Darrell Connor is just a river rat with a passion for music

Darrell Connor plays his pedal steel guitar at his studio.
Darrell Connor plays his pedal steel guitar at his studio.

SALISBURY — As a young girl moves with her drink cart around the tables in the Salisbury Gardens dining room, Darrell Connor promises his audience they will recognize the next one.

“This is an old Hank Williams Sr. song for you,” Connor says, settling in behind the steel pedal guitar.


He plays the signature introduction to “Take These Chains From My Heart,” and as Jack Kee and Fred Carpenter come in with their guitars and vocals, a classic country song comes to life.

No one in the crowd realizes the emotional connection Connor feels to this song and Don Helms, the man who played the whining steel guitar on Williams’ original recording.

“I believe in God, and I believe God and Don Helms are playing through me,” Connor says.

Connor can speak for hours about Helms, a country legend who befriended Connor late in his life. Country musicians such as Vince Gill have been known to choke up when talking about Helms’ distinctive steel guitar, because they consider it a Holy Grail or blueprint to real country music.

“That’s Vince Gill,” Connor says, “and I’m just Darrell Connor, and I got to play with the man.”

Connor has been part of the music scene for decades in Rowan County and beyond. He can play the banjo, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass and the 10-string pedal steel guitar — a tough instrument that requires the use of both feet, knees and hands.

It’s like flying a helicopter.

“I always wondered why a steel guitar player doesn’t look up — now I know,” says Connor, who started experimenting with it about four years ago. “It’s a pretty instrument, but it’s rough to play.”

Connor has recorded a couple of CDs, which he can locate for you on request. A retired lieutenant with the Salisbury Police Department, he was a main cog in the all-law enforcement band Hot Pursuit from 1985 to 1997.

Today, Connor makes the musical rounds as the lead man with Darrell Connor and the Country Legends Band. He and his group regularly play for nominal fees at Rowan County nursing homes, and Connor says he never misses performing the third Wednesday of each month at the Hefner VA Medical Center, because it’s such an honor.

Overall, the gigs these days are mostly local.

But Connor also has rubbed elbows and sometimes played with the likes of George Hamilton IV; Randy Owen of the group Alabama; Lynn Owsley, who played with Ernest Tubb; Carolina Rose, who is Bill Monroe’s daughter; Grandpa Jones of “Hee-Haw” fame; Bruce Jones of the Jones Brothers; Jack Greene; Dwight Moody; and, of course, Helms only a few years back.

One meeting or connection always seemed to lead to another.

Connor has been on the same stage with Kitty Wells and Bill Anderson and played twice with Hamilton on the Grand Ole Opry. Through Helms, he has a place in the Hank Williams Hall of Fame Museum and is a lifetime member of ROPE — Reunion of Professional Entertainers International.

For the past eight years, Connor has put together a musical event at his Clark Road property next to the backwaters of High Rock Lake.

The country concert attracts hundreds of people and requires Scouts with Troop 333 to park cars. The Scouts also set up tents and sell hot dogs and hamburgers while visitors unfold their lawn chairs, spread blankets and settle in Connor’s huge backyard for three hours of entertainment.

For a stage, Connor connects two flatbed trailers.

This year’s ninth annual concert will be held from 7-10 p.m. June 14. Carolina Rose will be among the guest performers.

• • •

A self-described country boy and river rat, Connor lives on a beautiful piece of property that was part of his mother’s family’s estate. Huge pecan and black walnut trees dot the grounds on which Connor has completely remodeled and expanded an 1862 farmhouse.

About three years ago, he also built an 1,120-square-foot studio on the back of his garage.

The studio combines many elements: museum, mini-concert hall, practice venue and man cave. He displays a Merle Haggard hat, and three walls are lined with photographs of musicians or country music executives Connor has come to know.

“I’m just lucky, that’s all I am,” Connor says.

He seems to have a story for each person on the wall: He mentions Owsley, Greene, Hamilton, Owen, Anderson, Rose, Haggard, Helms, Moody, Hank Williams Jr., Jim Ed Brown, Little Jimmy Dickens, Wayne Henderson, Bruce Jones, Paul Hill, Matthew Weaver, Danny Hammer, Ralph Harkey, Marty Martell, Jett Williams and Doc Watson.

And that hardly scratches the surface. He has the ribbons and certificate from his fourth-place finishes in instrumental and voice at the 2013 N.C. State Fair’s Folk Festival.

For that competition, he played “Wildwood Flower” and “Red Wing,” his grandmother’s favorite song.

Connor has a steel-trap mind for dates.

A photograph from 1992 shows him appearing on stage in the Lawrence Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem with Alabama. Randy Owen agreed to his being there for one song, as long as his guitar was unplugged, Connor says.

