The Revolution Was Televised: A History of Country Music on the Small Screen

How does one best capture a country artist’s essence?

It’s a question with a seemingly easy answer, especially in a modern age of streaming that allows us to hear with ease the things we want most from artists – the songs. But is that the way to foster a connection? Perhaps it is to start it, but to truly cement it, I think we need to actually witness the artist – not just in person or in interviews, but in delivering their wisdom within their element, be it live on stage … or even on a screen somewhere.

OK … so maybe that’s a bad start to a discussion on fostering emotional intimacy between an artist and a fan, but the simple “no, duh” statement of the day remains true: We like to witness artists in their element and watch them capture their essence, or else there would be no need for live shows, music videos, or television.

Granted, that last medium feels almost obsolete in the grand scheme of things today, but in truth, the television medium once played a crucial role in the development of country music’s social image, and continues to at its core, even if only subtly now. Ever since country music blossomed as a legitimate commercial music genre and television started in adolescence, programmers tried to pair country music to its audience through the small screen.

Radio barn dance
A typical advertisement for the radio barn dance. From IMDb.

And the thing is, country music was the medium most poised to take advantage of the budding medium. Due to its historical dependence on radio as its main medium of growth, country music and its performers were already accustomed to performing live, thanks to radio’s pivotal format, the radio barn dance. Known for being a program filled with fiddle and banjo solos, square dances, comedy, and, obviously, music, it would eventually expand to include dance tunes, comedy skits, ballads, and anything else that would fit, essentially acting as a precursor to the Grand Ole Opry. The trick for adapting it to television would come in trying to remold an established workable formula for radio and have it be presentable to a live in-person audience, or one watching from the comfort of home – either way, an audience that could see as well as hear the performers.

Of course, if radio shows had evolved into television shows, country music history books would look a lot different than they do today. There’s two reasons why that didn’t happen, however. The first one is easily explainable: Many pioneer programs originated from local television stations that simply lacked the technology and personnel needed to pull off a professional-looking show for the time. Hometown Jamboree based in Los Angeles, California, almost succeeded, but none that tried lasted long.

There’s also a more subjective, harder to discern reason why it didn’t last. With radio, the artists almost feel secondary to what’s likely taking place in our heads – the content of a song and what it’s trying to say or the story it’s trying to tell. Without any knowledge of the artist’s physical appearance at hand – an especially plausible excuse in regard to the time period in question – the person singing the song, if anything, lives simply in our imaginations. Trying to convert any expectations toward an early television screen rendered in black and white that was much more distant than the radio medium presented its early issues; as Jamey Johnson would say in 2008, “You should have seen it in color.”

Not only that, but the two mediums were always meant to stand on their own. Radio was more for fostering an intimate conversation between an announcer and an audience, where something like sharing the story behind how a song was made or what it was supposed to mean could sound enticing when left to the imagination, but drag on when presented on television. As viewers, we simply expect more immediate personality.

It’s best, then, to describe early country music television shows  of the late 1950s as ways of converting and offering part-time coverage of another medium and trying to find its own footing along the way. Chicago’s National Barn Dance aired on ABC as the half-hour ABC Barn Dance from February to November 1949; The Grand Ole Opry televised from 1955-57 and was also carried on ABC for nearly a year, until September 1956; Cincinnati’s Midwestern Hayride was arguably one of the first programs to make the blend stick, beginning in 1948 when it switched to television and, though undergoing numerous changes along the way from its location, to its scheduling, and hosts, among other things, always retained its country music variety show format and lasted until 1972.

And as the format’s popularity grew, artists went from being the stars of the show to being … well, the stars of the show, albeit as hosts first and foremost. Country Music Jubilee (later renamed Jubilee, U.S.A.) lasted from 1957-61 and was hosted by Red Foley, whose easygoing charm as a host combined with a show that brought forth cornpone comedians and country singers helped further a winning formula that would set the tone for more country music shows of the decade. The domino effect could be seen in Porter Wagoner’s own show, a weekly half-hour, music-driven show that began in 1961 and lasted two decades, and also helped introduce the world to a then-little-known singer named Dolly Parton.

Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour
From IMDb.

