NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Paul Eckhart hasn’t missed a weekend performance at the Grand Ole Opry in 42 years, but at age 83 he has decided to give up the night life.
Eckhart, whose dedication has won him a designated parking space backstage, a plaque on his customary stage-front pew and close friendships with numerous country artists, says he will “retire” this weekend.
“Everything has got to come to an end sooner or later anyway,” he said. “I thought this was a good time.”
The Opry is planning to honour him before and throughout the show on Saturday.
“We’re going to take time out in the show and kind of let the world know that we think the world of this man,” said Pete Fisher, the Opry’s vice-president and general manager. “And just give him one big public thank you.”
Eckhart, a retired certified public accountant, began attending Opry shows in late June 1972 and has been coming back ever since. He now gets what Fisher calls a “loyalty discount” on ticket purchases.
However, he’s actually been a fan of the Opry since he was 6. Growing up in eastern Pennsylvania, Eckhart would pick it up on his family’s battery-powered radio with a big antenna rigged out back.
Years later he met his wife, Kitty, and the couple made a few trips to the Opry with group tours before deciding to move to Nashville.
“I was getting close to 40 … and I talked to her and said would you consider ever moving to Nashville?” recalled Eckhart, who’s now been married 61 years. “She said, ‘Well, let’s do it before we get too old.'”
Eckhart started going to the Opry on Fridays and switched to Saturdays about 15 years ago. He said he and his wife worked out an arrangement that allowed him to attend the Opry, and her to enjoy her pastime — bingo.
“We made a promise and we’ve kept that promise all these years, that I will go with her at least half a dozen times a year, but not on a Saturday night, and she will go with me to the Grand Ole Opry, but not on a Saturday night,” Eckhart said. “We’ve had a great marriage.”
Eckhart — who boasts of having at least 11,000 country music albums — said he likes the “old timers” best of all, like Charley Pride, Ricky Skaggs and Bill Anderson. He said his favourite female country singer is Connie Smith, and the late Faron Young is his favourite male performer.
However, Eckhart said he also has some young favourites, like Carrie Underwood, Josh Turner and Brad Paisley.
He said his all-time favourite show was the Opry’s 75th anniversary, which featured country superstars Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Charley Pride and Garth Brooks.
Even though he’s retiring, as his vertigo now makes it difficult for him to walk, Eckhart said, “It doesn’t mean I won’t be going to the Opry again.”
It just won’t be every weekend.
But considering he’ll be 84 in October, he said 42 years of the Grand Ole Opry felt like a good stopping point.
“That’s exactly half of my life,” he said.