THIS PARTICULAR FRIDAY, weatherman Bob Ryan is no friend of Rudy Callicutt's. Ryan's been recommending we stay at home because the rain's going to freeze first and later turn to snow. "You shouldn't go telling people that," says Callicutt, 58, eyeing the cold drizzle outside the door of the new country-music club he's running in Beltsville. "This isn't so bad."
As it turns out, the rain doesn't freeze but it does turn to light snow around midnight. By that time, though, a decent, if late, Friday-night crowd has shown up at Country One -- above the liquor store on U.S. 1, two miles north of the Beltway -- to see Callicutt's 40-year-old protege-partner and 13- year friend, country singer Benny Dean.
"Would you believe we hadn't had one rehearsal together?" Dean says later, speaking of himself and the band, Passin' Lane, and sounding pretty cheerful. At this point, Dean, in trademark black shirt and slacks, grey-black beard and shades, has shared a stage only about a half-dozen times with the band. Midway through the first set a burly guy wearing a silver jacket from Cowboys (Dean's former venue in Rockville, since burned down) turns around in his seat to give Callicutt a thumbs-up sign.
Benny Dean, who is blind, gets his thumbs-up sign shortly afterward: applause. And a couple of whoops from the bar in back.
Now, if you looked real close during some of Passin' Lane's obviously pre-Dean numbers -- those where bass player Dave Bestley or drummer Darryl Bacon did the singing, say, or where lead guitarist Mike Ault got off some conversation-stopping picking -- you could see Dean laying back and struggling with some chord changes.
This is to be expected when a person starts over.
And there is much starting-over going on here. For Dean, who was blinded 19 years ago in a Virginia prison and then wrestled with a serious drinking and drug problem until just recently -- and who now believes, after passing a good deal of pain on the way to his 40th birthday, that he is ready to make a serious stab at some sort of country-music stardom. And for Callicutt, a longtime country music promoter and producer (and Dean's manager) who last year underwent open-heart surgery -- and who this New Year's Eve started running the place, formerly known as the Big Dipper, where he and Dean first met during a talent contest in 1962.
Dean and Callicutt are working on a book about Dean's life. The book is nonfiction, but jeez -- Dean's life story is the stuff of "Cool Hand Luke": through school, military service and into Richmond State Penitentiary for grand larceny by age 21. While in prison, Dean and a cellmate mixed what turned out to be wood alcohol with some grape juice, and downed it. The cellmate died; Dean came out of a coma almost two weeks later without his sight.
"I think the Lord allowed me to lose my sight in order to gain my insight," Dean says now, having quit drinking, smoking and drugs three years ago January 31, and having become a born- again Christian since. Had he said this some five years ago -- after his second wife had died of a cerebral hemmorhage, and Dean was shuttling between the stage and the jug ("And I wouldn't come out 'til it was all gone. . .") -- it mightn't have sounded so convincing. Despite Dean's deep, clear baritone. "I was living a fast, reckless life," he says. "I didn't care if I lived or died."
Nowadays, the head is clear, also. "I have a vested interest in working with Rudy and our new club," says Dean, who has toured with a dozen Grand Ole Opry shows, and who opened for the largest concert Callicutt ever produced -- in April 1978 for 70,000 people who came to the Pontiac Silverdome to hear such as Kenny Rogers, Dottie West, the Oak Ridge Boys, Larry Gatlin and Roy Acuff. "It's building for the future." BENNY DEAN AND PASSIN' LANE -- Every Friday-Saturday at Country One, 11350 Baltimore Blvd., Beltsville. 937-7201. Bill Harrell and the Virginians appear February 3 at Country One to start what Callicutt says will be a regular Sunday-night bluegrass.