But in 1969, two shows would emerge that would both alter the traditional formula set, and differ from one another in their own ways: The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, and The Johnny Cash Show. Both programs were short-lived, but offered shows that gave accurate snapshots of the country music genre that both caught it up with more modern times and showed where it could potentially go next. Campbell’s show was emblematic of the smooth and sophisticated ambiance that entered Nashville’s musical pipelines through the arrival of the aptly named Nashville Sound, representing a more urbane, sport-coat-wearing side of country music that eschewed its previous “hillbilly” image. Granted, that might also be because it was filmed in Los Angeles and not Music City, but Campbell’s format remained the same at its core, featuring co-stars and musical guests alike. Unlike before, though, said guests could include Merle Haggard or Minnie Pearl … or True Grit’s John Wayne, or Sonny and Cher. Or they might spotlight upcoming, not-yet-established artists of the time like Jerry Reed and Anne Murray.

Similarly, Cash’s show, though taped at the Ryman Auditorium, used country music’s roots in tradition as a base but leveraged outside of the fold, too. The main goal of each episode seemed to be finding the connecting line between country, folk, blues, rock, gospel, comedy, Western, and the Nashville Sound, and bridging the musical divide between both older and younger performers. It drew critical acclaim for both its technical aspects – like the usage of multiple camera angles to add visual variety – and for its topicality that took contemporary, perhaps uncomfortable topics and turned them into accessible discussion points to consider. No doubt Cash’s personal experience with the success of his landmark Live at Folsom Prison album influenced the show’s attention to prisons, but it also touched on indigenous people, and the Dust Bowl, all through the “Ride This Train” segments. These aimed to pair music with narrative sequences relating to the song lyrics, in essence creating a prototype to music videos and proving that the visual medium for a song could be just as engaging as hearing it on the radio. It wasn’t just a country music show – it was an American music show.

The shows mentioned thus far, however, were meant to mimic real life and revolve around the artists and their songs. There were, on the other hand, also shows that indirectly featured country music, but were centered more around rural culture, with country music playing a secondary – yet still critical – role in its progression and development. Ironic as it is, as Nashville smoothed over its artists and their respective images and songs during the Nashville Sound era, its counterparts in television did the opposite. The late ‘60s brought forth a plethora of rural-themed programming, such as The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, and, as an added boon for bluegrass music, The Beverly Hillbillies, all of which sought to evoke nostalgia for presumably simpler times.

And, naturally, both the music and the shows aligned. The titular lead character of the Andy Griffith Show himself was a guitar player, and he also brought on the Dillards as the recurring four Darling Brothers, hired, in part, because Griffith wanted to provide an atmosphere of genuine country music on the show. The Beverly Hillbillies took it a step further not only by centering bluegrass duo Flatt and Scruggs as legitimate characters on the show, but also by making the duo’s own “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” the show’s theme song and a chart hit. The premise was simple: bumpkin family with little education and very set in their way of life strike it rich and move to the big city … and try to adjust to it in their own way. Like with The Andy Griffith Show, the musical contributions from guest artists were just that – musical contributions. There was still that discernible difference between shows with fictional plots and rural, everyday people and shows that were made simply to spotlight the artists that sang to those same everyday people.

Beverly hillbillies cast
The Beverly Hillbillies cast. CBS/Landov

That is, until another show came along in 1969 to bridge the divide, a show that had a semblance of a plot and certainly its own world, but was also used as both a gateway into country music, and exemplify it as both a cultural and musical scene.

And it was called Hee Haw and made by two Canadians.

Inspired by the influx of rural-themed programming and country music’s growing prominence as a musical genre, John Aylesworth and Frank Peppiatt crafted a show stuck somewhere between the Southern and Midwestern rural America, filled with plenty of slapstick comedy and music, all set in the fictional Kornfield Kounty.

At a glance, it’s easy to see why, with its characters’ over-the-top “aw, shucks” demeanors and otherwise general mash-up of hillbilly stereotypes, Hee Haw both resonated with its target audience and alienated seemingly everyone else outside of it. But even as the “rural purge” of the late ‘60s killed off nearly all of the other shows that inspired it, Hee Haw lived on to enjoy a long run and cultural resonance like no other. For one, despite pulling from the traditional feel of the old radio barn dances, Hee Haw was particularly modern in its clever usage of editing and cutting edge television production – as if the music and variety show bits that always ran parallel to one another could both meet in the middle and find a way to move both forward, from its presence of past and contemporary country music icons, to looking toward the future for newer tech-driven editing and formatting possibilities.

