Last night at Clark Park on the University of North Texas campus in Denton, country singer-songwriter Zane Williams performed for a dancing group of co-eds. Five days ago, however, the McKinney resident was making his debut on the hallowed stage of country music's greatest stage, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
While artists from Texas such as Wade Bowen, Aaron Watson, Sunny Sweeney and Randy Rogers have all made their Opry debuts in recent years, the 38-year-old Williams is one of the scant few from our corner of this state to have done so. For a country artist, the first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry is one the seminal moments a career will ever see, no matter how successful that artist may become over time. And given that the Opry has been broadcasting to large parts of the country since 1925, featuring every legendary name one can come-up with from Hank to Cash to Willie and Merle, no other genre these days can offer artists such a watershed moment.
This certainly isn't Williams' first dalliance with the Nashville big-time. In 1999, he moved there and chased the Music Row rainbow for a few years, only to see a song he wrote, Jason Michael Carroll's "Coming Home," become a hit as he and his wife moved back to Texas in 2009. So for Williams, as talented of a songwriter as there is currently touring in Texas and the surrounding states, the majesty and mystique of the Opry wasn't enough to make him tremble in his boots.
"I really wasn't that nervous, because I love country music and I was really comfortable with the house band," admits Williams, whose new album, Texas Like That, debuted in the Billboard Country Top 40 Albums list two weeks ago -- the highest chart debut of his career. "But as famous and historical as the Opry is, everyone was so down to earth and it felt like home to me."
Each weekend, the Opry hosts a number of acts, from newcomers to old-school stars, and last Saturday wasn't any different. Ricky Skaggs performed and acted as the evening's MC, while Connie Smith, JT Hodges, Jimmy Wayne and Striking Matches were also on the bill for the evening. Williams performed two songs from his new album, "Here's to You" and his recent Texas Music Charts hit single "Jayton and Jill," as one of the evening's final performers.
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Though Williams wasn't nervous, he couldn't help but grasp the significance of his time on the storied stage. While his shows, especially here in North Texas, are filled with fans, Saturday night's crowd had a rather unique section of supporters that may not make one of his local shows.
"It really was a celebration," he explains with a slight chuckle. "It was like when I got married, because my entire family made the trip, and many of my friends and a group of the fans that have supported me the longest even made the trip to see me. When my family was backstage, they were all getting teary eyed when I performed. I haven't had that many of my friends and family together for any of my shows before. It was just something really cool."
If the night wasn't already memorable enough for Williams and his family, there was a full-circle type of feel for Williams as Skaggs introduced him to the packed hall of country music super fans. About 15 years ago, Williams and his wife, Jodi, had the chance to catch some inspiration firsthand when they made their first visit to the Opry.
"A year or two after I had moved to Nashville, I won a songwriting competition," Williams recalls. "Part of the prize for winning was a couple of tickets and a backstage tour of the Opry. As we toured backstage, Jodi and I got to meet Diamond Rio, and then we watched the show from back there. That night really inspired me in a big way, and I thought about that moment when I was there to perform on Saturday night. There are a lot of different gigs that are really cool, but making my Opry debut was really special to me."
For now, Williams is quick to note that getting more songs on the charts and making his Opry debut will not soon change the way he handles his career or the way he manages his tour schedule. In the two days before hitting the Opry stage, he made his debut at the annual, Larry Joe Taylor Texas Music Festival -- basically a Texas Country Woodstock -- and played at the Grapevine location of Love and War in Texas on Friday night. And let's not forget the college gig last night. High-profile shows and better chart success are a part of his plan that's organic and deliberate, and has certainly paid off for other Texas-based artists that have recently seen national acclaim.
"I still believe in the slow and steady way of doing things," he says. "I look up to a guy like Aaron Watson, who I think represents the best of all worlds. He can sell out rooms in Colorado, have full creative control and coach his kid's teams at home and still land a No. 1 country album. I'm just chasing guys like him."
Williams admits that his reach has expanded well beyond the Red River region and if a few things turn his way, a larger-scale tour expanding across the country is a distinct possibility. He likes to think that his regional success, coupled with the kind of national exposure the Grand Ole Opry can offer, will lead to a broader audience. But for now, he's taking each milestone, CD sale and low-key weeknight gig for the treat each of them are.
"Texas is home to me, and I don't plan on leaving anytime soon," he says. "I feel like I've got it pretty good."
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