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Ralph Emery: We Have Too Damn Many Singers

Posted by: Petr Mecir

Interviews 06/24/2015

Ralph Emery is the greatest radio and TV host in country music that ever lived. With a career spanning over six decades he has done interviews with just about everybody a hundred times over. He is a true living legend and a deserving member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Doing an interview with someone who is the ultimate master in this field and has done thousands of interviews himself was very challenging, however, Mr Emery was very kind and he shared a lot of great stories and background information about his work with me.

When I interviewed Mark Chesnutt, we talked about the exposure of the Internet and the social media and new technological opportunities in this business and Mark compared today's situation to the exposure of television in the early 90's and the importance of being on TV. He also mentioned your show in particular. I would like to ask you how you feel about this technological world and whether you keep up with technologies today.


"I have been in broadcasting at some level for over 60 years. When I first got into broadcasting, we played 78 RPM records. Then I saw the 45's come in. And initially they were difficult to handle, because they were small and we were used to playing larger records, so we had to get used to handling these small records. Plus the turning tables had to be changed, because they only played 33 and 1/3 RPM's and 78 RPM's. So I saw that technological change. Then we went to 8-track and here in Nashville we started out with mono records. 1-track and then I think 3-track and then we were all over the map. I think it jumped to 8-track and now you can have as many tracks as you want, a thousand, I suppose."


"Technology is hard to keep up with. I don't know if it's all that good, because by the time you get used to one thing, they invent something else. I know that the programme I ran called Nashville Now was very influential. I think it did a great deal to broaden the country music market to increase the popularity of country music and we were on for 10 and a half years, 1983 to late 1993. And I think we had a great deal of influence on country music. We introduced Garth Brooks. We brought on a lot of people for the first time. I remember we launched Lee Greenwood with 'God Bless The USA'. We were the first to have him perform that. So the Nashville Network, I think, was a great shot in the arm for country music. The other great shot in the arm was the CMA Awards show. When the CMA Awards show came along, there weren't a lot of stations playing country music. When the CMA Awards show was broadcast and they looked at the numbers, the ratings that that show got, they were astounded. It got tremendous ratings and a lot of people in radio said 'well, if country music is that popular, I'm going to switch my format to country music.' And that happened in a lot of cases and I think the CMA Awards show and along comes the ACM show from California. And they played a huge role in putting country music all over the map. And they caused the eruption of radio, because if that many people went to tune in to country music on television, then surely they would tune in to radio."

And how about the technological world today? Do you keep up with the Internet?


Ralph Emery"I am not really crazy about the Internet. The screen is too damn small. If I sit down at my computer for over 30 minutes, my back hurts. I can't get excited about the Internet. Maybe if I marry the Internet to my 50-ft television screen, I would enjoy it more. The Internet is another outlet for people who can't make it in the regular avenues of commercial popularity. It's a way to try to lengthen your career. And we also have, this is gonna sound strange, but we have too damn many singers. Everytime you get a publication from the CMA once a month, you notice there pictures of all these new people every month. And there's still only 10 places in the Top 10. I don't know what we'll do with all those new people. I've looked at it and I said 'there's just too many people in this business for us to accommodate all of them. I don't know how some of them make a living. I know that the colleges and universities keep turning out all these college kids who take mass communications. The school Middle Tennessee state over in Murfreesboro is the second largest mass com school in America. And Belmont University here in Nashville has a huge music business programme. The problem is for all those people who graduate, where do they get a job? I used to have an office with about 4 girls and I had 2 graduates from Belmont, but it's difficult for all of them to find a place in broadcasting, there's just so many places."


"The other thing I haven't talked about was the advent of the FM radio. I grew up in an AM world. I started my career and spent most of my career in AM radio, the first 25 years. Today most of the kids have never heard of AM radio. So everybody had to switch gears and to change radio formats, because of that change in technology. They sold it by telling that the sound was better, but it doesn't reach as far. I was an all-night disc-jockey for 15 years at WSM and at night we reached most of North America. We reached about 35 states, Canada, the Carribean, and that was AM radio. And WSM continues to survive today, thank God, and they still put out a good signal. But there's so much more competition to it. That's another thing. When I was on television with that show Nashville Now, we didn't have as much competition. There weren't that many channels. Today on my television set I can get a hundred channels. Who's got time to watch a hundred channels? Today it's difficult, everything is so scattered, that's what technology has done to us. It's difficult for an artist to gather a lot of momentum, because there's so many ways to go. We now have 4 major networks, let's see, NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX. Then you have all these cable channels. TNN was a cable channel, we got that years ago when we didn't have as much competition. And that's why we were so successful. Today if you started a new cable channel, it would be very difficult I think to do what we did back then in 1983. There has been a movement to revive the Nashville Network, as a matter of fact it's on the air here in Nashville at channel 136 I think. And they are trying to expand the reach of the new Nashville Network. I don't know how successful they're going to be."