Buck Owens and Roy Clark. From the Everett Collection.

It started on CBS in 1969, and was cancelled in 1971 as part of the aforementioned purge. Only, it carried on, resurrected by syndication and independently produced and distributed afterward to elicit a run that would far outshine its initial one, until it met its end in 1992. And because both Aylesworth and Peppiatt knew little about the country music format, I think that longevity can be attributed mostly to an all-around effort of cast and producers alike. Both of the show’s hosts, Buck Owens and Roy Clark, established themselves as performers in the years prior to the show’s formation. Owens was a major star credited for helping to foster the Bakersfield Sound in country music, and Clark was a two-time national banjo champion with an exuberant personality who communicated well on screen (he also played guest roles on The Beverly Hillbillies).

Like with The Johnny Cash Show, Aylesworth and Peppiatt thought it would be best to host the show in Nashville, to communicate a sense of authenticity for its audience. From there, the cast grew bigger, featuring rural comedians and/or singers like Archie Campbell, Junior Samples, Minnie Pearl, Louis Marshall “Grandpa” Jones, and Dave “Stringbean” Akeman, as well as actors and actresses with no experience in rural-themed programming that looked and played the parts anyway and made it all seamless. The comedy was painfully slapstick and corny, but it was also self-aware of its stereotypes enough to embrace them and present them lightheartedly. Owens and Clark, for example, were different personalities that played off one another well, especially during the “Pickin’ and Grinnin’ ” segment where they interrupted fast-paced musical interludes with corny jokes while the cast looked on.

Of course, music was an important part of the show as well, and whether through its hosts or through guest performers like Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, or Tammy Wynette, among others, one could always count on them performing their songs with haystacks and a barn in the backdrop (Haggard refused, though, and instead performed in a living room setting with a fireplace). The thing is, they always performed to a studio audience rather than a live one, meaning that Hee Haw could both use more nuanced approaches to television lightning than what a stage show would allow, and allow for a rapid-fire aesthetic in its presentation and editing (you can’t have Clark looking at cartoon-ish pigs dancing along to his playing with a live audience). Indeed, the various skits, jokes, and other segments all seem like they’re made to be random and catch listeners off guard, as if viewers aren’t supposed to see the punchlines coming and the jokes sound better for it. Even the end of a song performance would immediately transition into another gag.

In many ways, despite pulling from the past and adopting a forward-thinking approach in its presentation, Hee Haw feels very much like its own self-contained entity and a product of its time. It didn’t try to present country as a cultural or musical entity as glamorous as the industry tried to make it out to be during the era, but it was also very media savvy in its approach, and presented any counterpoints or defenses of its stereotypes with a lighthearted self-awareness that came across as fun and sincere, if hopelessly corny. It updated that radio barn dance tradition for the modern times, and there hasn’t been anything to update it again ever since.

Still, perhaps it’s fitting that the program ended in the early ‘90s, right as the television medium divided and then subdivided into more fine-tuned specialty programs. Country music was certainly no stranger to these changes, and it often embraced them to its advantage, even if it no longer felt like it was trying to unite a melting pot of ideas into one. The Nashville Network, for example, was one of the first cable networks to carve a more niche audience for the genre’s fans and establish a marketable brand. Rather than just comedy and music, viewers could now find rural-themed variety shows about, say, backstage looks at their favorite artists, dance shows, or more general programs like fishing, cooking, or home improvement shows.

