Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
84-year-old Wallace Horn slips on his earphones and swivels his well-worn chair toward a bank of meters and dials. As the band runs through “Little Old Log Cabin” and “He Will Set Your Fields On Fire”, he tweaks the levels on the instruments and voices. By now, the routine is quite familiar. Horn’s “Friendly Neighbors Show” has been on the radio in rural West Virginia every week for the past 37 years. When Horn first went on the air, Lyndon Johnson was president and the Vietnam war was in full swing.
“I’m gettin’ old — I go under logs I used to jump over — but I still love the show,” Horn says. “This is the about the only pleasure I get around here. I may not do it as well as I used to, but I still enjoy it very much.”
Horn’s show has long eclipsed terms like “dated” or “retro.” Simply put, it was, and still is, good music made by good people for all the right reasons.
The scene inside Horn’s TV Repair Shop, located deep within the southern West Virginia coal fields in Chapmanville, is well beyond classic. A few minutes off the main road and you’re likely to thing you stepped into the time warp of Dr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine. Dozens of televisions of all shapes and sizes in various states of repair fill the floor. At the back of the room, the members of the Low Gap bluegrass band stand in front of a wall-sized painting of a pastoral West Virginia scene — a far cry from some of the nearby moonscape realities created by the new, incredibly destructive coal mining method known as mountaintop removal.
A few feet from the band, Horn sits in front of racks of old equipment, monitoring the sound with headphones while three reel-to-reel tape machines slowly turn, preserving the performance. The show is taped from 7:30-8:30 p.m. most Tuesday evenings and airs Saturday mornings from 8:30-9:30 a.m. on WVOW (101.9 FM and 1290 AM) in nearby Logan.
As the band finishes a gospel tune, Shirley Baisden, who has served as announcer for 13 years, reads copy plugging one of the show’s long-running sponsors: “That portion of the show was sponsored by Evans Funeral Home. Remember, they’ve got lots of free parking.”
Raised in rural Mingo County, Horn married his wife Elsie in 1947. In the mid-’50s, the couple moved to Chapmanville, the nearest town of any size (its population is about 1,000 today). Horn opened a shop that sold musical instruments and repaired radios. Before long, he was repairing TVs as well. He started “The Friendly Neighbors Show” to help advertise his business. It began as a 15-minute program, then expanded to an hour in 1970. He featured mostly local artists such as the Toppins, a family band that included Horn’s secretary.
The show was initially taped on Thursday nights in front of a live audience of 30-40 people in a room above Horn’s repair shop. When Horn and his wife moved upstairs, he moved the show downstairs.
While the show featured mostly local groups, Horn promoted concerts that featured touring acts and often taped the shows, airing them as part of his show. Some of those folks included Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Fiddlin’ Robert Byrd (the veteran West Virginia senator), the Goins Brothers, and “Aunt Jennie” Wilson.
For the better part of three decades, Low Gap (“I like to call them the ‘Friendly Neighbors’,” Horn says) has been the house band. Horn played in the band until he “tore his arm up” a couple of years ago in an accident at his home.
Vaughn Toler, 73, is Low Gap’s leader and guitarist. With the exception of banjo player Richard Williams, the members of Low Gap are related. Williams is the godfather of Vaughn’s grandson, mandolinist Clenten Toler, who at 13 is the group’s youngest member.
Joe Toler, Vaughn’s son and Clenten’s dad, plays dobro. “My dad and my uncle were doing the show, so I started learning how to play,” he says. Now 44, Joe has been playing the show since he was 16. Bassist Don Toler, Vaughn’s older brother, has been playing music with Vaughn since 1942.
In addition to music, “The Friendly Neighbors Show” features some classic country repartee, with Horn telling jokes and stories between the songs. To jog his memory, he keeps a tattered, handwritten list of jokes by his microphone with names like “toilet paper,” “the sheriff posse,” “Paul Revere” and “donut seed” — although he admits he can’t remember some of them. Here’s one: “A boy asked me if everyone in our family was a singer. I said, ‘Sure, even our sewing machine was a Singer.'”
Horn says most of the show’s sponsors have been with him for decades. Workman’s IGA store, the local grocery, has been a sponsor since the first show aired in 1967. “I’ve never lost a sponsor,” he says proudly.
If Horn has one regret, it’s not labeling the tapes. A room in the back of his shop is a repository for boxes and boxes of tapes, as well as sundry items that date back to the ’60s.
“I’ve got a truckload of tapes of old shows in here,” he said. “They may not be valuable now, but one of these days they will be. You don’t think of it while it’s happening — but we’ve got quite a bit of history here.”