What I like about the Internet is that it allows people to listen to music all around the world. Sometimes at the weekends I get up at 3:00 am to listen to the Opry on the Internet.


"Well, that's a plus. I know WSM radio can be heard all over the world, but that's a novelty. Can I guarantee a million listeners? Like I have in my car an FM radio and I can pick up two New York stations, one in L.A. They are on XM radio Sirius. And they are all over the map. But I like television better. I like it because it gives you the dimension of sight. I realize that radio is a by-product to imagination, but I still like to show you something when I talk about it."

Let's talk your job as a host. Being a professional of your caliber, do you still do the research when you are about to interview somebody and listen to their new music? Or do you just let them talk about what's new in their career and you see where it goes?


Ralph Emery"Well, let me say this. I haven't done any shows lately. I did 26 shows in 2007, 2008 and 2009. I researched every one of them. Even though, for the most part, I was working with old friends that I knew pretty well. And yet I didn't know everything about them, so yeah, I did my own research. I have 4 books out that I did with writers, but I did all the research for those books. I researched all the subjects, turned the material over to the writers, because they can write it so much better than I could. But yes, I think if you have time, and if you're doing daily shows, it's often hard to research daily. You just hit the high spots. You know I went over to Book Trail, I was on a lot as a guest, on a lot of radio and television shows, but I could tell if the interviewer had read my book. It didn't bother me that a lot of them hadn't, because I knew they didn't have time. So what we usually did, in advance we sent them a sheet of bullet points that they could use to interview me, to tell them what the book was about. For a guy that's on the air every day, you can't read 7 books a week. But what you can do, you can research. I think it's interesting and I believe in warts and all, but not to hurt people. I never talk about people's divorces. Although Buck Owens once said to me 'Ralph, I just got divorced, you wanna talk about it?' and I said 'OK, Buck, it's up to you.' That's a hard part of life and I kind of stay away from that."

There are certain people who are very shy and they like to keep their privacy. For example it's very hard to get interviews with George Strait or Alan Jackson, who just don't like to talk at all. How do you approach interviews like this and how do you make them feel comfortable so that they talk?


"Well, you picked two people and you're right. I have interviewed them on a few rare occasions. I give you some others, Charlie Rich hated to be interviewed, Don Gibson hated to be interviewed, Don Williams doesn't talk a lot. With Don Gibson I found out he loved movies, so I talked about movies with him. Charlie Rich's wife loved to talk, so when I interviewed Charlie Rich, I brought his wife into the interview and if he didn't answer the question, I would say to her 'what do you think about that?' I know Alan Jackson has avoided me on a lot of occasions. I was one of the first to interview George Strait when he first came to Nashville. The fact is the guy at Decca Records, he was a friend of mine and he brought him over when he was brand new. He said 'Ralph, would like talk to my artist?' I said 'sure!' So, I don't know why shy people get into show business, but I've seen that a lot. Somebody who is totally the other way around is Reba McEntire and Dolly. They'll talk your head off. With Dolly all you say is 'hey Dolly, how are you?' and she'll talk for 30 minutes!" (laughs)

Have you ever done any interview that made you feel very uncomfortable or nervous?


"Sure. It's when people won't talk to you. Interviewing Charlie Rich made me uncomfortable till I figured out his wife was sitting over here. I used to do a syndicated radio show. It was syndicated around the nation, about 400 hundred radio stations. And I did what I would do, it was a daily show, we would send the radio stations five different shows to run Monday through Friday or run them all on the weekend. I would go into the studio, tape all the interviews, we put the records in after the Ralph Emeryinterviews were over. We would just go. We introduced the records, back announced the records and move on. When I was interviewing Charlie Rich, it was like pulling him teeth, trying to get him say anything. So I stopped the show, I went into the engineer and I said 'that woman in there would talk my head off. Give her a microphone' So I came back in and I said 'Charlie, if you don't mind, I'm gonna let Margaret Ann have a microphone, too. And he said 'that's great!" So I put her into the mix and I got very comfortable. You know, the interview can only be as good sometimes as you can make it. I always try to find an unusual characteristic in a person. When I say warts and all, I mean everybody's not perfect, everybody's not beautiful. But there are an awful lot characteristics about people that are interesting. You know, Don Gibson recorded The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise while laying on his back and that's interesting. When I first started doing interviews, I was kind of overwhelmed by Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash was so damn bigger than life. He said to me 'Come on, Ralph, whatcha gonna talk to me?' and I said 'well, yeah, I'm coming!' I finally found a comfort zone with Johnny. Some of the interviews have been really a lot of fun. An interview with Jerry Reed was a lot of fun. Also, do you remember Sammi Smith? Help Me Make It Through The Night. Sammi was a good friend of mine and she was so easy to talk to. We had a lot of give and go, and of course, Reba. Reba's terific. I love to talk to Reba."

