The country music artist and Grand Ole Opry veteran will host the fundraising event this weekend on Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree.
When it comes to talking about fellow Grand Ole Opry veteran Tim Atwood, Jeannie Seely is unstinting in her praise. “Tim Atwood will have his audience laughing at one of his many road stories, delivering his lines with a quick wit and country boy charm,” she says. “Then he’ll fire that audience up like only he can — bopping his head and raking his foot across those keys — with the audience clapping their hands and singing along. And then just like that, he belts out a poignant ballad that puts a lump in their throats and a tear in their eyes. Tim Atwood is an entertainer!”
Responding to the compliments, Atwood is deeply grateful — and unaffectedly humble. “I like to say I can do what I do,” he told me during our recent conversation in Nashville, “because I played for and observed the best music artists on the planet. For 38 years, I had a front row seat to greatness.”
Atwood currently is celebrating his 55th year in the music business — and yes, 38 of those years were spent on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. As the piano man in the Opry staff band, he performed with the music industry’s elite on that venerable stage, from Opry patriarch Roy Acuff, Jimmy Dickens, Porter Wagoner, Merle Haggard and George Jones to Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Carrie Underwood, Garth Brooks and, no kidding, Taylor Swift.
“Traditional country music will always have my heart,” Atwood said over our mid-morning chat in one of his favorite Music City coffee shops. “It’s what I grew up playing with my family in East Peoria, Illinois. It’s what I loved playing most at the Grand Ole Opry. But over the years, I’ve seen a lot of changes, and I understand that evolution is simply a part of the growing process. My grandfather once told me not everyone likes the same things — otherwise, everybody would be after my grandmother.”
During his lengthy stint as Opry pianist, Atwood often found himself catering to a constantly changing variety of musical tastes and demographics, even as he and other Opry artists tried their best not to alienate members of a core fan base who consider themselves country music traditionalists.
“Over the years I played piano on the Opry with quite a few artists who do not fit into that traditional country music box, including Micheal McDonald, Jewel, Michael English, Don Ho and a very friendly Barry Gibb from the Bee Gees. All of these artists are exceptional, and I loved each one of these experiences. But I did turn to our fiddle player while I was performing ‘Jive Talkin’ with Barry and mischievously whispered: ‘That noise you hear in the background is Roy Acuff spinning in his grave.’”
But seriously, folks: “I think Roy, who started on the Grand Ole Opry in the 1930s, would be surprised at some of the artists who have graced the Opry stage since his death in 1992. But Opry management knows what they are doing. Opry artists and guests play to a full house at almost every show. And in 2025, the Opry will celebrate an unprecedented 100th anniversary as the longest running radio show in the world. So I’d say the Opry is doing something right. Wouldn’t you?”
In recent years, Atwood has appeared on another storied Music City stage, serving as a host of the Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree, the decades-old country music show that airs (and streams) on WSM-AM in Nashville every Sunday from 12 midnight – 1:30 am CT. This week, Atwood will be devoting the program to Santa Paws is Comin’ to Town, a fund-raising event for the Humane Society of Sumner County in Hendersonville, Tennessee. This will be Atwood’s fourth consecutive year to participate in the annual benefit that remembers our four- legged friends during the Christmas holidays, and has raised thousands of dollars over the years with donations for various animal shelters throughout middle Tennessee.
“My wife and I are animal lovers,” Atwood said. “We’ve adopted all of our fur babies from animal shelters. We consider them part of our family. Our newest addition is a precious little guy named Jazz. Jazz is one of those dogs that’s so ugly, he’s cute. He’s wiry-haired and a color you could only call dirty-white — a cross between a Chihuahua and a Terrier. We called him Jazz because for the most part, the country music I play is structured — but like some of my favorite jazz music, Jazz was all over the map as a puppy. He had boundless energy, and just when you thought he was going to dart right, he’d dart left. This little guy has brought so much life into our house. And with that life has come unconditional love.
“I believe shelter animals make the best pets. They are so appreciative of our love and kindness. It’s rewarding to me to see the twinkle return to their eyes and the wags back in their tails when they find a family. That’s why I am supporting the Sumner County Humane Society through our Santa Paws Is Comin’ to Town show. Because the difference in their lives can only be made if we stand up and make the difference happen.”
Here are some other highlights from my interview with Tim Atwood, edited for clarity and brevity.
