Thursday, August 10, 2017

Rural Variety Shows of the Late Sixties

In the late Sixties American television saw a cycle of variety shows on the networks that appealed primarily to a rural audience. Of course, this was nothing new.  Country music variety shows appeared on American television fairly early in its history, These included Midwestern Hayride on NBC, The Windy City Jamboree and The Old American Barn Dance on DuMont, and Ozark Jubileee on ABC.  As the Fifties progressed two of country music's biggest stars had successful variety shows. The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford ran from 1956 to 1961. Country music singer Jimmy Dean was the host of three different national variety shows. The first aired on CBS as a summer replacement show in 1957. The second aired  in the daytime from 1958 to 1959. A third Jimmy Dean Show aired on ABC from 1963 to 1966 (it would be notable for featuring Rowlf the Dog, making him the first Muppet to have a regular spot on a network TV series).  Of course, not all variety shows that appealed to rural audiences were necessarily centred on country music. Comedian Red Skelton, whose variety show ran from 1951 to 1971, appealed primarily to country folk.

While rural sitcoms dominated most of the decade, for the most part rural variety shows were not to be found on the networks in the Sixties with the exception of The Jimmy Dean Show. All of this would change as the decade was nearing its close, when all three networks would debut several rural variety shows in a little over a two year period. Sadly for fans of these shows, they would disappear from the airwaves even more quickly.

Given that many of the shows were either summer replacement series or began life as such, the show that started the cycle was a summer replacement series. The Summer Brothers Smothers Show debuted on June 23 1968 as a summer replacement for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS. It was hosted by Glen Campbell, then an up and coming country singer who was experiencing his first taste of success with such singles as "Gentle on My Mind" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix". For its guests the show featured a mix of country singers and more mainstream artists. Among the country artists who appeared on the show were Johnny Cash, Lee Hazlewood, and Bobbie Gentry. Among the more mainstream artists were Judy Collins, Cream, Lulu, and Nancy Sinatra.

The Summers Brothers Smothers Show proved extremely popular, so that it led to Glen Campbell receiving his own variety show. The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour debuted as a mid-season replacement on January 29 1969. It proved very popular, ranking no. 15 in its first season. Like The Summer Brothers Smothers Show, it featured a mix of country singers and more mainstream artists. An example of the eclectic mix of artists that appeared on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour is the show's second edition, on which both country singer Jeannie C. Riley and rock group The Monkees appeared. During its run it featured such musical artists as Stevie Wonder, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Roy Rogers, and Dale Evans, Liza Minnelli, The 5th Dimension, and Tom Jones. The promotional clips for The Beatles' songs "Get Back" and "Don't Let Me Down" aired on the show on April 30 1969.

It was a mark of the popularity of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour with younger viewers that it was one of the very few shows with rural appeal to survive the Rural Purge of 1971. Unfortunately, its ratings would drop in its later seasons. After four seasons The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour ended its run on June 13 1972.

In the wake of the success of The Summer Brothers Smothers Hour no less than two variety shows with appeal for rural audiences debuted in the 1969. The first starred one of the most legendary American singers of the 20th Century, Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter. The Johnny Cash Show debuted on June 7 1969 on ABC. Like The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Johnny Cash Show featured both country artists and more mainstream music artists. During the run of the show such acts as Cass Elliot, Pete Seeger, Dusty Springfield, Roy Orbison, Roger Miller, Chet Atkins, Lulu, The Monkees, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan appeared on the show. The Johnny Cash Show was popular enough to receive a berth in ABC's fall schedule and it would run for a second season. Unfortunately, it would also be one of the many victims of the Rural Purge in 1971. Its last original edition aired on March 31 1971.

The second rural variety show to debut in the summer of 1969 may well be the most successful country music show of all time. Hee Haw debuted on CBS on June 15 1969. It was essentially a countrified version of Laugh-In, with an ensemble casts, two hosts (Buck Owens and Roy Clark), and comedy sketches. It parted ways with Laugh-In in that it also had musical guests. What is more, it differed from both The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and The Johnny Cash Show in that music artists appearing on the show were exclusively country artists.

