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Published: Friday, 7/18/2008

Country connections: Local women recall childhood friendships with the stars

BY BRIAN DUGGER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Sharon Chinni with photos and memorabilia of country artists.
Sharon Chinni with photos and memorabilia of country artists.
THE BLADE/HERRAL LONG Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Sharon Chinni sits at her dining room table inside her Maumee home, tugging at her glasses, eyes closed, trying to pull memories from a long-ago time.

She cradles a worn picture of a man with two girls sitting on his lap.

The man is Johnny Cash. Sharon is sitting on his left, her sister, Linda Lutes, is on his right.

"Remember that? He went to lift me up, then I went up with him and almost knocked him out," Linda says with a laugh.

Young Sharon Chinni, right, and her sister, Linda Lutes, with Johnny Cash. Young Sharon Chinni, right, and her sister, Linda Lutes, with Johnny Cash.
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Sharon's longtime sweetheart and husband, George, pops into the room.

"She's got so many good stories," he says.

Hundreds of pictures are spread out before the sisters. In some of them, Sharon, now 61, and Linda, two years younger, are little - 3 or 4 years old. In others, they are teenagers. In all of them, they are posing with some of the greatest country music stars ever.

There's Little Jimmy Dickens, Porter Wagoner, Wynn Stewart, Ernest Tubb, Faron Young, Loretta Lynn, Jean Shepherd.

Sharon Chinni with photo of country singer Wynn Stewart.
Sharon Chinni with photo of country singer Wynn Stewart.
THE BLADE/HERRAL LONG Enlarge | Buy This Photo

"Our parents would take us to Buck Lake Ranch in Angola, Ind. They'd open on Mother's Day and close on Labor Day," Linda says.

"We'd get in for a dollar a car load. We met a lot of stars when they were 21 or 22 years old. A lot of them wanted to adopt me, but my mom wouldn't let them," Sharon says, chuckling.

It was never a problem getting to know them. Often times, the stars were just hanging around their bus with nothing to do. Sharon and Linda's mother would pack a picnic lunch and invite them over. They'd ride the roller coaster with some of them. Sharon would go fishing with Johnny Horton, who won a Grammy for his 1959 hit "The Battle of New Orleans."

"We were always right there when their bus came in. We were the first ones they saw," Sharon says. "They had no security. It was a different time."

Grand Ole Opry great Wagoner, who charted 81 hits over a four-decade span, became one of her pals.

"I'm a gabber and was just a nosy little girl. I think that's why they all liked me," she says. "I was Porter's shadow. I liked his sparkly clothes. My mom would invite him over to our picnic. She'd always make pie for him."

The friendships they built as kids lasted through the years.

"On my 16th birthday, Porter gave me $50 to buy an outfit. Back then, that was a lot of money," Sharon says. "I think I bought four outfits with that."

When Sharon was 21 and visiting Nashville, Wagoner called up his pal, Mel Tillis, and had him pick her up in a limo and bring her to the Grand Ole Opry.

"I knew Porter from when I was 5 or 6 until I was in my 30s. The last time I saw him was probably 15 years ago. It was right after he'd had a mild stroke. I was all excited to see him, but he didn't remember me. He lost part of his memory, and that broke my heart."

As the sisters talk and look at the pictures, one memory leads to another, and the stories begin to flow.

"I'd always tease Jimmy Dickens about being so little," Sharon says of the 4 foot, 11 inch Opry star. "I'd tell him, 'I'm a little girl, and you're not much bigger than me.' I'd ask him what size boot he wore, and he said 4."

Years later the girls were talking to Dickens and told him how their cousin was such a fan.

"We piled into the car and went over to her house," Sharon says. "JoAnn answered the door with curlers in her hair. We just hung out for about a half hour, then took him back to his hotel."

Sharon's closest "pal" was Young, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame best known for his No. 1 hit "It's Four in the Morning."

"He was crazy, young. He was very care free and happy all the time," she says. "I met him when I was 6 or 7 and knew him for 40 or 50 years. I'd call him up or he'd call my mother and tell her where he was going to be."

She pauses and stares blankly, grasping for a memory.

"He committed suicide. I still haven't forgiven him for that," she says.

The stories roll on and on. Stories about Johnny Paycheck, George Jones, Kitty Wells, Bill Anderson.

Finally, Sharon stops and closes her vault of memories. She shrugs her shoulders and smiles.

"To me, that was the best thing that ever happened to me. I have the honor of having all these pictures. I got to know them. It's hard to explain, you know? They were our friends."

Contact Brian Dugger at:

bdugger@theblade.com.



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