He’s Chester’s “Man of Steel.”
Ryland Tinnell, 77, has been pickin’ and grinnin’ since age 7 or 8. Now, he’s the latest inductee into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame and its first steel guitarist.
Tinnell – who was honored with a ceremony at the Beacon Theatre in Hopewell Aug. 17 – is a regular performer with the Barn Burners and plays steel guitar with the band five times a year.
“I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it,” Tinnell said, noting the organization has such inductees as Jimmy Dean, Roy Clark, Patsy Cline, The Statler Brothers, Cal Newman of Colonial Heights and North Chesterfield’s own Nicholas Hajacos.
“It’s quite an honor to be put in the same category,” he said. “It just doesn’t get any better than that.”
Tinnell grew up in Appomattox and moved to Richmond at age 16. He remembers playing bluegrass on a Dobro guitar and migrating to country music while in high school.
“It’s my passion,” he said. “I love music.”
At 16, he started playing for a band and estimated that he’s played in 30 bands or so over the years.
“I did it to get extra money to feed a family,” he said, noting that he and his wife, Mary, have three children.
Tinnell served a two-year tour in the Army in Vietnam from 1964-66. He returned there for four months in 1969-70 to entertain the troops as part of a five-person band, the Country Rockers.
Tinnell worked at Fort Lee for 25 years as a civilian employee, starting as an air conditioner mechanic and working his way up to kitchen equipment leader.
He was inducted into the hall of fame by Donna Meade Dean-Stevens and Judge Parker, a banjo player with Josh Grigsby and County Line.
Dean-Stevens, who was inducted into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989, said she’s known Tinnell since 1970 when he was playing in Teenie Chenault’s band.
Tinnell and Dean-Stevens’ brother, C. Ryland Meade, were friends for many years. Meade, who died Sept. 29, 2012, was like a brother to him, Tinnell said. “We played in a band [Country Roads] together,” he said, noting that Meade and Dean-Stevens sang in that band.
He joked that Dean-Stevens used to tell people that she was the only person in town with two “brothers” named Ryland. Dean-Stevens said she called Tinnell “my other brother Ryland.”
Tinnell is the music director of the Old Dominion Virginia Barn Dance, which Dean-Stevens acquired in 2015.
The Barn Dance – which Dean-Stevens calls Virginia’s version of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry – was formed in 1946 by Mary Workman. It had been dormant for about 20 years when Dean-Stevens said she applied for and secured the trademark.
“I tried to buy it [from then-owner Willis S. Pittman in 2003],” she said, but he wouldn’t sell. After her husband Jimmy Dean died in 2010, Dean-Stevens said she needed something to do. The Barn Dance helped fill the void.
“People are starved for that kind of entertainment,” she said, noting the Barn Dance rivaled the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride in the 1940s and ’50s.
The Barn Dance hosts about five performances a year. The next shows are scheduled for Nov. 9 and Dec. 8.