The Big Picture: A History of Country Music on Television!
By Steve Morley
Today, when anything from a new Carrie Underwood or Blake Shelton video to a vintage Johnny Cash clip can be summoned on a smartphone or iPad with the flick of a finger, it’s hard to imagine a time when country music was in limited supply and TVs were found only in a small portion of America’s living rooms. Less than half of U.S. homes had one in 1950, when radio was still a primary means of family entertainment. As more and more people tuned into TV, they lost interest in radio’s story-centered dramas, serials, comedies and variety shows. In order to compete, radio broadcasters developed the Top 40 format and satisfied their audiences by playing popular songs of the day. This change in broadcasting practices meant the gradual loss of hundreds of country music shows that had been airing on radio stations across the U.S. Unless a country star had a Top 40 hit, which didn’t happen often, they weren’t likely to get much radio airplay. Television would help to fill the country music gap left by radio’s new style of operation in the 1950s. The country radio format would eventually blossom into a massive industry reaching millions of listeners, but country music’s journey to widespread popularity, whether on radio or television, was neither an easy one nor a speedy one.
In television’s early days in the late 1940s, TV producers hadn’t yet grasped all the possibilities of this new visual medium, and many TV productions were little more than popular radio shows performed in front of a camera. From the very beginning, country music programs proved to be among the more exciting ones to watch, featuring energetic folk-style dancing, physical comedy and loads of whoop-and-holler personality from its typically large casts, as well as eye-catching Western and rural-inspired costumes. The first country TV series, “Village Barn,” was broadcast live from a New York City nightclub and aired from 1948 to 1950, followed closely by the 1948 summer series “Hayloft Hoedown.” The Cincinnati-based “Midwestern Hayride” and ABC’s “Ozark Jubilee” enjoyed longer runs, kicking off in the early/mid-’50s and lasting through the decade’s end. It’s no coincidence that all these programs had names plucked straight from the turnip patch, true to country music’s general perception as a product from down on the farm. While they identified the shows as authentically country to fans, such homespun-sounding titles made them sound corny to city dwellers.
Country’s primitive, “hayseed” image dates back to its rural Southern and mountain-folk roots, which were loudly and proudly displayed on such pioneering radio shows as Chicago’s “National Barn Dance” and its still-surviving Nashville spinoff, WSM’s”Grand Ole Opry.” But, like most forms of popular song, country music absorbed bits and pieces of other musical styles along the way, evolving into a sound with increasing appeal to listeners across America and beyond. A segment of its performers continued to veer toward country’s twangier elements, while others found it beneficial to tone down their Western or “hillbilly” sound and appearance. Those who did so were more likely to be embraced by the national TV watching public, many of whom were not fans of barn-dance-styled affairs. One of the first country performers to find success with this refined approach was Eddy Arnold. Arnold, one of the top-selling country artists of all time, was a favorite guest of network variety shows beginning in 1949, and he was invited the following year to host his own Saturday night NBC TV series, a rare honor at that time for a country singer. Arnold and others like him would be among the first to make admirers of Americans who had not previously been country music consumers. Arnold’s biographer, music business professor Don Cusic, explains that “when something comes into your home, it becomes part of the family. When people see [country stars] on TV, and they’re wearing a suit, that kind of takes away that, ‘Well, I guess they just all dress in overalls.’ So what it does is it takes down that barrier with the general audience, and it makes it more popular.”
Country’s increasingly positive reception prompted film production companies to begin making their own programs, which were picked up by local TV stations in regions where country had a strong viewership — primarily the Southern and Southeastern states. By the mid-’50s, there were an estimated 90 locally and regionally produced shows airing in the U.S. One of the most successful syndicated country music series, “The Porter Wagoner Show,” was produced from 1961 until 1981 and was among the first to become popular outside the typical south/southeast regions. Wagoner, whose poofy nest of blond hair, spindly frame and glittering custom-made suits made him instantly identifiable on the small screen, reached more than 100 regional TV markets and introduced a young Dolly Parton to America. Her TV exposure as Wagoner’s duet partner, which lasted until she left the show in 1974, was instrumental in launching her megastar solo career.
