It was an old converted movie theater in the L.A. suburb of Compton, built over in the front to look like an old barn. I never knew if they used it much during the week, but during my teenage years it was the Town Hall Party on Saturday nights. The band on stage was led by a six-foot plus man with a double-necked Mosrite guitar named Joe Maphis and with him on stage were Marion Ross on pedal steel, Fiddlin’ Kate Warren and Bill Hill on fiddles, Jimmy Pruitt on piano, Quincy Snodgrass on string bass, and Pee Wee Adams on drums. This band backed up most anyone who came on the show, including regulars Johnny Bond, Tex Ritter, Merle Travis, Wesley and Marilyn Tuttle, Freddie Hart, Lefty Frizzell, Larry and Lorrie Collins, the Sons of the Pioneers, Gordon Terry, Skeets McDonald, Tex Carmen, Cousin Emmy, the White Brothers (Clarence and Roland), Les ‘Carrot Top’ Anderson, Tommy Duncan, Bob Luman, and so many more. On any given Saturday night you might see guests from the Grand Ole Opry like Ray Price, Stonewall Jackson, Marty Robbins, or Faron Young. You might also see rockabilly artists like Carl Perkins, Wanda Jackson, Gene Vincent or Eddie Cochran, and the Burnett Brothers. You might see western movie old timers like Eddie Dean, Ray Whitley, Jimmy Walkely, or even Gene Autry.
It was billed as Western Music’s Hall of Fame and from 1953 to 1961, the West Coast country music scene personified in the Town Hall Party gave Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry a good run for their money. When Joe Maphis would lead Town Hall package tours out on the road, regulars Johnny Bond, Merle Travis, or Wesley Tuttle would either bring in a band or sometimes bring in a guest band like Ole Rassumussen, Leon McAuliffe’s Cimarron Boys, or Hank Penny’s group. I seem to recall that Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys even filled in one time. Three hours of the Town Hall show were telecast all over Southern California every Saturday, first by KTLA and then by KCOP. We drove up to Compton to be there in person as often as we could but if we couldn’t make it, my family down in Imperial Beach were usually parked in front of the television trying to clear up the snowy reception.
It was amazingly informal. Pick sessions would be going on back stage, usually led by Skeets McDonald or Merle Travis, and you’d often find members of the audience circling around, checking out a lick or two. Performers would also mingle with the audience as would comedians Texas Tiny and Quincy Snodgrass. I remember going up to Wesley Tuttle and asking him to sing ‘I Dream that My Daddy Come Home’ (one of his old Capitol records from about 10 years prior) for my sister Leona right as he was going on stage. He said, ‘Well, I was going to do something else but I’ll do ‘er,’ and he did, dedicating it to my sister. If you wanted to hear somebody sing a song and you couldn’t get to them, you could always ask Town Hall emcee Jay Stewart and he’d pass it along.
Along about 1961 or so, Town Hall shut down and country music on the West Coast started to fade with it. The Bakersfield Bounce of the mid-’60s gave it a little jump, but by 1970 it was all the Nashville Sound. Most Town Hall artists like Tex Ritter and Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, Lefty Frizzell, and so many more had moved back to Nashville, and country music on the West Coast was nonexistent except for a few revival bands. The idea of a country barn dance show in California is probably dead forever except in the memories of those who were fortunate enough to visit Western Music’s Hall of Fame at the Town Hall Party.
If you’re interested in hearing what the Town Hall Party sounded like, check out the following two CDs on the Country Routes label.
RFD CD 06: Rockin’ at Town Hall: Unissued broadcasts from 1959-1961 on the rockabilly side of Town Hall, featuring Carl Perkins, the Collins Kids, Warren Smith, Wanda Jackson, and Bob Luman
RFD CD 15: Town Hall Party: 1958-1961: The country side of Town Hall, with Johnny Bond, Faron Young, Hank Thompson, Marty Robbins, Joe Maphis, Skeets McDonald, and Merle Travis.
There are also solo CDs on Country Routes by Jose and Rose Lee Maphis, Merle Travis, and the Collins Kids, featuring material from Town Hall Party shows. Bear Family records has issued a series of DVDs that feature artists like Gene Vincent, Johnny Cash, and Eddie Cochran (with more to come) live on the Town Hall Party shows. It isn’t exactly like being there, but it’s the closest thing we have. It hails back to a time when West Coast country music was just as big as anything Nashville had to offer and a hell of a lot more countrified.