Lines would form around the block every day at 12:10 in the afternoon. The anxious people came to hear country music, and over 50 years ago, the WNOX studio at 110 S. Gay Street was the vibrant center of Knoxville's eclectic country music scene. This was the real stuff, the nasally, high-lonesome vocals and lightning-fast fingerpicking that captured a beautiful rawness. There was something surprisingly visceral about the sounds that came out of the little studio on Gay Street.
The Midday Merry-Go-Round, as it was known, would broadcast at 10,000 watts, enough power to reach homes all over East Tennessee, with performers ranging from the standard string quartet to Ray Myers, the armless guitar player who picked with his bare feet.
Country music could still draw a sizable crowd in Knoxville, despite the Elvisification that had already begun to sweep the nation by the mid-'50s. Rock 'n' roll was becoming so big that Ferlin Husky's alter ego, Simon Crum, felt it necessary to write a song called "Country Music Is Here to Stay," which became a major hit in the '50s. The song stated, among other things, "I hear more people say/ Country music, that's the kind for me."
That had always been the case here in Knoxville. From 1936 until 1955, Chicago-born master of ceremonies Lowell Blanchard presented the Midday Merry-Go-Round with an impresario's flair. WNOX wasn't alone, either. The nearby WROL studios also hosted live shows with an in-studio audience. And with a meager 1,000 watts at 860 kilocycles, the young, upstart WIVK studios on the second floor of 319 N. Gay Street were known to house studio audiences ever since Claude "The Cat" Tomlinson began broadcasting on March 20, 1953.
And every Saturday night at the Lyric Theater on the 700 block of Gay Street, Blanchard's Tennessee Barn Dance would draw even bigger crowds, and he'd bring in acts from around the region.
With one really countrified street and a long history of fine local performers, Knoxville seemed destined for country music greatness. But that local prestige didn't last, and by the '50s, Nashville was already well established as the country music capitol.
"They had it really going on," says Bradley Reeves, an archivist at the East Tennessee History Center, "not only in the '30s, but in the '20s, too. The Midday Merry-Go-Round really, really kicked it over the edge.
"[Lowell Blanchard] was a genius. He was responsible for shaping it, more than anyone else. He took the shtick of country music—and it was a shtick—and he made a show out of it. He was good at managing these folks and cultivating talent…. So many came out of Knoxville and became great."
Guitarist Red Kirk, for instance, left Blanchard to sign with Mercury Records in Nashville. As did a longtime staple of the Merry-Go-Round stage, "Sunshine" Slim Sweet, who recorded "I Just Told Mama Goodbye" for Mercury, which was in turn covered by Hank Williams in '51. "I talked to Hank later," Sweet remembers, "and he said, ‘Slim, you wrote one hell of a song.' ... It was a real sentimental song, and I wrote it real country.
Sweet, now 88, still lives in Heiskell, where he's lived since he was 4 years old.
"What Knoxville threw away, Nashville made a fortune off of," Sweet goes on. "Lowell Blanchard was the greatest.... He knew what he was doing. He built the Merry-Go-Round out of nothing."
Others came and left without much ceremony, choosing a higher calling that didn't leave much room for fame and fortune. Leonard Dabney was one of Blanchard's protégés in the '40s, but he up and quit to become a preacher in Lafollette. Pappy Goob Beaver, who had one of the best names in the history of country music, found religion after he cut a few singles with Capitol Records.
But for each artist who found either fame or serenity, there was always another who fell into a different kind of obscurity as the years went by. Old 45s went into storage, collecting dust. Rakish country musicians traded in their duds and started families. But for one sweet moment, they were stars, right on the edge of fame.
The Old Man and His Music
Tommy Covington lives in an old storage building near downtown Maryville. Across the outside wall, it reads, "Tommy Covington Music." He sits on an old couch in front of a gas stove, warming his feet. Wearing a cowboy hat like he did when he was a young buck, his pale blue eyes still have the spark of that devil-may-care boisterousness that characterized his style of play. Deep down he's still the frenetic guitar whiz he once was.
Covington will be 93 in February. He's nearly deaf, and the dog chewed his best hearing aid to pieces. His eyes aren't what they used to be, either. "They call me ‘Mr. I Can't,'" he jokes. But he can still play a mean guitar, as he fingerpicks his way through a complex ditty that builds into a dizzying tapestry of sounds that probably wouldn't fit on sheet music, kind of like something Chet Atkins would've played. His fingers don't have the quickness they once had, but they still get the job done. It was his effortless fingerpicking that first got Lowell Blanchard's attention in 1936, when Covington was asked to appear on the first Midday Merry-Go-Round after Blanchard moved the operation from the Market House to the 100 block of Gay Street.