Not even the success of Wagoner’s show and others had much impact on the biased big city executives at the major networks, whose distaste for country and its fans was on the rise. Author and TV writer/producer Robert K. Oermann notes that such biases were not as evident when TV was brand-new and country music enjoyed a degree of acceptance with viewers and networks alike. “It’s only in the ’60s,” Oermann says, “when you get advertisers and networks going, ‘We don’t want that kind of programming — people with cars on blocks in their front lawns and people with green teeth, we don’t want them.’ . . . Because that’s who country music was perceived as appealing to.”
Pressing against this rising tide of prejudice against country artists and their fans came lanky Texas singer Jimmy Dean, whose No. 1 pop crossover hit “Big Bad John” in 1961 had led to TV spots such as an occasional fill-in role on “The Tonight Show.” He accepted an offer from ABC in 1963 to host his own series, not realizing he would have to go toe to toe with the network to book his fellow country artists as guests. Longtime Nashville journalist Oermann recalls having a conversation with Jimmy Dean about the battles Dean endured while hosting the series, which was pulled after its 1965–1966 season. “Jimmy told me [ABC executives] would say, ‘We want real stars.’ And he would say, ‘Don’t you understand? These people are stars.’ But to the people in New York, they weren’t stars,” says Oermann. “They simply refused to recognize the fact that there was a whole middle America out there who loved these performers.”
Grand Ole Opry mainstay and legendary artist/songwriter Bill Anderson was one of several country hitmakers who enjoyed the televised spotlight as host of his own series, which began in 1965. “The main thing television did for us back in that day,” begins Anderson, “was put faces with names and sounds. It’s hard for people to realize it today, but country artists were not frequent guests on the late-night shows or the big variety shows of that time. People only knew us from what they heard on the radio and what they read in the few fan magazines that existed. Our music,” he says, “had to scratch and claw for every ounce of mass exposure it could get. Obviously, increased awareness resulted in increased ticket sales and increased record sales, but that was almost a by-product. When a country artist scored an appearance with [popular variety-show host] Ed Sullivan, or was tapped to host a syndicated show like mine or Porter Wagoner’s . . . that was virtually a victory in itself.”
Another triumph for country music was the launch of the televised CMA Awards show, which took place with a pre-recorded broadcast in October 1968. Since then, the awards show has been broadcast live, and it continues, nearly five decades after its TV debut, to be one of the most-watched presentations of the year. The Country Music Association’s primary duty after forming in 1958 was to increase awareness for the growing country industry, and they hit the bull’s-eye with this one, which spotlighted country’s best and brightest in their formal finest and proved once and for all that country artists weren’t the backwoods yokels they were sometimes believed to be. That year’s two-time winning Entertainer and Male Artist of the Year, Glen Campbell, was one of a newer breed of country stars — one who appealed to young and old viewers and had already begun scoring pop crossover hits from his West Coast base. The likeable Campbell would be the first to fire a shot in the round of firepower that led to country’s television breakthrough as the ’60s drew to a close.
Country would have a banner year in 1969, when the wholesome, easygoing “Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” filmed in Hollywood, would be soon joined by “The Johnny Cash Show.” Cash insisted that his show be done in Music City, against the wishes of his network, and that it be filmed in the then-current home of the Grand Ole Opry, the revered Ryman Auditorium. Cash would handle most aspects of the show with a similarly strong hand, refusing to bow to demands that rubbed against his own ideas how the show should be done. Unlike any other country show, he addressed controversial current topics, visited nearby Vanderbilt University to get young people’s opinions, and booked progressive musical acts such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Not only did this help to lessen the tensions between country and rock in the Nashville music industry, but Cash’s insistence on filming in Nashville proved that the city could hold its own as a television production center against New York and Los Angeles. When the new Grand Ole Opry House was built in the early 1970s, TV production facilities were included, preparing Nashville to make future strides for country on television.
