Before American Idol burst onto the scene and inspired a whole bunch of singing competition shows, TV audiences used to get their musical fix from country tv shows.
Country music variety shows, in particular, were some of the most entertaining and highly rated programs around. The heydays were mostly the 60s and the 70s, where famous stars hosted weekly get-togethers featuring music, comedy, sketch and more.
Unfortunately, a lot of the shows started getting canceled during the “Rural Purge” in the early 70s (I know, it sounds terrifying). Basically, networks began canceling shows that were still popular but had predominantly rural audiences. CBS, in particular, believed that if they created programming that captured younger urban folks, the advertising money would increase because that type of viewer would be more likely to buy the products.
It was a pretty raw deal that led to the cancelation of great country tv shows like The Johnny Cash Show and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. But, thanks to the Internet, we can look back at and appreciate some of the best country music variety shows.
Hee Haw (1969-1992)
One of the most popular and longest lasting shows revolving around country music, Hee Haw featured hundreds of great musicians and actors over its 25 seasons. The show was originally hosted by Buck Owens and Roy Clark and had a format that would later be mimicked by Saturday Night Live.
Interestingly enough, the show was created by Canadians. The comedy was usually pretty corny and slapstick, but it was always a good time. Segments were often introduced with witty lyrics and jingles, and musical guests performed what could in some ways be considered the first music videos.
Be on the lookout for Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical, a stage adaptation of the show with music and lyrics by the fabulous Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally. It’s currently only playing in Dallas, but has hopes of making it across the country. And it should, because it’s hilarious.
The Johnny Cash Show (1969-1971)
After his successful live albums, ABC asked Johnny Cash to host his own show, which was taped at the Ryman Auditorium and heavily featured the musical superstars of the day, country or otherwise.
It also featured a super cool “Country Gold” segment which focused on legends rarely seen on TV. Cash was a fearless host throughout the brief run of the show, allowing musicians to play their music as it was written and ignoring nervous network execs who wanted to control his and other artists’ image.
Cash was, unfortunately, one of the biggest victims of the Rural Purge, but he would later reprise his role as a host on several more specials throughout his lifetime.
The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (1969-1972)
A man of many talents, Glen Campbell led The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour for four years. He had the distinct pleasure of avoiding the Rural Purge on CBS… for one extra year.
Campbell’s show was filmed in Los Angeles, unlike some of the others filming in Nashville. But it was still plenty country, and often placed some of its musical guest stars in sketches, much to the audience’s delight. The show made it 4 seasons and 91 episodes.
The Ford Show (1956-1961)
Funny enough, The Ford Show was actually named for its sponsor and automobile manufacturer, Ford, but thanks to early episodes being called The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, the name was more closely associated with its host than the car.
Ford had all kinds of great guests on his variety show, but may be most famously known for being one of the first place to feature the characters from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts in their animated form.
The Porter Wagoner Show (1960-1981)
The Porter Wagoner Show was probably best known for its lighthearted style but serious musical chops. Wagoner almost always had a female co-host, which led to some amazing duets to open the shows. He made an astounding 686 episodes and helped break several amazing musicians, including Mel Tillis.
Porter Wagoner has the distinct honor of introducing the world to Dolly Parton in 1966, eventually bringing her on to co-host his long-running musical variety show for several years. When she decided to leave the show, her song “I Will Always Love You” was dedicated to her professional split from Wagoner and eventually rose to the top of the charts.
The Statler Brothers Show (1991-1998)
One of the few variety shows to make it in the 90s, The Statler Brothers Show was actually the highest rated show on The Nashville Network (TNN).
It continued the theme of hosting great musical acts and mixing in comedy, but the show also featured some true variety acts, including magicians, athletes, jugglers and all sorts of other folks. The Statler Brothers also stuck with the long-running tradition of ending their show with a gospel song.