On a Saturday night in 1948, Hank Williams stepped onto the stage of the Louisiana
Hayride and sang "Lovesick Blues." Up to that point, Williams's yodeling style had
been pigeon-holed as hillbilly music, cutting him off from the mainstream of popular
music. Taking a chance on this untried artist, the Hayride--a radio "barn dance" or
country music variety show like the Grand Ole Opry--not only launched Williams's
career, but went on to launch the careers of well-known performers such as Jim
Reeves, Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells, Johnny Cash, and Slim Whitman.
Broadcast from Shreveport, Louisiana, the local station KWKH's 50,000-watt signal
reached listeners in over 28 states and lured them to packed performances of the
Hayride's road show. By tracing the dynamic history of the Hayride and its
sponsoring station, ethnomusicologist Tracey Laird reveals the critical role
that this part of northwestern Louisiana played in the development of both
country music and rock and roll. Delving into the past of this Red River city,
she probes the vibrant historical, cultural, and social backdrop for its dynamic
musical scene. Sitting between the Old South and the West, this one-time frontier
town provided an ideal setting for the cross-fertilization of musical styles. The
scene was shaped by the region's easy mobility, the presence of a legal "red-light"
district from 1903-17, and musical interchanges between blacks and whites, who lived
in close proximity and in nearly equal numbers. The region nurtured such varied
talents as Huddie Ledbetter, the "king of the twelve-string guitar," and Jimmie
Davis, the two term "singing governor" of Louisiana who penned "You Are My Sunshine."
Against the backdrop of the colorful history of Shreveport, the unique contribution
of this radio barn dance is revealed. Radio shaped musical tastes, and the
Hayride's frontier-spirit producers took risks with artists whose reputations
may have been shaky or whose styles did not neatly fit musical categories (both
Hank Williams and Elvis Presley were rejected by the Opry before they came to
Shreveport). The Hayride also served as a training ground for a generation of
studio sidemen and producers who steered popular music for decades after the
Hayride's final broadcast. While only a few years separated the Hayride
appearances of Hank Williams and Elvis Presley--who made his national radio
debut on the show in 1954--those years encompassed seismic shifts in the
tastes, perceptions, and self-consciousness of American youth. Though the
Hayride is often overshadowed by the Grand Ole Opry in country music scholarship,
Laird balances the record and reveals how this remarkable show both documented
and contributed to a powerful transformation in American popular music.
About the Author(s)
Tracey E. W. Laird earned her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and currently
serves as Assistant Professor of Music at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia.
She is a native of the Hayride's hometown of Shreveport, LA.