"I can't remember what happened five minutes ago," he says, "but I can remember what happened 90 years ago."
When Covington tells his story, he always starts from the beginning. The very beginning. It's a story that's jury-rigged with piecemeal memories. At the age of three, he remembers hearing a woman play the piano, and his imagination ran wild as he listened to the ways the notes came together. He remembers his first guitar teacher, Henry Ferrell, the man Covington says was the best flatpicker in Tennessee. He remembers when he and his longtime friend and fellow musician Mel Foree hired a young fiddle player by the name of Chet. "He's the best I've ever seen, and he's the best I'll ever see."
Covington remembers selling his bicycle when he was just six years old to buy his first guitar. "I found out if I put my pocket knife on the strings and close 'em down, it made a pretty sound. I liked that."
He adds: "I had my D chord and my A7, and I learned how to play ‘When It's Springtime in the Rockies.'"
He also remembers when his buddy Mel Toree had a casual working relationship with Roy Acuff and the legendary Nashville songwriter Fred Rose.
"Mel couldn't read music," Covington claims. "Mel couldn't sing. All he could do was talk good and he could put down pretty words for songs."
There was a song called "No One Will Ever Know" that was getting airtime in Nashville in 1949. Sammy Kaye's orchestra recorded it and, if you hear Covington tell the story, "just about every country musician recorded it." (Hank Williams covered it in 1949; Ferlin Husky in 1959; Don Gibson in 1961; Jimmy Dean, Stonewall Jackson, and Roy Orbison in 1963; Johnny Cash in 1966; Loretta Lynn in 1969; and the list goes on.)
"Anyway," Covington continues, "I wrote it. The words, music, everything.... Mel took off, and he come back and said, ‘I got a record out of it.' I said, ‘Who's gonna do it?' He said, ‘Roy Acuff.' I said, ‘Oh, shit.'"
Later, if you believe Covington's side of the story, Fred Rose said that he had a new song that he and Toree were working on. "He started bragging on this song he was going to play for me," Covington says. "He said, ‘I know you haven't heard, but me and Mel have a song that's gonna be a hit. Boy, it is great.' He starts, ‘No one will ever know....' I looked up at Mel and his face was red, I mean RED-RED!"
Nowadays, Covington laughs it off. "Here we go again," he smiles, "12 dollars and a half a week." That was the going rate for playing the Midday Merry-Go-Round.
"I never dreamed I could do it as good as I did," he says. "It'll take all day to tell you all that stuff."
Frank Smith never thought he'd have the courage to step onstage and play in front of a crowd. He remembers hearing Hank Thompson's "Wild Side of Life" as a youngster. Thompson, one of the seminal stars of classic Texas swing, died earlier this month.
"I was a far cry from country music when that came out," Smith says. "I wanted it, and I dreamed of it, but I'd never gotten up in front of a crowd in my life."
For Frank, his career began accidentally, at a small bar in Fairbanks, Alaska, near the army base where he was stationed. Bar regulars had heard Smith singing in the barracks, and with a little encouragement from his fellow G.I.s, Smith was on stage for the first time in his life.
"I done a lot of Elvis," he says. "A guy walked up to me and said, ‘Can you play "Walking the Floor Over You"?' I'd never done it in public. I said, ‘I know a line or two.' He said, ‘Do it, and I'll give ya two bucks.' I told him to keep his money and I'd do it the best that I could, and I did."
It wasn't uncommon for Smith to finish his set and find a large beer mug filled with silver dollars.
"I packed the place every time I walked into the doors. But I never touched the money…. The crowd started buying us beer. That's about all I ever got out of it."
It was enough encouragement to send Smith back home to try his hand as a recording artist. After his discharge from the army, he hoped on the first flight out of Alaska, guitar in tow.
"I done my first record in Macon, Ga.," Smith says, "but after that I done them all in Faron Young Studio in Nashville, on 17th Avenue South. I had a 45. And I know that it was getting on charts all over the country. That's how John [Hitch] heard of me, as far as I know."
Hitch, who ran the Barn Dance program through the '60s, remembers it well. The year was 1967, and Smith's velveteen croons were like a Southern-fried Dean Martin, more dapper than the traditional country stars who came through the Barn Dance.
Smith played Hitch's Tennessee Valley Barn Dance in the late '60s, and continued to play in Nashville with some of the biggest hit makers around, including Charley Pride, Conway Twitty, and Elvis Presley's old guitarist, Scotty Moore. And when Smith was in the studio, he played alongside Johnny Gimbel, who once fiddled with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.
