I am a dropout.
I grew up pretty hard. I am an educational failure. I had few academic opportunities. As a result, I am a very slow reader, and an even wurse speler.
This is because, after my father died, my family hit rock bottom. My mother cleaned houses for a living, and worked in fast food. I, my ownself, dropped out of school and got my first job at age 14, hanging drywall.
Later, I would install tile and wood floors. I hung commercial roofing and seamless gutter. I had other ignoble occupations, too. I scooped ice cream. I was a telemarketer for exactly 13 hours.
In the evenings, for extra cash, I played music at local bars where overserved people two-stepped and showed their appreciation by lobbing bottles at the piano player.
I wasn’t particularly talented. I owned a guitar. I had a cheap piano my father bought from the classified section. I had long hair. Nobody wanted their daughter to date me.
But something about the communal glow of a beer joint changed me. I’ve had some powerfully good memories in dim rooms with clinking glassware.
When I was 16, I spent my birthday playing “Faded Love” in a joint on the Alabama state line. The bartender, Wanda, asked if I wanted a beer. Wanda was five foot, even, and had a voice like a pack of filtered menthols.
I told Wanda, without hesitation, yes, I did want a beer. So Wanda opened a PBR and poured three fingers of the golden nectar into a tumbler.
“Happy birthday,” she said. “You’ll have to wait until you’re 21 to get the rest.”
Whereupon she ceremoniously finished the bottle.
I also played piano in church, and at every Baptist function including fifth-Sunday sings, Decoration Day potlucks, and VBS. Most Baptists turned a blind eye to my nocturnal habits.
I attended community college as a 30-year-old man. I rectified my high-school misgivings.
And I learned how to spel prety good.
And somehow, here I am.
I have an overbite, red hair, and a list of bad habits which causes fundamentalists to send me emails with subject lines that read: “Will I spend eternity without you, Sean?”
But there were a few people who have consistently believed in me. Namely, my wife. And my mother. My sister. My friends, who are too numerous to list.
And in a few days, the Grand Ole Opry will be releasing my first album. In a few days, I will be performing selections from this album on the Opry stage, on the air.
I’m not even sure what this means, since none of this feels real. But I’m telling you about all this because, I suppose, I still can’t believe it.
Even so, my first Opry album single “dropped” yesterday, on my father’s birthday. I don’t know what “dropped” means. But I know that this is something my old man would have loved.
My father was an avid Opry listener, and often swore that if he ever met Minnie Pearl in person, he would either propose marriage or, at the very least, a scandalous love affair.
I can also tell you that my first album was not recorded in a fancy studio with world-famous sound engineers named “Pootie Tang” running the mixing board. This album was recorded by me, in a rustic cabin, on Lake Martin, with cheap equipment.
There were quilts on the walls, to deaden the sound. The way all the professionals do it. My best good friend, Aaron Peters, played fiddle. We played antique music. There were empty Ovaltine bottles strewn around the cabin.
And a blue heron visited the lakeside dock every night after recording, to flap its wings and say hello.
Sometimes at night, after recording, I would lie in bed and wonder if prayers can travel backward in time. If they can, I continue to pray that a young 14-year-old, redheaded, construction-working musician will just hold on.
Because one day, in the year 2023, even though he is much older than most Opry walk-ons; even though he feels like a consummate failure; even though he can’t spell worth a shuck; that little boy will not be able to believe what I just wrote.
I know I can’t.