Flashback: WLS’ long-running country music show ‘National Barn Dance’ made rural folks feel they were heard

Chicago Tribune Opinions 1 month ago

One Saturday night in 1928, a WLS announcer thanked a Texas rancher for sending an old cowbell to the Chicago radio station. It wasn’t unusual to give a shoutout to a listener, and the gift was a nod to the ritual way WLS introduced banjo players and fiddlers on its “National Barn Dance” program — with the ringing of cowbells.

That brief thank-you sparked a surprising outpouring. Dozens of other listeners of the seminal country music show sent in donations — at a total, within a few months, of more than a hundred bells. Attached to many of the bells were snatches of family history.

From Indiana came brass bells that had hung around the neck of the leader of an oxen team that had pulled a covered wagon across the state in the 1880s. A New Englander sent sleigh bells that had rung for a century, and an elderly woman in California gifted three tiny bells tied with pink ribbon that had been worn by “a famous family cat.”

A Quebec couple sent the dinner bell of their remote boardinghouse. “This bell has been calling ’em to breakfast, dinner and supper for 40 years and has never failed,” an accompanying note read. “It is guaranteed to bring results on the WLS barn dance."

Listeners’ willingness to part with such meaningful mementos suggests that they heard echoes of their own lives on the “National Barn Dance.”

WLS, which went on the air in 1924, took as its motto, “Bringing the world to the farm.” WLS’ founder, Sears, Roebuck and Co., was already doing that with its mail-order catalog. It provided access to consumer goods to households many, many miles from a department store. The call letters WLS stood for “World’s Largest Store."

So it should have been a no-brainer for WLS to play music that strongly appealed to rural customers of Sears goods. Yet Sears executives were initially leery of country music, noted Jack Hurst, the Tribune’s country music critic, in a retrospective look at the show. Sears’ top brass were troubled with lyrics like:

I am a stern old bachelor

My age is 44

I do declare I’ll never live

With women anymore

I have a stove that’s worth 10 cents

A table worth 15

I cook my gruel in oyster cans

And keep my things so clean

Yet they weren’t going to pull “Stern Old Bachelor” and similarly earthy tunes. Myriad letters, telegrams and phone calls greeted the inaugural broadcast of the “National Barn Dance” on April 19, 1924.

To Chicagoans, it might have been the Roaring ’20s — the big hit of the 1924 theatrical revue Junior League Follies was “Play My Wedding March to Jazz Time,” as sung by a socially prominent newlywed — but hip sophistication didn’t travel well. Life was hard in the hinterland. Even before the Great Depression of the 1930s, farmers were going bankrupt, and country folk preferred songs that told it like it was, like “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down.”

When the composer of that tune, Harlan Howard, was asked what it took to write a country song, he replied: “Three chords and the truth.”

In fact, many tunes were written down only after being passed from generation to generation in Appalachia’s mountain hollows and the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. They’d been sung in church and at family gatherings. The “National Barn Dance” transported listeners to a simpler yesterday.

“I must tell you in my own words just what we like,” one regular listener wrote, “First, this is an old-fashioned home. Supper with us is done early on Saturday night — a big pan of popcorn and a dish of shiny red apples — a good fire and the radio dialed on WLS at 7 o’clock — we stay with you until you sign off.”

So, too, did families across a huge swath of the nation. WLS broadcast a 50,000-watt signal over a “clear channel” that gave it a monopoly on its frequency after dark. It was also carried by NBC’s Blue Network.

The 4 1/2-hour broadcasts were a medley of barn dance callers, instrumentalists, barbershop quartets and comedians. Acts needing to rest their voices and fingers had a designated comedian who riffed on the proverbial encounter of a city slicker and a country bumpkin.

Traveler: “Hey, Grandpa, how far is it to Indianapolis?”

Farmer: “How did you know I’m a grandpa?”

Traveler: “I just guessed it.”

Farmer: “Well, guess the way to Indianapolis.”

Its homespun formula inspired many more requests to see the “National Barn Dance” live than could be accommodated in its audience studio at the Sherman Hotel in downtown Chicago. So in 1931, it was moved to the nearby Eighth Street Theatre by new WLS owner Prairie Farmer magazine. The theater had 1,200 seats, yet it was sold out for 7:30 and 10 p.m. shows every Saturday. Similar numbers of fans turned out when the “Barn Dance” troupes played the state fair in Illinois and in other states.

In 1939, 60,000 people from 15 states came to Noblesville, Indiana, for a Sunday picnic with the stars of the “National Barn Dance.” Singing for so many fans was a “staggering experience,” Patsy Montana recalled. “These were farmers, working hard to make their chores work out so they could drive a great distance and still get home in time for evening chores.”

“Lightly sandpapered” is how Newsweek magazine characterized the voices of Americana that populated the “National Barn Dance,” and Montana’s career validated that description. Born Ruby Rose Blevins in Arkansas, she studied violin in California, and, with her brothers, brought what they hoped was the world’s largest watermelon to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Evidently the watermelon didn’t win, but she was hired as a vocalist for the Prairie Ramblers. She renamed herself after silent film star Montie Montana, and her signature song, “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” made her the first female country signer to sell a million copies of a record.

Gene Autry’s transformation was similar. Autry was hired for WLS’ morning show in 1931. But even though Autry wore street clothes, the host began bringing him on with flourishes such as: “I see a cowboy riding. Here he comes. ... It’s our own Gene Autry!”

So Autry began to dress like a cowboy, and went from the “Barn Dance” to Hollywood as the famed “Singing Cowboy.”

But WLS’ audience didn’t focus on its performers’ tailored authenticity. What they heard were musical tributes to an America that was fast changing. “Don’t get too much up-to-date music on the program,” a listener wrote. “The good old songs are best.”

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the “Barn Dance” echoed the hypernationalism of a country that sensed itself endangered. “Barn Dance” troupes appeared at war bond sales and drives to collect scrap metal that would be made into weapons. When it announced that free admission to a 1942 show in Normal, Illinois, would be given to donors of recyclable material, 750 listeners showed up, dragging defunct hay binders, automobiles, cream separators and 60,000 pounds of rubber.

In postwar America, the “Barn Dance’s” fortunes turned. Prosperity replaced the poverty that had attended the birth of country music. Rock ’n’ roll appealed to younger listeners. Homer and Jethro, the “Barn Dance’s” hayseed satirists, were alien creatures to audiences attuned to the heady comedy of the Chicago cabaret comedy theater Second City.

In 1959, the “National Barn Dance” lost its long-running gig at the Illinois State Fair to a troupe from the Grand Ole Opry, a Nashville, Tennessee, radio show that evolved into a world-famous country music venue. Because its founder had come from WLS, some musicologists consider Chicago the midwife of the Grand Ole Opry. That showcase is still alive and kicking; the “Barn Dance” soon succumbed.

During the April 30, 1960, broadcast, Bob Atcher stepped up to a WLS microphone. Famed for singing “You Are My Sunshine,” he announced the “Barn Dance’s” death at the age of 36:

“This show as you know was, up until tonight — and it will still hold the record for quite a while before any other show can catch up to it — was the oldest, the longest continuously broadcast program of any kind anywhere in the world.”

Grace Wilson, who’d appeared on the first broadcast, sang a pair of gospel songs. And as the final chords faded away, she said: “Good night, friends, not goodbye, but just so long and God bless.”

Editor’s note: Thanks to Jeannette Musial for suggesting this Flashback. Have an idea for Flashback? Share your suggestions with Lara Weber at lweber@chicagotribune.com.

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