Darryl Worley’s Long Row to Hoe

They’ve been ringing the triangle a lot lately at the Worleybird Café, in Savannah, Tenn. Every time CMT shows Darryl Worley ‘s hit video “I Miss My Friend,” someone starts clanging away in honor of the hometown boy. The emotional clip first hit CMT’s Top 20 Countdown more than three months ago and currently sits at No. 2.

Worley, 37, is a native of Savannah, 140 miles southwest of Nashville. His wife, Beverly, co-owns the Worleybird Café, which boasts that it offers, “without a doubt,” the best prime rib the country singer has ever tasted.

The up-and-coming artist rarely gets to eat there, however. He has rigorous demands on his time, including a recent group interview at a Nashville studio. After 12 days on the road, Worley dutifully showed up at 11 a.m. wearing a blue “Honor Thy Country” T-shirt and carrying a guitar. Over the course of three hours, he performed a few new songs and fielded questions from reporters.

Right off the bat, someone asked Worley if he finds it difficult to remain rooted in country music when it’s almost expected of country stars to cross over.

“My grandpa would say, ‘It’s a long row to hoe,’” Worley replied. “I don’t know if anyone knows what that means, but you would know what it means if you grew up where I grew up. It is tough. I don’t believe I can do other styles of music and sound honest doing it, because I just don’t have that gift. I probably wouldn’t do it anyway, because country music is what I grew up on and what I loved. For the most part, those types of [country] songs have more to say.”

In the midst of a summer tour, Worley spent the night before his studio interview at the house outside Savannah that he and his father-in-law built from lumber they milled themselves. Worley says it’s tough having to get reacquainted with Beverly, whom he married in May 2001, each time he comes home.

“It’s not that either one of us has stopped loving one another,” he explains, “but when you’re never around somebody, every time we have a few minutes together we have to get to know each other again. People say, ‘Oh, it’s good to be away.’ Well, it is, but it ain’t no good to be away all the time.”

Finding spare time won’t get any easier. With the new album, also titled I Miss My Friend, Worley will attempt to establish himself as the rare artist who can turn a profit while staying true to traditional country music. His sturdy debut, 2000′s Hard Rain Don’t Last, introduced his straightforward songs to a reasonably receptive audience — “When You Need My Love,” “A Good Day to Run” and “Second Wind” were Top 20 hits. I Miss My Friend, combining consistently good material with a certified hit, could make him a genuine star.

“You get about halfway through your first album and you think, ‘Man, people are starting to figure out who I am,’” Worley said. “And then you get your first big smash, and you go, ‘Nobody knew who I was!’”

Tom Worley, Darryl’s father, quit a job in the local paper mill and entered the ministry when Darryl was about to start high school. The family moved around Tennessee over the course of five years. For a time, Darryl’s mother, Bonnie, separated from Tom, but the couple is reunited now and together they support Worley’s career.

After high school, Worley enrolled at Martin (Tenn.) Methodist College and, later, the University of North Alabama, where he earned a biology degree. He worked in the paper mill, in construction and as a commercial fisherman on the Tennessee River, for tuition money.

Around this time, he was in a romantic relationship that looked promising. However, the woman and her 9-year-old daughter were killed coming home from a Florida vacation, before he had a chance to introduce them to his mother.

“The life that I have led has enabled me to learn a lot in a short period of time,” Worley said. “Probably not as short as people think. I’ll be 38 years old in October. But my mom says I’ve lived more in that length of time than most 75-year-old people. I think that’s where you get the real truths and the real wisdom. You can learn a lot out of textbooks. I’ve done that too. But it doesn’t seem to get you through the tough times, like what you learn out of real life.”

Seventeen years after the devastating accident, the lingering pain found its way into the video for “I Miss My Friend,” which earned a Flameworthy Award nomination earlier this year. In the clip, Worley tearfully sings to actress Leslie Lesh. However, at the end of the music video, she walks through Worley (courtesy of special effects) and touches a TV screen at the other end of the room, showing footage of the two in happier times.

“I was reluctant about how much emotion I wanted to let shine through in this video,” Worley said. “You have to be real, but you gotta think, ‘How many guys out there are gonna appreciate the fact that I have broke down here.’ Honestly, I’ve been very surprised at how many come to me — big, burly guys — and say ‘I can’t hardly watch that thing. You about made me squall.’ And I just say, ‘Brother, let it out. I did.’”

Worley’s future plans include a light-hearted video for “Family Tree” and a fall tour with Trace Adkins. Both men are 6 feet 6 inches tall, and the package is called “Big Men of Country: Size Does Matter.”

“I’m staying within the boundaries of what I can do as a country singer,” Worley vows. “I would sound like a complete idiot singing this crossover stuff, so I just keep it country. That’s what we intend to do as long as we are blessed enough to do this. If it gets to the point where we can’t, we’ll go work at the Worleybird Café.”