Intro to The History of Country Music
Hugh Cherry was active in country music as a d.j. and historian from the 1940’s onward. He said he liked to talk about the music because he was the unfunniest man in radio. I guess he and I had that in common.
This is the first of those twenty hours. It runs 43:32. With five minutes local news on the hour, five from ABC at :30 and three from ABC Sports at :45, that leaves three and a half minutes. Spots must have been :30’s.
Kountry KAYO aired this during my Sunday air shift in 1971.
There were two radio productions called “The History of Country Music”, one that was narrated by Ralph Emery and this one narrated by Hugh Cherry.
‘The two great things Hank and I had in common: hillbilly music and booze.’ : Hank Williams Play Brings It All Back for Country Broadcaster Hugh Cherry
By MIKE BOEHM
LOS ANGELES TIMES
June 26, 1988
While Hank Williams acted out his American tragedy, Hugh Cherry stood by like a member of an ancient Greek chorus, joining the action in some scenes but mainly watching and bearing witness to one of the most significant, endlessly resonant rises and falls in popular music.
In the hands of a Greek tragedian, Williams’ saga would probably begin with a scene of triumph and pride–perhaps his 1949 debut at the Grand Ole Opry, when he sang encore after yodeling encore of his first hit, “Lovesick Blues.” Cherry was backstage that night, a Nashville insider whose job as a radio announcer gave him access to the key places and the important players in country music.
If the playwright wanted to add a bit of comic relief–a Shakespearean touch to go with the Greek classicism–he could borrow some of the humorous, revealing tales that Cherry, 65, spun on a recent day during an interview at his Seal Beach apartment–stories drawn from his days indulging with Williams in “the two great things Hank and I had in common: hillbilly music and booze.”
To move the tale toward its tragic denouement, the playwright might dramatize a sad scene Cherry witnessed in 1952: Summoned by a worried bellhop at Nashville’s Hotel Tulane, he says he found Williams collapsed in a disheveled hotel room after a prolonged drinking binge. With the help of singer Ray Price, Cherry carried Williams’ gaunt body out of the hotel and took him to a doctor for drying out–a stopgap treatment for a terminal case.
When the final scene arrived on New Year’s Day, 1953, Cherry was there again, cast in another classic role–the messenger bearing news of the tragic hero’s death. After a night of New Year’s reveling, Cherry says, he headed to work at WMAK, where he was due to sign on with his early-morning broadcast. Making his routine check of the news wire, he saw that Williams had been found dead at age 29 in the back seat of a Cadillac, en route to a concert in Canton, Ohio.
“I was stunned on the one hand, but not surprised on the other,” Cherry recalls. Cherry, among the first in Nashville to know, telephoned Fred Rose, Williams’ manager and record producer, to tell him that Hank was dead.
In fact, the scene in which Rose gets word of Williams’ death is dramatized in a musical play, “Lost Highway, The Music and Legend of Hank Williams,” which has its Los Angeles debut today at the Mark Taper Forum. (See related story on page 42.)
Cherry is in the cast, understudying the role of Rose–or “Pap,” as he is called in the play–and also lending his deep, grainy-amber voice to the production as the announcer who introduces Williams’ live radio broadcasts. For Cherry, the play, which runs through Aug. 21, is the latest development in a 40-year career as a respected broadcaster and oral historian of country music.
He has lived in Seal Beach for 28 years, the last nine in a modest apartment that he calls “my book-lined cave.” In Cherry’s case, habitat tells a great deal. Spartan furnishings are obscured by a clutter of books, records, scripts, notebooks and piles of cassette tapes, an array of information ready for consultation.
In the course of the conversation, Cherry repeatedly illustrates his points by throwing on tapes from a three-hour radio documentary he made about Williams in 1977.
Cherry’s dress is country: a check-patterned shirt and a pair of blue jeans with a clinking key chain hooked onto one of the belt loops. Holding up those pants is a Western-style belt with a gilded, monogrammed buckle that Williams gave him for Christmas in 1951.
In conversation, Cherry’s tone can shift from folksy to urbane. He’ll tell a down-to-earth yarn, then step back and offer broad, scholarly observations about the proper role of the popular song (“It should be an exercise in contemporary language, dealing with the mores of the times,” says the great songwriter Boudleaux Bryant, an old friend of Cherry’s), or expounding on how country music has fit into the postwar evolution of U.S. culture.
When he was growing up on a farm outside of Louisville, Cherry says, it was considered important not to bear the imprint of the rural “hillbilly” culture that gave rise to country music.
