Ralph Emery, a Genius at Selling Country Music. And Ralph Emery.
Ralph Emery, a radio and television voice of country music for 60 years, was a fascinating blend of Wolfman Jack, Larry King and Dick Clark.
Emery, who died Saturday at the age of 88, was country music’s Wolfman from November 1957 until 1972, hosting the all-night show on Nashville’s WSM.
The graveyard shift is often an afterthought in radio, but not on a clear-channel station with a blowtorch signal heard over the entire Eastern half of America. Especially when that station is playing country music, a favorite of the tens of thousands of truck drivers making time on the interstates in those pre-dawn hours.
Emery became a bedrock of country music in those years, which in turn made WSM a great place for artists to drop in and plug their music. The likes of Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and Tom T. Hall would sit down with Emery and not infrequently pick a tune or two.
It was music radio at its best.
Later in his WSM years Emery moved into television, where the casual, conversational interviewing style he polished on radio served him well. He was sometimes compared to Johnny Carson, but many ways he was closer to King, conducting longer interviews that often took a more personal turn. One difference: Whereas King proudly did no prep work, Emery prepared diligently.
Emery’s TV interview show ran for a decade on TNN and he finished up from 2007 to 2015 with a similar show on RFD. He was still a valuable broadcast brand into his 80s, having by then been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame and the Radio Hall of Fame.
He parlayed the Ralph Emery brand into a terrific career that made him a beloved figure to millions of fans and a media figure that almost every country artist had to know. He was credited with helping elevate the early careers of artists like the Judds and Lorrie Morgan.
He did in country what Dick Clark did in rock, and it’s probably not coincidence that like Clark, he admitted he didn’t approach it as a fan.
In a 2010 interview with Country Stars Central, he was asked, “Are you pleased with the direction country music is headed?”
“I don’t care,” he replied. “All commercial music is in a constant state of evolution. Fats Domino is no longer a big Rock and Roll star nor is Roy Acuff a big country music star. . . . I know some people treat it as a religion but I don’t. I treat it as a business and it’s something I happen to like to do.”
Walter Ralph Emery was born March 10, 1933, in McEwen, Tennessee. His father was an abusive alcoholic, his mother had a nervous breakdown from the strain of keeping food on the family table during the depression, and his stepmother was indifferent.
Young Ralph turned to the radio — “my surrogate family,” he later called it — and he saved enough money from jobs as a movie usher and a Kroger stock boy to take a radio course from the famous radio host John R (Richbourg).
John R recommended him for his first radio job, at WTPR in Paris, Tenn., and after bouncing around small stations for a few years, he landed the WSM gig. He later said his real hope had been to announce sports, but the closest he came was announcing wrestling over Nashville’s WSIX.
He also made a brief bid to become a pop artist in the early 1960s, recording answer songs to several hits of the day. “Hello Fool,” a slap of an answer song to Faron Young’s “Hello Walls,” reached the top five on the country charts, while his answer to Bobby Vee’s “Take Good Care of My Baby,” called “I’ll Take Good Care of Your Baby,” didn’t chart anywhere. The problem, Emery joked later, was that “I couldn’t sing.”
While he mostly stayed in the country music world once he got onto WSM, he did have one noted brush with rock ’n’ roll.
In the summer of 1968 the Byrds recorded the country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo and while the country music world didn’t care for it, Byrds members Roger McGuinn and Gram Parsons gamely went on Emery’s show to see if he would play a single from the album, the Bob Dylan tune “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”
It’s an irresistible record that Emery had no trouble resisting. “What does it mean?” he asked, a legitimate question. “Who knows?” McGuinn replied. “It’s Bob Dylan.” That was the right answer, but not what Emery wanted to hear. It’s not country, he said, and you don’t look like country musicians, and I won’t play it.
McGuinn and Parsons left and wrote the song “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man,” about an “all-night DJ” who “plays country records ’til you get your fill,” and thus becomes “like a father” to rock ’n’ roll musicians who get off work at 2 a.m.
Trouble is, the affection is not mutual. This DJ doesn’t like rock ’n’ roll or its practitioners. “He sure does think different,” goes the song, “from the records he plays.”
The song isn’t cryptic, and if there’s any doubt who inspired it, McGuinn kicks off the instrumental fadeout by saying, “This one’s for you, Ralph.”
Fast-forward to 1985. McGuinn and Vern Gosdin sing “Turn, Turn, Turn” on Emery’s TNN show, then sit down for a short interview, which is almost entirely about the Byrds’s encounter with country music and Ralph Emery in 1968.
Emery fires a series of pointed questions at McGuinn, who deflects them in good humor. The Byrds were genuine country music fans and felt that’s what they were making, McGuinn says. Emery pretends to be only vaguely familiar with “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man,” which clearly isn’t the case. McGuinn allows that there was some tension at the time, but says that looking back on it 17 years later, “It’s kind of amusing.”
At the end of the interview, Emery reaches over and holds out his hand. “Still friends?” he says. Sure, says McGuinn, and he shakes.
For a few fragments of context here, Emery himself worked at a rock ’n’ roll station, WMAK, before he got to WSM. He was also credited with being one of the first country TV hosts to integrate his show’s band and with promoting black singers. He was married for a couple of years in the early 1960s to Skeeter Davis, one of a handful of outspoken liberals in country music. They were married when she had her biggest hit, the marvelous “End of the World,” which also did not have a traditional country sound.
Whatever the calculus, for many years Ralph Emery made himself a stop on the path to country music success. And sure found it himself.