This & That

Story published: 05-01-2013 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Early radio shows featured country and western music

By Jack Swift

With fewer radio stations in the early days of radio, many of the big stations had tremendous power and could be heard at great distances. Stations such as WSM Nashville, WLS Chicago, KWKH Shreveport, Louisiana and many others traveled the airwaves into the homes of millions of folks during the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. I can remember when as a youngster my family would gather around the old Philco Cathedral style radio that was in a corner of our living room to hear the news or a country music program.

To say the least, I wasn’t interested in the news and paid little attention to it. But I remember the voices of the major newscasters such as Gabriel Heatter, Edward R. Murrow and H. V. Kaltenborn. What interested me most were the Cowboy adventure stories and the Country and Western music programs that were popular during that era.

I was just thinking recently about some of those most famous country music radio programs. My mind turned first to the oldest continuously running program in the United States: the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry came on the air November 28, 1925 and is still going strong. It first occupied a studio on the fifth floor of the National Life Insurance Company but soon outgrew that venue. A new studio was built but the program soon outgrew it. The successive venues included: Hillsboro Theatre, the Dixie Tabernacle, the War Memorial Auditorium, the Ryman Auditorium and finally March 16, 1974 to the 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House. The Opry has been on WSM eighty-eight years. Now, that’s a while folks.

Another popular country radio program was WLS’s National Barn Dance that lasted over 50 years, coming on the air April 19, 1924. It began in an audience studio and moved to larger quarters on the 6th floor of the Sherman Hotel in downtown Chicago. It grew and was later moved to the headquarters of Prairie Farmer Magazine that had bought the WLS in 1928. By 1931, the show was moved to the Eighth Street Theatre. Folks showed up by the thousands. Long lines of people formed to see the show.

The NBD stopped its live performances at the Theatre after 1957. The show continued on the air on WLS but later moved to WGN Chicago when WLS was sold to ABC. Some of the big stars who began on the “Barn dance” were Gene Autry, Patsy Montana, Pat Buttram, Andy Williams, Rex Allen, Lulu Belle and Scotty and Red Foley. By the way, Lulu Belle and Scotty lived not too far from Mountain City. They lived in Avery County, North Carolina during their later years. She was born in Boone, NC.

I think some of my readers remember the Louisiana Hayride broadcast from the Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium in Shreveport, Louisiana. Elvis Presley performed on the radio version of the “Hayride” on October 16, 1954.

On March 3, 1955, he appeared on the televised version of the program. Several performers who would later be stars were on the “Hayride” including Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells, Slim Whitman, Floyd Cramer, Sonny James, Hank Snow, George Jones who passed away last week, Johnny Cash, Tex Ritter and Lefty Frizzell.

As I close out this column, I will mention one more popular country music program that many folks tuned in to. It was called the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. It aired over WLW Cincinnati. Renfro Valley is a community located near Mount Vernon of Rockcastle County, Kentucky.

Many well-known entertainers performed on the Renfo Valley Barn Dance including Hank Snow, Red Foley, Hank Williams and thers. If I remember right a youngster named Little Jimmie Sizemore was featured on the program. Little Jimmie sang with his father in the early days and I understand as an adult he is still singing in various venues today. Anyway, I just thought I would enjoy a ride down memory lane. I hope you did too.