“We worked very hard so we could buy a suit and a pair of Florsheim shoes so we could go to town and not look like who we were,” he says.
Cherry favored big band over hillbilly songs, and he dreamed of becoming a forest ranger. But after military service in World War II, he fell into a job as a radio announcer. When the station owner asked him to launch a hillbilly music show, Cherry said he had no interest in it. But hillbilly is what the owner wanted, and Cherry set about learning how to program it.
He started by seeking out Pee Wee King, the Louisville bandleader who co-wrote the country standard, “Tennessee Waltz.”
“He said, ‘I don’t think you know much about this kind of music, but if you take the time to learn, I’ll take the time to teach you.’ ” By 1948, Cherry had learned enough to land a radio job in Nashville. He had also learned that his forte as a radio personality was not going to be jokes and banter but solid information.
“I was the unfunniest fellow on the air, so I talked about the music and I talked about the artists. I had the best teachers in the world–the people who made the music. I talked to Roy Acuff and Grandpa Jones and all those other people. I’d just sit down and milk their brains, backstage at the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night.”
When Williams came on the scene, Cherry says, “our common ground was hillbilly music and booze–we liked both of ‘em. We got to be pretty good friends. He was a very unpredictable man.”
One of Cherry’s most telling anecdotes about Williams reflects the insecurity and jealousy of a singer who, in songs like “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” wrote the book on how to put across the pain of being jilted or deceived.
Before leaving on a tour in 1951, Cherry says, Williams asked him to scout some properties around Nashville that might be suitable for a “hillbilly park”–an ongoing, outdoor summer festival featuring music and carnival attractions.
Williams’ wife, Audrey, liked the idea. She wound up driving Cherry around in her Cadillac convertible to look at the real estate.
When Williams got back to Nashville, there was an edgy confrontation. “He’d heard about Hugh Cherry and Audrey running around town. He said, ‘What are you doing running around with my wife?’ ”
The part of the story that Williams hadn’t heard through the rumor mill was that Cherry also had brought along his girlfriend on the excursion. Her testimony mollified the star: “In view of the fact that there was another lady, then it was all right.”
It was well known in Nashville that Williams had good reason to be singing the marital blues about Audrey, Cherry says: “It was a very delicate matter. They were in trouble all the time. He shot at her one time. He’d leave her, she’d leave him. She left him several times and finally divorced him.”
Cherry says he last saw Williams when they met on the street a few months before the singer’s death. “We spoke for just a moment, and I could see he was in bad shape. He said he hoped he might get back on the Opry one day. He drank himself off the Opry. He failed to make appearances.”
In the late 1950s, Cherry moved to Los Angeles. One night, while he was working a midnight air shift at KFOX, an unknown teen-age singer came to the studio to plug a record she had made.
“She said, ‘Hugh Cherry, my name is Loretta Lynn. I have a friend who said if I want to have a hit in Los Angeles, I need to see you.’
“She did her pitch. Then I said, ‘Don’t worry, darlin,’ I’ve been playing your record for two weeks.’ ”
Hearing the singer’s plan to work her way across the country promoting the record, then take Nashville by storm, Cherry advised her not to expect too much too soon: “Honey, you gotta pay your dues.”
But Lynn’s star rose swiftly in Nashville. “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the 1980 movie based on Lynn’s autobiography, depicted Cherry giving her his cautionary advice–or, rather, an actor portrayed him doing it.
“When I saw Loretta, she was very much upset that I didn’t play myself in ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ ” Cherry says. “I said, ‘That’s all right, honey, I wasn’t right for the role.’ ” When he found out that “Lost Highway” was coming to Los Angeles, Cherry decided he didn’t want to be left out. He had seen the original production in Denver in 1987 and had been impressed enough to introduce himself to its co-writers, Randal Myler and Mark Harelik (Myler doubles as director, while Harelik acts and sings the role of Williams).
Cherry has an acting background dating back to his Nashville days, when he joined an amateur theater company in hope that stage experience would help him overcome the jitters he felt when facing a live audience as an announcer. Later, in Los Angeles, he played small parts in several TV series.
Cherry didn’t get the part he auditioned for in “Lost Highway” but is pleased to understudy the “Pap” role and announcing (anyone who has heard the landmark 1968 album, “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison,” has heard Cherry, who did the stage announcements for the show).
Cherry stopped working full time as a disc jockey in 1976, when “I had a 28-year-old program director, and his idea and my idea of what country music was just didn’t jibe.” Cherry, a member of the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame since 1977 (his plaque is one of 26 hanging in the lobby of Nashville’s Opryland Hotel), insists on the freedom to choose his own music.
