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Country Music Capital Meets Music City
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Country Music Capital meets Music City
Max Ellis, June, 2002
By June 1977, Tamworth was already well established as Australia’s Country Music Capital. The Awards, which had started in January, 1973 had grown to the point where the Town Hall was inadequate for the crowds. The Roll of Renown had been initiated with Tex Morton in 1976 and many of the core events of today’s country music festival were in place.
Radio 2TM still controlled the Awards and the Festival and the team of young and old enthusiasts there, was still coming up with ideas. 2TM’s Hoedown run by John Minson was taking its place in country music legend and commanded an audience which extended over much of eastern Australia.
As Chief Executive of the Awards and head of the newly established BAL Marketing, I thought it was time we went and had look at how others handled country music and there was only one other place we could turn to…. Nashville, Tennessee. I had been there before in 1964 when I had stopped over night or two on a trip across America. In those days country and western music didn’t mean much to me. I had heard of the Grand Ole Opry and visited the Ryman Auditorium but because it was midweek unfortunately there was nothing on there. I do however, remember seeing posters for a Beatles Show in the Nashville Auditorium. I would have liked to have stayed but I was delivering a car and had to move on. I stayed in a YMCA, which along with Youth Hostels, offered low cost accommodation. Imagine my surprise at finding around the corner, a Young Men’s Christian Association hostel for coloured Christians!!! I’m sure that didn’t survive the upheavals of the late sixties.
John Minson and I left Tamworth on May 20th , 1977. I had been in hospital for a few days after a violent reaction to a cholera/TAB injection which was required for the trip. It had been an embarrassment because Bill Armstrong from Armstrong Studios in Melbourne, had been in Tamworth and I’d been carted off in an ambulance shortly after meeting him for the first time!
In those days, contra was king and John and I flew in luxurious first class on Air New Zealand. We were supposed to disembark in Guatemala, thanks to some quirk of the contra agreement but John and I hopped off in LA and no-one ever questioned us.
We were loaded with introductions from Australian music industry friends so we were soon talking with all sorts of people including the legendary Cliffie Stone whom John had idolised for years. We visited LA’s great country music radio station, KLAC where Steve Frappe showed us around. We also went to the Fender factory and met and interviewed Freddy Tavares who had worked with Fender in the beginning. We went to the Dobro factory and talked to Ron Lazar who sold John a stainless steel Dobro which he lugged all the way home, around the world, for Lawrie. Roy Kohn head of Peer Southern Music took us to NBC Studios where we saw some of the stars of “Days of our Lives” in the canteen. (They’re probably still there!) We met executives from many record companies and publishers, all of whom were very hospitable, expressing a keen interesting what was happening down under.
One unplanned highlight was seeing the very first Star Wars movie in the Graman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard (home of the stars hand prints) on the day of its release, a memory enhanced the standing ovation at the end of the film and by John being relieved of $10 by a conman with a hard luck story, while waiting in the queue!
We met and interviewed the famous 74 year old “Nudie” in his western store in Hollywood, met Tex Ritter’s widow and saw Tex’s cow horned Cadillac convertible. We went to the famous Palimino Club and talked with Bill Anderson and we hired a car and drove up to Bakersfield where we spent the day with Buck Owens and his manager Jack McFadden, whom we had got to know in Australia. Buck toured Australia in 1976 and we had promoted a 2 big shows in Tamworth. We had given Buck a big welcome at Tamworth airport with Gary Brown playing Buck’s theme song, ”Buckeroo”. On that memorable occasion a giant American flag I’d borrowed from the consulate in Sydney disappeared, souvenired by one of the large crowd we had employed. I had even written the cover notes for Buck’s Australian album “Live in the Sydney Opera House” so we got royal treatment in Bakersfield!.
Incidentally a plaque with leather Australia made by Anne Minson and presented to Buck during his visit, is still on display at his Bakersfield museum.
In contrast we nearly got bashed in Sunset Boulevard when John approached a group of cool young Negro dudes with his tape recorder for an interview. “Where are you boys going?” asked an innocent John… “We ain’t nobody’s “BOYS” arsehole!!” It took a few minutes of frantic explaining about cultural and language differences before they cooled down and accepted that we were just a couple of harmless foreigners.
We were quite sorry to leave LA and head for Nashville, via St Louis where John had a meeting with Scott De Witt, a pedal steel player who had been in Australia.
Nashville was a surprise. Tropically hot and sticky and it was not really what we had expected. One had to look hard to find any evidence of country music and sometimes when it appeared like it did around the historic Ryman Auditorium (home of the Grand Ole Opry until 1974), it was surrounded by sleazy sex shows and porn shops. Leafy, suburban Music Row, where all the record and publishing companies clustered was much better. The CMA Hall of Fame was impressive but there wasn’t the emphasis on country around the city we had expected. In many ways despite its 600,000 inhabitants, it was still a small town and we quickly started meeting people.