More directly beneficial to country music artists during this time was the advent of the music video, an idea that aimed to take a more cinematic approach to mapping out the core idea of a song’s theme or story, allowing either the artist to play the roles of the characters they sing about or allow others to bring their creations to life in another form. It also allowed fans to make connections with their favorite artists that much quicker, putting faces to names that in earlier times might have taken weeks or months to establish, and was certainly part of  the melting pot that contributed to country music’s commercial boom of the decade. Still, it’s hard to say their impact lasted much beyond that, or that country music “television shows” have followed a straightforward path or evolution since. In 2000, for example, The Nashville Network’s new owner, Viacom, changed its formatting away from country programming and modified CMT, shifting away from its music-video focus in favor of reality and scripted programming. And it’s also at the start of this decade and into the present day where “country music television shows” could be used to describe anything from Reba – starring the titular artist and centered not around a homespun, rural style of yesteryear, but rather an everyday family struggling with universal problems of divorce, teenage pregnancy, and growing up in general – singing-competition shows that have never strictly been centered around country music but have benefited it some regardless – like Carrie Underwood’s success on American Idol (along with Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina, to offer more examples), or the more under-the-radar, short-lived Nashville Star that gave early spotlights to artists like Miranda Lambert and Chris Young – or the ABC prime-time soap opera Nashville that debuted in 2012 and also eschewed those rural roots in favor of a plot fueled mostly by politics, distrust, love, jealousy, regret, artistic aspirations, and, oh yeah, modern country music (where the compositions featured were original, even if one could argue they didn’t quite capture where Nashville had really headed in the wake of the bro-country era … not that that’s a bad thing).

But unlike how the television medium complemented its musical counterpart long ago and felt like the two mediums consistently learned how to feed off one another, it’s hard to say that today, especially in an age where the rise of streaming services has only further divided and subdivided public interests in favor of catering to unique niches: Reba’s theme song, “I’m a Survivor,” was a top five hit at radio, but it also signaled a time period where McEntire was largely absent from the music industry side of things until the show’s cancellation in 2007; Carrie Underwood remains one of the genre’s most consistent A-listers in terms of commercial success, but she’s also arguably the only true A-list act to emerge from American Idol; Nashville’s songs were written by respected industry songwriters, but outside of a minor top 40 hit from Hayden Panettiere with “Telescope,” none of those songs cracked the country airplay charts.

Not to say that the influence hasn’t manifested itself in new or creative ways to fit the present day, however. Taylor Sheridan’s neo-Western-inspired drama Yellowstone became a surprise hit for the Paramount Network when it debuted in 2018, and has grown such a large and a dedicated fan base, that the ratings for its fourth season debut in 2021 eclipsed those of the 2021 CMA Awards which aired the same week. In a way, it feels it’s like the closest link to the past we have today, featuring not only music by various country acts, but also appearances by them … albeit ones you likely won’t hear on your radio dials. Independent country musician Ryan Bingham landed a role as Walker, an ex-felon who found a second chance at the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch, working as the itinerant ranch hand. And he also had songs from his 2019 American Love Song album featured as well.

Music is mostly secondary to the show, always playing in the background and never something that overshadows the main plot. Yet it’s been integral to boosting several independent acts working either within the country music landscape or adjacent to it, Nashville-based or otherwise. Southern-rock band Whiskey Myers was featured in one episode of the show performing merely in the background of a bar, and yet shortly after their appearance, their album sales for every release of theirs skyrocketed. And with other song appearances from acts like Hailey Whitters, Colter Wall, Blackberry Smoke, Zach Bryan, Jason Isbell, and more, it’s fair to say that this mainstream television show has provided a gateway for country music’s independent realm. Of course, major label artists are still invited, as well. Chris Stapleton is also among those with a song featured on the show, but even just recently, a Yellowstone prequel called 1883 has featured Tim McGraw and Faith Hill as co-stars alongside Sam Elliott.

What’s caused the fading prominence of television as a medium for propelling country music is hard to discern. Maybe it’s because today’s programs are designed to reinforce a presumed set of market-determined values and expectations for a branded audience that just came naturally for shows of yesteryear, or maybe it’s because of shifting and generational public interests. It is certainly hard to draw a straight line with the history beyond those variety shows and rural-themed shows from long ago, though.  The greater impact of both Yellowstone and 1883 remains to be seen, but in a weird, same-kind-of-different type of way, the former has felt like the closest link to Hee Haw as a cultural phenomenon to affect and benefit country music. Both pull from past stories and settings to craft entities that are nevertheless forward-thinking in how they reach fans, all while adding the personal touch that seemed to get lost somewhere along the way. And perhaps it’s how country music’s televised counterpart will continue on a pickin’ and a grinnin’ for the modern times.

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