A Day in the life of Opry Announcer Bill Cody
July 17, 2019
The first song Bill Cody ever played on the airwaves of 650 AM WSM was No. 1 on the country music charts. It was the disc jockey’s first day on the job at the station. The date: April 25, 1994. The song: “If the Good Die Young” by Tracy Lawrence.
Today, Bill Cody and Tracy Lawrence are in the studio, an encounter that’s happened countless times before.
“He’s kind of the radio face of Nashville,” Lawrence says of Cody. With a syndicated radio show of his own, Honky Tonkin’ with Tracy Lawrence, the country star views Cody as an inspiration. “There’ve been a whole lot of people come and go over the years, but Bill has been the constant, a mainstay.”
Today’s topics of conversation: red velvet funnel cake at the Wilson County Fair, old cars, and eccentric characters from their hometowns.
For Cody, it was a man named Putty Taylor who took his hearse out for joy rides. For Lawrence, a womanizer who walked like a rooster and drove a gaudy candy apple-colored Cadillac with a license plate that read “Sugar Booger.” Unfortunately for Lawrence, his mom owned a car that looked just like it.
“My stepdad was the vice president of the bank in our small town, so he would get these deals on cars,” says Lawrence, who was born in Atlanta, Texas.
“That’s called a repo,” Cody counters, unable to stifle his laughter.
“It was not pleasant to be a child with a mama driving Sugar Booger around,” Lawrence says.
The two have known each other since 1991, but Cody had never heard that story before.
Cody leans back in his desk chair, ankles crossed, nodding his head knowingly as Lawrence spins a yarn. Enthralled by their conversation, the tip of his tongue presses reflexively against his bottom lip, the corners of his mouth upturned in an almost mischievous smile. In this moment, it’s easy to imagine Cody as an eager boy in grade school, wiggling in his seat as he waits for his teacher to call on him. He’s been in radio for 47 years, but the kid in Cody has never left him.
He grew up a preacher’s son in Lebanon, Kentucky. Every Sunday, Cody’s father taped his morning sermon to be played back at 1 p.m. on the local radio station, WLBN 1590 AM. A 1,000-watt daytimer that signed on and off with the national anthem, the station offered talk, news, and music programming from sunrise to sunset. WLBN also provided something else: the perfect training ground for a budding radio personality. “They just offered me everything, a little sponge 12-year-old kid who had nothing but a dream,” Cody says.
He’d accompany his dad to the station to swap out the tapes for the Sunday service recordings, and one day, he’d glimpse Frank Kemp, aka “FK, the DJ,” doing the afternoon country show.
“I was out in the lobby just waiting on my daddy and looking through the window, and I could see Frank with those headphones on. He was pushing buttons, and the records would spin, and that red light would come on,” he says. Something inside Cody clicked.
When they got back in the car, words were flying out of Cody’s mouth at 90 miles a minute. His dad called up the station to ask if his son could shadow on occasion, and the owner agreed. Cody compares his story to those of the artists he chats up sidestage at the Grand Ole Opry — Brad Paisley, Steve Wariner, and Sam Bush — virtuosos who all picked up instruments before they were teens.
“But for me, it wasn’t a musical instrument because I would never stick with anything. I tried the drums, I tried the sax, I tried the guitar, but boy, when I found radio, I couldn’t be there enough,” Cody says.
That inherent stamina has carried Cody throughout his career. As a morning radio show host and Tuesday night announcer for the Opry, his days can be long. Today, like every Tuesday, he woke up at 3:30 a.m. His morning show, Coffee, Country and Cody, runs from 5:30 to 10 a.m. After it wraps, he heads to his Cross Plains, Tennessee home for a nap — if he can get one. “Did I mention I have a first grandchild?” he says. His wife, Rebecca, watches the toddler, Lily, during the day.
He treks back to Nashville, arriving at the Grand Ole Opry House at 6 p.m., donning a suit and tie instead of the jeans and casual button-down that he wears in the studio. Cody then preps for the big red curtain to go up at 7 p.m. sharp. During the show, he introduces every act to step on stage, reads ad spots from sponsors, and chats with those standing sidestage. After the show wraps at 9:15 p.m., he aims to be in bed by 10:30 p.m., only to get up at 3:30 a.m. the next day.