He sees little chance of getting that liberty under today’s corporate broadcasting strictures, where demographics and market research determine what gets played and a disc jockey’s personal taste counts for little, if anything.
“He is one of the most misunderstood people, because he’s so honest and opinionated,” said Chuck Chellman, the founder and director of the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame. “And his opinions are usually backed up by an immense number of facts. Hugh Cherry is a walking encyclopedia of the country music industry.”
Soon after he left his last regular radio job, Cherry made another important change. Drinking may have lubricated friendships with Williams and other music business figures, but it had also exacted a cost.
“Booze ruined three marriages for me,” Cherry says. “I’m an alcoholic and I make no bones about it. I’m 10 years sober.”
Since 1983, Cherry has worked part time as a lecturer and group leader for a privately run alcoholism education program based in Torrance. He has also kept his hand in country music by putting together radio documentaries on Williams and Bob Wills and hosting weekly syndicated radio shows.
His current project is “Hugh Cherry’s Country Classics,” a weekly syndicated show–not yet available in Southern California–in which he spins traditional country songs, adds background and commentary and traces the influences on some of his newer favorites, like Reba McEntire, Dwight Yoakam and the Desert Rose Band.
Cherry says he gave up full-time disc jockeying “when I realized my day as a top radio personality was over,” but he aims to maintain some sort of on-air presence “as long as I can talk.”
Going through a photo collection that includes pictures of himself with George Jones, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton and many others–a virtual country music Who’s Who–Cherry is clearly happy that his early dream of becoming a forest ranger wasn’t in the cards–and that the hillbilly culture that embarrassed him as a young man turned out to be the source of his life’s work.
“I’ve had the best deal in the world,” he says. “That I was paid to do this for 40 years is incredible.”
Country-Music Historian, Deejay Hugh Cherry Dies
Oct. 28, 1998 12 AM
By MIKE BOEHM
LOS ANGELES TIMES STAFF WRITER
Veteran country-music disc jockey Hugh Cherry, who didn’t just spin records but was a drinking buddy of Hank Williams, gave career-launching airplay to Loretta Lynn when she was an unknown and became recognized as an authority on the history of country music, has died.
Cherry, who lived most of the past 38 years in Seal Beach, died of lung cancer on Oct. 15, at age 76. From 1946 to 1976, he worked as a country-music deejay in Louisville, Nashville, Cincinnati and Los Angeles.
After retiring from full-time broadcasting, Cherry produced radio specials and frequently spoke on country music, including lectures at Vanderbilt University, Stanford and Cal State Long Beach.
Cherry was a Kentucky farm boy, a self-styled “hillbilly” who in conversation could swing back and forth between the folksiness of his upbringing and the urbane, deep-voiced polish he acquired through his long broadcasting career. He was inducted in 1977 into the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame, a montage of plaques in the lobby of the Opryland Hotel in Nashville.
In a 1988 interview in the small, dimly lit ocean-side apartment he called “my book-lined cave,” Cherry told The Times that he retired because he had seen where country radio was heading, and it wasn’t to his liking.
“I had a 28-year-old program director, and his idea and my idea of what country music was just didn’t jibe,” Cherry said.
Chuck Chellman, who founded the disc jockey hall of fame, had this to say about Cherry in a 1988 interview: “He is one of the most misunderstood people, because he’s so honest and opinionated. And his opinions are usually backed up by an immense number of facts. Hugh Cherry is a walking encyclopedia of the country-music industry.”
Cherry had some wonderful, illuminating stories about Hank Williams, such as the time Williams gave him multicolored calfskin boots, then got mad at Cherry for never wearing them. When Cherry finally did put them on, it was during a snowstorm because he didn’t want to ruin his dress shoes. As it happened, a drunken Williams came upon him on the street. “He said, ‘Cherry, you’re an ungrateful so and so. The first time I see you wearing those boots, you’re wearing ‘em in six inches of snow.’ He said, ‘Gimme those boots.’ He took the boots, and I walked the remainder of the distance to [the hotel Williams had just teetered out of] in my sock feet.”
A few weeks later, Williams returned the boots with a bottle of scotch inserted in each one and a note that said, “Don’t wear the boots in the snow. Use the whiskey to keep your feet warm.”
“Our common ground was hillbilly music and booze,” Cherry said of his friendship with country music’s greatest figure. “We liked both of ‘em.”
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