Question: What’s the perfect job for a hard-core fan of bluegrass and country music? Answer: Stage-managing live awards shows in Nashville, where the job is to make sure legendary performers like Dolly Parton know where they’re supposed to be from the moment they hit the red carpet until the curtain drops and they’re off to meet the press.
“I’m sort of like a doting mother,” laughs Cindy Sinclair from her renovated log cabin in the woods outside Nashville. She has guided country music’s biggest stars through two decades of live TV specials. Sinclair sees to it that the performers are comfortable and briefed on the schedule. “I’ll give them a 30-minute, 15-minute, and 5-minute knock [on their dressing room doors] before I take them to the stage,” she explains. “The onstage managers deal with production issues, but we’re dedicated to the performers. We have isolated channels on our headsets to track their comings and goings backstage.”
Stagehands who work with Sinclair say she wields a “velvet whip” in getting performers to the stage on time. Her friendly but efficient workstyle has earned her many fans among musicians. Over the years, Roy Acuff has sung to her in the halls of the Grand Ole Opry, and she was startled when former president Clinton offered his compliments backstage (to which she spontaneously replied, “Thanks, Bill”). She’s never missed a performer’s call, although she came close when Erykah Badu slipped away to the bathroom moments before she was due onstage at the Grammys.
Sinclair, who grew up in Central Illinois playing guitar and banjo, credits a chance encounter with Grammy-winning musician John Hartford with her unique career. “I had a high school job playing banjo on the Julia Belle Swain, a steamboat on the Illinois River that John came to pilot,” she says. “After college, John and his wife invited me down to Nashville, and I never left. My very first job was as the trophy girl for the Country Music Awards (CMA),” Sinclair recalls. “It was a way to get my foot in the door before moving up to stage-managing.”
Sinclair knows firsthand that working in live television is unpredictable and has seen her share of near misses. “I was a stage manager one time at CMA when a wheel broke on the band cart carrying Lyle Lovett and Asleep at the Wheel,” she remembers. “The wheel kept going and going and stopped just short of the edge of the stage where Julia Roberts and other celebrities were sitting in the audience. Luckily, only a few footlight bulbs were broken.”