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Tables get turned on Eddie Stubbs

By Henry Carrigan, January 2013

For 16 years, Eddie Stubbs has ruled the airwaves in Nashville; since 1996, he's regaled listeners with stories about country and bluegrass artists new and old, cued up 45s and 78s of classic country songs, and introduced the pure strains of country music and the deep history of that music to everyone who's tuned into 650 WSM-AM.

From 7 p.m. to midnight, Monday through Friday, Stubbs' evening show can be heard over the airwaves on WSM from 38 states and parts of Canada as well as worldwide over wsmoline.com. As the longest-running DJ in that time slot in the 87-year history of the station, Stubbs - the 2002 Country Music Association's Large Market Broadcast Personality of the Year and 2012 inductee into the Country Radio Hall of Fame - has become a legend in his own time, adored by his listeners and beloved by country music artists.

The late Kitty Wells and her late husband, Johnnie Wright, brought Stubbs to Nashville in 1995 to play fiddle in their band. A life-long fiddle player - he started playing at age 4 - he played in the Johnson Mountain Boys, a Grammy-nominated bluegrass band, from 1978 to 1996, and there are plenty of musicians who testify to Stubbs' intense hard-driving style and his bass singing voice. In 1983, he started his life in radio at WYII in Williamsport, Md. and moved in 1984 to WAMU in Washington, D.C. In 1995, he became the announcer at the Grand Ole Opry and a year later started as the evening host at WSM.

Stubbs is fond of saying on his show, "you don't know what's coming next" on his show. One minute he'll be walking over to the turntable to drop the needle on a John Hughey pedal steel break in order to replay those soaring musical moments; another minute he'll be telling the story of the making of a record; at yet another moment, he'll be talking with an artist and letting him or her talk about and play his or her favorite tunes.

Often, Stubbs will invite an artist into the studio, for what could easily become a four-hour conversation about the artist's new album. One night Merle Haggard stopped by unannounced to chat with Stubbs, and for over three hours Stubbs let him play the music of his choice, talking about the history of songs.

"All I ever wanted to be was a good hillbilly disc jockey," Stubbs once said. A couple of years ago, he told Peter Cooper of The Tennessean that "the old-school hillbilly disc jockeys that really made a difference in this business knew the music, they knew the people who made the music, and they were in touch with the community."

On Jan. 14, the community whose lives Stubbs has touched so deeply honored him for his 30 years in radio with a 2-1/2-hour tribute chock full of laughter, tears, memories, and music in the Ford Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

WSM morning DJ Bill Cody hosted the night, billed as an "Intimate Evening With Eddie Stubbs" - turning the table on Stubbs who hosts various artists in the same venue at monthly intimate evening events; on this night, Stubbs took his seat on the front row and watched transfixed as an amazing array of musicians representing contemporary and traditional country music, bluegrass, cowboy music, and gospel (The Chuck Wagon Gang sent an audio clip), and ranging from Larry Stephenson, Josh Turner, Shawn Camp to Jean Shepard, Gene Watson, Del McCoury and Ricky Skaggs, among a whole host of others, took the stage, sharing memories of their friendships with Stubbs and singing some of his favorite music. A group made of people made up of musicians who play in the Grand Ole Opry staff band, led by guitarist Jimmy Capps, played masterfully behind each artist, except for Riders in the Sky.

The music was hot, but the stories that various friends of Stubbs shared provided the golden threads holding together the glorious tapestry of the evening. Bill Anderson recalled the first time he heard Stubbs; back on Memorial Day weekend in 1992, Anderson was scheduled to play a show in Boonsboro, Md. , and a thunderstorm delayed the concert.

Sitting down in his bus to wait out the storm, Anderson began to search for a baseball game on the radio, and instead landed on a show playing a Carl and Pearl Butler song; Anderson sat there for 20 minutes listening to this station and the DJ telling the deep history of each song; he then wrote Stubbs a fan letter, saying he hoped he could meet him one day.

Too Slim, the cowboy poet of Riders in the Sky, read a poem extolling Stubbs' encyclopedic knowledge of country music: "I once thought I knew country music/But neighbor let me tell you what/Compared to the mighty, magnificent Eddie/I know exactly squat."

Haggard sent a video greeting (the audio portion of which was played at the event), and a day later, Stubbs received a video from the Pistol Annies as well. Gov Bill Haslam declared Jan. 14 "A Day of Recognition," for Stubbs, and Tennessee Music Commissioner Hank Adam Locklin, Hank Locklin's son, called Stubbs the "keeper of the keys" of country music.

The most touching moment of the evening was 87-year-old Ray Price's (who's been battling illness) - who traveled more than 500 miles on his bus from his home in Texas that morning to be at the event and turned around and rode back home after the event - appearance at the podium to offer his praise and love to Stubbs and the two gentlemen of country music embracing each other at center stage.

Stubbs once said, "I didn't get into this business to talk about myself. The DJ's job is to bring the artist's music to the listener when the act could not be there to do it themselves. In the case of a deceased artist, I hope we can reacquaint listeners with the music or introduce it to someone who may never have heard it."

As Ronnie Milsap (for whose latest album, "Country Again" Stubbs was the executive producer) closed the evening with a soaring rendition of (I'd Be) A Legend in My Time - a fitting description of Stubbs - we all knew that this had been an "anointed night," Stubbs' phrase for an especially successful and memorable broadcast.

A podcast of the show at the Country Music Hall of Fame is available on wsmonline.com.