Star Friends Celebrate Johnny Russell

They could see him, all right.

Grand Ole Opry star Johnny Russell sat squarely in front of the stage at the Opry House for two-and-a-half hours Thursday night (March 22) as dozens of his famous friends serenaded him and wished him a speedy recovery.

The mountainous Russell — who always greets his audiences with “Can you see me all right?” –has been hospitalized for the past 17 weeks with a variety of ailments. Fans filled approximately three-fourths of the 4,500-seat Grand Ole Opry House for his benefit show. More than 70 singers and musicians donated their services for the event, as did its producer, Hee Haw veteran Sam Lovullo.

The show was videotaped, but Lovullo says he doesn’t know yet if it will be made available for broadcast or sale.

As expected, Garth Brooks, the next-to-last act to perform, drew the loudest and most sustained cheers from the audience. But the quality of entertainment and Ralph Emery’s deft hosting kept the enthusiasm bubbling high all evening. To work in all the artists who wanted to pay tribute, Lovullo organized ensemble acts. A chorus line dubbed “The Ladies of the Grand Ole Opry” (Carol Lee Cooper, Jeannie Seely, Jean Shepard, Connie Smith, Sharon White and Cheryl White) opened with a cooing, swaying, high-kicking — make that low-kicking — rendition of “Oh, Johnny, Oh.” (“These are the ladies Johnny didn’t marry,” Emery quipped.)

Vince Gill followed the “Ladies of the Opry” chorus line with a solo segment. He offered to keep up the terpsichorean spirit of the evening by doing Russell a lap dance; but he settled for singing “The Key of Life” and “When I Call Your Name.” When Emery inquired about Gill and Amy Grant’s new baby girl, the singer proclaimed her “”the best child in the whole world,” marveling that she had slept a total of six hours the past two nights

It was a tossup as to whether the best show was on stage or backstage. As they waited to go on, artists cruised the halls and roamed the “green room,” renewing acquaintances and telling jokes in various shades of blue. Eddie Stubbs, WSM’s magisterial disc jockey, set up shop in the waiting area and broadcast his radio show live. Steve Wariner, who was having vocal problems, communicated with friends and fans by scribbling his comments on a child’s blackboard he carried around with him.

Although there were variations on the theme, the show principally featured songs that Russell had written or recorded. Seely, Porter Wagoner and Charlie Louvin sang “Making Plans.” John Conlee, the Osborne Brothers and Bobby Bare did “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer.” Roy Clark, Gill, Ricky Skaggs and Earl Scruggs tendered Russell’s best-known composition, “Act Naturally.”

Russell, who looked frail throughout most of the evening, beamed as Skaggs and the Whites (including a nicely recuperating Buck White) sang the rousing spiritual “Go Where I Send Thee.”

Lovullo leavened the music with comedy turns from George “Goober” Lindsey, impressionist Johnny Counterfit and the Opry’s own Mike Snider. For his impression of Buck Owens, Counterfit called in Bobby Wright to sing the Don Rich harmony part. (Wright is the singing son of Kitty Wells and Johnnie Wright.) Tommy Cash, Johnny’s younger brother, joined Counterfit for a dead-on version of “I Walk the Line.”

With a manic gleam in his eye, Snider told the crowd that he had just called home to check on his wife, Sweetie, who had alarmed him with the report that there were 40 dogs in their back yard. “Are they mad?” he asked her. “Two of them ain’t,” she observed.

Mac Wiseman led an all-star group in the classic weeper “Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy.” He was aided in this effort by newcomer Matt King, who playfully traded vocal licks with the old bluegrass master. Also helping Wiseman out were fiddler Ramona Jones (Grandpa’s widow), Skaggs, Gill, Scruggs and Clark.

Other highlights included Del Reeves, Bill Anderson, David Wilkins and Johnny Tillotson doing “Catfish John”; Mandy Barnett, Charlie Walker, Dickey Lee and Jimmy C. Newman on “Let’s Fall to Pieces Together”; Stu Phillips, Smith, Jim Ed Brown and Larry Stephenson on “Ain’t You Even Gonna Cry”; and Jack Greene, Little Jimmy Dickens, Stonewall Jackson and Bill Carlisle on “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor.”

Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and backed by the Carol Lee Singers, Brooks sang “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damned Old),” “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” “The River,” “Two Pina Coladas,” “To Make You Feel My Love,” “Friends in Low Places” and “Beans,” the parody variant of “Friends.” He thanked Russell for welcoming him into the Grand Ole Opry.

Brooks’ performances were regularly interrupted by screams from the audience and shouts of “Garth, we love you.” Even the industry insiders who stood in the wings were uncharacteristically quiet and attentive for the duration of his set. After the curtain came down at 10 p.m., Brooks stayed on stage for another hour to sign autographs and pose for pictures. He has started recording what he says will be his final album, but he’s still clearly in possession of all his charisma.

The effervescent Oak Ridge Boys closed the show with “Elvira” and “Let Us Have a Little Talk With Jesus.” At the end, friends wheeled Russell on stage. “Can you see me all right?” he asked weakly, as everyone around him applauded. “Let me tell you,” he continued, “if you ever need one of these [benefits], I hope I can get there.” For the finale, the entire cast came out to deliver the lyrical pep talk “You Gotta Have Heart.”

Backstage, Walker strode down the hall grinning at passersby. “Boy, that was a hell of a show, wasn’t it?” he said.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.