A week after Cash’s TV debut, just as Nashville was hitting a high point and successfully shedding its long-held bumpkin image, something totally unexpected happened: “Hee-Haw.” A total throwback to country’s early hillbilly-music programs, “Hee- Haw” brought back bare feet, bib overalls and eye-rolling cornball comedy, but it was done
professionally, purposefully and hilariously, hosting a mixture of both traditional and contemporary country music. Despised by television execs and critics but adored by the American public, the Nashville-produced show was a mammoth hit that lasted three seasons on network TV and went on to more than 20 additional years of success as an independently produced syndicated show after being axed from CBS in 1971.
During that year, a sudden turn of events led to the cancellation of every rural- and country music-oriented show on TV, regardless of ratings or viewer interest. Network decision-makers wanted a younger, hipper audience and were fed up with programs that did not reflect their own personal tastes. But it was too late to reverse what Campbell, Cash and “Hee-Haw,” assisted by their many predecessors, had accomplished. “They were really important in spreading country music’s mainstream appeal,” says Robert K. Oermann. “It was a huge time of growth for country music, and the television exposure was part of a larger trend of country music penetrating into the mainstream.”
Adds Bill Anderson, “The major artists who appeared on these shows went from playing concerts in small theaters and auditoriums into selling out the new arenas that were beginning to pop up all over the country. National sponsors hustled to get on board with their products. The entire industry benefited.”
While country music was again at odds with TV networks in the ’70s, shows like PBS’s still-running “Austin City Limits” introduced viewers to a variety of non-mainstream artists, while specials and a growing slate of country awards shows still lured in big audiences. “The Dukes of Hazzard,” a number-one-rated show, featured country stars such as Mel Tillis and Loretta Lynn as guests and a theme song written and performed by major country star Waylon Jennings. A 1980 made-for-TV movie based on Kenny Rogers’ country crossover hit “The Gambler” ended up holding a winning hand, and country would soon hit the jackpot with the emergence of cable TV.
When The Nashville Network debuted on March 7, 1983, more than 20 million viewers tuned in, setting an all-time record. Along with CMT, which had debuted two days earlier (first under the name CMTV) and aired a steady diet of country videos, the 18-hour daily programming of TNN saturated the tube with a feast country fans consumed with gusto, giving the country industry an unprecedented boost. Comments Bill Anderson, who hosted, guested on and produced shows on the TNN schedule, “Stop and think about it: there was not a New York Network, or a Chicago Network, or a Los Angeles Network, but there was a Nashville Network. The name ‘Nashville’ is synonymous with country music. How could that not have helped us all?”
TNN, whose program schedule was loaded with music-based shows and other country lifestyle offerings, was a top performer until the late 1990s, when it was sold and eventually retooled entirely. Meanwhile, video channel Great American Country would find and sustain a large viewership. The network, still based on Music Row, is currently available in nearly 60 million homes via cable and satellite packages. CMT, like its rock and-pop predecessor MTV, no longer caters as carefully to its original audience, though the CMT Music Awards remains a must-watch in country circles. The June 2016 news that the cancelled ABC series “Nashville” would move to CMT for a fifth season was enthusiastically celebrated by country fans, many of whom had raised a boisterous outcry to keep the show alive.
As for TNN’s aging fans, an attempt to relaunch the network led to similar programming being brought to homes in select U.S. markets, while RFD-TV, a rural/country lifestyle network based in Nashville, is filling much of the country music gap left by the original Nashville Network. Elsewhere, “American Idol” brought us country superstar Carrie Underwood and bubbly TV favorite Kellie Pickler, while the country talent competition “Nashville Star” delivered enduring artists Miranda Lambert and Chris Young, and singer/actors such as Reba McEntire and Billy Ray Cyrus have become television series staples.
Though nothing can rob country music of its hard-earned successes and ongoing consumer appeal, the television industry’s on-again, off-again love affair with country will likely persist, says Robert K. Oermann. “Television has had to learn this lesson over and over again — ‘Oh . . . people like this!’ It’s like they have to rediscover it over and over again. And I think you could tell the entire history of country music on television with just that sentence: ‘Oh, people like this! What a surprise.'”