Live at the Ryman

On Life and Love After 50 eNewsletter

By Tom P. Blake – columnist

August 26, 2022


Man In Black by Johnny Cash autographed to Tom Blake on Aug 15, 1975

In September 2019, when Ken Burns’ eight-part film series “Country Music” premiered on PBS, my partner Greta and I watched the series in two-hour segments. We loved it. After that, we started watching more country music programs on YouTube.

This Monday night, I turned on YouTube music while working on a Sudoku puzzle before going to sleep. YouTube music often presents us with a choice of country music selections based on our previous viewings.

I noticed Monday that “Country Music. Live at the Ryman,” was on and featured many of my favorite country music stars. I thought perhaps it was a segment from the 2019 “Country Music” series, but it wasn’t. It was a two-hour show, also produced by Ken Burns, that promoted the release of the upcoming 16-hour “Country Music” series.

“Live at the Ryman” was released in March 2019 and filmed at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, which was home to the Grand Ole Opry for 31 years until the Opry was relocated a few miles away in March 1974. Greta and I took a tour of the Ryman in 2017.

That Ryman tour touched me deeply as my friends Johnny and June Carter Cash, on March 15, 1974, sang the final Opry song at the Ryman, which was “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” (Made popular by the Carter Family and others).

Many of you know that I worked with Johnny in 1975 and 1976 when I was the director of Marketing for the Victoria Station Restaurant Chain (restaurants were built of boxcars and cabooses–Johnny loved trains). Johnny agreed to do our radio commercials.

On the night that his band recorded the music for our commercials at the House of Cash recording studio in Hendersonville, Tenn., Johnny invited some of his friends to play along with the band. Band members included Carl Perkins (Blue Suede Shoes), Larry Gatlin of the Gatlin Brothers, Earl “Pool” Ball (piano), W.S. Holland (drums), and Marshall Grant (bass). I think Marty Stuart and Rodney Crowell were there as well. I got to meet them all.

While watching “Live at the Ryman” on Monday night, I started to feel a little nostalgic. Especially when Larry Gatlin sang my favorite Johnny Cash song, “Sunday Morning Coming Down (written by Kris Kristofferson). Once, at the Sahara Resort in Lake Tahoe, Johnny asked me before the show what my favorite song of his was. He opened the show by dedicating that song to me before an audience of 2,000 people.

I have remained friends with Rosanne Cash. When Rosanne sang on the show, “I Still Miss Someone,” a song her dad, Johnny, wrote for her, it was a real grabber for me.

Marty Stuart was on the show. He had played guitar for Johnny and was married to Cindy Cash, Rosanne’s sister for a while.

Seeing Vince Gill playing guitar on nearly every song, regardless of the artist singing was indicative of his versatility and talent. Gil has been a regular at the Grand Ole Opry for years.

When Greta and I were having a private VIP backstage tour at Opryland in 2017, we walked past Gill’s dressing room. He was there receiving lots of visitors, so we did not get to meet him. Our tour had been set up by Johnny’s long-time manager and dear friend of mine, Lou Robin, who was still overseeing Johnny’s royalties, 24 years after Johnny had passed away.

I got to know the Carter family well. Mother Maybelle was a sweetheart, and June’s sisters, Helen and Anita were always nice to me. Mother Maybelle played an instrument called The Carter Scratch. Her best-known song is “Wildwood Flower.”

Anita Carter, June’s sister, had one of the purest women’s voices in the history of country music. Her singing of the song “Peace In The Valley” was breathtaking. Anita’s husband, Bob Wootton, and I became buddies during the two years.

When “Live At The Ryman” ended with the entire cast returning to the stage, and singing, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” I nearly lost it. Rosanne was front and center and she and Dwight Yoakam were having fun up there together. Ken Burns was even on stage singing. I thought to myself, how fortunate I have been to have known so many of these talented people.

By the way, I was so captivated that I didn’t make one entry in the Sudoku puzzle!

In 2015, I published an eBook on, titled, “The Johnny Cash I Knew. A Kind and Caring Man.” The 64-page book details my time spent with Johnny and June. It’s $2.99. I think you’d enjoy it. The link is below. Once it opens, type the book’s title in the search box.


