By Stephanie Carlson
Meet Ralph Emery. This is his country music NBC morning show from 1966. He is “the man” according to the likes of country music’s hard-knocks and outlaws. He’s “the man” in the pejorative sense, not the complimentary sense as witnessed in “you da man. No, you da man” exchanges. In 1968, Gram Parsons (International Submarine Band, The Byrds) lambasted Emery as everything antithetical to the true spirit of country music. After an unpleasant, on-air tiff with Ralph Emery, The Byrds wrote "Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man," in which they accuse Emery of everything from racism to your classic case of white, southern douchebaggery. You’d never guess it from the casual, friendly nature of this episode, but there was a storm brewing in the world of country music. In 1966, the tension was gathering, but it had yet to break.
The 1960’s was so much about “change” it would’ve made Barack Obama nauseous. Maybe Vietnam was to blame for a lot of it. Or was it the music? After a while, it sort of turns into a chicken/egg impasse. In the news bulletin toward the end of this episode, Vietnam’s inevitable, looming presence creeps into an otherwise cheerful affair. The announcement of the war’s most devastating air attack on North Vietnam is a chilly reminder of world events that sits uneasily in the good ole boy, just hangin’ around feel of the show. Whatever the case may be, Ralph Emery was determined to keep rock and roll out of country music. This show is a little slice from a period of time when Chet Atkins' Nashville sound still reigned king in the country music scene, despite the revolution happening everywhere else.
When asked what exactly typified the “Nashville sound,” Chet Atkins reportedly jangled his pocket change and said: “It’s the sound of money.” As head of RCA’s country division in the 1950’s, he took the twang out of country music, and replaced it with croon. Guest stars on this show such as Roger Miller and Tex Ritter enjoyed long periods of wild popularity and chart-topping sales. The Nashville sound sold like crazy. It continued to hold steady throughout the 1960’s as the nation’s conservative listeners disdained the new ethics of rock and roll and sought to hold onto the purified pop of yesteryear.
Despite the commercial sensibility, the elitist attitude of the Nashville sound, and Ralph Emery himself, I have to admit that I enjoyed watching this television episode. The improvisational feel and cigarette-smoking is worlds away from the Regis and Kelly kind of morning show I’ve grown to expect and avoid. And for all the change-jangling and sound of money – the music really isn’t half bad either. There is something sweet and nice about Roger Miller’s country music, and the Nashville sound for that matter. It manages to be catchy without being cloying. Or gross (I’m thinking about today’s hits such as "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk"). It reminds me of happy, sun-shiny days minus an overwhelming load of idiocy. I can dig it.
Roger Miller, right off the bat, reminds me of Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes. He looks a heck of a lot like him and has that nervous, jittery way of responding to questions and avoiding eye-contact. Ten minutes into the show, when he declares, “I like to pick my nose,” as he does so on national television, I know that I like this man. I know also that TV humor isn’t like this anymore and I wish it was. On talk shows today the funny stuff is all pre-fabricated and fits neatly between well rehearsed segues. When I watch Emery and Miller banter back and forth I feel like I’m sitting in on a conversation between two friends – hell, they even seem like people I’d want to be friends with. I feel like I want to be in on the jokes and I want to understand the stuff they talk about that I don’t immediately get. I especially like the way that the weather is handwritten in a 3-ring notebook and held up to the camera so you can read it. Something about that made me smile.
I think today’s comedians are starting to pick up this kind of humor. When Zach Galifianakis fucks up a line he is at his funniest. People like mistakes. They like being able to envision themselves on television, just as awkward and shuffly as the next guy. I wonder, then, what happened to unpolished TV shows like this? If something like this was on network TV every morning I’d be tuning in. Instead, we have air-brushed tans and fake, hysterical laughter. And there sure as hell ain’t any music.
Okay, maybe Gram Parsons had a point about Emery’s elitism. And maybe the Nashville sound had to die to give way to a new breed of outlaw characters (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson etc.) who better typified a new American ethos. But there is something to be gleaned from country’s pop days – something wholesome and good.
This episode is from 1966, and Chet Atkin’s protégé still rules the roost. Jefferson Airplane and The Beatles are off in their own world, doing their own things. In 1966, mornings on NBC are still about country and the comfortable pop crooners of yesteryear. In the midst of the world’s first televised war, who can really blame anyone for wanting to tune in to Opry Almanac for a few laughs with the good ole boys?