NASHVILLE -- The tickets for a family Spring Break trip to Tennessee and -- of course -- to the Grand Ole Opry already had been purchased long before we knew about the small-town dreamer whose epiphany we would, by wonderful chance, be in the balcony to cheer.
It was about a month ago that we happened upon a YouTube video of a girl named Kayla Slone.
She was a 21-year-old Walmart clerk from Matewan, W. Va., on the Tug Fork River, where the Hatfields and McCoys once feuded to the death and where seams of coal and streams of want still flow together down through the decades and the clans. The store where she worked was in a county seat called Logan, long famous in its own right as a den of flagrant vote-buying worthy of its own grand opera, or at least an episode of Hee Haw.
At the Logan Walmart, we learned, Kayla Slone had taken to singing loudly while she laboured, favouring the hardscrabble anthems made famous by Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, daughters of Appalachian poverty who, through country music's unique alchemy, had turned the carbon of their native ground to diamonds.
As a New Yorker who was raised -- improbably, to much ridicule -- on southern and western music, I already knew that authenticity lies at the core of every great country song, whether it be spawned by a Tammy Wynette picking cotton in Mississippi, or a Hank Snow cutting out cod tongues as a cabin boy on a Nova Scotia schooner, or a Dolly Parton growing up as one of 12 children in a one-room cabin on Tobacco Road. Even Eddy Arnold -- the so-called Tennessee Plowboy, my father's favourite -- had ridden a mule to town. (Times have changed: Taylor Swift's father is a financial analyst and her granddad was president of a bank.)
Now here was Kayla Slone, not only a modern coal miner's daughter and granddaughter, but even -- at her tender age -- already a coal miner's wife. By mid-March, that cellphone video from the Logan Walmart had been picked up by ABC News as a fillip of human interest from a usually invisible corner of the republic, and this, in turn, had not gone unnoticed in Music City, U.S.A.
Suddenly, Kayla Slone was invited to sing at the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night, March 23, which was to be the 4,551st live broadcast from the cathedral of the hillbilly canon.
A man named John Carlin, the doyen of Lyrick (sic) Promotions in the river town of Williamson, W.Va., was serving as Kayla Slone's manager even before the annunciation came from Nashville. A few days before Kayla's debut, I called him between shifts of his own real-world job -- he is a locomotive engineer on the Norfolk Southern Railway -- and he told me his own career as a bluesy studio musician had peaked short of the Opry stage.
"Why do you think you never got there?" I asked him.
"I would imagine I wasn't good enough," John Carlin said.
Carlin told me that in addition to her impromptu oratorios at Walmart, Kayla Slone had made a few stage appearances around Williamson and Matewan. He said she had "a very unique voice to her," and along the Tug Fork at least, "she stood out from the crowd." (She wouldn't be paid for her guest appearance at the Opry, and her manager would get 10 per cent of zero.)
"How are things down in Williamson?" I wondered.
"Poverty is king," John Carlin replied.
On Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry, Kayla Slone was preceded to stage-centre by a succession of ancients: Jim Ed Brown, whose records I bought as a fourth-grader; Jean Sheperd, still yodelling at the age of 79; Jeannie Seely, 72, who urged us all to greet the ingénue from Walmart warmly, as if we did not already feel the power of the moment in our hearts.
In perfect rendition, failing not a word or a note, the girl from Walmart sang Loretta's Coal Miner's Daughter and Dolly's Coat of Many Colours, blew a kiss and walked off stage. Touched as in a fantasy, we rose and roared, and I saw people crying.
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.