WHEN RADIO RULED
When I came of age, television had invaded our lives. Ed Sullivan showed us the Beatles, and the nightly news showed us the daily body counts of the dead in Vietnam. Civil Rights, and the Women’s Movement. Revolution in our culture. Rebellion in our generation. But change had had preceded us. In music, as it often does. And it began on the radio.
The musical roots of that rebellion came out of the South. Not just the black blues of Memphis and the Delta. Not just Robert Johnson and Lead Belly. It was mountain music, Irish beats, and Scottish harmonies. The “High Lonesome” singing of the Kentucky, Virginia, and the Tennessee highlands.
And 50,000-watt powered radio stations. “Clear Channels,” they were called, and licensed by the government to be so. Using “sky wave” propagation of a radio signal bouncing off the ionosphere, the rural areas of vast regions of America could be reached and serviced. WLS 890 in Chicago, WLW 700 in Cincinnati, WSM 650 in Nashville, and KWKH 1130 in Shreveport.
It is from Shreveport along the Red River in Louisiana that this essay flows. The community of musicians that came together on the radio show known as the “Louisiana Hayride.” Country music, if you will, based on mountain music, fueled by southern blues, and with a little rock and roll. It was driven forward by a six-gun toting, ten-gallon hat holding, sweet Southern gentleman named Horace “Hoss” Logan. A radio producer at that Shreveport Clear Channel, KWKH.
The “Hayride” started in 1948. Every Saturday night, it brought musicians, both regulars and new talent, to Shreveport to compete for audience encores after playing two songs. And, unlike its long-established predecessor, the “Grand Ole Opry” in Nashville, it was not conservative, using a musical meaning of that word. Hoss wanted “new” and “exciting” music and musicians. Drums, horns, electric bass, and guitar. Many new “stars” got their breaks there. Including that teenaged, bluesy, body-swaying boy, Elvis Presley!
CBS radio eventually picked up the show and broadcast it across its national family of radio stations. The “Louisiana Hayride” was the real thing, the new thing, and a big deal. Just ask Hank Williams.
His big national break was on that stage in 1948. And he had returned in 1952 after being let go by the “Grand Ole Opry” for his drinking. He died on New Year’s Day, 1953, in the backseat of a blue Cadillac convertible in the dark shadows of West Virginia. Drugs? Alcohol? Maybe a broken heart. His latest song was climbing the charts at his death. It was entitled, “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive.”
There were many more “stars” to rise off that hayride to fame. Elvis wasn’t old enough to sign and bind his own contract when he got there. He sang “That’s Alright Mama,” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the Hayride in 1954. Not much response. A younger audience would soon change that. And the phrase, “Elvis has left the building?” Yup. It was first spoken at the Hayride!
Johnny Cash was old enough to sign on his own contract. He had been sent down from Sam Phillips and Sun Records in Memphis. The same place where Elvis got his start. You know of his sessions there, especially the one with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash in 1956, called the “Million Dollar Quartet.” Johnny Cash’s encore song at his first Louisiana Hayride in 1955 was “Folsom Prison Blues,” and had yet to be released on record.
As big and popular as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash became, the most significant talent had to have been Hank Williams. Read his lyrics and you will feel his emotions spill out in harmony and tempo, providing just what was needed in rhyme. Not just good. Exceptional! A rare, prolific, and tortured talent. Not as gifted in voice, perhaps, as some other singers, but he sang in sounds that echoed his soul. Including yodels!
And he was mesmerizing on stage.
How so? Look at his pictures. Okay. Tall, lean, maybe even handsome. But mesmerizing?
Oh, yes. Every time he got up to perform. Maybe it was his eyes, pleading and earnest. Maybe the long, tender sway of his body. Echoes of an earlier Elvis?
Many stars of country music were raised up on the Louisiana Hayride. Some, like Webb Pierce and Kitty Wells, went on to the Nashville Opry and became top stars in the industry. Kitty Wells broke the “barn ceiling” as the first big-time female country music singer. She got her break on the Hayride, singing “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Within three months of recording in 1952, Kitty’s song soared to number one on the billboard country charts in 1952. The first woman solo artist to do so.
And don’t forget George Jones. He showed up at a Conroe, Texas, Hayride Show and convinced Hoss to let him sing. If you are a country music fan, you know the rest as success in country music history!
Not all big stars that got their start on the Hayride left for Nashville. Slim Whitman, who stuttered as a child and was missing a finger, sang high into his falsetto and had a big hit with “Indian Love Call.” You may remember that song from the movie, “Mars Attacks!” or the later infomercials marketing his work in the 1980s.
And then there was Johnny Horton. “The Singing Fisherman.” He married Hank Williams’ second wife, Billie Jean. Preoccupied with a fear of an early death, it came to him in a head-on collision in 1960 with a drunk driver in Texas.
You can still buy CDs, and duplicate vinyl records of these fine artists. There are even some compilations of live shows on the Hayride. But the album I like most is the record that I listened to when I was young. Johnny Horton Makes History. So go give his Grammy winning “Battle of New Orleans” or “North to Alaska” a spin in the stream!
And that modern electric music? Check out Louisiana’s own James Burton on his Fender Telecaster guitar. He backed up many Hayride musicians, eventually becoming Elvis’ lead guitar player. Just a teenager when he first played on the Hayride stage, you can still see him there. Two statues were erected in front of Shreveport’s Municipal Auditorium. One is of Elvis Presley. The other is of James Burton!
They were all seen and heard on the stage of the “Louisiana Hayride.”
It was often called the “Cradle of the Stars!”