One of the warmest voices in radio broadcasting has fallen silent.
Hairl Hensley was a legend in Tennessee broadcasting, but I didn’t know that when I met him.
It was fall 1993 and I was working as a receptionist for Syndicom Entertainment Group, a television syndication company. My supervisor had enrolled me in a nine-month company-wide leadership training program, and that’s where I met Hairl.
I don’t remember our first meeting, but it didn’t take us long to move to the back of the class where we could crack jokes under our breath and generally create mayhem. This tells you a little something about Hairl’s influence on me; I had a long history of being a straight-A, front-row-sitting, teacher’s pet kind of girl.
He was the afternoon drive air personality on AM 650 WSM, the Air Castle of the South and home of its flagship program, the WSM Grand Ole Opry, both of which have been on the air since 1925. He also hosted a two-hour weekly bluegrass show he called “The Orange Possum Special.” He was a big, tall, jovial teddy bear of a man, but he was smart and he knew and loved radio, and he loved country and bluegrass music. But mostly he loved people.
When the newly renovated Ryman Auditorium began its summer bluegrass series in 1994, Hairl emceed each week’s show. He told me to let him know if I ever wanted tickets, and I took advantage of his offer several times. I had not grown up listening to bluegrass music, but back in 1991 I had caught a live performance of Doc Watson with Jack Lawrence and Jerry Douglas at a taping of The Nashville Network’s American Music Shop (what’s not to like?) and had become an enthusiast.
Lo! and behold, in 1996 I found myself working as the assistant for Kyle Cantrell, who served as Operations Manager over AM 650 WSM, 95.5 WSM FM and 99.7 WWTN FM. If I had liked bluegrass before, I now had an opportunity to immerse myself in it, and I did. Hairl let me hang out backstage with him.
In its early years, the summer bluegrass series stretched for three months, and it featured a diverse list of performers ranging from traditional bluegrass to more progressive styles, including, before his death, Bill Monroe himself. Thanks to Hairl, I had the opportunity to meet many of these artists and learn firsthand why their influence and their careers spanned generations.
I loved listening to Hairl when he was on the air, on the afternoon drive show from 3 to 7
p.m. He’d spin records and talk over the intro. He’d tell jokes. He’d wish happy birthday to whichever country artist was celebrating a birthday, and he’d play the “Happy Birthday” song on the kazoo. And at the end of his shift, he always thanked the listeners for being a part of the show on AM 650 WSM, Home of the Grand Ole Opry.
Hairl had a warm voice and an easy, convivial way about him that invited the listener in as friend and confidante. But that wasn’t just his on-air persona. That’s how Hairl was with everyone, all the time. Hairl Hensley was comfortable in his own skin. Being around Hairl was one of life’s “warm fuzzy” things, like putting on your favorite house slippers and bundling into your warmest robe and drinking cocoa by the fire. Being Hairl’s friend was like that.
Hairl took time to teach me about the industry we all loved so much. He drew a diagram of sound waves on a napkin to explain to me the difference in AM and FM radio waves. He educated me on various bluegrass performers and their histories. He told me inside stories (especially off-color ones) about Opry stars. One of the greatest gifts Hairl gave me, though, came a few months after I’d been working at WSM.
Kyle had told me early on that as a WSM employee, I could go to the show any time there was room on the backstage list. I knew even then that this was a rare privilege, because frankly I had no official business there. So I made it my policy to go only when my favorite artists were slated to appear, and to be there for the show and only for the show. I never attempted to interact with artists unless and until they indicated they wanted to interact with me. I made myself scarce on Saturdays because the televised segment meant TV crews, VIP and industry types, and artist entourages dominating the space.
The announcer’s podium stands stage left, at the very edge of the Opry stage next to the big red curtain. To the left of the podium (or right, if you’re backstage), tucked behind the curtain out of sight of most of the audience, sits a barstool. One night, Hairl motioned for me to come out from behind the ropes and sit on the stool. Thrilled, I did so.
From then on, especially when Hairl was at the mic, I would sit on the stool if I knew I wasn’t in the way. It offered a good place to observe the artists and listen to their pre-show conversations, or watch them hold their guitars up to their ear to tune before heading out to the circle on center stage. Most importantly, the stool gave me the opportunity to see and hear utterly magic musical performances, more than I can count.
Hairl always announced the segment sponsored by Goo Goo Clusters. Hairl would introduce Carol Lee Cooper, the leader of the house band’s quartet of backup vocalists, by asking mischievously, , “How big are your Goo-Goos, Carol Lee?” That was always good for a chuckle. When he led the audience in applause, he would often reach into his coat pocket for his keys and jingle them into the microphone.
The artists all loved Hairl, too. One night when Lorrie Morgan was on the show, Hairl and I were walking out after his shift was over, planning to get a bite to eat, just as she was walking from dressing room to stage for her appearance. She saw Hairl and stopped to hug him and talk for a bit. As they wrapped up their conversation, I apologized for cutting out before her performance and told her I had to choose between that and going to dinner with Hairl. She smiled and said, “Oh, dinner with Hairl! Absolutely. Dinner with Hairl should win every time.”
In 2003 radio station ownership changed, and over the next year most of us moved on, or were helped along. Our radio family has stayed in contact, though, and over the years I’ve made it a point to visit Hairl every so often. I lost track of him for awhile, but I’m thankful to say I caught up with him again in November, in early December, and then, finally, just yesterday.
I knew they’d called in Hospice a few weeks prior, and I knew he had taken a turn for the worse over Christmas. I slipped into his apartment and saw he was asleep. I told him I was there, and he made a soft sound, but he didn’t open his eyes. So I just pulled up a chair and sat with him, sometimes holding his hand, sometimes making out a grocery list or texting, sometimes just thinking my thoughts. Funny how your mind keeps doing the mundane necessary things when you’re facing life’s greatest mystery.
Eventually I began humming and singing whatever song came to mind. He got quite an eclectic concert. The set list included a cappella renditions of some favorite hymns: “All The Way My Savior Leads Me” and “In The Garden.” Then I decided Hairl might want a little more variety, so I sang James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” and the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and threw in a good country shuffle with Rodney Crowell’s “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried,” and a country standard, “You Are My Sunshine.” Finally I sang “Amazing Grace.”
And then, after about 90 minutes, I had to leave. So I squeezed his hand and kissed his forehead and said goodbye and told him I loved him, and I slipped out of his room. And later, in the wee hours of this morning, he slipped out of this life.
I didn’t really realize it at first, but it has dawned on me that saying goodbye to Hairl means saying goodbye – yet again – to the happiest years of my professional life, working with people who loved the music first and foremost, and who loved working for the entities that brought that music into the lives of millions of people all over the world.
Hairl befriended and encouraged and mentored countless artists and broadcast professionals, and he did it all with laughter and kindness. As I read the tributes pouring in to him on Facebook, I realize how blessed we all were to have him in our lives. He was an integral part of my world for many years. I’m thankful I knew him. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.