They say it’s hard to get that first job these days. I believe that to be true. So I am eternally grateful that long, long ago, I stumbled into a position at a country and western radio station. It was 1970 and I was 18 and had just finished my first year at college. My friends were working as lifeguards, camp counselors, tennis instructors or selling ice cream for a guy called “The Ding Dong Man.” But I lucked into a job where I wore a coat and tie!
I wrote “rip and read” for a country and western radio station in Maine. This is the news that is read on the air by announcers, and it chiefly involved calling the police to inquire about someone who had fallen into a cement mixer. I also operated the control board for Red Sox baseball games, a near-holy pastime in New England. No mistake was tolerated. The man on the control board had to be ever vigilant for a cue that allowed us to break away from the game and insert a local commercial for the Charles E. Downing Insurance Agency or Oxford Plains Speedway.
The station (no longer in business) called itself “The Country Giant” and broadcast from spacious studios hard by a chicken processing plant outside of Augusta, the seedy state capital. It smelled pretty bad. Most people think of Maine as rock-bound coasts, lighthouses and pine forests. Augusta looked like East Berlin.
At the station I acquired a vast knowledge of “real” country music. I learned the words to “The Letter Edged in Black,” “There’s a Tear In My Beer,” “I’m Walking the Floor Over You,” “Don’t Sell Daddy Any More Whiskey” and “Don’t Come Home A’Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind).” These were songs that spoke to the great American themes of death, drunkenness and cheating. If you were drinking doubles and acting single (there’s a song there), you were one of our faithful listeners back in the day when, as another song put it, country wasn’t cool.
At The Country Giant we played the tuneful offerings of Mr. Jimmie Rodgers, the singing brakeman, the father of country music. We played Hank Williams and George Jones. We loved the Statler Brothers, Johnny Cash and the Carter Family. We liked Miss Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” and Loretta Lynn’s “You’re the Reason Our Kids are Ugly.” We liked Ernest Tubb’s “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin.” We were driving nails in our own coffins, too. Everyone smoked. Ashtrays the size of Buick hubcaps were everywhere and they were always full.
Some of the employees at our station aspired to alcoholism. This was no mere hobby. They dedicated their waking hours to it. I think the only thing that saved them was that it would have taken a genius to figure out how to support a drinking habit on our meager wages. But many tried. Drinking on the air was forbidden but the guys on the control board at night liked to keep a “tall boy” or a “frosty” at the ready.
At our station, we looked only to the past. In fact, the official station policy was that music recorded after 1960 might be the handiwork of godless communists or even the Devil! Taylor Swift is a sweet gal and I just read where she made $45 million last year. She’s got a fine voice. But listen to her sing. And then listen to Patsy Cline do “Crazy” or “I Fall To Pieces.” I rest my case.
Our listeners were not merely fans of the war in Vietnam, they were convinced we would win. We regularly played Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” We also played the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, and we went off the air every night at midnight to the tune of the national anthem.
On Sunday morning we fulfilled our public service obligations with “The Bible Speaks” or pre-recorded religious programs from Wheeling, W.Va., that promised all were bound for hell. But a long pre-recorded program was heaven-sent, for it would allow the man on the control board to go across the road to Bolley’s Famous Franks for a hot dog or down to the corner store for molasses doughnuts.
As we were in the capital and not just any jerkwater town, we even had live performers— professional yodelers, a cappella singers of Christian music and a man who played the comb. I met Dick Curless (“A Tombstone Every Mile”) once. Another time I met Hank Snow. He was a tiny man dressed in a bright sequined suit. He sang “I’m Just Here To Get My Baby Out of Jail.”
Alas, the country and western life was not the life for me. I took a turn for the worse and wound up a journalist. But I still have Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells and Jim Reeves to make me wonder, as Merle Haggard used to sing, if the good times are really over. The Statler Brothers knew that when they sang “things get complicated when you get past 18.”
Life, I’ve found, can be well explained by old time country and western music. Did not Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys tell us that “time changes everything”?