At The Louisiana Hayride Tonight
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From 1948 to 1960, the Louisiana Hayride served as a launching pad for many of the greatest stars in country music, with artists such as Hank Williams, Jim Reeves, and Johnny Cash appearing on the powerful radio airwaves of KWKH AM 1130 in Shreveport, Louisiana. In addition to those artists -- who later found their fame and fortune in Nashville -- the show also proved to be beneficial to a truck driver from Memphis named Elvis Presley who was told by Grand Ole Opry management not to give up his day job. Those artists and others like them made country music history, but for the most part, many of those Hayride performances haven't been heard since their initial broadcast.
Thanks to Bear Family Records, music aficionados now have the chance to hear a little bit of history with the release of the expansive 20-CD set titled At the Louisiana Hayride Tonight. The box contains a staggering 559 cuts, with many rarities, including:
An unreleased recording of Hank Williams performing ''I'm A Long Gone Daddy.''
11 'as live' studio-recorded transcriptions, including Kitty Wells, Johnnie and Jack, Hank Williams, and Curley Williams.
Live performances from many of country music's most colorful characters, including Cousin Emmy, Bill Carlisle, Faron Young, and George Jones, who is featured on several cuts, including a performance of his 1955 career breakthrough ''Why Baby Why.''
Live commercial ads that appeared on the original broadcasts, including future superstar Johnny Cash plugging Southern Maid Donuts as the ''best in the world.''
The set is the largest country collection ever released by Bear Family, which has released career overviews from artists such as Buck Owens, The Osborne Brothers, and Connie Smith. Martin Hawkins, who co-produced the set, says that if you are used to the high level of excellence of Bear Family releases, you won't be disappointed.
''When Bear Family puts out anything, they always like to do it top quality with no expense spared,'' Hawkins told Billboard. ''The man who founded the company loved country and rock n' roll so much that he wanted to do it very properly.''
When the idea was presented to Hawkins, he knew that it was going to take some time and care and a lot of discs. ''The company got access to hundreds of hours of live recordings from the program, wanted to put a box set together, and wanted to know if I would work on it. It took me about two years to plow through all of the music. I sent a message saying that if the company wanted to do this thing properly, it's probably going to take about twenty CDs. They came back to me and said 'If that's what it takes, then that's what we will do.' Even with the twenty discs, we just scratched the surface of everything that is available.''
In addition to the music, there is a 224-page hardcover book with rare photos of the artists involved in the show, as well as a little bit of rock n' roll history such as the night when one star made his last performance on the show. ''Horace Logan was the first emcee on the Hayride job,'' Hawkins says. ''In 1956, when Elvis Presley played his last show on the Hayride, he had actually been off for some months, and came back to do a special one-off show for charity. The crowd went completely crazy, but they still had two hours or so to go, so Horace came back out with the famous phrase 'Elvis has left the building.''' He notes it was the first time that phrase was uttered. ''So you can hear the full version of that on the set.''
All in all, Hawkins is very proud that the set is available to music fans who might not be aware of other radio shows of the time besides the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. ''This is the biggest project that I've been involved with. I did a 12-CD set on Sun Record.'', and some other country and blues boxes, but this one is twice the size...'' --Billboard Magazine
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Williams and Presley provide the bookends to the Hayride’s most influential period, with Williams having been the show's first superstar, and Presley’s rise paralleling the Hayride’s decline. The box set shows off the transition between the two, detailing the show’s twelve year run with a constantly evolving lineup of local, regional and national acts whose growth and innovation helped shape popular music in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Beyond the music, the show’s continuous, unrehearsed flow of artists, comedians, ads and announcers created a tapestry of entertainment that really filled a Saturday night. The recordings sourced here were cut for radio distribution and proof-of-advertising to sponsors, and without aspiration for commercial release, they capture the spontaneity of a show performed for a live audience rather than a recorder.
A set this massive has to be treated more as a pantry than a meal. It’s something from which listeners can draw upon for years, and though a once-through inks a picture of the Hayride’s arc, individual discs and performances play nicely in isolation. The set opens with pre-Hayride material from the show’s radio outlet, KWKH, providing an historical record of the station’s 1930s battle for its frequency, early broadcast continuity, and studio recordings waxed for commercial release. KWKH’s founder, William Kennon Henderson, Jr., was a colorful, self-aggrandizing iconoclast whose personal broadcasts railed against the then newly-formed Federal Regulatory Commission, chain stores and other stations intruding on his channel.
Henderson had sold KWKH by the time the Hayride began broadcasting in 1948, but the earlier material highlights the wild west roots from which radio was still emerging. With recorded music growing in popularity, radio stations performed double duty as broadcast outlets and recording studios. The Hayride and its peer barn dances became tastemakers as their live shows promoted the artists, their records and their tour dates. The show’s announcers even call upon the listeners to inquire about bringing a Hayride tour stop to their hometown, and it’s easy to imagine many taking the opportunity to drop their “one cent postcard” in the mail for details.
