Country

When Two Worlds Collide: Shadowing William Shatner on the Day of His Grand Ole Opry Debut

Jason Kempin/Getty Images.

William Shatner and Jeff Cook of Alabama are seen at The Grand Ole Opry on Feb. 15, 2019 in Nashville, Tenn.

Only an institution as sacred as the stage of the Grand Ole Opry could provide an intersection for science fiction and country music. But it happened on Friday (Feb. 15) when William Shatner, a.k.a. Star Trek's legendary Captain James T. Kirk, embarked on a new frontier and boldly went where he'd never gone before: center stage to perform on the Grand Ole Opry.

Shatner and Country Music Hall of Famer Jeff Cook performed “Why Not Me,” the title track of the album the longtime Alabama star and the 87-year-old actor released on Heartland Records in August 2018. Shatner also served as guest emcee for a portion of the Opry show.

An avid Star Trek fan, Cook says he first met Shatner ten years ago at an awards show on the West Coast, that they count Heartland CEO/president Brian Curl as a mutual friend.

Shatner has recorded six spoken-word albums, and when Curl encouraged him to record a country record, Shatner enthusiastically threw himself into the project, traveling to Fort Payne, Ala. to record at Cook’s studio last May. The project combines Shatner’s distinctive recitations and Cook’s vocals as well as guest appearances by Neal McCoy, Home Free and newcomers Cash Creek.

Though Shatner had previously visited the Opry with friends, this marked his first performance at the famed venue and he graciously let Billboard shadow him to document the experience.

3:30 p.m.: After battling Nashville’s Friday afternoon traffic in a relentless rain, Shatner, his wife, Elizabeth, and Curl arrive through the Grand Ole Opry’s backstage entrance. An experienced equestrian, Shatner has a home in Lexington, Ky. and got up at 4 a.m. to make the nearly four-hour drive to Nashville. He started his Music City visit by stopping downtown to do interviews with three prominent radio outlets.

3:52 p.m.: Shatner settles into dressing room #19. The Wagonmaster room is decorated in honor of the late Grand Ole Opry legend Porter Wagoner. The Opry Entertainment content team already has lights and camera set up and Shatner fields questions from the Opry’s Bill Filipiak about his collaboration with Cook and his Opry debut.

4:05 p.m.: Shatner and Cook are escorted to Studio A in the rear of the Opry House. The studio was the home of the television show Hee Haw in the '70s and '80s and is still used for production on shows such as Crook & Chase and CMT’s Crossroads. Shatner and Cook good-naturedly answer questions about their album and a wide variety of other topics. Shatner shares that he plans to record a blues album and film a documentary on the genre. He praises Nashville’s songwriters that populate his country record and compares them to the legendary songwriters in New York City’s famed Brill Building that produced pop hits in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

He also revealed that when he visited Cook’s home that there was enough Star Trek memorabilia to fill a museum. “Would you like some of it back?” Cook quipped. A couple minutes later as Shatner was speaking, Cook raised his hand. “Do you have a question?” Shatner asked. Cook responded that he was giving the Vulcan salute, the double-finger V symbol popularized by Leonard Nimoy on Star Trek. “You should know that,” Cook retorted. The crowd erupted in laughter.

The conversation turned serious when they started discussing the songs on the album and instrumentation, and Cook remarked that he was no longer playing fiddle. “Parkinson’s has taken the fiddle away from me,” said Cook, who was diagnosed with the disease six years ago.

“Jeff, can I ask you about your playing?" Shatner asked kindly. “Do you miss it? Am I treading where I shouldn’t go?”

“I do miss it,” he admitted. “But I still play some guitar. I’m doing better than I thought I would be doing.”

When a reporter asked Shatner, “What do you play?” He grinned and responded, “My wife.”

4:30 p.m.: The press conference wraps and Shatner and Cook are escorted from Studio A to dressing room #14, the Honky Tonk Angels dressing room dedicated to the trailblazing women of country music. Shatner and Cook settle on the chaise-style sofa covered with faux ostrich skin, and prepare to do video interviews with two outlets.

5:06 p.m.: Shatner, Elizabeth, Curl, Cook and Cook’s wife Lisa are relaxing in the dressing room when one of the Grand Ole Opry’s tour guides named Vera tentatively pops in the room to meet Shatner, looking shy and hesitant. “Vera, I was wondering when you were going to stop by,” he smiles, immediately putting her at ease. He chats with her and thanked her for doing what she does at the Opry.

5:30 p.m.: Shatner and his entourage are escorted to dressing room #10, which is the room he’s been assigned for the evening. The space is known as the Company’s Comin’ dressing room, which is reserved for distinguished visitors and guest announcers. Shatner is fielding phone calls from friends who are on the guest list for the Opry, making sure everyone has their tickets and seeing if they know where to enter the building.

5:35 p.m.: Reps from the record company have brought in a meal and just as Shatner and Elizabeth settle down with a plate, he and Cook are called to the stage to rehearse their number before the evening’s performance. Shatner smiles and munches on a chicken tender as security escorts them to the stage with friends and family in tow. Elizabeth and Cook’s wife Lisa sit in the empty Opry House and take photos and videos of Shatner and Cook as they rehearse “Why Not Me,” the title track off their album, with the Grand Ole Opry band and background vocalists. Shatner throws himself into the rehearsal as if there were already a full house. Cook is no stranger to the Opry stage and despite seeming slightly fragile from the Parkinson’s, his voice sounds as warm and inviting as ever when he steps to the mic.

