Beyond Country Music
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105 Beyond Country Music —Tracey E. W. Laird We reprint this sixth and final chapter of Louisiana Hayride: Radio and Roots Music Along the Red River as an end cap to the introduction—one looking forward from the Hayride where the other looked back. This piece highlights four musicians whose experiences in Shreveport during the post–World War II era—most of them closely associated with the Hayride—shaped their future professional lives as studio musicians, band members, and producers. The collective stories of D. J. Fontana, Jerry Kennedy, Joe Osborn, and James Burton stand as testimony that the importance of the Hayride did not end with the cessation of its regular broadcasts around 1960. Each of these men drew on instincts formed in Shreveport during an era when jive and R&B co-existed with country music on KWKH radio, when Shreveport’s “Bossier strip” offered a steady and varied diet of live performance opportunities across genres, and when the Hayride left an enduring legacy for music in Shreveport, in the Ark-La-Tex, and in the nation at large. Shreveport was a great place to cut your teeth on music because there was so much going on. —Jerry Kennedy, musician and producer On 16 October 1954 the Louisiana Hayride scheduled a guest appearance of nineteen-year-old Elvis Presley, calling himself “The Hillbilly Cat.” From that moment, in the fertile ground of a KWKH radio show, a new sapling was successfully planted, one that conspicuously exposed its country roots. On this autumn night during the dawn of nuclear anxiety, no one could foresee the megaton explosion of popular music aimed at teenagers. The mostly white TRACEY E. W. LAIRD 106 audience at Shreveport’s Municipal Auditorium saw an unsung “cat” with herky-jerky legs sing a few quirky covers, including a high-octane version of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass standard “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and a driving rendition of Arthur Crudup’s rhythm-and-blues tune “That’s All Right, Mama.” He introduced his trio as the Blue Moon Boys, referring to the Monroe song or to the Rodgers and Hart tune “Blue Moon” they had played around with some, or to both.1 To anyone there that night, it was just another Saturday evening at the Hayride. The Hayride had a six-year history of taking chances on unproven artists with unique styles. It was a young show with a young staff, and its entrepreneurial producers always sought artists they thought might captivate and expand the audience, increasing both revenue and the program’s stature as a prominent forum for country music entertainers. Thus, KWKH hoped to find in Presley another example of that which it consistently sought— a new artist with the distinct sound and the charisma to boost profit. What they got was a pivotal performer destined for a life and musical career that mixed triumph and tragedy in proportions extraordinary enough to inspire countless writers to reflect on his place and meaning in U.S. popular culture. They got a performer whose image and recordings between the years 1954 and 1958 represent a transformation of musical aesthetics on the Hayride, in country music at large, and within the whole society. Presley’s story on the Hayride reflects the snowballing of changes following World War II on both a national level and a local level in Shreveport. For U.S. culture as a whole, these changes culminated in the most dramatic social markers of the mid-to-late 1950s: the emergence of youth culture, the breakdown of legal race-based segregation, the transformation of media industries, and the rise of rock-and-roll. In ways both tangible and emblematic, Presley connects these same social forces to a generation of Shreveport musicians who, like him, grew up steeped in black and white music that came to them on phonograph records, radio, and through live performance. The stories of four famous sidemen who musically matured in Shreveport during the Hayride era form a critical counterpart to those of the Hayride’s headliners from Hank Williams to Elvis Presley. These sidemen make it apparent that the dynamic musical atmosphere in post-war Shreveport fed on a rich local culture with at least a century-long history. Two of these players, D. J. Fontana and James Burton, share a direct connection to Presley, since they spent long portions of their careers in Presley’s band. The other two, Joe Osborn and Jerry Kennedy, eventually brought the instincts they developed in postwar northwest...


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