After a successful tour of western Canada with Rusty Elder and the White Crackers, Rutherford County native Larry Pinkerton returned to Tennessee with fellow “Cracker” Paul Hollowell. Primarily a blues guitarist, Pinkerton saw in Canada the international popularity of country music and honed his skill and knowledge of that musical genre.
Back in Nashville, Pinkerton and Hollowell started playing all original tunes with singer/songwriter Randy Giles. “Playing all original work is great for creative satisfaction, but equals no money,” says Pinkerton. Drummer Eddie Payton was part of the group and also played on the Grand Ole Opry and toured with Opry star Skeeter Davis.
Born Mary Frances Penick in Kentucky in 1931, Davis was nicknamed “Skeeter” by her grandfather because she was “always buzzing about.” In high school she teamed with Betty Jack Davis to form a duet called the Davis Sisters. In 1952 the Davis Sisters signed with RCA, and in 1953 cut an enormously successful single titled “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know.” Soon after this success, Betty Jack Davis was killed in a car accident. Skeeter then teamed with Betty Jack’s sister, but the act never regained its early success. Eventually, keeping the Davis surname, she moved to Nashville to record as a solo artist with Chet Atkins as her producer.
In a career that included 20 years on the charts, Davis recorded more than 40 country hits and at least eight that made the pop charts. Her recordings included some of the most successful crossover country music, including the wistful ballad “The End of the World” which made the top five on country, pop and R&B charts, and hit the top of the adult contemporary chart. The single sold more than a million copies and became the artist’s signature song. In 1959 Davis became a regular on the Grand Ole Opry and was the first female country singer to be nominated for a Grammy Award, one of five career nominations.
When Eddie Payton told Pinkerton and Hollowell that Skeeter Davis was looking for a new guitarist and a keyboard player, they quickly agreed to audition. “Paul could handle any style of music, but I was concerned about auditioning for a country band because I played like what I was — a blues guitarist,” remembers Pinkerton. “The first audition song was classic country — ‘Am I that Easy to Forget?’ We turned it into a Ray Charles-style blues number.
“I was saved by the blues…Skeeter dug what we did. Then at Skeeter’s request, I kicked off ‘The End of the World.’ This was Skeeter’s iconic, mournful, pop and country crossover hit. Paul and I had worked it up in anticipation of the audition. There we were, two young cats not sure where next month’s rent was coming from, playing for Skeeter Davis–a celebrity we had seen on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. This surreal experience came off without a hitch and she hired us on the spot.”
A few days later Pinkerton and Hollowell walked nervously from the dark wings offstage into the bright lights of the legendary Grand Ole Opry. Porter Wagoner was at the microphone, gleaming in his sequined suit. A cheering, packed house and the audience on WSM’s 100,000-watt, clear-channel radio station, heard him shout: “Please welcome Miss Skeeter Davis!”
“The thrill of that first moment on stage at the Opry remains unequalled, but I dug every minute of the Opry experience–from the old-timers to the shiny rhinestone cowboys and cowgirls,” says Pinkerton. “I often wandered room-to-room backstage just to chat with country music greats like Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe and Merle Travis.”
Acuff, known as the King of Country Music, was clearly the reigning monarch at the Opry. “I don’t think anything happened without his approval,” notes Pinkerton. “When Skeeter was suspended for political activism in the 1960s, Acuff either ordered it or approved it, and there was still a bit of tension in their relationship during the 1970s. One evening when Skeeter went onstage in a showy, rainbow-colored dress, Acuff said to her, ‘Why don’t you dress like a clown next week!’ She was hurt and near tears.”
Pinkerton recalls that Acuff did not drink on Opry nights, except for Christmas. One evening near the holiday, Roy said to him, “Larry, come by Locker #1 and get you some egg nog.” It was almost pure grain alcohol.
Once Dolly Parton played the Opry on her birthday. A birthday celebration was held in Dressing Room #7 with a cake featuring two prominent mounds. After the event, Larry walked out of the room with Dolly, who said, “After 500 times, that joke’s really not funny.”
For seven years Pinkerton played guitar for Davis. Since she did not care for the road or nightclub atmosphere, most of the performances were on stage in Nashville. An Opry night was rarely missed except when Davis and her band were traveling abroad. “We made several trips to Europe, the Caribbean and New Zealand,” remembers Pinkerton. “We usually played large venues with several thousand fans.”
At some point the professional relationship turned personal. “We were a pair,” admits Pinkerton in discrete terms. Marriage was proposed and considered, but the young man declined. “We continued working together as close friends.”
In 1982 Pinkerton moved back to Rutherford County. Playing only Friday and Saturday nights at the Opry left weekdays for practice and other interests. “I helped my brother-in-law Doug Mack with his general construction business and learned carpentry and wiring,” says Pinkerton. The hand-built Pinkerton home in the Donnells Chapel community, featuring timber framing and exposed red cedar, evidences an artistic flair. (When Pinkerton injured his back throwing hay bales in the 1990s, he used his forced recuperation to sketch and paint local wildlife. Prints are available online.)
“I also began practicing and playing with a local band,” recalls Pinkerton. “The incredibly talented and beautiful vocalist, Gloria Gay Hinchman, became my bride, and the arrival of my infant son led to my decision to leave Skeeter’s band.”
For many years Pinkerton taught guitar through local music shops and the school systems. “I still do some work with advanced instrumentalists,” says the master. Today Pinkerton blogs on music and anecdotal history, does contract performances for special occasions, and can be heard weekends at the Stones River Country Club and CJ’s Restaurant. “I now play what I call a ‘chord melody’ style,” says Pinkerton. “It’s a hybrid style that is soothing and pretty for both me and the audience.”