Smith's songs, such as "Take It Easy Heart," and "Picture of My Love," made it onto local charts in the late '60s. WIVK had a song called "Take a Look at the Mountains Above Me" in heavy rotation, too. "‘Take a Look,' that's what WIVK called it, but it wasn't the title. It got on the charts here, there and everywhere….
"And I had one called ‘The Force Holding Me to You' that done real good, got on a lot of charts and even went to #1 in a couple of places," Smith says. "I can't tell you where, it might have done it in a lot of places I don't even know about. But it was played all across the country, that I know."
His songs played as far south as Jacksonville. Even a station in Milwaukee was playing Frank Smith originals.
"I went into WGAP in Maryville to talk to the DJ," Smith says, "I walked in there and the lady at the front desk said, ‘Can I help you?' I said, ‘I want to see the program director.' I had a bunch of records in my hand."
When Smith handed over a copy of his new 45, the DJ took one look at it and handed it back. "I thought, ‘Well, I'm not going to get nowhere here.' And all of a sudden he hands me a piece of paper with the top 40 on it. He said, ‘Take a look at that.' So I started looking at the bottom, that's where I thought I'd be if I was on there at all. He said, ‘You're looking at the wrong end of the paper, look up at the top.' I was #2. Johnny Bush's ‘You Gave Me a Mountain' was #1."
The DJ said, "Next week, you'll be in his place." And sure enough, Smith was #1 the following week.
Michael Berney, Smith's son, found crates of old 45s in his father's basement. Some were warped beyond repair. Others were still playable, and for the first time since he was a kid, Berney heard his father's music. He's since collected what he could salvage and has plans to release his father's work on Smithville Records, a small Internet-based project that Berney hopes will help preserve some of the music of his father's era.
"I was raised with this stuff," Berney says. "I look at my father's records and see who he played with and I think, ‘Man, that's just prestige.'"
The Nex Big Thing
Despite Lowell Blanchard's decision to drop music in order to take a stab at local politics in 1955, Knoxville's country music scene soldiered on. As fate would have it, a local Maryville boy named John Hitch, who had just moved back to Tennessee from Kentucky in the late '50s, asked Blanchard if he could continue the tradition of the Tennessee Barn Dance. Hitch couldn't operate under the same name as Blanchard, so to avoid copyright infringement, he simply called his Saturday night shows the "Tennessee Valley Barn Dance."
Dressed in a white suit with red boots and a red shirt (or vice versa), Hitch developed a soft-spoken on-air persona. "You'd always dress the part," he explains. He became the perfect country dandy, and his easygoing demeanor and permanent smile, along with an exquisitely dry sense of humor, served this new Barn Dance well for the next 18 years.
Today, Hitch still has his ever-present smile, and he's still the soft-spoken jester that he was when he was on the air every Saturday night for all those years. He continues to dress the part; around his neck is a gold necklace with his initials dangling just above his neckline. Conway Twitty wore something similar.
Hitch is a living museum, and to mine his brain of all those memories takes hours. "Now we're family," he says, "let me tell you a story. I swear, it's 100 percent true..."
Hitch rented the WNOX auditorium from week to week every year he was in business. Amazingly, they never missed a Saturday night. Booking top-bill artists was never a problem, because Hitch had a secret weapon. He was a big fan of WIVK's Bobby Denton, a broadcaster who had a knack for predicting who would have the next big hit.
"Every now and then Bobby would play a record and say, ‘This is destined to be #1.' So I'd write that name down," Hitch recalls. "Nobody heard of them, so I'd book them in six weeks. And in six weeks, their song'd be #1 on WIVK and I'd have them at the Barn Dance…. And we'd pack the place."
One of Denton's picks was a hillbilly harmonica player named Ony Wheeler. Wheeler had been playing the Opry with Roy Acuff in the mid-'60s when Hitch decided to book him for the Barn Dance.
"The cute thing about Ony Wheeler, he had a song out, something about ‘shucking my corn,' and Bobby Denton said, ‘Here's a song that's gonna be #1.' I said there's no way that song's gonna be #1. Sure enough, six weeks later, it was."
Hitch drove to Nashville, and found Wheeler working in a guitar factory. The harmonica player was wearing overalls with no shirt when Hitch approached.
"I said, ‘You got a song that's doing real well in Knoxville.' He said, ‘Is that out?' It had been on the air for six weeks."
Wheeler was easy to convince, and even easier to bargain with. He agreed to play the Barn Dance for just $50. And when he arrived in Knoxville, he wanted to stay at the Black Oak Motel, which was a well-known dump. Rooms went for just $8 a night.
