Authors: Brad Paisley
In general, I think that my parents were a little baffled by the actions of their guitar-crazy only son. They were always supportive, even if they had no clue about the music or entertainment businesses. Yet before long it became clear that my dad, in particular, really loved being with me on this musical journey. My dad has never been a stage parent, and he's not living any of his unaccomplished dreams through me. More than anything, I'd say that he just wanted to hop on the bus and come along for the ride. From the start, Dad drove me around and learned how to set up a PA system because somebody had to. And after I became a touring artist, he got his commercial driver's license and started to relief-drive the bus. Apparently, you
teach some old dogs new tricks.
eing a schoolteacher, my mom worried a little more about her son the musician. But from the sixth grade on, I had a plan. And studying anything other than the
Mel Bay Guitar Book
was not part of it. My grades started to suffer, and so did my mother. She used to beg me to try a little harder in school. But the point was pretty much moot by the time I was eleven or twelve. That's because just as I was on the brink of becoming a genuine American teenager and probably even more insufferable than I already was, I accidentally fell into the single greatest musical education that a young guitar player could ever haveâlive radio. And I got there by the power of the pen.
I was twelve when I wrote my first song. Somehow, out of nowhere, I had an overwhelming urge to do just that. I don't remember much about the experience, just playing it for my parents the night I finished it. I think they were shocked. Looking back at it,
even shocked. It's way better than it ought to be. I've written worse songs in the last few years. It was called “Born on Christmas Day,” and I started to perform it that Christmas.
One day the music director of WWVAâa wonderful man named Tom Millerâcame to a Rotary Club luncheon in town to do a little local weather report as a joke. The headmaster of my junior high school, who was also speaking
at the lunch, asked me to represent the school and sing a song. It was around the holidays, and so I knew just what to sing.
After the luncheon, Tom came up to me and said, “You have to come on
this week and do that song.” I was floored. The Wheeling Jamboree was the big time, the mack daddy of places you could perform in my area. I took the news with complete maturityâI ran through the house that night when I got home and screamed.
Here's another of those amazing strokes of good luck that came to me inexplicably. Right place, right time. Or more accurately, divine intervention. Thankfully, I happened to have grown up only twenty minutes away from the Wheeling Jamboree, which was the second-oldest continually running barn dance and country radio broadcast, right after the Grand Ole Opry show itself. The Wheeling Jamboree was broadcast weekly on a 50,000-watt transmitter from an awesome old Victorian venue called the Capitol Theatre and could be heard by country fans across the entire Northeast.
Playing the Jamboree was almost like being on the Grand Ole Opry, only I didn't have to leave home to do it. They even had one of those classic microphone stands that read:
down the front of it.
The vast majority of the biggest stars in country music all came through Wheeling as part of the national circuit, but because the Jamboree wasn't in Nashville, where so many of the great artists lived, the format was a little different. Members of the Jamboree from the area played for about an hour to get things going, then a popular national headlining act played one or two shows depending on who that headliner was. I remember that a true country legend like George Jones would play two or three shows to packed houses. The great Charley
Pride would do as many as four sellout shows in a weekend and he'd add a matinee too. There was such a fan base in West Virginia for classic country that people were always lined up around the block in those days.
I was already a fan of the Wheeling Jamboree before I could even dream of actually being part of the action on-stage. One time my grandfather won tickets, and he took me with him to see the country star John Conlee. John had lots of popular country hits, like “Common Man,” “Backside of Thirty,” and “Lady Lay Down.” As the show was wrapping up, my grandfather whispered to me that we should leave and try to beat the traffic. I begged Papaw to stay just a little longer because I knew that John Conlee hadn't sung his best song yetâ“Rose Colored Glasses.” My grandfather halfheartedly agreed to wait, and afterward on the way home he told me that I had good taste in songs. I was already interested in what made a country song work, but now that I had confirmation that I had good taste, I was fascinated.
Returning to the Jamboreeâwhich had helped make me a fan of so many country music artistsâto take the stage myself while I was still a kid was just unbelievable. Turns out it also was pretty unbelievable for the man who ran the music on the show. Many years later, the musical director of
the Wheeling Jamboree Zane Baxter confessed to me that he was completely furious when he heard that Tom Miller had invited a little boy from Glen Dale to come onto the radio program. He'd asked Tom that very night, “Is this going to be the worst thing that we have ever done?”
For whatever reason, Tom Miller went out on a limb for me and said, “Well, I don't think so, but I'm willing to go out there and introduce the kid, so don't worry. Let me take the responsibility for this. I'll take the blame if he's awful. But I really think you'll be surprised.”
Fortunately, I didn't know a thing about any of this backstage drama at that time.
I was already interested in what made a country song work, but now that I had confirmation that I had good taste, I was fascinated.
