In the early days of country music, future stars relied more on live radio appearances than touring or record sales. "Making it" meant gaining enough of an audience to receive sacks of fan mail from as far away as a station’s signal could reach. Sales of songbooks and records at tour stops within the radio market mostly meant extra cash for a solo artist, string band or family singing group.
Even after the recording industry took shape and found a market for so-called “hillbilly” music, a live radio gig in a major market remained vital for everyone from early influencers the Carter Family to such young up-and-coming stars of the 1950s as Patsy Cline.
Eventually, the disc jockey format became widespread enough to make studio singles the still-reigning measuring stick of country stardom. Although live radio has become obsolete aside from the Grand Ole Opry’s long-running broadcast, it’s an important and often overlooked building block in the creation of the country music industry.
Before learning more about five important radio broadcast programs, please note that a handful of important shows missed the cut. The Ozark Jubilee is skipped over despite Missouri’s unsung importance in the growth of country and bluegrass, mainly because its television show means more in the grand scheme of things than its radio broadcasts. Also, both the Big “D” Jamboree in Dallas’ embrace of rockabilly and the Tennessee Barn Dance in Knoxville’s role as an Opry feeder system can be better represented by the Louisiana Hayride.
The WSB Barn DanceAtlanta, Ga.
WSB, short for “Welcome South, Brother,” innovated live radio upon its March 1922 debut. Nearly 20 years later, the Barn Dance took advantage of WSB’s 50,000 watts with an impressive cast that included future stars Martha Carson, Mac Wiseman and others.
The Wheeling JamboreeWheeling, W. Va.
Since 1933, WWVA's The Wheeling Jamboree has identified mountain-bred talent on their own turf, establishing some as local stars and others as future legends. Impressive names from the show’s past include Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Porter Wagoner and longtime host Red Foley. The still-active series ranks second to the Opry in longevity.
The National Barn DanceChicago, Ill.
Before Nashville became Music City, Chicago played a sometimes-understated role in the early development of country music. WLS’ wide-reaching broadcast began in 1924 as a precursor to the Grand Ole Opry and jump-started the careers of everyone from singing cowboy Gene Autry to pop crooner Andy Williams.
The Louisiana HayrideShreveport, La.
In the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Louisiana Hayride was a final step to Opry stardom. Its famous alums include Hank Williams, Slim Whitman and even Elvis Presley. Like several of these programs, the Hayride transitioned from KWKH to the small screen. In 1955, Presley made his television debut on the Hayride stage.
The Grand Ole OpryNashville, Tenn.
The Opry, broadcast on Music City's WSM and various other platforms, needs no introduction. In between its 1925 debut and today, its name became as synonymous with country music as trains, trucks and Texas. To this day, membership gets treated as the highest honor by such modern success stories as Luke Combs and Kelsea Ballerini.