"I think Darryl Worley might be the next Alan Jackson."
These words pour from DreamWorks Records president James Stroud, producer for Worley, among the year's breakout country stars. That's a tall order when you consider that celebrated everyman Jackson ("Chattahoochee," the 9/11 memoriam "Where Were You") walked off stage at last week's Country Music Academy awards show with five trophies out of a possible 10. And even though late bloomer Worley, 38 and at an imposing 6-foot-6 and 210 pounds, might be a shade taller than Jackson, following the awards ceremony the towering country singer was flat on his back and green around the gills, felled by a flu virus that ravaged the poor guy and put him in the hospital.
A couple of hours earlier, Worley was onstage performing his massive hit "I Miss My Friend" -- a heartfelt, beautifully constructed acoustic ballad dedicated to a friend killed in a car crash -- to the amassed Nashville cognoscenti and narrowly lost the Horizon award to fellow newcomers Rascal Flatts. After the awards, Worley was left to suffer in an emergency room with his entourage. His other producer, Frank Rogers, agrees it was a good thing he didn't topple over during the broadcast. "Darryl's a big guy -- he would have made a pretty big noise falling down," he says, laughing.
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In a healthier state, Worley is also an interesting guy, a solid songwriter and a warm baritone, who looks as though he might be Marshal Matt Dillon's great-great-grandson, and who straddles several tense fences -- sin and salvation, music and marketing, pop and country. He's a down-home boy who hails from Hardin County, Tennessee, which lies practically between Nashville and Memphis, houses around 25,000 people and has a per capita income of $20,000. The county sits right at the point where Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee meet.
Historically, this was a pretty interesting if somewhat non-harmonic convergence of state and county lines, mostly because the area was at one time riddled with vice and corruption. Its most legendary figure is lawman Buford Pusser, who woke up one night in a ditch, cut to ribbons, and who later took an ax handle and pummeled the local syndicate boys with rough justice (the old Walking Tall movies featured Pusser's story).
But Worley is unique for Hardin County, and not just because he's on the road to country music superstardom. For starters, he's a self-made man several times over. Worley worked jobs in construction, at the local paper mill and as a fisherman before he got a degree, then worked as a research biologist and started a chemical supply business that reportedly sold for seven figures. This all happened before life in the country-hunk fishbowl was even on the horizon. Hank Sr. didn't do it this-a-way. Neither did Possum Jones, or the Man in Black, or anybody else, for that matter.
In his initial flirtation with the country music world, Worley, whose grandpa was an accomplished musician and whose pa was a Methodist minister, reeled in a fair number of nibbles and caught a few big fish -- George Jones cut the co-written Worley track "Sinners & Saints" for 1999's Cold Hard Truth. Worley became restive, however, and took off some time to cut lumber with his brother, clearing timber and clearing his head.
Returning to Nashville, Worley relaunched himself as an artist and eventually won the notice of Frank Rogers, who had done some work with Brad Paisley, another promising singer. Others started sniffing around, and finally Worley and his people convinced James Stroud, the man who helped make "Angry American"-man Toby Keith, to fly down to Savannah, Tennessee, nestled in the holler, to see Worley perform. "The guy who ran the airport had to loan us his car so that we could make the gig. We ain't got no taxis in Savannah,' he said," Stroud reports.
"First thing I noticed when I met him was Worley's bruised and bleeding knuckles," says Stroud, laughing. "When I asked what the fighting was about, Darryl said, Oh, I didn't start anything -- I just had to step in and break something up.'"
Worley speaks often to his religiosity, something he likely inherited from his dad and his dad's turn of faith, but he's also quick to say that he has a bit of the devil in him. In his press bio, Worley says, "I've got these genes that make me want to go out and honky-tonk. I'm fighting myself constantly. I want to be this Christian guy who sets an example nobody can deny, then I catch myself wanting to rip and roar."
Worley released Hard Rain Don't Last, his first album, in the summer of 2000. It sold modestly, peaking at No. 33 and launching three singles that crept up as high as No. 12 on Billboard's chart. Yet it wasn't until this past July, when Worley released his follow-up, I Miss My Friend, that he broke through into the warm spotlight. I Miss My Friend debuted at the top of the country charts, selling 42,000 discs in its first week. To someone like Worley, that isn't success, that's vindication. Playing at the Opry was icing on the cake.
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"You've got people that are born with talent but who are largely unaware, unschooled, in other areas," says co-producer Rogers. "But Darryl's book smart, common-sense smart, and music smart, with a good grasp of what he wants to sound like and look like. There aren't any decisions being made for Darryl that he doesn't have a hand in, whether it be the music or the marketing. One thing is certain -- he's not anybody's puppet."
The good news on Worley is that he isn't some purty young Garthified showboater who was born in the age of Eddie Rabbitt. He cites Merle Haggard, Jones, Faron Young, Willie Nelson and Keith Whitley as influences, and he knows Hank's honky-tonk from a hole in the ground. And it shows. He's a traditionalist, like Jackson, with pop traces, not the other way around.
His voice, which is stronger now than on his first disc, leaves the vapor trails of the men listed above. Nevertheless, the lyrics are concise and smart. Like Dwight Yoakam, Worley writes or co-writes almost all of his songs, and he's successfully learned to de-intellectualize the material. "Darryl doesn't overthink the music. I think of it as intelligent simplicity,'" says Rogers. "His epicenter is Savannah -- small-town Tennessee. That's where his heart and soul and music is. At his age, and with his experience, he gets the big picture of life and music and family and friends, and he communicates all of that with music that is simple but never dumbed-down."
The result is music that is Tennessee-whiskey strong, and unabashedly country, but not without a bit of a pop chaser here and there. As to whether Worley is going to be the next Alan Jackson, it appears that Alan Jackson will be Alan Jackson for some time to come. But it might not be surprising if, some years down the road, someone might tout an up 'n' comer as the next Darryl Worley. Stranger things have happened.