He remembers meeting “Whispering” Bill Anderson for the first time Aug. 1, 2009, and making the mistake of calling him “George,” because he had just left George Hamilton IV.

“What’s this ‘George’ junk,” Anderson said before shutting a door in Connor’s face.

Connor cringed a couple of months later when Anderson sat at his table during his induction into ROPE in Nashville, Tenn. “We made up, because he didn’t recognize me,” Connor says.

Marty Martel, then president of ROPE, called Connor at his home one October evening in 2009 and wanted to know who Connor was.

Martell couldn’t understand how Connor, someone he had never heard of, was unanimously voted into ROPE. Connor explained how he was acquainted with Owen, Helms and Hamilton and jumped at Martel’s invitation to attend the induction dinner.

The Martin Guitar Co.’s magazine, “The Sounding Board,” wrote a small feature on Connor in its January 2013 edition.

• • •

Connor says he was strongly influenced by Larry Kesler, Gerald Briggs and the late Paul Hill.

He first heard the sounds of Kesler’s guitar coming from a rental property his grandfather owned. It led to his family’s buying him a banjo and guitar when he was about 12.

Briggs was a Rowan Dairy milkman who would bring his guitar “and work with a stupid, snot-nosed kid,” Connor says in appreciation. Otherwise, he was self-taught, often watching others play.

Connor met Hill much later in life and regrets not having played with him more often.

As he talks of Hill, he picks the introduction to one of Hill’s favorite songs, “Railway to Heaven.”

Connor lives just down the road from his father, Charles “Pete” Connor. He has younger twin brothers, Ron and Don. Their mother, Dot, died in 2005, and the family erected a 16-foot-high monument to her near the lake.

Connor’s first band incorporated his brothers, and they called themselves “The Country Ramblers.” Connor thinks some musical influences came from their mother, who taught piano and was often singing.

After graduating from East Rowan High, Connor worked three years as a welder at Hoechst Celanese. He then joined the Salisbury Police force and served 30 years until his retirement in 2001.

Beyond music, Connor had another passion for several years: his “Black Thunder” drag-racing boats, the fastest of which could reach a speed of 216 mph in a quarter-mile.

After a scary accident and injury, Connor decided to park that hobby.

• • •

On the day after Thanksgiving in 2004, the Rev. David Ridenhour, pastor of St. Peter’s Church, approached Connor about being part of a backup band for Don Helms.

The request came during a three-way call with Ralph Harkey of Lake Norman Productions.

Connor confessed he didn’t know who Don Helms was, and Harkey asked him whether he had ever heard of Hank Williams Sr.

“Yeah, I’m an American,” Connor said.

He then learned Helms was the steel guitar player for the Drifting Cowboys, the group who played with Williams. Ridenhour was trying to arrange for Helms to play for a church concert to raise money for a new roof.

But Helms suffered a stroke before the concert was scheduled. Still, the duly-impressed Connor traveled to Hendersonville, Tenn., to meet with Helms for the first time Feb. 16, 2005.

The visit made an impression on both men, and they would remain friends up until Helms’ death in August 2008.

Helms told Connor later, “You came when I really needed a friend.”

When Helms’ health and dexterity improved and he could play again, he traveled to Rowan County and performed with Connor and others at East Rowan High and St. Peter’s Church.

Helms and his wife, Hazel, also stayed a week at Connor’s house. Connor made sure the couple had new sheets for their stay, and after they left, he had the sheets shrink-wrapped, never to be used again.

Among Connor’s prized possessions are a steel guitar slide Helms gave to him, and signed copies of Helms’ book about his days with Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys titled, “Settin’ the Woods on Fire.”

• • •

Connor is a man who sees signs and symbols in many things. He marvels at light orbs, a Christ-like figure and a Hank Williams shadow that appeared in some of the photographs he had taken of Helms.

He also sees more than coincidence in the fact that his mother died Dec. 11, 2005, and Helms died Aug. 11, 2008. It was July 11 when he first heard Megan Stoner, then 11, sing for the first time.

Connor eventually invited her to sing with the Country Legends. It all had to do with the number “11,” Connor believes.

His band today includes Kee, Carpenter, Stoner (now 14), Larry Tucker, Patrick Carman and G.W. Saunders. Connor says he’s following Don Helms’ advice and sticking with traditional country, gospel and bluegrass music.

When people get tired of that, you quit, Helms told him.

Connor’s longtime girlfriend, Toni Megliorino, often serves as the band’s sound, lighting and DVD engineer. She also sings at times.

Connor says he stresses to his band members that whether they are playing to a small church group or performing at a bigger concert, they have an obligation to give 5,000 percent every time.

“I’ve lost some players because of that,” he says. “I get serious about my music. ... I believe if I cut my wrist, music will come out, not blood.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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