CENTERVILLE, Tenn. — “The Grinders Switch Hour” on Centerville radio station WNKX-FM won’t ever compete with Nashville’s “Grand Ole Opry” on powerhouse WSM-AM, but this loosey-goosey program every Saturday morning is cut from the same bolt of cloth.
Expressed in radio terminology, they are on the same cosmic frequency.
Just as the “Opry” started in a makeshift studio in the offices of an insurance company, “The Grinders Switch Hour,” which actually is 90 minutes long, broadcasts live from the Hickman County Chamber of Commerce.
The entrance is on the town square, and speakers carry the show out onto the sidewalk. When you step inside, you’re close enough to the band to shake hands — and that might happen if there’s a commercial in progress.
If you don’t greet the performers personally, slide into one of the church pews or portable chairs waiting for approximately 90 guests. The first church pew isn’t 10 feet from the edge of the slightly elevated and tiny stage holding the seven-member Grinders Switch Ensemble. This is the epitome of up-close-and-personal entertainment.
The musicians squeeze into a space bordered by the chamber’s plate glass front window and a control desk where host Mickey Bunn adjusts settings and keeps the show generally on track.
“Are we live?” asked a guest performer one recent Saturday while casually hitting chords on his guitar and joking with the audience.
“We have been for a while,” was Bunn’s deadpan reply.
For as casual as the show is, the Grinders Switch Ensemble is tight. It is a mixture of musicians who have toured with famous country music stars, played on scores of gold records as studio musicians and taught young students the joys of music.
One member, Darin Cochran, has a master’s degree in music (although it was in brass performance). Another, Doyle Grisham, has been the pedal steel guitar player in Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band for more than 30 years. Count on seeing him is he’s not at a Buffett concert.
Asked why he gives up his available Saturday mornings to play this volunteer gig, Grisham didn’t hesitate: “Because I really love this music.”
The music he loves is solid, traditional, recognizable country music.
Between bantering with the audience and commercials from United Farm & Home Co-op, the Homestead Restaurant and Reliant Bank, the band delivered solid renditions of hits such as “I Told You So” (Randy Travis), “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?” (George Jones), “Bye, Bye Love” (the Everly Brothers) and “Heartaches by the Number” (Ray Price).
The audience members immediately took up the challenge when asked whether they were up for a singalong. The rafters practically shook as everyone channeled Buck Owens and sang “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail.”
The show didn’t set out to be what it is today. The original concept in 2004 was a Saturday morning “Know Your County” talk show with local resident Charlie Garner. Band member Cochran said the talk format lasted about a week before changes started happening. Music became part of the mix and soon took over.
“When I started,” Cochran recalled, “we didn’t know who was going to show up to play. Along the line, we got a little bit more organized, but we seldom rehearse.”
The pandemic certainly messed with the show, and the band used the down time to cobble together its first CD with cuts such as “Ramblin’ Fever,” “Crazy Arms,” “Smoky Mountain Rain” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
“Buy a copy before you leave,” Cochran implored the audience. “By far, it’s our best CD to date.”
The audience got the joke.
Each broadcast opens with the signature “How-dee!” of the legendary country comedian, Grand Ole Opry member and Country Music Hall of Fame member Minnie Pearl.
Much of Centerville’s identity lies with Minnie (Sarah Ophelia Colley in real life), the hometown girl who became an international star with her comic tales of Grinders Switch, her make-believe hometown that was the name of an actual railroad junction.
It’s only appropriate that the hometown radio station perpetuates the name of Grinders Switch and honors Minnie.
When the show is over, walk to the other side of the square and sit on a bench beside the courthouse that’s permanently occupied by a bronze statue of Minnie. A photo there can be your memento of a trip to the country.
Enjoy Tom Adkinson’s Tennessee Traveler destination articles the second and fourth Friday every month. Adkinson, author of “100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die,” is a Marco Polo member of SATW, the Society of American Travel Writers.