'Louisiana Hayride' Compilation Unearths Rare Gems From Country & Early Rock History

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From Johnny Cash selling donuts to "Elvis has left the building," 'At the Louisiana Hayride Tonight' is 20 discs of odd and iconic moments.

From 1948 to 1960, the Louisiana Hayride served as a launching pad for many of the greatest stars in country music, with artists such as Hank Williams, Jim Reeves, and Johnny Cash appearing on the powerful radio airwaves of KWKH AM 1130 in Shreveport, Louisiana. In addition to those artists -- who later found their fame and fortune in Nashville -- the show also proved to be beneficial to a truck driver from Memphis named Elvis Presley who was told by Grand Ole Opry management not to give up his day job. Those artists – and others like them – made country music history, but for the most part, many of those Hayride performances haven't been heard since their initial broadcast.

Thanks to Bear Family Records, music aficionados now have the chance to hear a little bit of history with the release of the expansive 20-CD set titled At the Louisiana Hayride Tonight. The box contains a staggering 559 cuts, with many rarities, including:

- An unreleased recording of Hank Williams performing "I'm A Long Gone Daddy."

- 11 'as live' studio-recorded transcriptions, including Kitty Wells, Johnnie and Jack, Hank Williams, and Curley Williams.

- Live performances from many of country music's most colorful characters, including Cousin Emmy, Bill Carlisle, Faron Young, and George Jones, who is featured on several cuts, including a performance of his 1955 career breakthrough "Why Baby Why."

- Live commercial ads that appeared on the original broadcasts, including future superstar Johnny Cash plugging Southern Maid Donuts as the "best in the world."

The set is the largest country collection ever released by Bear Family, which has released career overviews from artists such as Buck Owens, The Osborne Brothers, and Connie Smith. Martin Hawkins, who co-produced the set, says that if you are used to the high level of excellence of Bear Family releases, you won't be disappointed.

"When Bear Family puts out anything, they always like to do it top quality with no expense spared," Hawkins told Billboard. "The man who founded the company loved country and rock n' roll so much that he wanted to do it very properly."

When the idea was presented to Hawkins, he knew that it was going to take some time and care – and a lot of discs. "The company got access to hundreds of hours of live recordings from the program, wanted to put a box set together, and wanted to know if I would work on it. It took me about two years to plow through all of the music. I sent a message saying that if the company wanted to do this thing properly, it's probably going to take about twenty CDs. They came back to me and said 'If that's what it takes, then that's what we will do.' Even with the twenty discs, we just scratched the surface of everything that is available."

In addition to the music, there is a 224-page hardcover book with rare photos of the artists involved in the show, as well as a little bit of rock n' roll history – such as the night when one star made his last performance on the show. "Horace Logan was the first emcee on the Hayride job," Hawkins says. "In 1956, when Elvis Presley played his last show on the Hayride, he had actually been off for some months, and came back to do a special one-off show for charity. The crowd went completely crazy, but they still had two hours or so to go, so Horace came back out with the famous phrase 'Elvis has left the building.'" He notes it was the first time that phrase was uttered. "So you can hear the full version of that on the set."

All in all, Hawkins is very proud that the set is available to music fans who might not be aware of other radio shows of the time besides the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. "This is the biggest project that I've been involved with. I did a 12-CD set on Sun Records, and some other country and blues boxes, but this one is twice the size of those, and we're very pleased to get these out. Bear Family has done a great job in presenting this audio as clearly as possible -- using old transcription discs for radio play, and tapes made for advertisers to hear. Alton and Maggie Warwick, who own the Hayride name and performances, have made available to us all the music and photographs in the hope that this release will be part of a regeneration of interest in the music of Shreveport and the part in country music history played by the Louisiana Hayride."


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