About The Artist
Orton Caswell Walker was neither a musician nor a singer. However, he played an important role in promoting and sponsoring country music on radio and television in Knoxville and East Tennessee. His main occupation was retail merchant who dabbled in local politics as a city councilman with two stints as mayor (recalled once). He often emceed these shows himself.
Among major artists that Walker helped launch their careers were Carl Butler, Don Gibson, Red Rector, Carl Smith, and perhaps most notable of all, Dolly Parton. Above all else, whether cherished or hated, Walker was a character who became a legend.
This sketch will be focusing on his musical connections and include some tidbits from his other efforts. In the beginning he was just a laborer who became a grocer which eventually expanded into a chain of supermarkets. He began advertising by sponsoring live country music acts on radio and television (after 1953). Eventually the radio programs were phased out. At times he had shows on as many as three stations at once, but seldom — if ever — in the same time slots, since he often appeared on them himself as either an emcee or delivering his own commercials.
While some of his entertainers eventually moved on to Nashville, those who remained tended to be bluegrass musicians such as Red Rector, Claude Boone, the Brewster Brothers (Bud & Willie), the Webster Brothers (Audie & Earl) who sometimes combined as the Four Brothers Quartet, David West, James Carson, Larry Mathes, and Dan Bailey who often emceed parts of the show, or all when Walker was absent. Other mainstays were comedians, such as Fred Smith or former minstrel man Honey Wilds of Lasses & Honey (but no longer in blackface).
He took a unique approach to the newspaper advertisements for his grocery stores. The ads would contain the usual promotional prices of items on sale as one might expect. But his advertising space would sometimes be short opinion pieces about some topic of the day that he wanted readers to know about and his thoughts. In other ads, he used a one panel cartoon to provide a humorous way to get folks to shop at the Cas Walker markets.
He was also a charitable figure in the Knoxville community. At one time the Knoxville Journal Milk Fund included Cas Walker's strong commitment to the charity. Later, the Knoxville News-Sentinel took over the Milke Fund. The milk fund was started in 1938 to provide "...dietary supllement to families in need and was operated by the Knoxville Journal until 1993 when the News-Sentinel took over the charity and operated it under the umbrella group of the Knoxville News-Sentinel Charities, Inc. which also operated the Empty Stocking Fund and the Mercy Fund.
Columnist Harry Moskos wrote of the involvement of Cas. He told him, "I helped run the Knoxville Journal Milk Fund for 25-30 years. When they first called, I went down and talked to them about how many children they were providing milk to. They said they were only furnishing milk to children within the city of Knoxville for two months of the year. I told them I wouldn't want anything to do with it if we couldn't give milk all year long to all the children in Knoxville." With Cas' spirit, the fund was more than able to take care of the city children and had enough to start helping the children in the county. The fund grew to be a year round charity and expanded what it could offer the community.
Mr. Moskos noted the affection Mr. Walker had for the Milk Fund. Cas Walker's will mentioned the Milk Fund in his will. The fund would get $1,000 a year for at least 25 years, if not longer.
By the early 1960's, the program had become the morning Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour over WBIR-TV (later shortened to a half-hour, but with the same name). After video tape came into common use, shows were usually taped twice weekly-two shows one time and three the other. I (Ivan Tribe) visited the set in 1980 with James Carson who had left the show years before. The regulars then were Claude Boone, Red Rector, Fred Smith, and Danny Bailey (Honey Wilds was absent with illness).
Again I visited in 1982 during the World's Fair with the same regulars. A rock group called Poker guested on the show and Walker angrily cut them off and threw them out of the studio. In March 1983, CBS wanted the time for their news programs so the show was terminated on March 30, one of the last live local country music television programs.
Walker lived on until 1998. His company was eventually sold. For a time he was in a nursing home, later claiming he was misdiagnosed as having Alzheimers when he had a nervous breakdown which was probably true as he seemed in good mind later on. His wife of nearly 61 years died in November of 1990 at the age of 85.
Rex Rainey stated he was the co-founder and past president of the "Good Old Cas Walker Admirers Society" (GOCWAS). As an editor for the News-Sentinel, he touched on the political wisdom of Cas. He cited a recent quote from Vice Mayor Hoyle McNeil, "I think people are fed up with the Worlds' Fair site ... our grandchildren are going to be paying off the World's Fair debts as it is now..." He wryly noted that in 1978, when Expo '92 was being considered, Cas told the press, "If we put on this here Expo, I'm a-tellin' ya, our grandkids will be payin' for it." The club had Cas Walker's pronouncements in its bylaws.
A wire service obituary for Cas touches on some of his career highlights. He served on the Knoxville city council for 30 years, from 1941 to 1971. He also served as Knoxville mayor. At the time of his passing, Knoxville's Mayor, Victor Ashe, ordered flags lowered at city buildings. He said, "Cas was a colorful character who was never afraid to raise issues. You might not agree with him sometimes, but you always respected the fact that you knew where he stood. He will be missed by many Knoxville citizens."
Dolly Parton first appeared on his local television show when she was just ten years old; two years before she would first appear on the WSM Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
It was asserted that his favorite song was "You Can Be a Millionaire with Me" which had been recorded by one of his entertainers in the 1940's, Pappy Gube Beaver. In 2019, the University of Tennessee Press published a book, Cas Walker: Stories of His Life and Legend.
Credits & Sources
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