The announcers choreograph each show, introducing and conversing with the musicians as they’re brought on to play one or two songs before giving way to the next act. The set’s producers have deftly selected long, multi-artist segments that retain the continuity of intros, music, comedy and advertisements intact. Listeners will get a feel for the Hayride’s complete evening of entertainment, and how the program evolved over the years. In particular, the collection reveals the Hayride’s uncanny ability to discover and develop new talent (in part, a defense against the continual flow of their stars from Shreveport to Nashville) as the show’s constantly evolving lineup introduced and few performers into stars.
The slow churn of the Hayride’s cast turns out to have been one of its charms, and the intertwining of stars, soon-to-be-stars and talented performers who failed to catch on gives this set a widescreen perspective that’s often elided in reissue material. There are numerous hits from famous performers, but the broader context in which this collection sets them is especially interesting. The earliest live program included here, from August 1948, features a 24-year-old Hank Williams, who’d debuted on the country chart the previous year with “Move It On Over” and wouldn’t hit #1 (with “Lovesick Blues”) until the following year. Williams’ rising profile was his ticket to Nashville, but after being fired by the Opry in 1952, he returned to the Hayride, where he performed “Jambalaya (on the Bayou)” to a surprised and enthusiastic audience.
Williams would die only three months after his return to the Hayride, and it would be more than a year until Elvis debuted in 1954. Presley converses shyly with the announcer in his first appearance, but rockets off the stage to the screams of the audience (and the immortal announcement “Elvis has left the building) in his 1956 finale. Elvis’ growing fame and ensuing tour commitments often kept him from the Hayride’s stage, so the show sought to satisfy its growing contingent of teenage fans by booking Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison in his place. But even the Hayride’s legendary nose for talent couldn’t help the show stay afloat amid the confluence of television, rock ‘n’ roll and the growing importance of record sales (and the radio DJ’s who spun them) to a teenage audience. By 1960, the Hayride could no longer hold stars in its regular cast, draw media attention or fill an auditorium.
The set’s massive book (so large and heavy, that it’s actually difficult to handle) includes a history of the Hayride by Colin Escott, a detailed timeline of show casts, an essay by Margaret and Arthur Warwick, detailed show and artist notes by Martin Hawkins, photos, and record label and promotional ephemera reproductions. Escott’s liner notes are knowledgeable and entertaining, though a bit prickly in unraveling the grandiosity of Horace Logan’s recollections. He’s no doubt correct in calling out many of Logan’s stories as self-aggrandizing fabrications, but the repetition of his derision gets tiresome. Hawkins’ notes offer museum-quality details about the individual show segments that help the listener place the artists, songs and performances in both historical and Hayride context.
The sound quality varies throughout, as one would expect from sixty-year-old recordings not waxed for posterity, but all of the tracks are listenable, and many are of surprisingly good fidelity - better than most listeners probably heard over the AM radio at the time. The mix of longer and shorter segments gives the listener a feel for the show without distracting from its core musical focus. The massive volume of material testifies to the Hayride’s monumental achievement of mounting a weekly live show for a dozen years with fresh, new artists amid changing musical tastes. Bear Family’s well-deserved reputation for lavish reissues is on full display here, and just like those who paid sixty-cents to attend the Hayride in person, you’ll get more than your money’s worth from this set. [©2017 Hyperbolium]
First, the price. This is by no means an inexpensive set. But neither are most of BFR releases. Unlike some imports, BFR actually pays royalties to the publishers. Next is the fact that the set contains 20 CDs – each running at least 77-minutes! And the book is huge and heavy. This set is not for the casual fan who will listen to it once. It’s not aimed at that. But every archive should have a set. As “hyperbolium” says, these recordings are from ultra-rare transcription discs and – especially with the superb transfers – these recording exist nowhere else. There are the corny song intros by the announcers – which are fun once – but I’m sure there are tracks you’ll go back to.
A few clarifications on hyperbolium’s review. It is mentioned that the set is “bookended” by Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. That’s not quite correct as Williams does pretty much lead off the set (and died shortly after those performances. But Presley arrives on CD 3 (1954) and leaves the show on CD 7 (1956), a long way before CD-20 (1965) – Loretta Lynn gets the last track on the set. And though there are performances here by folks who were just being discovered – Like George Jones, Johnny Cash, Roy Acuff, Tex Ritter, Webb Pierce and Jim Reeves – some artists that hyperbolium mentions, who were on the Hayride are not included here. Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins are two of those.
The detailed track notes provide a lot of info on artists I never heard of (Betty Amos, James O’Gwynn, and Johnny Mathis – no, a different JM than you probably know). And I’ve found this set to be a mini-course in Country Music on the cusp of Rock & Roll, by reading the liner notes for each show here (they are grouped by the date the live show was performed – to as many as 10,000 people – and then recorded for other radio stations to air) and then playing that show. I would go back and forth and –as I said – I’m still at it.
Anyway, this is definitely a set that will never be released again in this form and BFRs are – obviously limited edition sets. (No they are not numbered.)
I’ll return and add more info but I hope what I provided was helpful to readers. Now it’s back to CD 7. (Only 18 hours more to listen to!)