited me over. The friends were the Doug Green family. Doug was the Audio Historian at the Country Music Foundation. His job was essentially to tape interviews with all the old cowboy music and film stars before they went to that big cattle drive in the sky. It was a Sunday afternoon on the porch and Doug was strumming a guitar, reflecting on some of these old-timers he had met, singing in that pure, smooth voice of his, and even yodeling a little bit. Doug was wearing a white cowboy hat and he had the rosy cheeks of those lily-white heroes of the Saturday matinees. Somewhere in that casual encounter, one us, Don or me, proclaimed, “Doug, you know, you’re an act.”
True to how we know him today, Ranger Doug smiled and said kind of sheepishly (No pun intended!), that he would like to be a performer. Thus began Riders In The Sky, and the three us started a dialogue of ideas to build an act with Doug.
We borrowed two of Dickey’s band members, including bass player Fred “Too Slim” LaBour to test out the idea. Slowly, we began to get them a gig or two around Nashville, including a weekly residency on Monday nights at Wind & The Willows, which was the living room of a house one block east of Elliston Place. They only served popcorn and beer, but it was an ideal place to drag a couple of music business people to illustrate this crazy cowboy band idea. In the meantime, Doug and Fred and later that year Woody, steadily developed the harmonies, nostalgia, and humor that has become the trademark of Riders In The Sky. It has made them one of the most uniquely smart, and entertaining acts to grace thousands of stages over nearly 35 years.
So what does this have to do with Charlie Collins? Well, there was a night in 1978, when this new idea called Riders In The Sky was given a guest shot on the Grand Ole Opry. We had no record label. We had no agent. We had very few dates that we had booked ourselves. However, somehow we got this Opry date.
We were all SO excited to get this guest shot! The band went on and performed an old cowboy chestnut, but I can’t even remember which one. We had actually invented an act that was on the Grand Ole Opry. Man, was this novel!!
After their one-song shot, we went back to a green room area backstage at the gleaming new Opry complex. However, within minutes, we were confronted by an Opry official, who announced that Mr. Acuff would like to see the band in his private dressing room immediately.
Our heads spun for a fraction of a moment. People in Nashville in those earliest days of the Riders tended to think of them as a novelty act, particularly because the guys inserted such great humor in such a contemporary way. My first thought… I was stricken. Was Roy Acuff calling the boys into his dressing room to chastise them for making fun of cowboy music and subsequently country music? Would Doug be put on the carpet to explain that he really did love it and was honoring it? Would they even believe him? Had we offended The King of Country Music? My initial thoughts were of dread and concern. Between Doug, Fred, and Woody, I believe we had three Masters Degrees and a Doctorate. Would the man who was crowned for all of history as the King of Country Music be giving our boys a lesson in humility?
Don and I led the Riders into Roy’s dressing room. In the blur of the moment, I saw Roy and his royal court of sidemen sitting in a semi-circle like a High English Court awaiting our band of paupers. Certainly, Charlie Collins was one of those Cardinals in consultation with the Pope.
In an instant, Don and I knew we were not to be a part of this meeting. We backed out to the hallway, where we waited for what seemed to be a couple of hours. The big, thick doors closed. We had no idea what our band had encountered.
And what happened behind those closed doors that night, I never really heard the details. However, the upshot was so very special. Roy Acuff, Charlie Collins, and the rest of the Smokey Mountain Boys embraced Riders In The Sky. They were moved that these young, educated musicians, had so honored cowboy music and they were there to take it to the next generation with special care. THEY were thankful. This was humbling. To enter the musical world of these legendary players, all members of the Greatest Generation, was awe inspiring. It was like looking up at Mount Rushmore. That night the Riders were anointed.
Riders In The Sky became official members of the Grand Ole Opry a few years later in 1982. Now, 30+ years later, they have shared American cowboy music with its cultural connection to Tex-Mex, early Hollywood, and Saturday morning TV.
And Charlie Collins has now ridden that Great Speckled Bird to his Maker. How quickly these lifetimes pass. But he can fly knowing that it was his generation’s shoulders that others now stand upon. He spent a lifetime performing “Wabash Cannonball” with Roy Acuff, a song that was published in 1882, over 50 years before he was born! He knew how to carry the torch. He was one of the scholars of country and bluegrass music who presided over the passing of the mantel to a young cowboy band some 34 years ago. And I had the good fortunate of being there… just outside that room.
Somewhere, there’s a young performer or band listening to some music history. Respecting it like it deserves to be… and hopefully learning how to perform it with the ability and care so that the music lives on.
Thank you Charlie Collins. Will The Circle Be Unbroken?