LIVERMORE FALLS, Maine — Like singers fighting over the melody, Jim Guilmet and Shirley Jean Brackett began talking over each other as they described the big moment — climbing onto the stage of a wide, Tennessee theater and competing for a North American Country Music title.
Her first time, Brackett began to freeze.
“I turned around and looked at one of the guys who played steel guitar and said, ‘I just forgot everything I ever knew,’” Brackett said. “He says, ‘The minute you get in the middle of that stage and the music starts, it’s going to come.’”
Guilmet described knees that knocked until he reached a spot marked on the stage with a giant ‘X.’ Then, his nerves vanished.
“Once you stand on that, you’re at home,” he said.
Pigeon Forge’s “Country Tonite” theater, where the North American Country Music Association holds its annual weeklong competition, seats 1,500 people. During most performances, musicians pack the hall.
Like Guilmet, Brackett feels at home on center stage.
“We’ve had people describe it as ‘magical,’” Brackett said. “Actually, I was one of those people.”
Guilmet, 60, and Brackett, 65, are returning to the stage this March, as a duo.
The pair won the Down East Country Music Association’s prize for Maine’s top gospel duo. Then, they won the New England competition.
Now, they plan to go to Pigeon Forge. It’s not free, though.
The drive to the town outside Knoxville and the cost of hotels and food figures to set them back more than $1,000 each, Brackett said. And there is little extra money. Brackett is retired after a career spent helping people in group homes. She lives in Hartford.
Guilmet, a retired heavy equipment manager, plans to go down with his wife, Brenda. They live in Livermore Falls.
To raise money for the trip, Guilmet and Brackett plan to headline a fundraising dance Saturday at the Old Canton Fire Hall on Route 140. The pair will sing as a duo and with their band, The Rednecks. Several other acts, including Paula Kaiser and the Off the Hill Band and the C.P.S. Express Band will also play. The acts plan to fill the stage for five hours, from 5 to 10 p.m. Admission is $7 for singles and $12 for couples.
It’s all a little overwhelming for the pair, who only started singing together last year, at the suggestion of Jackie Harmon, president of the Down East Country Music Association.
“She knows whose voices blend good together,” Brackett said. “I don’t know how she does it. She just does it.”
The first time they sang together, they knew they had something special. They each seemed to know what the other was doing. They harmonized naturally.
“If you can do it right the first time, you can do it forever,” Guilmet said.
Though they both sing traditional country music, they gravitated to gospel. Their first duet was with the song, “How Far is Heaven?”
Gospel songs, including hymns such as “The Old Rugged Cross” and “In the Garden” have more resonance than secular music, Guilmet said. There’s also familiarity.
“I think, somewhere along the line, every singer has sung in church,” Brackett said.
Their singing will be tested in Pigeon Forge, best known as the home of Dolly Parton’s amusement park, Dollywood.
“People go there from all over the world to compete,” Guilmet said. “Giant gospel groups come in with buses.”
They don’t expect to find fame, though.
“It’s not a money-making thing,” Guilmet said. “It’s about spending time with your good friends.”
But there are moments, particularly in Pigeon Forge, when they will feel famous.
“There’s something about that stage that says, ‘This is my 15 minutes and I am going to do something with it,’” Brackett said.