BIRMINGHAM, Ala. When Darryl Worley steps into the circle of parquet floor on center stage at the Grand Ole Opry, he can't help but feel a flush amid the glow of spotlights due to the decades of performers who have come before him in that same spot.
A native Tennessean and lifelong outdoorsman, Worley has had 18 hit singles and sold nearly 2 million copies of his works. He appreciates the traditions of his craft and its history as much as those traditions passed on in the woods or waters by his family and friends when he was younger.
"The Opry is one thing that still gives me pride and a great sense of accomplishment," he said last autumn from his tour bus rolling down an interstate. "Around home and with my family, that's Mecca. It may not mean the same to some people who are big-time country stars now and it's probably an age thing, but when we were growing up listening to the radio or watching on TV, it's like UT football. It's a tradition and a cool one, far as I'm concerned.
"I bump elbows with Jeannie Seely and Jimmy Dickens and Bill Anderson, and it's very surreal. It's a very sweet thing and I cherish that. There's no more sacred tradition in country music than the Grand Ole Opry. We continue to show our loyalty to it and love and cherish the moments we get there.
"It's a unique kind of thing. It still has a family-oriented feel to it and I know there's people out there who probably have watched and laughed and made fun of it, but that's because they don't get it. It's just precious to me and I am so thankful for the times we get there on that round piece of wood that came from the Ryman."
Life on the road doesn't offer a lot of time for Worley to go hunting or fishing. He slips away during winter if he's visiting family at his boyhood home in Savannah, Tenn., just a short hop from Pickwick Dam. Within minutes he can be in the woods on his family farm, or if he wants to wet a line, Pickwick Lake and the head of Kentucky Lake are nearby for catfish, panfish and bass. Worley currently lives near Nashville.
A telephone interview scheduled for about 10-15 minutes stretches to more than 45 with two interruptions from dead zones. Worley doesn't mind.
"Man, this is cool," he says, laughing. "No one ever calls me to talk about hunting or fishing."
Worley was raised in tiny Savannah, which sits on the east side of the Tennessee River and is a slow 'n go town on U.S. 64.
You'll pass a few restaurants, antique stores and local businesses on the main drag. The Tennessee River Museum contains artifacts found in the area. About 10 miles west of town, Shiloh National Military Park spans more than 4,000 acres, much of it overlooking the river, where some of the bloodiest and costliest fighting occurred during the Civil War.
Worley knows all the nooks and crannies of his hometown and many of the people who live there. He grew up with friends at school and church, many of whom also hunted and fished.
"Growing up in that area there wasn't much else to do," he said. "We did a little bit of everything: hunting, fishing, trapping, digging ginseng, whatever. We did everything outdoors. I guess it kept us out of some trouble…some of it, anyway.
"The outdoors is just a way of life down there and it's not just a few people. Everyone pretty much is involved. It's not a bad thing, either, because if you're interested in hunting or fishing, that's a great area. It's something I want to pass on to my children because it's cool to know the stuff we did. Our dads were there to teach us (boys) all that stuff."
When the time came for Worley to start hunting deer, his father wasn't about to rush into anything. Common sense and education would prevail.
"Dad was right on top of it…going from squirrel to deer hunting is different in shooting a shotgun to high-powered rifle, and he was concerned with our safety, obviously. "He taught us to look for signs, how to put up a good and safe deer stand, what to expect and what to do to bag that buck.
"Lot of people would say that's not rocket science and I guess it's not, but a lot goes into it. I learned a lot that I take with me now. One thing from that is having diligence and patience. If you're looking for a good buck, you have to have patience. Sometimes that's the same thing in business. It may be tough but you have to have patience."
Worley killed his first deer, a doe, when he was "about 9 or 10 years old" with a 35-caliber Marlin rifle. The track petered out but Worley was confident he had made a good shot, and he persisted and found the deer. That set off years of hunting until, he decided, it was time for a bigger challenge.
"I don't know how many I've killed and I got to where I just about didn't shoot one with a rifle," he said. "If I go now, I enjoy hunting with a bow because it's more of a challenge."
Road to success
Worley worked as a commercial fisherman on the river after graduating from high school.
"Just about everyone in my family made their living off that river in a towboat or whatever," he said. "I used to run two nets, a basket, trot lines, channel nets and eventually we got into spoonbills and egg fishing (for roe). I made a lot of money doing that and still have friends who do that up in Ohio.
"It's a tough business with long, tough hours. You're up early and working late. You learn about the river, about taking care of yourself and your family, but you also learn about the outdoors doing that kind of work."
Worley banked on the experiences of his bluegrass-loving grandfather and his mother, who sang in church. He earned a college degree in biology with a minor in organic chemistry while, according to his biography, "balancing the hellion and the seeker as he grew up."
Worley always had singing in mind, though, and the nagging dream to pursue a career in music gnawed at him. He said the advice of his father, a minister, to chase the dream while he was still young and able to do so.
He signed with legendary Fame Publishing in Muscle Shoals, Ala., to write songs for $150 a week and his career began to take off. In 1994 he landed on Music Row in Nashville in 1994. Since then he has recorded six albums, sold nearly 2 million copies and has been nominated for five major ACM and CMA awards, including "Song of the Year" and "Single of the Year."
From that success, Worley has given back to his hometown through his Darryl Worley Foundation's songwriter's weekend and popular "River Run" bass tournament. He has raised and donated more than $200,000 to the Hardin County Medical Center, with the money earmarked for a cancer treatment center named after him. Other beneficiaries include St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Last year, he climbed the charts again with his album "Sounds Like Life" and song "Sounds Like Life to Me" that struck a nerve with its common man theme so prevalent in his music. His next single from the album, Best of Both Worlds," is to be released Jan. 25. "Sounds Like Life" came via his independent efforts after two deals with publishing companies fell apart due to a corporate restructuring and closure.
That turning point enabled Worley to step back to what he called a return to his roots, evident in the lyrics of many of his songs reminiscent of his first album and days on the road in small venues.
"There's no way to tell you how important that was and what a huge blessing that is at this point in my career," he said of "Sounds Like Life." "Those are really hard to manufacture with what we've gone through to set up another charge for industry and radio market."
Worley said all of his life experiences are "the stuff I've had success with and we've been real blessed with the timing. If you can keep your finger on the pulse, that can make a difference for you. The things I've had success with have been real-life happenings or current events I've written about. I keep doing that and people keep connecting with it. It's almost like an awareness and what's around you, and if you write a cool song about it people are going to dig it."
Worley will be playing Feb. 19 at the Bassmaster Classic prior to the opening-day weigh-in in Birmingham. Visit his Web site at www.darrylworley.com.