WALKING TALL

Story by Chris Neal • Photos by Phil Cicero

Nothing is as innocent as a child," says Darryl Worley, wiping tears from his already reddened eyes. "And we were just children when we got together, really. Fifteen years old."

Darryl is sitting at a table at Christie's Restaurant in his hometown of Savannah, Tenn., with the restaurant's owner, Christie Moore, who is also unsuccessfully fighting back a tide of emotion. Christie happens to have been Darryl's girlfriend for a tempestuous 15 years, before their breakup six years ago.

Darryl makes the 140-mile trip to Savannah from his new home in Nashville often, but he has come this time to shoot the video for his latest single, "A Good Day To Run." The split with Christie had inspired Darryl's bittersweet first hit, "When You Need My Love," along with other songs from his debut album, Hard Rain Don't Last.

"A lot of his material comes from our relationship," says Christie, laughing through her tears. "Feelings he has in a lot of his songs, I can feel them myself. I've experienced them with him."

Still, the two have long since moved on. Darryl has a girlfriend, Beverly Irvin, while Christie is married and has a young daughter. "My daughter loves his music," says Christie. "And her favorite songs are the ones that are most special to me. It is very strange."

The two reminisce for a while, about their good times and the roof-raising arguments they used to engage in. "It probably wasn't a healthy relationship," Darryl figures. "We were codependent."

"If we had stayed together, I don't think either one of us would be experiencing the success we are now," says Christie. "But I'm there for him, and he's there for me, and that won't ever change."

Darryl dries his eyes and greets his mother, Bonnie, who has dropped by for a moment on her way to the dentist. Soon, the coffee is gone and Darryl heads across the street to Hardin County High School, where he is met by biology teacher Don Carter. "I knew Mr. Carter really loved what he was teaching, and that was absolutely what gave me the love for biology," says Darryl, who earned his college degree in the subject from the University of Northern Alabama.

Shaking Carter's hand, Darryl heads up the street to Hardin County Middle School. He's greeted by Steve Smith, who was principal when Darryl taught biology here a decade ago. The two duck into Darryl's old classroom, keeping quiet to avoid disturbing the class.

"During the year Darryl taught here, Miss Tennessee visited with the Drug-Free Tennessee program," recalls Smith. "Her talent was in country music, and we talked Darryl into singing with her for the kids. I still remember the song ..."

Darryl interrupts to sing a little of that tune: You're the reason God made Oklahoma ...

"That's it," Smith says with a chuckle. "That's the first time I realized what a talent he had."

After a few more minutes, Darryl says goodbye to Smith and the kids - it's time for lunch. Darryl knows just the spot: Pusser's, owned by Darryl's friend Dwana Pusser Garrison. Dwana's father was the lawman Buford Pusser, subject of the classic Walking Tall films.

"Anyone who lived around here couldn't help but hear about Buford Pusser," recalls Darryl, who at 6 feet 7 inches knows a little about walking tall himself. "Everybody walked around with their chest stuck out because we knew him."

"Daddy stood up for what he believed in, he was a man of his word and he took up for the underdog," recalls Dwana. "And Darryl has a lot of those same features. He's good-hearted and everything he tells you is true. That's the way Daddy was."

Dwana also has a personal connection to Darryl's hit "When You Need My Love." Someone she knows, very well, turned up as a character in the tune's storyline.

"In the song, the man the girl leaves Darryl for just happens to be my ex-husband," she explains. The real-life tapestry of Darryl's many Savannah friends is "a soap opera in the making," says Dwana.

After lunch, Darryl is ready to go to Wesley's Chapel United Methodist Church, where pastor Leonard Nash is waiting for him. Darryl's faith runs deep, and this building is where he first felt that connection.

"I'll never forget it," says Darryl. "I was probably 10 or 11 years old. The service was over, and I was sitting on the back of a pew with my feet on the bench. Brother Nash turned around, and when he scanned the crowd he stopped and looked at me. He just held out his hand and said, 'Do you want to come to know Jesus Christ?' And I just couldn't sit there any longer."

Darryl begins to cry again. "I knew this was coming," he says, with a laugh. "And I just got dried up a few minutes ago."

After a few minutes of prayer alone with Nash, Darryl is ready to leave. The last stop for today is the place where it all began, his great-grandparents' house, now inhabited by his aunt and uncle.

"I have some really fond memories of this place," he says, looking around the expansive front yard. "It was the center of the family activities. It was full of love and laughter - and good food."

Those feelings don't stop at the walls of this house, though. Here in Savannah, it's as if everyone is a member of Darryl Worley's family.

"The support I get from the people here is over the top," says Darryl with a broad grin. "I wish I could be here all the time."

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