The packed house was backed by stained-glass windows reflecting the glow of Nashville’s streetlights, and all eyes were fixed on him.
“That’s when I realized that I was dressed as Hank Williams and standing in the same spot where he stood, and I was seeing what he saw the first time he played the Grand Ole Opry,” Petty said. “That was a great moment.”
That was in 1996. Petty eventually brought his Williams portrayal to the Manship Theatre in “Hank and My Honky Tonk Heroes” and returned as the country music legend in a second show, “Country Royalty.”
But the personalities will be different for Petty’s third go-round, when he pays tribute to the music of the American West in “The Swinging Cowboys” on Friday.
His musical journey begins with the pioneers, progresses to Western Swing and ends with music by such contemporary western musicians as George Strait.
Along the way, he’ll discuss how modern country music has lost its way. The show is both music and storytelling carefully married to preserve music history while educating audience members in a fun way. And though Petty portrays some of the performers whose songs he sings, he’s never really in character.
“I’m not trying to be them,” he said. “I’m just singing their songs.”
Petty still lives in his hometown outside of Nashville, Tennessee. He’d originally planned a career in acting and musical theater, dreaming of Broadway and film. But that changed when his Williams concert at the Ryman Auditorium landed him the lead in a national tour of the Randal Myler and Mark Harelik play, “Hank Williams: Lost Highway.”
Then came his own music revue shows, five in all.
“We’re touring four of them with the Christmas show as the fifth,” Petty said. “My grandmother introduced me to gospel and spiritual music, my grandfather listened to country music and my dad liked western music. They all had a part in my music education, and it’s what I grew up with.”
“The Swinging Cowboys” will feature Petty backed by Carolyn Martin and her Texas Swing band. She also portrays Patsy Cline in Petty’s “Country Royalty” show and recently was inducted into the Texas Swing Hall of Fame.
The show explores stories behind western music, including a look at the first cowboys in the West who avoided stampedes by soothing cattle with their music. The music soon became a staple of early saloons and was eventually recorded by such cowboy movie stars as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.
Then came Texas Swing.
“Morris Brown and Bob Wills invented Texas Swing in the era of big band,” Petty said. “People wanted to dance, and face it, you really couldn’t dance to Roy Acuff. It was a genre of music that grew from scratch. Bob Wills said he was just trying to find enough dance numbers for the dance halls.”
But Texas Swing’s popularity soared, becoming a part of the western music story. “And I think the stories are so important,” Petty said. “When you know the story behind the music, it makes a difference in how you listen to it.”
Songs included in this show are “Home On The Range,” “Streets Of Laredo,” “Cattle Call,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” “Back In The Saddle” and “Take Me Back To Tulsa.”
“Western music is different from country in that it’s about place,” Petty said. “It tells stories about the place, and it has the same storytelling qualities of Irish music. And western swing is like bluegrass music in that it has the best musicians — they’re second to none.”