Having spent just $58, Hitch packed the WNOX studio-auditorium.
Denton went on to predict hits from Jenny Pruit, Bill Phillips, and the great Mexican crooner Johnny Rodriguez. Hitch booked every single one, and he was rarely disappointed.
In the late '60s Rodriguez had a #1 hit on WIVK called "Pass Me By." Before his performance at the Barn Dance, star-crossed women lined the stage, and the young Latin heartthrob worked his way down the line, kissing every girl.
"I turned to my wife," Hitch recalls, "and she said, ‘I thought my turn would never come.'"
Another potential diamond in the rough, Glen Shirley, came to town shortly after Johnny Cash petitioned the governor to parole the young musician. Hitch hoped that by booking someone like Shirley he'd have a shot at booking Johnny Cash in the near future.
"I booked him," Hitch says. "I learned through the years to play politics with musicians."
Shirley came onstage, and played a song that even Hitch doesn't remember the name of. "He did his song, ‘Great Walls of the Chapel' or ‘Great Walls of the Prison,' something like that," Hitch scratches his head.
After he played that forgettable song, Shirley walked off the stage, his guitar slung across his back as if he was doing his very best to mimic Johnny Cash.
"He said, ‘That's all I know.' I booked him for three or four hundred dollars," Hitch laughs. "He brought a pretty good crowd, though."
He pauses, then adds: "Yeah, I still love it. But, yeah…. Let me tell you, we had a lot of fine people get their start there."
What's Happening Now?
You can see I can't throw anything away," Hitch says as he walks through his basement. Here in Seymour, Hitch has turned most of his home and backyard into a museum. He has an autoharp that was played by Mother Maybelle Carter. He has the jacket Hank Williams was wearing during his last moments of consciousness in Knoxville. There's a membership certificate for the Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash International Fan Club. A copy of Charley Pride's Greatest Hits is framed. Stacks of original 45s from Sun Records are strewn about haphazardly. He has priceless curiosities everywhere. There's plenty of wacky schlock, too, such as the John Wayne toilet paper. It's rough, it's tough, and it doesn't take crap off of anybody.
Life-size cardboard cutouts of Elvis, Reba McEntire, and Alan Jackson are on display. Reba's likeness is holding the new Fritos Scoops, and she looks to be enjoying them very much. But Hitch and Frank Smith are staring at the cutout of Alan Jackson.
"I don't remember ever going on the stage when I wasn't dressed to the hilt," Smith says. "I didn't dress cowboy-ish. I didn't dress like John did. I never done that. I never—ain't no way in the world I'd have stepped on stage with holes in my pants—" he points toward Alan Jackson—"especially if I was worth over a million dollars. But that's the way it is today. Back then, I mean everybody from Johnny Cash on down dressed to the hilt. They wanted to look sharp as well as sound good."
Smith and Hitch keep talking about the old days. All of Hitch's stories begin with his singular tic: The cute thing about [insert name here] is….
The cute thing about John Hitch is that he never really stopped hosting the Tennessee Valley Barn Dance. Here in his basement, in a room he calls the Mayberry Broadcasting Co., he records a radio show that airs on WLIL 730AM at 11 a.m. and WYSH 1380AM in Clinton. You can hear John every Saturday morning at 10 a.m. (The broadcast streams online at www.wyshradio.com.)
On the air, John and his wife Ruby keep the tradition of Lowell Blanchard's radio show alive, at least in a small way. Hitch will be 73 in January, and after a half-dozen heart attacks, he doesn't know how much longer he'll be able to keep going at his current pace.
"My daughter said to me the other day, she said, ‘Daddy, you got to do the radio show. That's how we visit on Saturdays,'" Hitch says.
He keeps at it, so long as it's still fun. Hitch can't believe that he's finally been able to achieve his dream right here in his own home.
"I probably like it better now than I ever did," he says. "We're doing now what I've been trying to do for 54 years. I can't believe that you can go down in your basement and do a radio show and it'll go all over the world. It just don't make sense to me."
On the wall of the Mayberry Broadcasting Co. there's a plaque with a passage from the Bible. Romans 3:10: "As it is written, there is none righteous, no, not one."
This week's show is a tribute to many of the great personalities of the Merry-Go-Round and the Barn Dance. "Sunshine" Slim Sweet's 1949 "I Just Told Mama Goodbye" plays. Then, just before signing off, Hitch says, "I tell ya what, let's go down to Maynardville, Tenn., and hear Carl Smith's ‘Doorstep to Heaven.'"