We were at a music shop to talk to owner Shot Jackson, a renowned steel guitar player from the old days. We had just sat down with him in his back room when who should walk in but the legend himself …Roy Acuff, then a delightful 73 year old. Roy was very interested in what we were doing in Nashville and what was happening in Australia and he chatted with us for a couple of hours. He also told us all about his trip to Australia with Tex Morton in 1959, an event he was rather negative about to say the least.
The next day we met Wesley Rose, “a very smooth and unassuming gentleman” I recorded, in his opulent office festooned with memorabilia including Don Everley’s Gibson Guitar and masses of autographed pictures and certificates. He welcomed us and talked about our mutual friends Smoky and Dot Dawson. Of course Smoky had been the first artist ever recorded on the famous “Hickory” label, started by Wesley’s father Fred and Roy Acuff in the '50s.
Smoky and Dot were actually in Nashville at the time and we spent many hours together including a trip to the then new OpryLand theme park. This was a very impressive place with lots of excellent music preformed by groups of student who spent the summer holidays working there. A fine museum and of course the Opry Land theatre made it a bargain at $7.50! One thing I remember was the many small theatrettes each of which presented a specialised program of some sort of country music such as bluegrass or gospel or an historical montage called America Sings. The shows were fantastic but I was interested in the theatre building too. Behind their impressive facades they were all basically tin sheds.
One stop was at the Country Music Association where among the many friendly people we met was CEO Mrs Jo Walker, (who later came out to Australia for a visit) Ray Pradee and a young guy called Ed Benson, later to become the Chief Executive himself. Heather McKean was also working at the CMA (and was a great help with introductions) while Reg Lindsay was singing all over America. Reg sang on the Grand Ole Opry the night we were there. We sat on stage with the other “celebrities” and artists in long seats like church pews while Reg and the legends of the Opry sang a few feet away. After the Opry we drifted down to the Ernest Tubb Record store where WSM was broadcasting a live concert. Once again Reg was the star, head and shoulders above all the others we felt.
Of course we quickly made contact with Nashville based Australian Bill Walker and his son Jeff who had only recently arrived from Sydney. Bill was already musical director for the CMA Awards and Jeff was working for their Con Brio record label. They were fantastic. Jeff introduced us to Nashville recording with a visit to The House Of Cash, a great barn of a place with a bar and chandeliers more like an indoor swimming pool without the pool than a conventional studio. Later through Bill and his wife Jeanine from the Anita Kerr Singers, we were able to sit in on a Conway Twitty session in the Bradley’s Barn run by Owen Bradley the man who first put Nashville on the musical map. There we met not only the star but some of Nashville’s famous studio musicians (or sidemen as they are called) like the blind steel player ”Pig” Robbins, Hal Rugg, Johnny Gimble, “Pork Chop” and Harmonica legend Charlie McCoy.
We talked with Eddie Arnold, Buddy Killen of Tree International (in his Mexican décor office and later in his own personal recording studio!), Jim Folglesong (President, ABC Dot in his very tasteful office), Shorty Lavender ( who handled Tammy Wynette) and many, many other industry “names” and stars.
We had already been to visit with legendary publisher and songwriter Mary Jo Wilkins (Kris Kristoffesen was one of her stable and Danny Dill another) and some of her team in her office in a small house on Music Row. She played us a song which we thought was terrific. We brought a demo back with us and John passed it on to Alan Hawking of the Hawking Brothers. “One Day At A Time”.. the slogan of Alcoholics Anonymous became a smash hit for them and won them two Golden Guitars in 1979.
We sat in on a rehearsal for the Nashville Songwriters Association Show in the famous Studio One, the war time Nissen hut where Music City’s modern country music recording industry was started by Owen Bradley. By that time the Nissen hut was imbedded in a much more modern building but the curved roof was still evident. Linda Hargreaves who wrote Olivier Newton John‘s first big hit was there with people like Danny Dill, John D Loudermilk, Ed Bruce (Mothers Don’t Let Your Sons Grow Up To Be Cowboys), Don Wayne who wrote Kenny Rogers huge hit “Lucille”, Roger Bowles(“Country Bumpkin”) and Liz Anderson. Next day we went to the actual Fan Fair concert where the songwriters sang their own songs. It was quite brilliant, I noted in my diary.
Fan Fair, in those days, was staged in the Nashville Municipal Auditorium. Below the giant concert hall was a vast basement jammed with fan stalls run by artist fan clubs often with the stars themselves on hand to greet their fans. We watched many of the shows, especially the International Show where, as usual, Reg shone. While in Nashville we made contact with a tour organised by 2TM and led by Bob Lipman. Eric Watson was there as the winner of the Country Music Capital Award that year and we saw a lot of them as well as a number of other Australians including John McSweeney, John Eggington of RCA and of course Smoky and Dot.
