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April 2023
Vol. 22, No. 7

Recordially, Lou Curtiss

The Golden Age of Country Music

by Lou CurtissNovember 2019

The 1950s was a golden age for country music on television here on the West Coast. Along with Town Hall Party, which ran the whole decade and into the 1960s, it seemed as if every station had a country music show or two and several of them had even more. Along the way I remember Hometown Jamboree on Saturday nights, hosted by Cliffie Stone and featuring Tennessee Ernie Ford, Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, Molly Bee, Herman the Hermit (who was rumored to be a real hillbilly living in a cave way back in Beverly Hills), Harry Rodcay (the Hawaiian cowboy from the island of Maui), Billy Strange, Bucky Tibbs, Joan O’Brien, Eddie Kirk, Gene O’Quin, Merrill Moore (who commuted from San Diego every week), Harold Hensley, Tommy Sands, and always a guest star or two like the Hoosier Hot Shots or the Armstrong Twins. Another Saturday night show was The Spade Cooley Show on KTLA, which featured Hank Penny, Ginny Jackson, Noel Boggs, and a comedian in drag called Lotta Chatter. Cooley changed his lineup throughout the 1950s. I remember one time when he had an all-woman band.

On Friday night it was Western Varieties on KTLA Los Angeles, with Doye O’Dell as the singing host, along with Eddie Cletro and his band, Roscoe Ayes, Carolina Cotton, plus such guests as Tex Williams, the Sons of the Pioneers, or the Maddox Brothers and Rose.

Thursday nights had The Dude Martin Show with Hank Penny, John Rovick (also known daytimes as Sheriff John), Dick Williams, and Sue Thompson.

Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch show had several incarnations mostly without Gene, who only guested once in awhile. At times Merle Travis and Judy Mayhan, who also had their own show for awhile, served as hosts as did Johnny Bond and Pat Buttram. The show also featured Smiley Burnett and Rufe Davis from time to time. Other country shows tended to focus on one artist, sometimes with a guest. Singing cowgirl Janie Davids had a show on KHJ and Stuart Hamblen had a Sunday night variety show with his wife Susie.

Many country music artists had daytime shows. I remember one with Wesley Tuttle, Merle Travis, and Johnny Bond, which may have been connected to Town Hall Party. And of course San Diego had Smokey Rogers’ General Store on Channel 8, with members of the Western Caravan, including Cactus Soldi, Joaquin Murphy, Pedro DePaul, the singer Terry Preston—who later changed his name to Ferlin Huskey—Lee Harris, Slim Dossey, and the Hogsed Brothers Roy and Don. On the weekends they would all go up to L.A. and add Deuce Spriggens and leader Tex Williams for the Tex Williams Show, broadcast live on Sundays from the Knotts Berry Farm. Roy and Don had their own TV show on San Diego’s Channel 10 for a time, which was also a country show on Tijuana’s Channel 6, hosted by country deejay Okie Bob.

Forman Phillips Barn Dance became Town Hall Party after Joe Maphis took over musical direction for the show in 1953. Its all-star lineup included Johnny Bond, Merle Travis, Wesley Tuttle, Lefty Frizzell, the Collins Kids, Rose Lee Maphis, Gee Nee Sterling, the Sons of the Pioneers, Tex Ritter, Jimmy Wakely, Carrot Top Anderson, Marilyn Tuttle, Jenks Tex Carmen, Johnny and Dorsey Burnett, Fiddlin’ Kate Linville Warren, Marion Hall, Walkin’ Charlie Aldrich, Quincy Snodgrass, emcee Jay Stewart, Texas Tiny, the Golden State Boys, Cousin Emmy, Clarence and Roland White, James Burton, Roy Buchanan, Eddie Cochran, and a whole lot more. In its heyday Town Hall Party was favorably compared to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and was a lot more open to the emerging rockabilly styles than Nashville ever was. KLAC ran the program four hours—later cut back to three—every Saturday night.

The 1950s and early 1960s saw a lot of syndicated shows like Star Route with Rod Cameron, the Collins Kids, and Glen Campbell; Stars of the Grand Ole Opry, also called The Country Show; and network shows like The Ozark Jubilee with Red Foley, the Jimmie Dean Show, and the Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, which was sort of country with pop overtones.

Many West Coast performers worked all the shows. I remember seeing Wynn Stewart, Buck Owens, Tommy Collins, Carl Belew, Harlan Howard, Princess Ramona, Merle Haggard, Roy Nichols, Johnny Messner, Eddie Cochran, and more before they ever charted any hits. Buck Owens played lead guitar for Wynn Stewart and Tommy Collins, Merle Haggard played bass for Stewart and Skeets MacDonald. Another performer I remember around Southern California in the late 1950s was Bobby Bare before he had any hits. I saw him around 1960 at the Westerner in National City as an opening act for Lefty Frizzell. I think he was playing bass for Frizzell as well. Jan Howard, who was married to Harlan, also worked here on the West Coast for a time and first recorded on Gene Autry’s Challenge Records before joining Wynn Stewart for some great duets on Capitol.

By the early 1960s most of the West Coast country TV shows were going or gone. Cal Worthington propped things up for awhile with Cal’s Corral on Sunday afternoons. It even had a bluegrass portion with the Gosdin Brothers’ Golden State Boys, featuring an all-star lineup that included Chris Hillman, Del McCoury, Clarence and Roland White, Don Parmaly, and others. Melody Ranch continued for awhile on KTLA, hosted by Johnny Bond. There were syndicated shows from the Nashville area by the Wilburn Brothers, the Stoneman Family, and Porter Waggoner that played on local TV, but by 1965 country music performed by Southern California artists on West Coast television was mostly over.

Lou Curtiss

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