Darryl Worley is standing on a freshly built stage just a few feet from the edge of Pickwick Lake - 14 miles from his hometown of Savannah, Tenn. - when he spies a friend.
Dozens of locals have gathered this afternoon to watch Darryl rehearse for his up-coming PBS concert special with guests Pam Tillis and Gene Watson, but one elderly woman can't quite make it down the hill.
"Hey!" he calls out. "If you're still there in a few minutes, I'll come hug your neck!"
And minutes later, as a baseball-cap-wearing Pam runs Darryl's band through her hit "Maybe It Was Memphis," he runs up the hill to do just that. Making his way back to the stage, Darryl stops countless times to sign autographs and pose for photos, kneeling so his 6-foot-6 frame will fit into the shot with one child after another.
Such is a day in the life of a hometown hero. Here in the Savannah area, everyone knows Darryl, and everyone loves him.
"Most of these people are Darryl's cousins!" laughs Pam after rehearsal is finished. "He's really the kind of guy that doesn't forget where he's from, and these people know that about him."
The locals here don't just say they love Darryl, they prove it. Almost everything about this taping - the stage, the scaffolding, the food - was prepared with the help of local volunteers, including Darryl's wife, Beverly. "She's one of the best people I've ever known in my whole life," he says. "I know I'm probably hell to deal with sometimes. I just thank the good Lord every day that I've got somebody who'll put up with me!"
The pair was married in May, just up the road at the local courthouse - though they hadn't planned it that way. A church wedding was set, but the twosome was so stressed out by all the preparations that when they finally went to the courthouse to get a marriage license, Darryl got a wild idea.
"I looked at her and said, 'Would it take some of the pressure off if we just went and got married now?'" he recalls. "And she just looked at me and grinned, and shook her head yes. And I said, 'Well, get your butt up them stairs and let's do it!'"
Darryl smiles at the memory, but admits he would like to have a real church wedding service someday for his parents' enjoyment. Still, he says, "Those vows would have meant the same to me no matter where I was standing. We're just as married as can be."
Unfortunately, Darryl has been too busy to spend much time with his new bride. The two have an isolated house nearby and a townhouse in Nashville, but Darryl has been on the road practically nonstop - in fact, the honeymoon was limited to one night so Darryl could get back out on tour. "I don't know much about married life," he chuckles, "because I haven't had a chance to experience it."
Today offered the twosome a few fleeting moments together. It was also a good opportunity for Darryl to bond with a couple of his heroes, Gene and Pam. Gene got involved when the two met backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. "It was almost like he had it planned," smiles Gene.
During the concert, Darryl duets with his guests and runs through many of his own songs - including his latest hit, "Sideways."
"The cool thing about 'Sideways' is that we wrote a partyin', rippin', roarin' drinkin' song without ever once mentioning alcohol," laughs Darryl. "It's a politically correct honky-tonk song!"
Throughout the hours spent preparing, rehearsing and taping the show, the audience's wild enthusiasm never wavers. "They weren't doing that because they wanted to be on TV," assures Darryl as he winds down in his tour bus after the show. "It was because the people around here love good live music."
And maybe because they're crazy about their hometown hero. "I love them, and they love me, and it's obvious," he says. "It means everything in the world to me, because this is where I come from, and this is where my music comes from. Everything I'm about is right here."
- Chris Neal