I was the most excited I had ever been as I walked out on the stage of the Jamboree. Only my guitar was there to help take on the biggest audience I had ever faced. I caught my breath and started to play and sing my only hitâ“Born on Christmas Day,” a song I still love. Because I was very young, or not completely horrible, or possibly some combination of the two, the Jamboree audience gave a wonderful and welcoming reception. That very night, Zane Baxter changed his tune and invited
me to return soon. Zane later told me that what really made him take notice of me that night was the fact that here was this young kid who dared to sing an original Christmas song rather than one of the obvious standards. And he could tell I could
. Really play. Especially for thirteen years old.
There's an important lesson there. If I had gone out there, strummed, and sung something safe, like, say, “Winter Wonderland,” I can't imagine that the Jamboree would have been as impressed. Or ever ended up inviting me back on the show to be their new, young regular performer. It was the fact that I dared to write and play my own song that made the powers that be sit up and take notice and give me this big and crazy break. Ever since then, I think I've always seen the writing as the thing that has pushed me forward to the next level as an artist.
Being a part of the Jamboree as a teenager was a dream come true. Our job was to warm up the audience for our headliner. That's how, as a teenager, I got the unique career-altering chance to open for so many of the greats. By the time I was sixteen, I was playing the Jamboree every other weekendâor every weekendâand I played in the band some too, which was good for learning my chops as a player.
American Saturday nights for a good long time. I'll never forget those shows and all the greats who I got
to open for. Though I can hardly believe it as I write a few of these names on a list, I got to open for George Jones, Conway Twitty, Charley Pride, Vince Gill, Steve Wariner, Charlie Daniels, Little Jimmy Dickens, Chet Atkins (twice), Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, Ricky Skaggs, John Conlee (twice), Ray Stevens, Lee Greenwood, Joe Diffie, the Desert Rose Band, Exile, the Judds . . . I could go on and on.
So many of the headlining stars were kind and generous and complimentary to me. Especially Charley Pride. When Charley came to headline at the Jamboree, he was usually nice enough to slip into the audience and watch the first part of the show. It's hilarious to me to think that this African-American superstar could possibly not stand out in the all-white country crowd assembled to watch him play in Wheeling. One night my mom and her friend Susan were excited to notice that Charley Pride was sitting right there in front of them. When I came out onstage picking and singing, Charley Pride turned around and asked, “Excuse me, who is that?” My mom got shy, but Susan said, “That's her son.” Afterward, Charley said, “Your son's amazing. I want to meet him.”
That's how we all first met, and Charley exchanged numbers with us and struck up a phone friendship with my father. He wanted to help me if he could. To this day, Charley still
has my dad's number. In fact, Charley might have been the very first big country artist who took a real interest in meâand the first to ever tell my father that I had something special and should come to Nashville and take my shot at becoming a recording artist.
Charleyâone of twelve children of a poor sharecropper from Mississippiâbecame a groundbreaking country superstar, thanks to his famously smooth baritone on thirty-six number one hits, including “I'm Just Me,” “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” and “My Eyes Can Only See as Far as You.” This was a man who was tearing up the charts during the height of the racial tensions in our country. In fact, his record label at the time used to ship singles with no photo of Charley. I've heard that the first time he played the Opry, Charley walked out to a huge ovation, which abruptly stopped. He walked silently to the mic and, with total grace and humor, said, “Think of it as a permanent suntan.” And the ice was forever broken. What a pioneer. Many years later, I was honored to play with Charley Pride at the White House for President Obama and the First Lady. That night, Charley went straight up to my father and said, “Doug, is your number still . . . ,” and then told my dad his number correctly.
A lot of the famous headliners would hear about this teenager
who was pretty good and would actually watch me play. I'll never forget being thirteen and seeing the Juddsâwho were really rocking my world and the rest of the world back thenâstanding on the side of the stage taking an interest in
Country music was thenâand still isâan overwhelmingly warm, welcoming community chock-f of some of the nicest folks you could ever want to meet. The headliners were always more than willing to be cordial to an aspiring young talent. I can't believe the things I got to see at that show. From the amplifiers and guitar gear the greats used, to Chet Atkins sitting around backstage pickin', to Vern Gosdin so furious with his monitors that he threw his cup of beer in the air, which completely soaked yours truly. Now, that's a baptism.
Thankfully, very few bottles came my way, and I still have some of the photos of me with all these country greats when I was just a kid. Some of my most treasured are photos of me at twelve with Vince Gill and Steve Wariner, who were just then becoming my heroes as singers, songwriters, and, more importantly, guitarists. Meeting these giants and sharing a stage with them was my first real hint that maybe this was not an impossible dream. I was at least in the vicinity. Perhaps I really could become a player.
s an American musician, I hold this truth to be self-evident: a guitar makes a better friend than most human beings. Seriously, some of my best friends are guitars. But right about this point in my coming-of-age as a man and a musician, I started to notice something beyond guitars . . . amplifiers.
Disclaimer: These next few paragraphs are probably going to be boring for anyone not interested in guitar gear. You've been warned.