As I often do, I include an appropriate song in my articles. There were many from which to choose but I think this version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is exceptional, as many country music people are featured. Johnny opens the video. Watch for the picture of June Carter Cash near the end.

Link to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”

Finally getting to meet Willie Nelson (well, sort of)

On Life and Love After 50 eNewsletter October 2, 2020

By Columnist Thomas P Blake

Finally getting to meet Willie Nelson (well, sort of)

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that Greta and I would be attending an outdoor drive-in-movie-style concert in Irvine, California on September 25.

It was to see “True Willie,” the most authentic Willie Nelson tribute band in the world. I had never met the real Willie in person although I tried a few times at concerts.

My Stand Up Paddle Boarding buddy Russell Kerr and his wife Pam know True Willie. Russell said, “My friend Roger Hegyi has a band called ‘True Willie.’

I recalled Greta and I seeing True Willie perform four years ago at an outdoor concert at the Mission San Juan Capistrano. They were fabulous. We were amazed how much Roger looked like, and sounded like, the real Willie Nelson.

Russell had said two weeks ago, “True Willie is playing at a unique outdoor concert on September 25 at the Great Park in Irvine.”

“During this pandemic?” I said.

Russell stated, “It’s a drive-in-movie type of concert. You sit in your car or in socially distanced lawn chairs next to your car. My wife Pam and I are going.

“Why don’t you and Greta come and park next to us? I can introduce you to Roger after the show. He’s not Willie Nelson, but he’s the closest thing to Willie you’ll ever meet.”

“How do you know him?”

“Pam worked with Roger’s wife, Diane, at Aegis Assisted Living on Niguel Road, a few years back.”

Greta and I bought a car ticket in advance; the cost was only $30. We followed the Kerr’s car. To ensure we could park near the stage, we got to the Great Park an hour before the show. We were cars number four and five, respectively, in line.

Our cars were parked 20 feet apart in row two, with a clear view to the stage. We sat outside the cars in lawn chairs. It was a great concert. After each song, the audience would honk their car horns in appreciation. True Willie liked that.

The band played about 20 songs including three of my favorites: “Pancho and Lefty,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” and “Seven Spanish Angels.”

 True Willie and the Boys Irvine California September 25 2020

And yes, after the concert, Russell led us to the front of the stage. He said he had mentioned to True Willie that Greta and I would be there. When True Willie saw us with Russell, he yelled out, “Hello Tom, hello Greta.” Pretty cool for a guy we’d never met. But it was getting dark and lots of people wanted to say hello also.

I handed Roger an autographed copy of my book, “Prime Rib & Boxcars. Whatever Happened to Victoria Station?” The front cover features a 1976 picture of Johnny Cash and me together in front of the Victoria Station restaurant in Newport Beach. I thought Roger would get a quick out of it. 

Tom Blake’s book available at the bookstore listed below

Russell said, “We’ll meet Roger next week when we have time to talk.”

On Wednesday, Roger, Russell, and I met at the Coffee Importers in Dana Point Harbor.

I asked Roger: “How long have you been a musician and when and why did you become a Willie Nelson tribute band?”

Roger said, “I’ve been 50 years in the music business. Nine years ago, my family and I were attending a concert at the Greek Theater in L.A. There was a huge photo of Willie on the side of the building promoting an upcoming Willie Nelson concert.

“My daughter looked at me, and then at Willie, and said, “Dad, you are Willie. And I now am.”

Roger added, “I don’t do it for the money; I do it to make a difference and share the music of an icon.”

Over a cup of coffee, I was finally able to tell Willie Nelson (well, sort of) how much Johnny Cash thought of him. It took me 45 years to pull that off.

He handed me an autographed cd of 11 of  his songs.

If Dana Point can bring back the outdoor concerts in Sea Terrace Park next summer (canceled this year due to the pandemic), maybe “True Willie and the Boys” will be invited to perform.

Here is True Willie’s website.

P.S. this comment was added a week later. Meeting True Willie inspired me to call my long-time friend, Lou Robin, Johnny Cash’s manager from 1972 until Johnny passed away. Since then, Lou has done estate work for the Cash family. Lou in his career produced over 5,000 concerts, many of those for Johnny Cash. I worked with Lou 45 years ago; we remain great friends.