'Louisiana Hayride Tonight' Revisits A Small-Time Show That Hosted Big-Name Stars

Jan 4, 2018
Originally published on January 5, 2018 10:04 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Throughout the decade of the 1950s, the Louisiana Hayride was second only to the Grand Ole Opry as a showcase for country music acts, hosting everyone from Hank Williams to Elvis Presley. A new 20-disc box set titled "At The Louisiana Hayride Tonight" contains over 500 performances by scores of artists both famous and obscure. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "LOUISIANA HAYRIDE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's Saturday night country style.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Come on along, everybody come along. Come while the moon shines bright. We're going to have a wonderful time at the Louisiana Hayride tonight.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The Louisiana Hayride began as a talent show and a showcase for country music at the very end of the 1940s. It was broadcast on KWKH, a radio station whose owners included John D. Ewing, locally famous for his opposition to the Ku Klux Klan and Louisiana Governor Huey Long, and W.K. Henderson, who liked to deejay and was known for his on-air catchphrase, hello, world, dog-gone you, which was considered vulgar at the time. But the man who wanted you to think he invented the Hayride all by himself was program director Horace Logan, whose ego was such that he felt comfortable titling his autobiography "Elvis, Hank And Me."

The Louisiana Hayride came along 20 years after the Grand Ole Opry had set up in Nashville, Tenn. The Opry was already in the 1950s seen as the establishment - conservative, ripe for some upstart competition. The Opry had the biggest stars, but the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport gave more breaks to new acts that hadn't yet scored nationwide hits. Not just Elvis Presley, fresh from cutting a few songs at Sun Records, or Hank Williams, already considered a dicey proposition for his heavy drinking and tendency to blow off performances.

The Hayride, three hours of entertainment every Saturday night for the price of 60 cents for adults, 30 cents for kids, introduced a big chunk of America to Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, George Jones, Johnny Cash and scores of others. And by others, I mean such would-be legends as Werly Fairburn, who christened himself The Singing Barber after his day job.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "LOUISIANA HAYRIDE")

WERLY FAIRBURN: Got a real pretty song called "Stay Close To Me."

(Singing) Stay close to me, my darling, 'cause you're so warm and sweet. Please take me in your arms, dear, and share your heart with me. I need you, so stay close to me.

TUCKER: Horace Logan wasn't just the program director. He also frequently served as the Hayride's emcee. He liked to twirl a pearl-handled revolver in each hand as he stood on the stage of the Shreveport Municipal Auditorium. Logan studied the competition, the Grand Ole Opry, which tended to give each act a full half-hour onstage. He reasoned that people didn't want to wait for long stretches for their favorites, so he had his performers sing one or two songs at a time with the guest list rotating through a couple of times over the course of an evening. You could say that Horace Logan was a pioneer in the modern notion that audiences consist of people with short attention spans.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "LOUISIANA HAYRIDE")

GINNY WRIGHT: (Singing) Tell me how to get married. Tell me, little wheel. Though I have no treasures buried, but I want to get married for real.

TUCKER: The same year Ginny Wright was dispensing advice on how to get married - 1954 - Elvis Presley appeared on the Hayride for the first time, sounding awkward and tentative. A mere two years later, he was such a huge, confident star he joked around about his hits over the screams of the crowd in what would be his final appearance on the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "LOUISIANA HAYRIDE")

ELVIS PRESLEY: And now one of my biggest - one of my - friends, we'll get to - we'll get to all the songs you want to hear and everything, but right now we would like to - wait. Wait.

(CHEERING)

PRESLEY: Right now we'd like to do one of my biggest records for you, friends. It's a song called...

(CHEERING)

PRESLEY: Yeah.

(Singing) You know I can be found sitting home all alone. If you can't come around, at least please telephone. You know how hard that is for me.

TUCKER: That appearance ended with Horace Logan coining a phrase that would become associated with Elvis' fame forever after.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "LOUISIANA HAYRIDE")

HORACE LOGAN: All right, Elvis has left the building.

(SCREAMING)

LOGAN: I've told you absolutely straight up to this point. You know that. He has left the building. He's left the stage and went out the back with the policemen, and he is now gone from the building.

TUCKER: The 20 discs on this collection called "At The Louisiana Hayride Tonight" make the music sound like a lost weekend of nonstop entertainment. The broadcasts that originated from KWKH grew into a syndicate of stations and was heard throughout the South, the southwest and on up the East Coast.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "LOUISIANA HAYRIDE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Roger Miller from Nashville, Tenn. He records for Decca.

(CHEERING)

ROGER MILLER: Thank you so much. Glad we could come back out. You know, one night I was having a little trouble at home. My wife threatened to go back home to Mama. And I got to sitting around, thinking just how things would be if she did go back. And it wasn't too good. And I wrote this little song. Maybe you heard it. Jimmy Dickens has been singing it.

(Singing) I walk up to my door and hate to turn the key. Emptiness is all that waits inside for me. That's how it is when the one you love is gone. That's how it is when your house is not a home. I look...

TUCKER: In the end, what had first distinguished the Hayride - its willingness to book a wider variety of acts than the Grand Ole Opry - contributed to its demise. Where the Opry became a clearly defined brand promoting the cream of country royalty, the Hayride remained a farm teen variety show. It failed to attract associated businesses such as recording studios that might have capitalized on that talent and put Shreveport on the map the way the Opry had done for Nashville.

By 1960, the Hayride broadcast its final weekly radio show. Defeated by a combination of rock 'n' roll on the rise and the solidification of the country industry in Nashville, the Hayride ultimately became what it had only pretended to be on the radio - a small-time outfit playing to rural families. Hank was dead, and Elvis had moved on.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed the box set "At The Louisiana Hayride Tonight" on Bear Family Records.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL AND 858 QUARTET'S "ALL THE PEOPLE, ALL THE TIME")

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(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL AND 858 QUARTET'S "ALL THE PEOPLE, ALL THE TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.