NASHVILLE -- Just mention the big red curtain coming up at the Ryman Auditorium on a Friday or Saturday night, and Bob Whitaker still gets goosebumps.
It doesn't matter that the former general manager of the Grand Ole Opry retired in 1999 after a 28-year career at the Opryland complex -- the last seven as Opry GM -- the thrill of those weekend performances by the greats of country music is as wired to his DNA as surely as the congenial manner that makes him a favorite of everyone who's ever visited the Ryman, from legendary singers to security guards.
"One of the earliest memories I have is listening to the Opry broadcasts on my grandfather's radio," Whitaker, who will bring some of the talent that has graced the Grand Ole Opry stage to Albany Jan. 28-30 for the Quail Unlimited Conservation Celebrity Event, said in a recent phone conversation. "He wouldn't allow that radio to be turned on at any other time, but he always listened to the Opry on Friday and Saturday.
"I've been an Opry and country music fan all my life, and I can't imagine God blessing any person more than when He put me in that environment."
Whitaker, who's been a long-time supporter of Quail Unlimited and the annual Albany quail hunt that brings outdoors lovers and celebrities together for bird shoots at some of the country's finest plantations, will join Jett Williams and former Statler Brother Jimmy Fortune at the Saturday-night party that closes this year's weekend event. The duo -- and possibly other country stars -- will entertain partiers with the accompaniment of local band Relapse, which will play throughout the night.
"We're excited about this opportunity," Relapse singer Davis Kinney said. "In Jett Williams (Hank Williams' daughter), you're talking about a member of the first family of country music, and Jimmy Fortune's voice is the one that gives us all chills on all those great Statler Brothers songs.
"All of us in Relapse have played with bands that have done charts for professional singers in our careers, but this is not typical for Relapse. They're e-mailing us their charts now, and we're working on them to get ready for Saturday. It's a challenge, but we're all looking forward to it. It should be a lot of fun."
Whitaker, whose father taught him to hunt when he was "big enough to hold a single-shot, .20-gauge shotgun," said Albany deserves its reputation as a "bob white quail-hunting mecca."
"You guys down there are such gracious hosts to the world of quail hunters," he said. "Like Nashville is the mecca of country music, Albany is in the same category when it comes to those wonderful plantations in your area.
"People love coming to Albany because of your attitude toward quail hunters, the quality of the habitat on your plantations and the dog work by the handlers there. When it comes to quail hunting, it's in your roots there, it's in your souls."
Bill Bowles, managing partner of Quail Country Plantation in Arlington and the newly appointed national president of Quail Unlimited, said he reached out to old friend Whitaker as the organization looked to overcome mismanagement that had recently left the habitat conservation group on the verge of insolvency.
"The (Celebrity) Hunt couldn't be better, and it's because of Quail Unlimited supporters like Bob Whitaker," Bowles said. "It's been very gratifying to see the rally of support shown not only by our national sponsors and our members, but also by the local community.
"The next couple of weeks are going to be really important to our organization, but they'll be important to local citizens and businesses as well. This is an opportunity to showcase Albany and the surrounding area, and it should be a source of pride -- as well as have a substantial economic impact -- for the people of the region to support this event."
Kinney said Bowles has put his money where his mouth is by arranging for Relapse to back up the country singers performing at Saturday's event.
"Our hats are off to Bill; he could have brought Nashville musicians down to play with (Williams and Fortune), but he wanted to keep it local," Kinney said.
Bowles said all area residents can add tremendously to the Hunt's local flavor by throwing their support behind its events.
"It's not just the quail hunters," he said. "We want the people to come out for the Winchester Conservation auction and dinner Friday and the Anheuser Busch Budweiser Party on Saturday. You can still get involved as a benefactor, but after this weekend we will open up all seats that have not yet been sold as single tickets.
"We'll offer individual tickets for Friday night's gathering for $50, while Saturday's tickets will be on sale for $75. With all that's going on, it's going to be well worth it."
A Thursday-night appreciation dinner will be held at Stonebridge Country Club, while Friday's and Saturday's events will be held at the Hasan Temple on Palmyra Road. For ticket information, contact Lisa Riddle at the Convention and Visitors Bureau at (229) 317-4760.