The following is an excerpt for Stan Hitchcock’s Book Corner of Music Row and Memory Lane.
This was the late 40’s and early 50’s, I was just reaching puberty and radio was king ( I don’t know if there was any connection or not, but those love songs were starting to have new meaning)……particularly local radio which always had great live shows in the early morning, at noon and then in late afternoon. I was very fortunate to grow up near Springfield, Missouri which had one of America’s great radio stations KWTO, 560 on the dial, and an ever changing stable of nationally known entertainers to expose a gawky, buck tooth country kid like me to the world of show-biz.
Country entertainers all across the United States were traveling from radio station to radio station, working the broadcasts for free, or nearly so, to have the opportunity to book out at the school houses and just about any other building that would hold a crowd, charge 25 to 50 cents admission and sell song books, picture books, baby chicks, patent medicines and other assorted items on the radio shows…scratching out a living…then moving on to the next station in a different part of the country. Little Jimmy Dickens was moving from a West Virginia station to a station in Topeka, Kansas, Hank Thompson was on the air in Waco, Texas, Bob Wills was on KVOO in Tulsa, Hank Williams was doing a morning show on WSM in Nashville, Carl Smith was working a station in Knoxville, Red Foley was leaving WLS in Chicago and moving to Nashville to join the Opry and head up the NBC Radio Network show sponsored by Prince Albert Smoking Tobacco, down in Shreveport on KWKH you could hear Webb Pierce, Faron Young and Johnny Horton on the Louisiana Hayride. Disc Jockeys had not risen to prominence yet, it was live radio, and it was great.
Springfield’s KWTO radio had live shows with the Carter Family (Mother Maybelle, June, Anita and Helen}, Chet Atkins was playing guitar with them and starting to make a name for himself, then you had The Browns, Porter Wagoner, Bobby Lord, Jimmy Gateley and Harold Morrison, The Goodwill Family, Slim Wilson, Speedy Haworth, Tommy Sosbee, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Shorty Thompson and a host of local talent that was almost as good. On top of that KWTO started a transcription radio service and syndicated shows all across the country and brought in Tennessee Ernie Ford, Eddy Arnold, George Morgan, Smiley Burnette and just about every other big country star that was working radio at that time.
Well, I’d been playing guitar and singing for about a year when I entered a talent contest, at Ike Martin’s Music Store, which was broadcast on KWTO radio and hosted by the top star in the area, Porter Wagoner. I won first place and got to appear on a couple of other shows on the air. Slim Wilson, the band leader and host of several shows, called me over and asked If my folks would let me travel with his show and do personal appearances. I was thirteen years old, and boy, was I excited! I couldn’t wait to tell the folks…….uh oh, bad mistake. Well, you would have thought I had asked to go to the moon…..Mom threw a hissy fit and stated in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t about to go off with a bunch of musicians and sing around…..if I wanted to sing I could sing in Church like decent folks, and that was that. So, at a very tender age, my show biz career came to a screeching halt.
Well, my early show biz career might have been short lived, but my love of the music just kept getting stronger. My room, on the farm, was upstairs in the converted attic, and I was permanently attached to the little radio that set on the table next to my bed. Every night I would climb under the mountain of covers on my bed, necessary because the upstairs was unheated, turn the radio to WSM and listen to Eddie Hill on the “all night show”. “Squall and bawl, and run up the wall, and holler good morning everybody!” Eddie had the damnedest line of radio lingo, and entertainment business savvy of anyone I had ever heard of. He was the father of the all night country music radio shows, and as far as I’m concerned no one has ever come close to reaching his level of radio entertainment.
Eddie was an East Tennessee native and had started in radio in Knoxville, doing live shows with Johnny and Jack and Kitty Wells, Johnny’s wife, and a young guitar player named Chester Atkins. Eddie was a fine singer, and great rhythm guitar player, but his greatest talent was on that mike, just talking to the folks and playing that great country music that he loved.
I look back on those years in the late forties and early fifties as my country music higher education, with Eddie Hill as my teacher. He was on six nights a week, coming on at ten o’clock during the week, and then following the Grand Ole Opry and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop on Saturday night. While I didn’t know it then, Eddie would play a large part in my life for years to come.
When I was sixteen I met a boy by the name of David Wilhite, the son of dairy farmers in Strafford, Missouri. He had a steel guitar that he could do pretty good on, so along with my old flat top and singing voice, we became pretty hot at private parties, cake walks, revivals, back yard cookouts, snake killings and possum roasts. By the way, if you have never tried roast possum, well, don’t bother, it is undoubtably the worst tasting, greasy, stinking mess I ever took a bite of. I’d just as soon eat a cat. However, in all fairness, the lowly Possum and Sweet Taters from the garden helped many an Ozark family get through the Great Depression of the twenties. Old timers say that the Depression bout wiped out the ’possum, rabbit, coon, and squirrel population in the hills and it took years for them to replenish.
I continued to sing in church and at all the school functions through my high school years and became accepted as the local “voice”, but it was just something I did, with no special significance, certainly no aspirations of becoming a professional singer. However, something did happen, in the High School Chorus that should have given me a clue. Our chorus was competing in the Regional Music Festival, and we were doing pretty good it seemed. I was on the front row just singing my heart out, and when we finished we were all pretty excited waiting for our score. Well, the score came back and it was pretty disappointing so the music teacher, Mrs. Carver, went to the Judges and asked about it. She came back,, pretty steamed up, and said we lost points because the kid in the front row, (me), was singing too loud and patting his foot real strong…….two of the attributes that made Hank Williams famous, but was not cool in the school chorus. Oh well, you can’t make a living being a professional school chorus singer anyway, so the heck with it.
I always marvel at the folks who say they always knew what they were going to be, and do in life. Me, I never had a clue, every day was a new adventure, a new challenge and a new direction, and you know what? It still is. I start off every day with, “Good morning, Lord, what are we going to do today?” I don’t necessarily think this is bad, I can sure tell you one thing….it’s never been boring. stan