When the sixth season finale of The Marty Stuart Show -- a tribute to Johnny Cash -- first aired on RFD-TV in July 2014, none of the 150,000 or so faithful viewers had any idea that they would still be waiting for a seventh season to appear on their televisions three years later.
Even artists nervously waited for news of when the show -- one of the few on television to shine a spotlight on traditional country musicians both young and old -- would finally return. Country singers as disparate as Brandy Clark -- who appeared on the show twice over the years, once on the heels of the release of her 2013 debut album, 12 Stories -- and the legendary Bobby Bare, had both seen a sizable uptick in ticket sales to their live shows in the time since their episodes first aired, as the network's frequent reruns kept providing artists with television exposure they weren't being offered by larger network programs.
But now Stuart, the show’s beloved hillbilly host -- a singer-songwriter once married to Cash’s daughter Cindy and now on the road his band, The Fabulous Superlatives -- has been saying in recent interviews that the show is over, rattling fans and artists alike. Meanwhile Patrick Gottsch -- founder and president of RFD-TV's parent company Rural Media Group -- is scrambling to not only replace his No. 1-rated program, but to maintain a relationship with viewers who feel that the cable channel, which dubs itself "Rural America's Most Important Network," misled them by promising the show’s return. The once passionate emails from viewers in his inbox have been replaced by angry missives, with some fans imagining that the years-long wait for new episodes was due to disagreements between RFD's management and the talent. (Stuart's rep did not respond to requests for comment; Gottsch says Stuart decided on his own to take a hiatus.)
"We want to produce more of these shows, and we are hoping that Marty will produce more of his for us, but if not we are hoping someone else will step in and continue what Marty was doing," Gottsch tells Billboard. "There is a demand for it -- a huge demand -- and it's not just older viewers. Marty's show was reaching a lot of younger folks who really enjoyed a half hour of music that was different each week."
Gottsch has always viewed his Nashville-based RFD-TV as an answer to the “insulting” lack of entertainment options in rural America. The cable channel has built a devoted fan base among the 50 million homes that carry it by becoming something of a throwback to The Nashville Network, or TNN, the cable channel that aired for 20 years before being rebranded as Spike TV in 2003. Much like the TNN of old, RFD-TV sees a large percentage of its ratings success from its embrace of country music, whether that be through its musical variety shows, both old (The Porter Wagoner Show and Hee Haw) and new (Larry's Country Diner, filmed within the network's Nashville studios) or its reporting of issues within the agribusiness world, both of which are areas of our country overlooked by the cable station's competitors.
This isn't by accident: Gottsch has always had a very clear mission when it comes to RFD's programming and branding.
"Everyone is always going after an urban, younger demographic, and we just bucked the trend," Gottsch says. "We embrace the older demographic, we embrace traditional country music -- along with traditional bluegrass, gospel and even polka music -- and for us, there is still a huge audience for these things."
Country music performers were thankful for the promotional opportunities that RFD's slate of programming offered them over the years. Bobby Bare, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, hadn't performed before a television studio audience since 1981 before his Marty Stuart Show appearance in 2012. For some, like the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, their seven appearances over the show's history still marks the only television exposure they've ever received.
Stuart, known for his flamboyant, rhinestone-studded outfits and his affable personality, would start each show with the same winning routine: a couple of songs performed by him and his band; a number from his wife, Country Music Hall of Famer Connie Smith; two numbers from the guest, one featuring Stuart; and a performance of an old-time tune from local comedic banjo player Leroy Troy.
Gottsch wants to make it clear to both viewers and musicians alike that the folks behind RFD-TV are doing everything they can to get things back to normal, or at least a new normal. In searching for a replacement for Stuart's program, which was the flagship show of the network's "Saturday Night Music Row" schedule, the network head is open to many possibilities when it comes to hosts, from major country stars to niche Americana acts, as long as they have enough personality to anchor a weekly 30-minute television show.
"Even if Marty steps up and decides to continue it after all, there is still room for other artists that want to try their hand at their own show," Gottsch tells Billboard. "I'd love to have a female artist star in her own show. I haven't spoken to anyone specifically yet, but we are going through a list right now saying to each other, 'What about her? What about him? What about this group?' We're just looking to see who is based in Nashville and could do something on a regular basis. We are seriously considering every singer in this town, but the problem is that none of them have actually approached us and asked for the job yet."
Gottsch adds that Stuart is still reaping the benefits of the show. “He's still out there touring the country, and he's playing to crowds that are full of people that discovered him through RFD-TV. They see these great artists on our network, hear that they are still producing these great songs, and want to go out and see them live."