Album Review

Massive, Deluxe Box Set Chronicles "The Cradle of the Stars"

Various Artists - At the Louisiana Hayride Tonight

By the numbers: 20 CDs featuring more than 167 acts performing more than 500 songs, clocking in at more than 25 hours of recordings packaged in a heavy-duty box with a deeply detailed and spectacularly illustrated 224 page book, altogether weighing in at a healthy 9 pounds. But that’s statistics; the heart and soul of this set is the revolutionary Shreveport radio show, nicknamed the “The Cradle of the Stars,” that aired weekly from 1948 to 1960. In contrast to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, the Hayride hitched its wagon to an ever developing set of acts that they discovered, nurtured into stardom and often lost to the Opry. Among those the Hayride helped boost to fame were Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Kitty Wells, Jim Reeves, Slim Whitman, Johnny Horton and Elvis Presley.

Williams and Presley provide the bookends to the Hayride’s most influential period, with Williams having been the show's first superstar, and Presley’s rise paralleling the Hayride’s decline. The box set shows off the transition between the two, detailing the show’s twelve year run with a constantly evolving lineup of local, regional and national acts whose growth and innovation helped shape popular music in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Beyond the music, the show’s continuous, unrehearsed flow of artists, comedians, ads and announcers created a tapestry of entertainment that really filled a Saturday night. The recordings sourced here were cut for radio distribution and proof-of-advertising to sponsors, and without aspiration for commercial release, they capture the spontaneity of a show performed for a live audience rather than a recorder.

A set this massive has to be treated more as a pantry than a meal. It’s something from which listeners can draw upon for years, and though a once-through inks a picture of the Hayride’s arc, individual discs and performances play nicely in isolation. The set opens with pre-Hayride material from the show’s radio outlet, KWKH, providing an historical record of the station’s 1930s battle for its frequency, early broadcast continuity, and studio recordings waxed for commercial release. KWKH’s founder, William Kennon Henderson, Jr., was a colorful, self-aggrandizing iconoclast whose personal broadcasts railed against the then newly-formed Federal Regulatory Commission, chain stores and other stations intruding on his channel.

Henderson had sold KWKH by the time the Hayride began broadcasting in 1948, but the earlier material highlights the wild west roots from which radio was still emerging. With recorded music growing in popularity, radio stations performed double duty as broadcast outlets and recording studios. The Hayride and its peer barn dances became tastemakers as their live shows promoted the artists, their records and their tour dates. The show’s announcers even call upon the listeners to inquire about bringing a Hayride tour stop to their hometown, and it’s easy to imagine many taking the opportunity to drop their “one cent postcard” in the mail for details.

The announcers choreograph each show, introducing and conversing with the musicians as they’re brought on to play one or two songs before giving way to the next act. The set’s producers have deftly selected long, multi-artist segments that retain the continuity of intros, music, comedy and advertisements intact. Listeners will get a feel for the Hayride’s complete evening of entertainment, and how the program evolved over the years. In particular, the collection reveals the Hayride’s uncanny ability to discover and develop new talent (in part, a defense against the continual flow of their stars from Shreveport to Nashville) as the show’s constantly evolving lineup introduced and few performers into stars.

The slow churn of the Hayride’s cast turns out to have been one of its charms, and the intertwining of stars, soon-to-be-stars and talented performers who failed to catch on gives this set a widescreen perspective that’s often elided in reissue material. There are numerous hits from famous performers, but the broader context in which this collection sets them is especially interesting. The earliest live program included here, from August 1948, features a 24-year-old Hank Williams, who’d debuted on the country chart the previous year with “Move It On Over” and wouldn’t hit #1 (with “Lovesick Blues”) until the following year. Williams’ rising profile was his ticket to Nashville, but after being fired by the Opry in 1952, he returned to the Hayride, where he performed “Jambalaya (on the Bayou)” to a surprised and enthusiastic audience.

Williams would die only three months after his return to the Hayride, and it would be more than a year until Elvis debuted in 1954. Presley converses shyly with the announcer in his first appearance, but rockets off the stage to the screams of the audience (and the immortal announcement “Elvis has left the building) in his 1956 finale. Elvis’ growing fame and ensuing tour commitments often kept him from the Hayride’s stage, so the show sought to satisfy its growing contingent of teenage fans by booking Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison in his place. But even the Hayride’s legendary nose for talent couldn’t help the show stay afloat amid the confluence of television, rock ‘n’ roll and the growing importance of record sales (and the radio DJ’s who spun them) to a teenage audience. By 1960, the Hayride could no longer hold stars in its regular cast, draw media attention or fill an auditorium.

The set’s massive book (so large and heavy, that it’s actually difficult to handle) includes a history of the Hayride by Colin Escott, a detailed timeline of show casts, an essay by Margaret and Arthur Warwick, detailed show and artist notes by Martin Hawkins, photos, and record label and promotional ephemera reproductions. Escott’s liner notes are knowledgeable and entertaining, though a bit prickly in unraveling the grandiosity of Horace Logan’s recollections. He’s no doubt correct in calling out many of Logan’s stories as self-aggrandizing fabrications, but the repetition of his derision gets tiresome. Hawkins’ notes offer museum-quality details about the individual show segments that help the listener place the artists, songs and performances in both historical and Hayride context.

The sound quality varies throughout, as one would expect from sixty-year-old recordings not waxed for posterity, but all of the tracks are listenable, and many are of surprisingly good fidelity - better than most listeners probably heard over the AM radio at the time. The mix of longer and shorter segments gives the listener a feel for the show without distracting from its core musical focus. The massive volume of material testifies to the Hayride’s monumental achievement of mounting a weekly live show for a dozen years with fresh, new artists amid changing musical tastes. Bear Family’s well-deserved reputation for lavish reissues is on full display here, and just like those who paid sixty-cents to attend the Hayride in person, you’ll get more than your money’s worth from this set. [©2017 Hyperbolium]