One morning, coming out of Fan Fair, dodging people carrying placards protesting against the lack of traditional country music, we were hailed from a large black limo. It was Buck Owens and Jack McFadden and soon we were in the WTVF 5 Television studio watching as Buck, Roy Clark, Susan Ray, and a host of other familiar names, churned out several half hour programs of the famous TV show, Hee Haw. That was how it was done with just 3 cameras and a cast of 30! Every three months they would all get together in Nashville for a few days and do enough programs to last them for 13 weeks.
Gibson Guitars had a factory in Nashville and we visited and saw them turning out Les Paul guitars on a production line. “Most of the workers are pickers…no dust, no unions “, I commented in my diary! We were most impressed by the big sign in their foyer saying “Welcome Max Ellis and Hoedown Minson”
Another factory visit was to Wrangler Boot Company. At home Wangler were our Awards sponsor so John and I took along Eric Watson. After seeing over the factory the manager offered us the opportunity to have a pair of boots. We weren’t sure whether he was giving them to us or we would have to pay. Eric chose not to take a pair. I chose a cheap very plain pair (which I still have) and John chose a pair of lizard skin beauties. As it turned out the boots were free so John was the big winner and poor Eric missed out!
Radio WSM was high on our list. Set in a park on a hill it was an impressive station. We started with a guest appearance on their fabulous Waking Crew live breakfast show. It was hosted by WSM’s famous presenter, Ralph Emery with a live band of 8, zany, very talkative musicians and we had a great time. John has an encyclopaedic knowledge of musicians and recognised the band leader and some of the musos so the compliments and comments were soon flying in both directions. After that, everywhere we went in Nashville people talked about hearing us on the Waking Crew.
As visiting “ celebrities” launched by the Waking Crew, we appeared on a TV chat show and met Marty Robbins who was waiting to go on before us.
WSM was itself something of an eye opener to the ex manager of a small country radio station and his copywriter/DJ. It already had a small FM station in the basement and a computerised schedules operation. The staff were fantastic, friendly and helpful from the VP Len Hensel, down. At that time the historic Grand Ole Opry was part of WSM under the direction of VP Bud Wendell, and it went to air live every Friday and Saturday night. We also met Grant Turner, a legendary Opry and WSM DJ.
During the day they played normal middle of the road music.. not unlike 2TM’s program at that time. WSM had a clear channel 50,000 watts transmitter (2TM’s was 5,000) and attracted regular listeners all over the central part of USA. Ralph Emery was WSM’s Mr Hoedown and his deep, smooth tones were at that time the voice of American country music. We sat in on his program. Tom Bryant WSM’s technical producer (who earned, a huge for 1977, $US1,200 a month plus the same again from free lancing) showed us around and I remember him dropping into a “drive In” bank! Tom also took us out the Opry and we saw their incredible set up which included a 24 channel Neve desk and full TV facilities.
A 4 hour drive from Nashville took us to Atlanta one day where we visited the fantastic OMNI centre for the equally fantastic NAMM Show. This the Music Industry trade show and the 10 acre display are was packed with over 4,000 trade exhibits, including every kind of instrument and musical equipment. We even saw Wayne Atkinson from EMI in Australia.
Finally it was time to leave Nashville but we had one more stop in America before heading for home. Wheeling in West Virginia is, I noted, a “drab little place” beside the Ohio River not far from Pittsburg that had become famous for it’s country music radio station WWVA. Every night up to 12 midnight, the station played back to back religious shows with ranting, fire and brimstone evangelists urging listeners send money to save their souls. Then at midnight it switched to its country music program which had a vast audience across middle American. John and I looked over the station and thought it wasn’t that different from 2TM. It’s “Mr Hoedown” was Buddy Ray, a Mr Personality Plus and the program was backed up by the weekly Wheeling Jamboree held in a 2,500 seat theatre every Saturday night. They were also in the process of organising their first “Jamboree In The Hills”, a huge outdoor festival to be stage later that year. The night we were there Kenny Rogers performed and we met him back stage. We also ran into an old friend Jerry Brightman and his wife Helen who had been one of Buck Owens band we had befriended when he was in Australia.
At the Jamboree we also had a chance to talk to a successful Independent artist called Hugh X Lewis. He handled all his own booking and publishing and had his own label. We were interested in economics so in answer to our queries he told us his annual show income was $25,000 for 190 shows, plus another $10,000 from other sources. He had appeared on the Opry where he got only $240 for 4 shows. In fact he mentioned that it has cost Faron Young who was big in those days, $66,000 to spend 18 days at the Opry!
Well, our trip was almost over but there still adventures ahead… like sitting next to a stunning Miss Niagara Falls on the plane to New York and John buying a Martin D35 in that city. When we finally left America for the return half of the journey home via London and Hong Kong, we felt as if we were leaving behind many good and old friends.
Nashville had lived up to it’s reputation as Music City USA. The friendly country music fraternity, from the stars to the people we met in the street, had given a couple of no-bodies from Australia a warm welcome. Their hospitality and interest in us and what the 2TM team were doing in far off Australia, helped inspire us to push ahead with plans for turning Tamworth into our own Country Music Capital.