When do you sleep? people ask him. He says “sleep” and “morning radio” should never belong in the same sentence, even when you don’t have a gig as an Opry announcer.
“I’ve never required a lot of sleep, and I have boundless energy because I do what I love, and I think that’s the key,” Cody says.
Sure, Cody drinks a lot of coffee — he recently cut back to just four cups a day — but he feeds off a live audience. He derives no greater satisfaction than from watching people react to the show.
“They smile or they give you something in return,” Cody says. “Unlike most radio, you actually have an audience you can see rather than just visualize people in your life that might be listening.”
Cody is an expert at breaking the fourth wall. When hilarity ensues on the Opry stage that can’t be conveyed through audio alone, he’ll catch at-home listeners up to speed. When he’s recording Coffee, Country, and Cody inside WSM’s fishbowl-style studio in the Magnolia Lobby of the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, he’ll sometimes step out to talk to a particularly interesting onlooker.
There’s a story there, Charlie, he’ll say to showmate and producer Charlie Mattos. If I’m not back in a reasonable amount of time, come get me.
“With him, the person you hear on the air is exactly the person you hear off the air,” Mattos says. “If you like Bill Cody on the radio, you’re going to like Bill Cody in person.”
A people person through and through, he took cues from personal hero Dick Clark when crafting his radio style.
“He gave me this phrase ‘rehearsed spontaneity,’ and it stuck with me,” he says. “Nobody had ever said that to me, at least in that way where it had sunk in.”
When Cody interviews artists, you won’t find him consulting a list of questions to ask. He lets the conversation flow naturally. Whether on air or off, his banter makes it sound like he’s friends with everybody. He probably is.
“He can talk to anybody about anything,” says Chris Kulick, general manager of WSM. “You listen to Bill’s show and never know where he’s going to go. I think sometimes he doesn’t even know. His mind just takes him to a place that entertains people.”
After launching his career in 1971, Bill Cody has interviewed countless country artists, from Loretta Lynn to Vince Gill, earning him a spot in the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame in 2008.
Once, Cody had actor Robert Duvall on the morning show. Cody was nervous. But the pair quickly bonded over their mutual love for Western author Elmer Kelton. (Cody, whose actual name is Trent Clutts, chose his on-air moniker because of his fascination with “Buffalo Bill” Cody.) When it was about time for The Godfather star to take the Opry stage that evening, Duvall told Cody, “I’m riding with you.”
“It was like a scene out of movie,” Cody guffaws in disbelief. “My heart was beating out of my chest. If you went back and listened to the audio, you could probably hear it.”
Aside from meeting just about every country artist out there, Cody has interviewed the likes of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Queen Noor of Jordan, President George Bush — junior and senior.
“I hung up on President Bush,” he deadpans. It was an accident, “an engineering fiasco, so that’s my claim to fame.”
It’s hard to say what was more embarrassing: accidentally hanging up on the person who holds the highest office in the land or nearly being pantsed by Porter Wagoner and fellow disc jockey Keith Bilbery during an Opry show. The duo tried to get Cody to goof up as he was reading commercials one night early in his career as an Opry announcer.
“That podium is big, so they can get away with a lot of stuff behind that podium that the audience doesn’t see,” Cody says. Wagoner and Bilbery untied his shoes and stuck his jacket into his underwear, his pant legs into his socks — all but disrobing him.
“The audience got a little more than they paid for that night frankly, and it’s one of my most cherished memories,” he reflects fondly.
Even as a young boy with stars in his eyes, Cody couldn’t possibly have imagined this life for himself. Cody’s love for WSM began in childhood, when that preacher dad of his — who grew up in the cotton fields of Alabama, not far from WSM’s radio tower — would tell Cody stories about the station and Opry veterans Roy Acuff and Uncle Dave Macon on long car rides.
“It was a romance for me, because I wanted to go where those people were,” Cody says. “I wasn’t quite sure where that was, but I just knew it had to be the coolest place.”
Sounds like he’s made it. It’s been 25 years since Cody joined WSM, and his voice comes through the radio dial as clear as ever.