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In the mid-Sixties, a country newcomer named Doug Stone warmed up for Loretta Lynn. But instead of immediately reaping the success surely coming to an unknown who'd opened for a legend, Stone quickly dropped out of sight. The fledgling singer vowed never to give up on his career, though, and 26 years later, he finally scored his first Nashville hit.

Don't go for the hankies just yet. Stone's story isn't exactly a riches-to-rags-to-riches cliche. The singer was seven when he scored a spot on the Lynn bill, and it was his mother who "somehow" set up the gig.

"I was too scared to sing, so I just played this three-chord boogie, watching my mother off-stage the whole time," the Georgia native chuckles in a recent phone interview. "I just kept playing until she finally nodded. Then I stopped and walked off."

Now that the Epic Records rookie has a certified hit on his hands--"I'd Be Better Off (in a Pine Box)" is a Top 10 country single--he's finally regained his toehold on the edge of stardom. This time it's no fluke, though. In addition to his own concerts in smallish venues (Stone spoke from tornado-ringed Ringo, Louisiana, moments before commencing a show there), he's also opening for megastars such as Vern Gosdin. The strange circle that started at age seven has been completed, but it was a long, tough go-round.

Although nothing in the way of stardom materialized from his initial fifteen-minute encounter with fame, Stone, at seven years of age, had made his career decision. His mother taught him to play the guitar and put him on stages in and around Atlanta, including his current home base of Newnan. When he wasn't too frightened, he showed he could sing some.

Then Stone's parents separated when he was twelve, and they gave Doug and his two brothers the choice to pick their home. The budding singer would've seemed likely to follow his mother. After all, Stone's father professed a strong dislike for two groups of people: motorcycle riders and musicians. "He always said they were the sorriest people in the world," Stone laughs. "So what happened? I became a musician, and [one] brother became a biker--$13,000 Harley, leathers, tattoos, everything. But he's a nice guy."

Stone and his brothers, nonetheless, chose to live with Dad--a journeyman mechanic--to pick up a trade. "Daddy didn't discourage me, really. He may not have liked it, but he always said it was fine to have a dream as long as you worked at something that would make you a living."

While they moved around the small villes within yodeling range of Atlanta, Stone's father taught the boys mechanics, carpentry, welding--skills that helped support Doug and his family (second wife Carie and four children, including recent addition Kala) during the long haul between opening acts.

Never one to let his dreams fade, Stone built the first of his five personal studios when he was sixteen and tenaciously continued pursuing his goal of musical stardom. "I'd put exactly eight hours in at my regular job," says Stone in his easy, red-clay twang, "then stay up all night recording."

Mom, an accomplished musician, didn't drop out of sight, either. When teenage Doug and a pal formed a band, playing at local skating rinks, school dances and the like, she served as his agent. And she encouraged him and continued guiding his career throughout his extended dry spell. "I never even thought about giving up, ever. This is all I wanted to do. Seriously."

Stone's single-minded persistence paid off when a well-connected country music maven heard him one night at the Newnan VFW. She liked his voice, stage presence and friendly manner and gave his demo tape to producer Doug Johnson in Tennessee. In early 1988, Johnson took Stone into Epic's Nashville studios and cut three sides. Not much later, veteran producer Bob Montgomery (Marty Robbins, Gosdin) heard the tape and signed the Georgian to a contract without having seen Stone in concert--a first for the knob-twister.

It's not surprising that the respected Nashville producer took such a shine to Stone: His voice possesses a plaintive quality that fits snugly around the strictly new-traditionalist tone and lyrics of his self-titled debut album, a disc that so far has climbed steadily on the country charts. Comparisons to Travis, Black, Van Shelton and company are frequent and deserved. Doug Stone contains plenty of nouveau-country sob stories, including "These Lips Don't Know How to Say Goodbye" and "Crying on Your Shoulder Again," both of which faithfully adhere to the current trend toward classic C & W sounds.

Stone's debut is professional enough to draft behind his better-known contemporaries, but might not be distinctive enough to pass them by. For instance, the singer didn't write any of the songs that appear on the album, but Stone knows that songwriting is a key--maybe the key--to his career.

"I'm learning how to write just now," concedes Stone, despite his own experience penning songs since the Lynn gig. "The biggest thing is learning how to say more with less words."

The Georgian's rich voice assumes a rare serious tone. "But I'll get there. Look on the next album."

Doug Stone will perform at Denim and Diamonds on Sunday, May 20. Show time is 8:30 p.m.

"I'd put exactly eight hours in at my regular job, then stay up all night recording."

CARROLL & COMPANY... v5-16-90