Have you ever experienced any attempts of censorship either on radio or television when you were told to stay away from certain topics and not talk about this and that?


"Yes, a few times. I interviewed George Bush, the 41st, he's a friend of mine. I met him through Jimmy Dean. And on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Bushes, I was working for TNN those days and I went to Houston, TX and interviewed Mr and Mrs Bush. I heard from his people not to interview him about certain political topics. Although I went ahead and did ask him about one topic that they asked me not to and that was his opinion of Harry Truman dropping the atomic bomb on the Japanese, because he was a World War II pilot. And he told me he was glad for Harry Truman to drop the bomb, because it ended the war. And they were sick of the war. On other occasions I've dealt with managers and publicists who tried to direct my interviews in certain directions to suit their purposes. I don't mind promoting in an interview whatever you've got that's new that you wanna promote. However, if you've done some great things in your career, I wanna talk about that. So a lot of times an interview is a compromise. Sometimes the people that work for stars are harder to get along with than the stars. Wynonna Judd is like that. Wynonna's people, they hover around her and they're afraid somebody would do the wrong thing al the time. When I discovered that, I decided to ignore them and go ahead and do my work, because it gets in my way. Have you had that problem?

As a matter of fact I have. The radio shows that I do in the Czech Republic are pre-recorded. And most recently I happened to criticize the new country-rap song by Joe Diffie. I don't know if you've heard about it, but Joe recorded a country-rap song with some black rapper, which was a response to a Jason Aldean song. I mean, I love Joe so much and I honestly hope that he will make a lot of money out of this so he can make another great country album, but I just felt that this rap song was kind of a professional sacrifice. So I got a phone call from the owner of the station and he said 'We're not going to air that segment about Joe Diffie, because we don't want to present any kind of criticism to our listeners. I'm sorry but personal opinions of radio hosts are not accepted on the air.' And I was like what the hell...'


Ralph Emery"Well, I disagree with that. I think if you're gonna put your life and your heart and soul into your programme, you have the right to your opinion. I once criticized Johnny Cash. And I rarely ever criticize people on the air. Johnny Cash, he was a rock'n'roller within country music, he was really hot. I think this was right after Ring Of Fire. He went to Ireland, he fell in love in Ireland. He put out this song, something green about Ireland. I didn't particularly like it. I didn't think it came up to my expectation of Johnny Cash. I like the rip-roaring Johnny Cash. So I came down on him kind of hard. He was driving around town, he heard it, he turned his car around, he came up right to the radio station, came up five floors the elevator, and looked at me and threw his boot at me. Anyway, years later I got Johnny to do a commercial for one of my books and when he finished the commercial, he said 'Ralph, I'm sorry I threw my boot at you.' Yeah, he did throw his boot at me, but he didn't hit me." (laughs)

What kind of music do you listen to now?


"I listen to all kinds of music. I like jazz, r'n'b, back in the 60's and 70's. I like traditional country music. And another thing that annoys me, one day somebody got the crazy idea of not identifying everybody that you play. You play records and you don't tell people who it is. Then you put out a lot of people that all sound alike and you wonder how can I figure out who's singing? I always backannounced and introduced, if I didn't put the introduction on the front, I would put it on the back in, but I always announced who was singing. I wish they would do that now to get the audience a little better educated. How do you play music? You identify?

Oh, sure. I do and I also give background stories about the artists and the songs. Each introduction is at least one minute long. And I play all kinds of music, not only the new stuff. For example, in the latest show that I recorded here in Nashville I played Jeannie Seely, Jan Howard and Willie Nelson, so it's both new and old.


"Willie Nelson is unlike anybody in the world. Roger Miller once said 'Willie Nelson is 5 minutes ahead of his time' Roger Miller was one of the brightest people ever to come here. And I loved Roger. Roger used to come and sit with me at night. Marty Robbins used to come and sit with me at night. I miss them. And for a year and a half I co-hosted with Tex Ritter and I miss him. My place has been very full for years, I've been very lucky. I am very thankful to God that he made a career for me."

Well, I think this is the best way to close this interview. Thank you so much for meeting me.


"Let me put a plug in for a friend of mine. I think the best boxset of records is the boxset by Merle Haggard of all the stuff he did on Capitol Records. If you wanna hear a great box full of country music, that's it. And it's my pleasure to be with you. Petr, thank you."


Ralph Emery
(Ralph Emery & Petr Mecir - Nashville, TN July 2013)



(C) 2015 Petr Mecir. All rights reserved.