Louisiana Hayride: Radio And Roots Music Along The Red River
The Louisiana Hayride was, of course, the loose-as-a-goose on-radio barndance out of Shreveport that played a key role in the careers of Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Johnny Horton, Johnny Cash, George Jones, and numerous other untameables. It was the edgier ’50s alternative to the Grand Ole Opry, billing itself as “The Cradle of the Stars.”
This new book is not a backstage history; memoirs such as manager Horace Logan’s Elvis, Hank And Me and booker-musician Tillman Franks’ I Was There When It Happened have already provided that sort of anecdotal spice. As the title suggests, Ms. Laird, a music professor who grew up in Shreveport, has more ambitious catfish to fry: to show how the geography, population interaction, and business and music history of Shreveport made the Hayride, and the music of the place, what it was.
That’s a tall order, but a laudable one, since her approach would provide a way to get past one-eyed genre histories to a broader view of the forces making some important and pleasurable American music. And, besides, for “rooted” music, such a perspective ought to be telling.
Laird brings to the effort a formidable capacity for describing complicated processes cleanly and engagingly. She covers how geography, politics and commerce made Shreveport a lively center in the first place; how entertainment began and interacted on Shreveport’s lowdown Fannin Street (as made famous in song by denizen Lead Belly); and how that entertainment grew via radio.
But the book never quite proves its central idea — that the facts of this specific place yielded a certain definable flavor of music. The main thing the book underscores again, rather, is commercial country music’s worst-kept dirty little secret: that most all of it has always been made in cities — not by solitary rural folk strumming alone in the greenery, but by those who go to town and run into each other at intersections.
In that respect, Shreveport was not conclusively different from other music-making centers — from Memphis to New Orleans to New York City to Los Angeles to Nashville. Many of the artists who starred on the Hayride (Cash, Presley, Williams, the Maddox Brothers & Rose for awhile) and are cited as examples of the style claimed for Shreveport came there, of course, from other places, with styles already intact. And that well-told story of the growth of regional and national broadcasting, meanwhile, makes a case for the limits of local influence more than for its importance.
These more rebellious artists got to play what they did on the Hayride in no small part, because, as Avis used to remind us all, when you’re #2, you try harder — hanging looser, taking more risks. Gatekeeping and formalities never set in the way it did, to a degree, at the Opry; there was simply less to protect.
If Nashville (itself a railway and highway crossroads, and a good place to tour from) grew to be the larger, more lasting country music center, it was largely because of the business people who saw the need and opportunities for a permanent booking agency for Opry stars, for related music publishing companies, and, especially, for recording studios in the same town — none of which grew in Shreveport. The regionality story can’t show why; nothing in the water there would have necessarily kept music business people with that sort of vision away, but they never showed up. The Hayride became the “cradle” for stars-to-be, but not their adult residence.