Cowboys & Indians: This may sound like I’m asking you to name your favorite child — or your favorite dog — but what are some of your fondest memories of your decades with the Grand Ole Opry?
Tim Atwood: [Laughs] Over the years, I have collected a treasure trove of memories from the Opry stage. One of my favorite memories involves Minnie Pearl. For years Minnie included me in her routine on stage. I think I was about 27 years old back then with a full beard. Minnie would walk out on stage, tell a few jokes, then look over my way where I was seated behind the piano. She’d throw her hands in the air and shout, “Wow!”
Then Minnie would literally skip over to me like a giddy teenage girl, and she’d playfully gush into the microphone, “Look at him, Girls! Ain't he purdy!” She’d reach up with both hands, pull my face next to hers and kiss me square on the lips. I’d blush like an overripe tomato. Minnie would then turn to the audience and say, '”You know how it is, girls. You don’t mind going through a little brush to get to a picnic.”
My goodness, I loved that lady. They don’t make them like Minnie Pearl anymore.
C&I: I’ve heard you also had a very special evening at the Opry involving Ray Acuff — and your father.
Tim: Well, I grew up in a household with a hard-working father. He was a good man, but he never told me he was proud of me. It just wasn’t his style. But I remember first time I cleared my mom and dad to go backstage to the Opry during a show. I was able to seat them on a pew directly behind me on stage. At the time, Roy Acuff was my father’s favorite performer. I was playing with Roy during his portion of the show, and I was in the middle of playing piano on Roy’s classic “Wabash Cannonball.”
I looked behind me and saw my dad. Tears were streaming down his face as he watched his son play for his music idol. It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry. It was in that moment that I knew my father was very proud of me. He didn’t have to say it. I could see it on his face. That particular night meant the world to me as his son.
C&I: I’ve also heard you once got a contact high from Willie Nelson.
Tim: [Laughs] Grant Turner was the announcer for the show that night. The band was in place as Grant gave Willie a beautiful introduction, then announced, “Put your hands together, everybody, for Willie Nelson!” The audience roared — but there was no Willie. For a second time, Grant Turner bellowed, “Willie Nelson, everyone!” Again, a rousing applause and hoops and hollers could be heard from the audience. But the sound soon died when it was apparent Willie wasn't there.
Then for the third time, Grant shouted with enthusiasm: “WILLIE NELSON!” And the third time was the charm. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Willie in the wings, and someone was handing him his guitar. When Willie sauntered out on stage in no hurry whatsoever, and passed by me and my piano, I swear I instantly got high. You can't make this stuff up. It seems Willie missed his cue because when Grant was introducing him the first time, Willie was still on his bus, doing what Willie claims he often does before a show. On this particular night, I was part of the fun, and I loved it.
C&I: Since you left the Opry, you have established yourself as a touring and recording country artist. But you have also maintained ties to the greats that have gone before you.
Tim: Hosting the Midnite Jamboree is one of my career highlights. As a little boy, I’d secretly listen to the show while tucked fast in my bed, just to hear Ernest Tubb’s deep, baritone voice resonate from the transistor radio that I had hidden inside my pillowcase. For years, my momma wondered why I was always so sleepy in church. She didn’t know it was because I had tuned into clear station 650 just to hear Ernest welcome us “Friends and Neighbors” to the show. He’d say the Midnite Jamboree brought us the best in country music, and Ernest always delivered. This show made such an impression on me. It gave me the desire to be a part of the Nashville music scene. I just had to have a piece of this magic.
The first time I was entrusted with hosting honors was nine years ago. I was so excited! It was one of those examples of life coming full circle. I was worried that my name wasn’t big enough to draw a crowd. I had resigned myself to performing to a handful of people, and I was determined to give these 50 people the same kind of show I would give to a capacity crowd of 500. When the curtains opened, I was in shock. It was standing room only that night. I couldn’t believe my eyes. My hands flew up to my face and I cried — overwhelming tears of gratitude and joy.
Today when I host the Jamboree I am aware that I am a part of country music history. I am hosting a show that Patsy Cline was a part of, along with Elvis, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Mel Tillis, Randy Travis, Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks and hundreds of other country greats. I do my best to pay homage to traditional country music, and I put together a show that I know in my heart would make Ernest Tubb proud. I am honored to do my part to keep this 76-years-old tradition alive. And I am forever grateful for each and every opportunity to do so.