A fascinating intersection of popular music styles occurred in the 1950s and early 1960s. It was a period where Folk, R ‘n B, Blues, Country/Western and even perhaps the last gasps of Big Band Swing musics overlapped on the airwaves, sometimes jockeying for position on popular music stations. And in some ways, it can be argued that some of these sounds ultimately morphed into a then-new thing we now know as rock ‘n’ roll.
This “big picture” perspective is some of the underlying glue connecting hundreds of songs and performances by a multitude of artists who appeared on an influential radio show airing out of the deep South beginning in the late 1940s and into the 60s: The Louisiana Hayride. While it started out as a “folk” music radio program — they call it as much in the early broadcasts — ultimately “The Hayride” became a showcase for the emergent Country Western movement and helped to spawn a number of important offshoots.
This radio show is the subject of a massive new multi-disc study — called At The Louisiana Hayride Tonight — compiled by the good folks at Bear Family out of Germany. For the first time — as far as I know — they have pulled together a vast quantity of these performances all in one place, in chronological order, all carefully annotated and curated. The latter point comes in the form of a massive 200-plus-page hard cover LP sized book which comes in the set, providing all sorts of insights and details on the genesis of the program and the artists who performed there. Amazingly enough, even with more than 500 tracks in this set — including a previously unknown Hank Williams performance (“I’m a Long Gone Daddy”) — this is just a snapshot of what The Louisiana Hayride achieved.
Consider these details from Bear Family’s website: “This set is a front-row seat as Hank Williams takes to the stage, first as a relative newcomer and later as a troubled superstar. Elvis Presley brings rockabilly to the airwaves before anyone knew what he or his music was about. A parade of home-grown and out-of-town country hitmakers tussle with one another for encores, and encourage unknown newcomers who would wow the audience with their songs and performances most nights… These long-buried musical performances are brought to life in chronological order interspersed with some of the announcements, intros, ads, comedy routines and mistakes that went to make up a live show in those days. Not least, we can hear Elvis Presley’s epoch-changing music as it was originally heard–as part of a country variety show.”
Always the voice of new talent, The Louisiana Hayride may not have been as big as The Grand Ole Opry but it effectively became the public birthing point launching careers for many artists who soon became superstars. Among the talents given their first big-break exposure on The Louisiana Hayride were Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, Johnny Cash and George Jones. Notably, they also had the good fortune of giving a 19-year-old artist from Memphis Tennessee who had just one 45 RPM single out at the time of his first radio broadcast shot: Elvis Presley. The once-and-future King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was so new, people didn’t really know who he was — while the crowd response was good, it was nothing like the mania that he would soon experience (later performances on the Hayride sound almost off the hook!).
Here you can listen to these artists performing their varietal takes on what Southern music was about. All were a bit different, all were valid, all were heartfelt.
Across multiple performances on At The Louisiana Hayride Tonight, you start to hear artists such as Werly Fairburn, Ferlin Husky and Johnny Horton incorporating elements of this new rock ‘n’ roll music with their country western roots, creating what we now know as “rockabilly.”
Overall the sound quality on this 20 CD boxed set is very good, but there is no doubt that some of these recordings are very much archival in nature. According to notes in the book, many of the recordings here came from versions of the program which were aired in 1953 by CBS nationally on “Saturday Night Country Style.” Also, in 1954 versions of this were made available to Armed Forces serving overseas via transcription discs (these were often large size,16-inch discs which could present a half hour of music per side for regional broadcast and required a special turntable to play them). Some of this music also comes from safety tapes made to “reassure advertisers or for playing to prospective advertisers.”
Now, I know there are some of you out there in audiophile land who may be wondering if a set like this is a bit of overkill? I challenge that notion just because this form factor presents such a vital snapshot which I personally feel you couldn’t quite get from any other medium. This music wouldn’t make sense to put on vinyl given the shear volume of material and since the fidelity varies a lot. Some of you might say this would be an ideal candidate for streaming but I’m not so sure. Of course, if you poked around on the Interwebs, you’ll find some of this material out there, even up on Tidal (but not from this specific Bear Family set).
But the whole point of this set is that it has all been collected and put into proper order and — more importantly — perspective, an important detail often lost when it comes to Internet music delivery. Yes, you can hear the tracks individually from a download or whatever but ultimately you won’t have any context… to really understand who these artists were and why they were significant to a certain audience at a certain point in time. And it is for that reason alone At The Louisiana Hayride Tonight is a treasure. The packaging is exemplary, the information in the book compelling and well researched. Click here to look at a wonderful un-boxing video Bear Family has made showing you what to expect with this set (the packaging is outstanding!)
From this set I finally learned where that classic phrase “Elvis has left the building” came from and why it happened. I won’t tell you however as you should listen to the set to discover that bit of wonderment.
Perspective is hearing the shrieking fans gushing over an artist I never listened to before named Johnny Horton. One version of pop history I’ve come across over the years leaves the impression that only Elvis, Sinatra and The Beatles got that sort of treatment. I knew that wasn’t the case in the 60s — especially having seen footage of The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Kinks and others being challenged by teen mania. But indeed, even back in the 50s and before rock ‘n roll was a driving force, there were a lot of massively popular stars across that period embraced by the first wave of post war baby boomers.
Listening to this set — I’ve been exploring it for days and haven’t gotten through the whole thing, folks — you become witness to the new wave of Country Western artists from the likes of Sun Records and Starday Records stepping up the songwriting game. Johnny Cash introduces his then new single “I Walk The Line,” George Jones croons his breakthrough hit “Why Baby Why” and Hank Williams swings and sways with a stirring version of his now classic “Jambalaya.”
]]>When you hear their songs in context alongside others of the day, you realize why those artists rose to the top — there were, genuinely, the cream of the crop. Some of these other performers, while real good, couldn’t begin to touch them in terms of the quality of songs they were delivering. It was indeed a brave new world and in those days when Television was young and (in effect) the early Internet of its time, the wider audiences were reached on radio shows like At The Louisiana Hayride Tonight — programs which could make or break a career.
You’ll hear greats from the period as well as regional favorites including Rose Maddox, Jeanette Hicks, Betty Amos, Martha Lynn, Benny Barnes and others. You’ll hear a young Doug Kershaw and his brother. You’ll hear one of my favorites, a song by a comic duo I’d never heard of before called The Geezinslaw Brothers doing a brilliant take down of commercial advertising then beginning to really litter our countryside in “Billboard Song.”
Another of those connecting-the-dots / ah-ha moments for me thus far in exploring this set came by way of a Tennessean named Jimmy Martin — aka The King of Bluegrass — who on May 31, 1958 plucked a jaunty bluegrass sparkler called “Sephronie” with the telling chorus “Love ’em and leave ’em, kiss ’em and greave ’em… ” What a great tune! Turns out Martin was a big name I’d overlooked hailing from the Bluegrass world. He’d had many hits and was even featured on The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band‘s legendary Will The Circle Be Unbroken collections.
So you see, this set is a really big show… really big… one of the biggest Bear Family has done, in fact. So, if you are a fan of country western and early rock ‘n’ roll, or simply want to learn about an important part of music history you may have overlooked, you really need to hear the set to put it all into perspective.
Great job, Bear Family!