Ole Miss football mixed with music at Ryman

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Host John Grisham said it wouldn't be an Ole Miss night without some football talk. So former players Robert Khayat, Jimmy Weatherly, and Bryan Kennedy took part.

Barbara Mandrell proudly proclaimed to the audience that her son is currently an Ole Miss student. Then she introduced Amy Grant.

"I'm not from Mississippi," said Grant, a featured performer at Mississippi at The Ryman last Thursday night. "But several years ago my sister and I were in the hospital at the same time to give birth - me a son and her a daughter. Her daughter is a freshman at Ole Miss."

Basically everyone who had a part in the show was a Mississippian by birth or choice or has ties.

"I had three dreams growing up," said Louisville native Carl Jackson, who sang 'Neath the Oaks in the Grove' which he wrote a few years ago. "To play centerfield for the Yankees, be in the music business for a living, and play quarterback for Ole Miss. One out of three ain't bad. This guy to my left got two out of three."

The guy to his left was Weatherly, a former Ole Miss quarterback.

"It amazes me how many people still come up to me and say they watched me play at Ole Miss or remember when I played," said the Pontotoc native whose last season at UM was 1964.

"I started at Ole Miss for three years," said Kennedy, who played defensive end in the early 1980s. "Nobody ever tells me they remember when I played there."

The crowd erupted in laughter and the night at that point was still young. But it was obvious the evening, filled with various types of music, was going to be a rousing success.

The event was sponsored by the Ole Miss Alumni Association and the Middle Tennessee Ole Miss Club along with corporate sponsors as a benefit for the Chris Bonds Memorial Scholarhip Fund, given by the Middle Tennessee Club. The building that was home to the Grand Ole Opry from its beginnings in the early part of the 20th century until it moved to a new home in 1974 was all about Ole Miss and Mississippi on this night.

Steve Azar, the Greenville native who along with his band has become a headliner, performed. Rivers Rutherford, an Ole Miss alum, and Dan Tyler, a McComb native, joined Weatherly, Jackson, and Kennedy for the songwriters portion of the show. The five sat on stage, casually talking about their Mississippi roots and sharing a couple of songs each.

"I grew up in Nashville," said Kennedy, who wrote several Garth Brooks hits and whose songs and one-liners brought the house down more than a couple of times. "My father was in the music business. I knew a lot of the stars of the Grand Ole Opry. But I had to go to Ole Miss and play football to get up here on the stage of the Ryman."

Weatherly told a story about how one of his songs had its name changed and became a mega-hit.

"When I was living in Los Angeles, I played flag football with Lee Majors, the Six Million Dollar Man (from the TV series), and he was dating Farrah Fawcett at the time," said Weatherly, who was interrupted by Rutherford at that point.

"Paul McCartney once told me never to name drop in front of a big crowd," Rutherford said as the audience broke out in more laughter.

Weatherly smiled and continued.

"Farrah said she was taking the midnight plane to Houston to visit her family, and when we hung up the phone, I wrote a song and called it that. When a producer said Sissy Houston, Whitney's mother, wanted to sing it, they wanted more of an R & B feel."

So they re-named it Midnight Train to Georgia. Gladys Knight and the Pips took it all the way to No. 1 on the charts.

Marty Stuart, the Philadelphia native who has been a part of the Nashville scene since first appearing on the Ryman stage at age 13, was joined on stage this time by his group The Fabulous Superlatives. On one song they added Khayat on guitar and Stuart's wife Connie Smith as vocalist.

Grisham spoke highly of the tenure of Khayat as Chancellor and mentioned several accomplishments, from Phi Beta Kappa to athletics.

"Attendance has grown in football, basketball, and especially baseball," said Grisham, himself a self-proclaimed baseball man.

The music and stories of Ole Miss and Mississippi began at 7:30 p.m. and concluded some four hours later. The seats were mostly filled, and the majority stuck around for the entire time.

At least in some form there is talk of bringing this type event to the Ford Center for the Performing Arts on the Ole Miss campus at some point in the future.

"All the Ole Miss people I know are always getting together," Grant said of the bond she has seen from Ole Miss and its alumni and supporters. "I've always thought that was special and says a lot about them."

It was a unique night for Mississippi, but especially so for Ole Miss.

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