Thank you, Hairl

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Hairl Hensley, Opry Announcer.
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

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Me and Hairl getting photo-bombed by WSM news guy Buddy Sadler at a WSM alumni quarterly lunch in 2014.
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.

On Being Intentional

I went to see an old friend today.

He’d been on my mind for two or three months. Last time I’d seen him, probably a year ago or longer, he was living in a condominium complex for senior adults, and had had some health issues and lost a lot of weight, but was holding his own.

But I had failed to follow up, and in recent weeks he had tugged at the corners of my mind. Then I saw a Facebook post a mutual friend had posted thanking people who had been praying for him, and a photo of him looking a mite haggard but smiling. I messaged her to see what was going on with him. This time, she told me, she had thought it was all over. But he came through, and was well enough for visitors, she said. “Go see him! He would love to see you!” So I did.

He was in a rehabilitation center recovering after a close call with kidney failure and the cumulative effects of diabetes and congestive heard failure. When I tiptoed up to his room, armed with a bag of Russell Stover sugarless candies, he was lying on his side, covered to his chin in a light blanket, and sleeping deeply. But his color looked good, and at the sight of his familiar features relaxed in sleep, my heart flooded with affection. I thought of all the things he had taught me about radio and bluegrass music, all the jokes he told, all the funny stories about different country music people, how he would play “Happy Birthday” on the kazoo during his radio show. How he used to let me go backstage with him at the Ryman Auditorium when he was emceeing the bluegrass series in its early years, or, backstage at the Opry House, how he would invite me to sit on the stool next next to the announcer’s podium, just behind the big red curtain where I had a close-up view of the show. A large part of what I know of Nashville lore I learned from him. Some of my best Nashville memories happened because of him.

Now I debated whether or not to awaken him. I slipped the bag of candy out of my purse and placed it on the bedside table, and stepped out into the hall, where I flagged down a nurse. She assured me he had been asleep for awhile and would be awakened soon anyway for dinner, and encouraged me to wake him up.

I went back into his room, put my hand gently on his shoulder, and softly called his name. His eyes opened, then he focused on me, and a smile of infinite sweetness crossed his face. “Hiiiii!” he said softly, and opened his arms for a hug. “It’s been so long!”

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Saturday night I saw an old friend for the first time in three years.  We had gathered at the home of some mutual friends for an informal night of making tacos and watching a movie. (Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them – I thoroughly enjoyed it, muggle though I may be.)

Winnie The Pooh Friend Quote Winnie The Pooh Friendship Quotes. Quotesgram

We caught up on each other’s lives and families, and cars. She gave me a ride around the block in her Subaru, which fit, she said, as though it had been made for her. She demonstrated the inadequate synchronizing of her phone with the car by showing me how it announced, without her requesting it, that it was going to call Couple A and B. I asked her who Couple A and B were, and she said, “They lived across the road from me when I was growing up, and next to my grandmother.”

 

“I remember them! He came and got the mouse out of the trap when you had a dead mouse!” I exclaimed.

“Yes!” she said, and we laughed, delighted that we have such a depth of history that we remember such minute details about each other.

We think maybe we won’t wait three or four years to see each other again.

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Last weekend I went to dinner with a group of people – some friends, some strangers – who had gathered to honor J, a mutual friend who had recently died. Last week J would have turned 42, and her next door neighbor decided she would contact different people who had known J, and we would celebrate her birthday, and speak of her and remember her and all the things we loved about her. It would give us the chance to feel, for a short time, as though she was in our midst again.

As it turns out, we sat around a long table that discouraged mingling, but over the course of the evening we all managed to visit with someone we had just met, all because of J and her impact on our lives.

I had known J for probably 16 years but saw her rarely and had never had the chance to get to know her well. We had mutual friends and hung out together, attended the same Halloween party, liked ballroom dancing and cats and talking politics.

I got to know her best on Facebook. She had a wicked sense of humor. She took a bus to and from her job at Vanderbilt University, and she frequently began her Facebook posts with “Overheard on the bus:…” followed by some astute insight into human nature that could make you laugh until you cried. Or think about something in a new way. Or both.

We knew we liked and respected each other, but we never had the chance to develop a friendship with the depth we knew it had the potential of having. So when I mourned her, I also mourned that lost potential.

After we left the restaurant, we all stood in a circle and shared who we were, how we had met J, and our most vivid impressions and favorite memories of her. Another mutual friend said that she, like me, had not had the chance to know J the way she would have wanted.

“If there’s anything her death has brought home to me,” our mutual friend said, “it’s that we must be intentional in our relationships with one another.”

Amen.

To Harmonize Is Life

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I love to harmonize.

I’m not a professional musician, but I love to sing, and while I don’t have perfect or even relative pitch, I do have a good ear.

I’m told by my parents that before I was tall enough to see over the keyboard, I was picking out melodies on our family piano. This did not translate into an ability to play piano well (trust me), but it might have been an indication of my future musical inclinations.

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I sang in church choirs growing up, and always sang alto, never quite growing comfortable with my head voice enough to hit the higher notes that the melody line in hymns and sacred music generally requires. …Well, I can hit some of them, but it’s really better if I don’t.

Also, when I was in 6th grade I joined the band, playing French horn. French horns have occasional sweeping, majestic melodic lines, but because of their mellow mid-range sound, composers also rely on French horns to provide harmony and depth to a piece.

And then there was the music that surrounded me as I was growing up in the Bible belt Deep South. I had a lot of exposure to Southern gospel quartets and church hymns. My older brother and sister exposed me to recording artists of the 1960s and 1970s that emphasized harmonies: Simon & Garfunkel; Peter, Paul & Mary; Crosby, Stills & Nash; the Eagles.

20321280.2And so it was that whenever I listened to the radio and to my favorite records, I would find myself singing harmony, sometimes making up a harmony line where there was none. I still do that.

When I got to college, I found myself in a 40-member choral group, and I fell in love with singing as part of a group. At the time I was a better French horn player than singer, but singing in a chorus brought me a level of musical satisfaction I had never experienced. It still brings me joy.

This is where the Harmonizing Analogies are supposed to come in, where you compare harmonies in music with harmonizing different parts of your life. Where you talk about how much more smoothly things go when everything is in sync. Or when relationships run smoothly, you’re said to be “in harmony” with one another. When we meditate we help bring ourselves into harmony with our Creator and our world and our inner selves. Or when you encourage diversity with the quote about how you don’t get harmony by everyone singing the same note.

That’s all very lovely, and true, but, well, it feels clichéd, and of course, harmony is much harder to achieve in life than in music. But I will say this, cliché or no. Sometimes you don’t know what your life is missing until something comes along to fill in the chord. Your life can be like a happy melody line that is good on its own. But then another voice comes in, and you realize it’s better. And then a third and maybe even a fourth voice comes in, and there’s a deep sense of completion that you didn’t even know you were missing.

And just as the fullness and perfection and the beauty of the harmonies in the chord in that moment of perfection will surprise you, life also presents you with the occasional rare moment of perfect harmony.

It may only be for a moment in time, but that sense of building something good and fun and lovely, of being part of a chord of perfect harmony, is…well, it’s one of life’s gifts to us. Sweet as a lollipop.

Listening to the Brothers Gibb build a chord to make their signature harmonies. 

via Daily Prompt: Harmonize