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Friends in low places: WTHO's Ferguson sings with Garth Brooks

Talk about a streak of luck - one local resident thought he was lucky when he received a trip to Nashville. Instead, he ended up at the end of the rainbow singing a duet with Garth Brooks on stage.

"It was a once in a lifetime experience. It'll never happen again," he said. "On the music side of my life, it was the thrill of a lifetime. I flew all the way home, but I didn't use a plane. I don't know when I'll come off this cloud."

Steve Ferguson, the music director at WTHO radio, said he wanted to attend the annual Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, but couldn't afford the registration fee. At the last minute, a radio station in California had to back out and offered to give him their spot.

"It's an annual event where all the country music stars wine and dine the radio people for a few days," Mr. Ferguson said. "Everybody is there, from all the number one names in the nation down to us smaller guys. And I got there by luck of the draw."

The event also gives radio stations the opportunities to record their own advertisements with country music stars. Mr. Ferguson said he decided to take advantage of that situation rather than attend a show where Jerry House would be interviewing a country star. After making his rounds to all the booths and talking to the stars, Mr. Ferguson decided to go into the interview show late. On the way in, the greeters at the door told him to drop his business card in a box for a drawing to go on stage with Garth Brooks, and to write on the back of the card the name of a song he'd like to sing.

"I said 'yeah, right,' and it was the last business card in my wallet," Mr. Ferguson said. "And then I went in there and they pulled my name out of the box. It took me a minute to stand up. They had to keep calling my name."

Mr. Ferguson was sitting in the back of the audience of over 3,000, and said it took him a while to make it up to the stage. When he got there, he shook hands with Jerry House.

"I said 'Oh my God.' That in itself is an event because he's a legend in country radio," Mr. Ferguson said. "Then I shook hands with Garth Brooks. It's still all a blur."

Although Mr. Ferguson's wife, Terry, accompanied him on the trip, he said she did not have a pass to get into the show.

"So I got the microphone and said 'Somebody call my wife' and I gave out her cell phone number to the audience," he said. "Then the entertainer in me kicked in and I said 'guys, she's happily married.'"

While he was on the stage, Mr. Ferguson had an idea that turned out to make history. He asked Mr. Brooks if he could call his radio station and have the duet broadcast over the air. Mr. Brooks agreed, even though he had never performed on radio.

"At that point, I was shaking like a leaf," Mr. Ferguson said. "I mean, it was Garth Brooks. He has sold over 17 million albums. I don't think the guys at the station believed I would be singing with Garth Brooks, so I put him on the phone for them. And they put him on hold!"

It was Wednesday morning, and the production manager at WTHO, Roy Grice, just happened to be in the restroom at the time.

"That's my luck," Mr. Grice quipped during the interview with The Mirror. "But I really didn't think Steve was creative enough to make that story up."

WTHO owner, Mike Wall, said he believed Mr. Ferguson was on stage because "his voice was giddy, but when he said Garth Brooks wants to talk to you, I thought he was yanking my chain."

Mr. Ferguson and Mr. Brooks sang two verses of "Friends in Low Places" with Mr. Brooks playing the acoustic guitar. Then, Mr. Ferguson said he heard a low "beat" behind him.

"It was drums. The curtain opened up and his whole band joined in. Everybody later said my jaw dropped," Mr. Ferguson said.

After the verses, Garth Brooks put his hat on Mr. Ferguson's head and said, "Take it, buddy," and Mr. Ferguson sang solo. Although he has performed in bands since he was 14, Mr. Ferguson said his only big audience has been unseen through the radio.

"The crowd went nuts," Mr. Ferguson said. "I'm proud that the people didn't boo me off the stage."

Later in the day, Mr. Brooks sent for Mr. Ferguson, and told him "Man, that was great, wasn't it?" Mr. Brooks also posed in a photo with Mr. Ferguson and his wife.

"They tell me that's Garth, that's how he is," Mr. Ferguson said. "It was incredible."

The event turned out to be the highlight of the convention for several reasons. Mr. Ferguson said the show video producer later told him he thought the performance was going to be "a train wreck" when Mr. Ferguson was walking to the stage. But it turned out so well, the duet portion of the video was shown again during the closing ceremony Friday night.

And because it was the first time for Garth Brooks to sing over live radio, Mr. Ferguson is the envy of all his peers.

"They call me 'The Garth Guy,'" he said. "So many people were wanting to interview me, even after I took my badge off, they were still coming up to me."

The 15 minutes of fame became so overwhelming that Mr. Ferguson and his wife ended up leaving the conference early. In the few days that he's been back in Thomson, Mr. Ferguson has been interviewed via telephone by over two dozen radio stations and magazines across the country. Even during The McDuffie Mirror interview on Monday, phone calls from other media were coming in. He is being featured on two national country music video stations.

"I'm so proud of my station," Mr. Ferguson said. "It's a small station, and people know who we are now."

Web posted on Thursday, March 13, 2008

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