Sept 28, 2022–While portraying country music legend Hank Williams on stage at the Grand Ole Opry, Jason Petty began formulating an idea for a show that became Classic Nashville Live! featuring greats such as Johnny and June, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, and Patsy Cline. Why not? He was meeting many of them.
“Oh, yeah, there were many still working then,” Petty said of the two years he was performing his Hank Williams musical biography Lost Highway at Ryman Auditorium.
It was the 1990s. Every night, big stars came to the show. To keep them from being besieged by fans, the Ryman staff would hold them backstage and wait to seat them 30 seconds before curtain time. Meanwhile, they were “parked” in Petty’s dressing room.
“That was in the Roy Acuff dressing room,” Petty said. “I’m talking about people from Garth Brooks to George Jones. Porter Wagner was there. So was Reba McIntyre, Little Jimmy Dickens, Grandpa Jones, and Goober from Andy Griffith. Every night it was somebody different. And I would just sit there and get to chat with all of them. It was the most amazing thing. And afterwards, they wanted to talk about the show.”
He also got to meet Minnie Pearl, and was first introduced on the opry by Roy Acuff himself. Petty became good friends with Don Helms, who was in Hank Williams’ band.
“He would tell me all about the early days of traveling. So, you know, I’ve got all these stories, and I began to write them down, not just the Hank stories, but stories of anything that I heard, that I thought was interesting, or helpful to the retelling of history.”
So that’s where the stories came from for Classic Nashville Live!, coming October 8 at the Cailloux Theater. Petty covers the gamut from the Carter family and Jimmy Rogers, all the way up to entertainers such as George Strait and Alan Jackson. It’s hard to fit it into two hours.
His most poignant memories are about the stars who died young, such as Patsy Cline, and Hank Williams himself, who was only 29 when he hit the lost highway in the back seat of a Cadillac.
“You can’t help but think, what would have been?” Petty wondered. “What could have been? I mean, they are such icons today, and part of their story was their untimely deaths. Would they still be thought of as legends if they hadn’t died early?”
Petty brought up one answer to his own question: Johnny Cash.
“Cash was a monster star and iconic voice and then he got into his 50s and no one wanted to hire him. He lost his major label record. Haggard, same way. George Jones, same way. Then they are gone. And everyone’s going, oh, my gosh, look at all these 20 to 30 years that the record labels wasted. We could have had 30 more years of Johnny Cash on Top 40 radio. It’s the nature of the beast.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion.
“Johnny Cash lived long enough to reclaim that audience and get a younger one with his ‘Hurt’ video and all that great stuff he did at the end of his life. He had a very young producer who was just an absolute Johnny Cash nut. The talent was always there–you’ve just got to find somebody to believe in you.”
Petty believes in the history of country music so much he has dedicated his career to keeping it alive. He fondly recalls the days when “you had to sit and wait for the radio to play it.”
“There was more what I call magic to this music than there is in today’s music. Today’s modern country sounds like the Ford assembly line of music. You’re basically getting the same rehashed material over and over and over.
“In the old days, it was more like a family. They helped each other, they went out to dinner when they were in Nashville together. They played the Grand Ole Opry, and the Grand Ole Opry was a big deal.
“It was just a magical time.”
Jason Petty presents Classic Nashville Live at the Cailloux Theater on Saturday, October 8, at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets can be reserved online at caillouxperformingarts.com, or by calling (830) 896-9393.