Hee Haw proved immensely popular as a summer replacement show, so much so that it earned place on CBS's 1969 fall schedule. For its second season it ranked no. 20 out of all the shows on the air. For its third season it performed even better, coming in at no. 16 for the year. Unfortunately it would not be enough to save Hee Haw from the Rural Purge. It was cancelled during the 1970-1971 season, becoming one of the highest rated shows ever to be cancelled. This would not mean the end for Hee Haw, as it entered first run syndication in the fall of 1971 where it remained for an additional 21 years.

Most of the rural variety shows of the late Sixties were hosted by country singers. This was not the case with the next rural variety show to debut. The Jim Nabors Hour debuted on CBS on September 26 1969. It was hosted by Jim Nabors, an actor and singer then best known for his portrayal of the character of Gomer Pyle on both The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. Indeed, both Frank Sutton and  Ronnie Schnell from Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. were part of the show's cast. As a show starring an actor best known for a character from two rural sitcoms, The Jim Nabors Hour would obviously appeal to country folk. It should then come as no surprise that the show featured its share of country artists, including Bobbie Gentry, Glen Campbell, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Johnny Cash, Eddy Arnold, and Roger Miller. The Jim Nabors Hour proved fairly popular. For its first season it ranked no. 12. Its ratings dropped in its second season, but it still ranked a very respectable no. 29 for the year. Unfortunately, this was not enough to save it from cancellation in the wake of the Rural Purge.

The Jim Nabors Hour would be the last major rural variety show to debut in the cycle. The next two to debut would be summer replacement shows.  The Ray Stevens Show debuted on June 20 1970 on NBC. It was hosted by country and novelty singer Ray Stevens. Among its regulars were pop singers Lulu and Cass Elliot. Perhaps because Ray Stevens was then known primarily as a novelty singer rather than a country singer, it had a considerable emphasis on comedy. Curiously, Johnny Cash was the only country music artist to be a guest on the show.

The Everly Brothers Show was a summer replacement series for The Johnny Cash Show hosted by the Everly Brothers. It featured a wide variety of music artists in its short run, including country singers (Marty Robbins, The Statler Brothers, Doug Kershaw, and so on) and mainstream artists (Arlo Guthrie, Neil Diamond, Bobby Sherman, and so on). It debuted on ABC on July 8 1970 and ended its run on September 9 1970.

The Everly Brothers Show would be the last rural variety show to debut in the cycle. As it was the days of any show that appealed to the a rural audience in any genre were numbered. The 1970-1971 season saw the Rural Purge, essentially a mass cancellation of any shows that appealed to rural or older audiences. It is a myth that the networks only discovered demographics in the late Sixties, but by the 1970-1971 they came to dominate the television industry in a way that they never had before. In particular, CBS, who had aired so many shows with rural appeal that it was nicknamed "the Country Broadcasting System", wanted to rid itself of as many rural shows as possible.

In the wake of the Rural Purge, the networks would spend much of the Seventies pursuing young, urban audiences much more than they had in the past. Only a few rural variety shows would air after the Rural Purge. In 1973 the summer replacement for The Dean Martin Show was Dean Martin Presents Music Country, a country music programme. From 1974 to 1976 country singer Mac Davis had his own show on NBC, The Mac Davis Show. In 1980 the variety Show Barbara Mandrell and the Madrell Sisters, hosted by country singer Barbara Mandrell and her two sisters, debuted on NBC. It proved a success and ran until 1982. Among other reasons it ended its run because, with her busy schedule, Barbara Mandrell was suffering from vocal strain.

Of course, while rural variety shows were rare in the Seventies, variety shows of any sort went into decline during the decade. At the start of the 1970-1971 season around 15 different variety shows were on the air. At the start of the 1980-1981 season there were only two. Eventually variety shows would disappear entirely from networks schedules. When Dolly, starring Dolly Parton, debuted in September 1987 on ABC it was not simply the first rural variety show in some time, it was the first variety show of any kind in some time. It lasted only a single season. It seems unlikely that there ever will be another time like the late Sixties when several rural variety shows debuted in a short space of time.

1 comment:

top_cat_james said...

Here's an obscure one you overlooked that I remember watching - The Jerry Reed When You're Hot You're Hot Hour, a CBS summer replacement series from 1972.