6 p.m.: After a few run-throughs of their song, the duo head backstage again and Shatner pauses in the Opry’s Green Room to chat with guests and pose for photos. Elizabeth takes note of the metal bar on the wall of the room that serves as a marker denoting how high the flood waters were in the Opry House during the Nashville flood in 2010. Shatner looks around for a familiar face and asks which way to his dressing room. (Writer’s Note: The Opry backstage can seem like a maze to a new visitor. At this point, I offer to show him the way. He smiles and follows, commenting “Now I’m shadowing you. You’re supposed to be shadowing me.”)

6:19 p.m.: Shatner and Cook are now settled back in the dressing room and begin entertaining visitors. Sally Williams SVP of Programming & Artist Relations for Opry Entertainment and General Manager of the Grand Ole Opry, stops in to welcome Shatner. Veteran songwriter Tom Paden, director of the Nashville office of Heartland, who has written several cuts on the album, and Heartland director of A&R Corey Lee Barker, who also has written for the album, are among the visitors in the dressing room.

6:35 p.m.: “Make yourself at home. I’m throwing a big party,” Shatner announces in dressing room #10 and soon after the party is in full swing. Figure skating champion Scott Hamilton’s wife Tracie stops in to say hello with three of their children in tow and Shatner welcomes her with a big hug. The room fills up with visitors including Brad Paisley’s wife, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, and their adorable young sons, Huck and Jasper. Shatner encourages the boys to get some food, and soon the polite youngsters are nibbling and visiting with other guests. Kimberly makes sure the boys are settled then catches up with Jeff Cook and graciously takes photos with visitors who have noticed her presence. At this point, Shatner seems to have disappeared. In fact, he’s been moved to dressing room #7, which becomes an overflow area as the Shatner party has outgrown room #10.

7 p.m.:  Shatner and Elizabeth are headed to the right side of the stage where performers make their entrance. As he makes his way to the area that is roped off for performers only, fans continually approach him to ask for photos and to tell him what his work has meant to them over the years. At this point the octogenarian has been up since 4 a.m. and has been constantly doing interviews, shaking hands and posing for photos since he got to Nashville. When I comment that there must be a special place in heaven for people who are so kind and gracious, he just smiles and says, “Yeah, but it’s hell on earth!”

7:05 p.m.: Shatner is excited to introduce Elizabeth to Larry Gatlin, and the couple smiles from the wings as Larry, Steve and Rudy perform.

7:25 p.m.: Aaron Tippin exits the stage following his performance and stops for a quick photo with Shatner.

7:50 p.m. Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs welcomes Shatner to the stage to serve as a guest announcer. Dressed in black pants, black shirt and black leather jacket, the Canadian-born actor smiles and tells the crowd how happy he is to be there. He proudly introduces the Gatlin Brothers as they return to the stage again.

8:10 p.m. Shatner is presented with a framed Hatch Show Print poster commemorating his night at the Opry and he smiles for more photos.

8:15 p.m.: It’s time for intermission and after the heavy velvet curtain draws to a close, Shatner and Cook pose on the famed center circle on the stage with the Grand Ole Opry Band and staff. Earlier in the evening, Shatner had been told about the legendary circle, which was taken from the center of the Ryman Auditorium stage --where Hank Williams Sr., Patsy Cline and other country legends had stood when the Opry was housed full time at the Ryman -- and moved to the new Opry House when it opened in 1974. Shatner had commented that he believes everything has a spirit, even inanimate objects, and he was excited about stepping into the hallowed circle.

8:30 p.m.: Shatner and Elizabeth continue to visit with artists and Opry staff stage right. The next segment of Opry performers will include Riders in the Sky, newcomer Levi Hummon and then Shatner and Cook. When it's their turn to take the stage, he seems at ease before the big moment, commenting that he’s not nervous, but is definitely excited. He’s all smiles as he waves to the crowd and they launch into the song, a poignant plea for making the world a better place that has Shatner serving up such lyrics as: So much pain and trouble in the world/So many broken and confused/My heart keeps saying, “Reach out to someone/Don’t just try, but do.”

8:52 p.m.: Shatner and Elizabeth make their way back to dressing room #7, stopping to accept the congratulations of well wishers and posing for more photos. Finally making his way to the dressing room, he sits in a chair and sighs, commenting that he’s been up since 4 a.m. and it’s been a long day. Curl, his wife, Guyla and Heartland publicist Fred Anderson are all that’s left of the entourage that has accompanied Cook and Shatner. He has enjoyed being a member of the Opry family for a night.

Shatner is a country music fan and is hoping to land a country artist to headline his annual Hollywood Charity Horse show, set for June 1, 2019 at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. He says his friend Neal McCoy has headlined it twice and is always a hit. Vince Gill, Brad Paisley and Sheryl Crow are among the others who have performed in the past, and Shatner himself still participates in the horse show. He competes regularly at other equestrian events, saying if he couldn’t ride his horses on a regular basis, he would be “bereft.”

9:45 p.m.: Shatner, Elizabeth, Curl, Guyla and Anderson exit the backstage entrance, walking under the long awning that leads to the parking lot and the cold, drizzling rain. It’ll be a short night ahead as Shatner has another early morning ahead of him, planning to rise around 4 a.m. to make a 6:30 flight, but it’s been a good day. At 87, Shatner has added another distinguished accomplishment to his storied resume: a Grand Ole Opry performance, a song in the hallowed circle.

“The spirit of Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, all the people who have performed here, must have left their electrons somewhere,” he says. “Their spirit is hovering and you can feel it.”