MOSSY HEAD — Beneath the badge, Deputy Artie Rodriguez is a "lone wolf with a crying heart."
As Walton County's very own singing deputy, Rodriguez counts himself among a dying breed of old-school musicians.
"I'm country, I'm country," He said. "Traditional country, fiddle and steel, is dying. There are only a few artists out there now on the radio that is considered traditional country. My heart is with traditional country."
When not performing duties as a school resource officer at Walton County High School, he plays as much as possible. But "as a deputy sheriff, I can't just be going and playing at the local bar," Rodriguez said.
So he can be found at the Panhandle Opry on the first and third Saturdays of the month, fiddling, picking and singing with the opry's Porter family.
Tucked away among Mossy Head's live oaks, the iconic music hall — just north of Interstate 10 and west of DeFuniak Springs before crossing over the county line — provides Hee Haw-style family-friendly entertainment.
"Cleanest country music around," Rodriguez said of the opry, which doesn't allow booze, profanity or smoking. "It's a nice little place where families can get out and don't have to get a babysitter because you can bring your kids with you."
The current building was built almost three decades ago in 1982.
Rodriguez acknowledges that part of his draw is his ability to deliver honky-tonk tunes with Spanish verses.
"There just isn't too many Hispanic country music singers who have the country twang, too," he said.
Rodriguez first captured the national spotlight during the era of President Bill Clinton. He was invited to Washington, D.C., to perform his original tune Forget His Memories.
The song was written in honor of his father, a former Korean prisoner of war, Arthur Rodriguez.
He performed it at the 50th Anniversary War Commemorative Ceremony in 2000.
"I told them I'd go up there on one condition, if my dad could go, because he was the reason I wrote the song," Rodriguez said. "It's not going to be right for me to go up there and perform for the veterans and he's back here, so they said yeah, they would accommodate me."
The concert caught the attention of country artist Ty Herndon. Soon after that, Rodriguez hung up his badge and holster, took up the guitar and hit the road with Herndon.
"Sheriff Johnson wouldn't let me take a leave of absence, so I ended up leaving the Sheriff's Office because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Rodriguez said.
After nearly a year on tour, Rodriguez returned home to find a job opening. He was able to "slide back in" to the Sheriff's Office, but a few months after his reinstatement, tragedy struck.
"I was on patrol in the summer of 2002, and I responded to a shots-fired call, when a drunk driver ran a stop sign and hit me while I was en route," Rodriguez said.
Although the former Marine and paramedic was out of work for a few weeks with a fractured vertebra, he never let go of the music.
Rodriguez's newest goal is learning to play the fiddle, which he began two years ago after finding a beautiful 100-year-old German violin stowed in a closet. The instrument has been passed down through the family of his wife, Kristen.
For those unsure how to tell a violin from a fiddle, Rodriguez said it is easy.
"A violin has strings, and a fiddle has strangs," he said.