Ray ("The Streaker") Stevens fingered the lapels of his three-piece blue suit.
"You like this?" he asked. "Adidas puts this out."
The stars -- country, that is -- were out last night when Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker gave a two-tent bash at his home for the featured performers of the "Celebration of Country Music" set for tonight at Ford's Theatre. Most, like Stevens, were in unaccustomed coat and tie, except for the sequined Dottie West, and Johnny Cash, in his usual black and white but sans tie. And in honor of the occasion, Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, doffed his trademark Stetson.
Monroe was paired with that most modern of country storytellers, Tom T. Hall. Glen Campbell escorted his wife, Sarah [the former Mrs. Mac Davis]. Cash brought not only his wife, June, but son John Carter. Eddie Rabbitt and Larry Gatlin shared a cocktail table while Mel Tillis spoke with nary a stutter.
The country lambs sat down with the Washington lions: House Speaker Tip O'Neill; House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Al Ullman; Sen. John Danforth [R-Mo.]; James Sasser, the "other" senator from Tennessee; and White House congressional liaison Frank Moore. It was, as one observer put it, the first Washington party with free booze that Willie Nelson didn't make.
O'Neill was busy trying to explain the complexities of Irish folk music to a bemused friend, "Is that Gaelic?"
"No, it means 'Come all ye' -- like everybody join in and sing," answered the rubicund Irishman.
O'Neill seemed ever taller than usual, but he was standing next to a kneehigh bar. Actually, since the table had been set up on the grass, next to a raised platform in the back yard, it was the bartender who tended to look no more than three feet tall.
The stars at the party and the no-shows, who included Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, Lynn Anderson, Freddie Fender and Roy Clark, are assembled to tape an NBC television special saluting the American musical idiom that, in Senator Baker's words, "speaks of people -- of their dreams, their hopes, their loyalties; of their work, their problems, their faith, their lives -- even of their deaths."
The concert will be distilled into a two-hour "Big Event" to air Oct. 16.
There was the usual Washington glad-handing. As Cash introduced his son around, he joked, "John Carter looks a little bit too much like his mother."
"That's a blessing," returned Moore.
"You always know the right thing to say," said Larry Gatlin, a longtime Cash protege, pantomiming a wince.
The guests, fresh [some still in makeup] from a rehearsal at Ford's, moved quickly to the buffet set up below the senator's greenhouse. It was a Washington rather than a Tennessee menu: prime roast beef, roast pig, potatoes, peas, salad and Brie. It was a Washington bar, too -- Dubonnet and no Jack Daniels.
Although there was a passel of secretaries clustered around Gatlin and Rabbitt, it was Baker who was giving out autographs.
It is probably symptomatic of the nation's born-again interest in country music that President Carter has named October, traditionally a big country month because the Grand Ole Opry celebrates its birthday then, national Country Music Month. NBC [which has a special interest since its Nashville affiliate, WSM, owns the Opry] has already signed up Tillis, Gatlin, Anderson and the Statler Brothers for a special musical version of "A Christmas Carol."
Altogether, it was less a meeting of the minds than an amalgamation of the accents. As Mildred O'Neill said in her most Boston-Irish drawl, "Everybody loves country music."