The Cradle That Rocked 

Historian looks at a radio show that beat the Opry to the draw every time

Historian looks at a radio show that beat the Opry to the draw every time

Louisiana Hayride: Radio and Roots Music Along the Red River

By Tracey E.W. Laird

(Oxford University Press, 198 pp., $29.95)

During the '80s, I worked as a professional musician in Shreveport, La. My tenure in the clay-banked river town, located in the northwest corner of the state, included a stint as house drummer on the famed Louisiana Hayride radio show. The program had lost its vitality by the time I arrived, but nevertheless I was proud to be part of the institution that launched the careers of Hank Williams, George Jones and Elvis Presley. At the time, I marveled that the rest of the world seemed ignorant of the Hayride's important place in postwar American cultural history. It's this omission that author Tracey E.W. Laird seeks to correct in her book, Louisiana Hayride: Radio and Roots Music Along the Red River, which takes a scholarly look at the heredity and contributions of the once-famous North Louisiana barn dance.

During my time there, a map circulated among Shreveport's musical community that showed the town and its sister city, Bossier (located on the opposite bank of the Red River), in the center of a circle 400 miles in diameter. Within that circle (which, it must be said, did not include New Orleans), were the birthplaces of a disproportionate number of influential musicians. From Jerry Lee Lewis and Muddy Waters to Glen Campbell and Leadbelly, these comprised a virtual who's-who of country, folk, blues, rock 'n' roll, rockabilly and R&B artists. Laird's thesis in Louisiana Hayride holds that northwest Louisiana's unique historical, commercial and geographical circumstances combined to create this exceptionally fertile musical environment. In addition, these conditions facilitated the successes and innovations of the Hayride, which, she claims, "played key roles in the rise to prominence of both country and rock-and-roll, [and] presents a microcosm of the post-World War II dynamic in the southern United States."

Laird begins by describing Shreveport's transition from a rugged 19th century river port, which specialized in the trade of cotton and sin, to a 20th century oil town in which sin and religion held equal sway. During this time, Shreveport was divided between black and white inhabitants who, Laird claims, freely shared musical cultures despite prevailing segregationist attitudes: the brothels, prisons and hymnbooks of Shreveport, it seemed, were no respecters of race. Leadbelly and the Mississippi Sheiks are among the many artists with connections to northwest Louisiana whose diverse styles defy troublesome music industry classifications such as "country" and "blues."

With the 20th century came the phonograph and wireless radio. In northwest Louisiana, as elsewhere, these advancements brought opportunities for musical cross-pollination that didn't rely on geographical proximity. In the case of radio, independent high-powered stations, such as Shreveport's KWKH, made regional music available to much wider audiences; this furthered the creation of an amalgamated musical culture that fused "race music" with "hillbilly" and gospel: rock 'n' roll was being born.

Central to KWKH's popularity during the '40s and '50s was the Louisiana Hayride, a Saturday-night program transmitted live from Shreveport's Municipal Auditorium. Modeled on other successful "barn dance" programs such as the Grand Ole Opry, it featured homespun humor, advertising and a variety of what was then called "country-western music." The Hayride differed from the Opry in at least one crucial respect, however. While the Opry gave the appearance of informality—stars and insiders wandered on- and offstage during performances—in fact, the show was a tight ship that forbade such unwholesome influences as alcohol and drums. The Hayride, on the other hand, ran like clockwork but often took chances with artists who didn't fit neatly into country or hillbilly categories.

Notably, the Opry rejected both Hank Williams and Elvis Presley before they found fame as Hayride regulars. In addition to Williams and George Jones, the talent pipeline that ran from the Hayride to the Opry supplied country music with the likes of Kitty Wells, Red Sovine, Faron Young, Web Pierce, Johnny Horton and Jim Reeves, all once considered outside the genre's mainstream. Adopting the nickname "Cradle of the Stars," the Hayride's producers willingly capitalized on their farm-team status.

According to Laird, the tolerance exhibited by the Hayride production staff is attributable both to northwest Louisiana's hardscrabble, frontier spirit and to its inherent musical diversity. "The threads that weaved the free spirit and eclecticism of the Hayride were those of its youth and its region," she writes. "What happened on the stage in Shreveport's Municipal Auditorium during the mid-1950s was the country music equivalent of what happened in Shreveport's streets during the mid-1850s."

Despite the Hayride's eclectic history, no one could have predicted the groundbreaking impact of its best-known alum: "The Hillbilly Cat," a.k.a. Elvis Presley, who first appeared on the show in October of 1954. At the time, the young Mississippian was another in a line of unproven, edgy talent that the show's producers hoped would catch the attention of its mostly white, Southern audience. Presley's appearance, however, ignited what Laird calls a "prescient moment" in popular music. More than that, she notes, Presley's story reflects changes in the country as a whole after World War II: "The emergence of youth culture, the breakdown of legal race-based segregation, the transformation of media industries, and the rise of rock and roll."

Laird is an associate professor of music at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., and Louisiana Hayride is an academic work written in a style and language that might seem inaccessible to some readers. That said, the book not only closes a huge gap in American musical history, it does so in a manner that is often thought-provoking and engaging. Before introducing the chapter on Presley, for example, Laird adeptly shifts from academician to genuine storyteller: "As it turns out," she writes, "Shreveport's Hayride in the mid-1950s stood on the fault line of a cultural paradigm shift—perhaps the key musical paradigm shift of American popular culture. And this tremor began quietly, on an October night in 1954."

As a working Nashville musician, I value my time spent in Shreveport. The musical cross-pollination of which Laird speaks regularly informs my playing and, on my better days, results in a signature sound that keeps me working. For those less familiar with the "Shreveport sound," however, Louisiana Hayride suggests an alternate reading of America's musical history. Rather than adhering to artificial, racially divisive categories such as "Americana" and "R&B," Laird's model shows that American music is, in fact, the result of an ongoing dialogue between its many idiosyncratic musical cultures.

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