CATCHING UP WITH...GEORGE HAMILTON IV

Opry star George Hamilton IV is at home in country - actually, in a lot of countries!

When he was 12 years old, George Hamilton IV regularly boarded the bus in his native Winston-Salem, N.C., for a 450-mile ride to Nashville to see his favorite stars play the Grand Ole Opry.

He quickly learned that if he hung around long enough, Chet Atkins would occasionally let him sneak backstage to hobnob with Opry stars. "I can't think of a single one of them that wasn't gracious and kind to me," George recollects.

When he was finally invited to perform there himself, he was overwhelmed. "I thought, 'Man, this is home,'" he remembers. " ' This is where I belong.' " On Feb. 8, 1960, he was invited to join the Opry as a member. "That was the greatest day of my life," says George, "other than my wedding day."

Shortly thereafter, he began an impressive string of 31 Top 40 hits. But the one for which he's best remembered is the Chet Atkins-produced "Abilene," which spent four weeks at No. 1 in 1963. "To be honest, neither Chet nor I thought it was a hit," he notes. "We just thought it was a pleasant little cowboy song."

George expanded his horizons past "Abilene" when he began recording songs by Canadian writers, then Canadian-themed albums - he even hosted his own Canadian TV series for several years. He began appearing at music festivals worldwide and gave pioneering performances behind the Iron Curtain in the mid-'70s. Last year alone, the man who came to be known years ago as the "International Ambassador of Country Music" toured the British Isles, Canada and the U.S.

When he isn't globe-trotting, George lives in Franklin, Tenn., with Tinky, his wife of 46 years. "She's the one who raised the kids and held down the fort," George admits. "Spouses are the unsung heroes of our business." Four years ago, George IV and Tinky became grandparents when George V and his wife had a son - named, of course, George VI.

Somehow, George still finds time to record. His most recent effort is a Scottish folk album, Hamilton's Other Country (available from amazon.co.uk). "Thank goodness there are still people inviting me to get into the studio and make records," he says. "I haven't been anywhere near a chart in years, but it really doesn't bother me. I'm busier than I've ever been in my life!"

- NICK KREWEN

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