Richard Hyatt

Richard Hyatt: Paying tribute to the greats

When a Baptist church lends tables and chairs from their fellowship hall to a rowdy honky-tonk, you know something big is brewing, and in a town like Buena Vista, it didn’t get any bigger than George Jones.

It was after 10:30 p.m. before Jones showed up at the Silver Moon, a faceless metal building where they used to manufacture modular prisons. No one knows how many people squeezed in there, but if census takers had been diligent, it would have been the largest town in Marion County, considerably more than Buena Vista's 1,493.

Many in that boisterous crowd had been drinking the hard stuff since afternoon, about the time word bounced through town that Jones' tour bus was making a ceremonial swing around the courthouse square.

It's not often that the world's greatest country singer comes to town, and Jones wasn't the only celebrity in the house that night in 1992. Georgia Gov. Zell Miller came to hear his fellow Marine one more time.

The emcee was Johnny Outlaw, a small fellow with a large Stetson, who sure did look a lot like current Muscogee County School Board member Mark Cantrell. He was hyping upcoming events and pushing beer sales when he pointed to the balcony to his left.

"And by the way, folks, the Silver Moon has a special guest tonight -- the governor of Georgia, the Honorable Zell Miller." The spotlight hit Miller, and nasty boos, catcalls and Rebel Yells exploded on cue.

Miller wanted to change the beloved 1956 Georgia Flag, and people who believed there should be a fiddle in the band didn't like that at all.

Old George finally came out and his influence made people cheer the governor. He reminded folks that Zell was his friend. "Give him a big hand," Jones said. So they did.

Jones was 81 when he died in 2013, but fans didn't stop loving him that day. That's why the Springer Opera House is presenting "Why Baby Why," the music of George Jones and Tammy Wynette. From April 16-25, Steve Valentini and Debbie Anderson will put on their best twang and perform the music of a couple that turned a soap opera marriage into Top 10 hits.

"We just sing. We try not to portray them," Valentini said.

The veteran actor won't mimic Jones, who understood better than most singers what to do with a lyric -- when to whisper and when to wail. Booze could keep him from showing up, but it never dulled his instincts. He had a certain lonesome style, even when he and Tammy shared the stage.

There's dialogue but mainly there is music. "We tell their story and pay tribute to their music," he said.

One thing isn't true to The Possum. Valentini plans to wear a cowboy hat.

Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at hyatt31906