The Hitchhiker

Tim Wright send me this inspiring story which should hit home with every pedal steel player. Please enjoy it.

Bobbe,

While reading your newsletter today, I recalled a trip I made to Nashville in 1970. I had been driving to work on a Saturday morning to put in some over time on a bridge construction job that my dad had gotten me that Summer. While driving along the East side of I-465, in Indianapolis, IN, I spotted a hitchhiker – and this hitchhiker didn’t appear like most of the Hippies that were making a habit of walking along the highways of the U.S. during that time peri9od. This guy had on what appeared to be some sort of band outfit – a uniform type look, complete with a paisley shirt and a vest, and cowboy boots, no less- not the greatest shoe for walking along, trying to hitch a ride. I stopped. I knew this was going to be interesting.

This chunky fellow got in my ’67 VW Bug and I couldn’t wait to hear his story. He told me his name was Roger, but I’ll withhold the last name just in case he wouldn’t appreciate this type of publicity. Immediately he informed me that he was trying to get to Nashville, TN, and he’d been hitchhiking all night – from Michigan. It seems that he had run into a “double woman problem” the night before in the bar where he had been playing PEDAL STEEL GUITAR! Talk about fate! I had already falle3n in love with pedal steel since the first time I’d heard Tom Brumley’s break on “Together Again”. I was a child of the 60’s and I’d been listening to the steel guitar in the Byrds album, “Sweetheart of The Rodeo,” played by Lloyd Green, and I believe by J.D. Mannes (I think) Rusty Young of Poco, Sneaky Pete, playing with the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Mr. Brumley, who had been playing in Ricky Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band. And now, I had a genuine pedal steel guitarist in my car. He asked me, “How far South ya goin’?” “Nashville,” I replied. It didn’t take long for me to make up my mind where I was going that day. I had to take him. This was an opportunity of a lifetime for me to spend time with a steel guitar picker – and maybe even learn something about this unique instrument I’d grown to love to listen to. I just had to own one someday. This was my true introduction to the instrument.

We got to town and immediately went to Tootsies Lounge, where I phoned my mom to tell her I was in Nashville, and that I hadn’t gone to work that day. She assumed I meant Nashville, Indiana. When I explained that I was in Tennessee, she whispered into the phone, “Are you alright. Did someone kidnap you?!” “Well, kind of … in a way … but it was my own choice,” I told my worried mother.

She calmed down when I told her I had picked up a total stranger on the way to work and now I was in a bar in Nashville, while he was ordering a beer! I told her that I was in good hands – a pedal steel player’s hands!

Next stop for Roger and me was the Sho-Bud store, where he sat down and played the most beautiful version of “Danny Boy” I’d heard to that date. I was in Heaven. I’d finally made it to my “Emerald City,” my “Land of Oz” that somehow, I just knew I’d end up spending a great deal of time in some day. The day passed and we ended up on the steps of the Ryman Auditorium, listening to The Earl Scruggs Review playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and an instrumental of Joni Mitchell’s “Clouds/Both Sides Now;” an arrangement by Randy Scruggs that I had heard on one of the Review’s albums I had at home. This was way too cool. The Opry was probably sold out on this particular hot August night, but it didn’t matter. When I had left for home that morning, all I had were a few dollars in my wallet and a checkbook. Also, I was dressed in a purple tie dyed tank top ( wife beater) T-shirt, cut off jeans shorts, and work boots – not exactly the “proper dress” for the occasion. I was as out of place as “a hog at a church wedding!”

I followed Roger back to Tootsies, where he seemed to know a lot of the Opry stars who were coming in for a nip between their sets next door at the Opry. I was most definitely out of my element, but it didn’t matter; I was in Nashville, and it simply seemed as if something more than the chance meeting of a hitchhiker at the exact time I was driving by him that was bringing about this special moment in my life. Since we didn’t have enough money for even a cheap motel, we began wondering if we could both actually sleep in my VW. The Opry was over, and we were back on those steps off of 5th Ave. As the Opry fans all walked out with smiles on their faces, I continued to wonder what the rest of this special night would hold.

Roger said, “Follow me.” We walked around to the back side entrance to the Opry. Roger knocked on the door and an older gentleman answered. Roger just came out and asked him if we could spend the night in the Ryman. “I can’t believe you just asked him – and he let us in,” I exclaimed to my new friend. Believe it, or not, that’s exactly what happened. I couldn’t believe this serendipitous moment was happening. The empty Ryman – the stage where Hank Williams and so many legends had stood and sang their songs – So much history – under my feet. The night watchman said, “Pull up a chair.” And we did! There was a lamp stand in the middle of the stage – no shade – just the bare light bulb giving a dream-like setting to this most surreal of nights. There it was; the bright red Opry Barn background, against the back wall that I’d been seeing on the Johnny Cash TV Show! I couldn’t hardly believe this was really happening. As I stood on that “hallowed ground” and peered out into the dimly lit auditorium filled with church pews, I had this strange feeling that I’d be on this stage one day, playing music. I had been in a band all through high school, and had more recently played some country and fold music with my brother, Tom. I so wanted to play professionally – to do what I love for a living.

The sleepless night ended and Roger and I, somehow, made it back to Indiana where I bought him a bus ticket back to Michigan. I never saw this man again – even though, ten years later, I was on the Grand Ole Opry stage, playing and singing with my brother and singing partner. The Wright Brothers Band had made it to the Mecca of Country Music! Our dear friend, Grandpa Jones helped us get on the show one night in 1980. Grandpa’s son, Mark had worked for our band in the mid 70’s and this led to that wonderful man, Lewis Jones “pulling the strings” that allowed us to perform on the Opry. It was certainly a dream come true. Weldon even backed us up on “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “Bucket To The South,” and a bluegrass version of “Midnight Rider.” What a night to remember.

After my experience with my hitchhiking friend (perhaps an angel) I bought a pedal steel about three years later, when out band had begun playing steadily around the Indianapolis area. I’m so glad I did, because for the past 40 years, I’ve had the immense pleasure of playing those three chord changes and harmonic notes that float in and out of each other, and as Buddy Emmons once said in describing the sound of the pedal steel, “These notes that seem to sit still and move at the same time..” as they weave a seamless tapestry of background sound that complements a song like no other instrument. I’ve been blessed to learn a little bit about this instrument and experience the job it brings – to be enveloped in a sound that seems to become “one with” the song’s (and player’s) emotion. Thank you Roger!

And thank you Bobbe Seymour. Tim Wright

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