NASHVILLE — Ralph Emery, the MC widely considered the most popular radio and television personality in country music history, died Saturday in a hospital here. He was 88 years old.
His death, after a brief illness, was confirmed by his wife of 54 years, Joy Kott Emery.
Heralded alternately as the dean of country music broadcasters and the Dick Clark of country music, Mr. Emery has spent more than six decades on the air promoting country music and seeking to broaden its appeal to a public with no natural affinity with the rural culture of the South.
He first made his mark in 1957 after signing on to work in the WSM cemetery in Nashville, home of the Grand Ole Opry. A 50,000 watt radio station known as the “Air Castle of the South”, WSM could be heard throughout the southern and eastern United States – and, on a clear night, far beyond.
Just 24 at the time, Mr. Emery immediately distinguished himself at WSM as a low-key host with an intimate and laid-back on-air presence. Its informal open-door policy on the show has encouraged its guests, established and aspiring, to drop by the studio unannounced to chat, drink coffee, and spin their latest records.
“Ralph was more of a great conversationalist than a calculated interviewer, and it was his conversations that revealed the humor and humanity of Tom T. Hall, Barbara Mandrell, Tex Ritter, Marty Robbins and many others,” said said Kyle Young, executive director of the Country Music Hall of Fame, in a statement. “Above all, he believed in the music and the people who make it.”
From 1957 to 1972, some of the country’s biggest stars, including Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, made impromptu appearances on Mr. Emery’s show, his most dedicated supporters being perhaps the cross country truckers -country that he kept awake while they did their all-night errands.
Mr. Emery’s early success on WSM also led to a concurrent slot as an announcer on the Grand Ole Opry, as well as a role as host of “Opry Almanac”, an opera-themed television show. Opry on WSMV later billed as “The Ralph Emery Show.”
An unusually heavy exception to Mr. Emery’s otherwise affable tenure at WSM came in 1968 when pioneering country-rock band the Byrds were guests on his show.
The band’s new album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” unabashedly expresses their devotion to traditional country music, even to the point of recruiting some of Nashville’s first-call session musicians to play on the record. The Byrds’ performance on the Opry before appearing on Mr. Emery’s show, however, was met with a warm reception from the audience after they decided to perform one of their originals instead of the song by Merle Haggard, they took over the direction of the show they would be performing.
Not too impressed with their hippie take on country music, Mr. Emery also sent chills down the spines of the Byrds. Gram Parsons and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds responded in kind, writing “The Man Who Drives a Pharmacy Truck” a ruthless send-off in which they characterized the song’s protagonist (a thinly-veiled version of Mr. Emery) as a southerner in hiding.
Despite this inauspicious clash with the counterculture, Mr. Emery continued to thrive in country music with “The Ralph Emery Show.” A morning television show that aired on WSMV from 1972 to 1991, the show featured a live band and gained a reputation for developing unsung talents like Lorrie Morgan and the Judds.
A man of unwavering energy, Mr Emery also hosted the nationally broadcast weekly TV series ‘Pop Goes the Country’ from 1974 to 1980, before reaching what might have been his peak as a host. from “Nashville Now”. A primetime show that aired weeknights on the Nashville Network from 1983 to 1993, “Nashville Now” for years featured a Muppet-like co-host named Shotgun Red, played by comedian and voice-over artist Steve Hall.
Walter Ralph Emery was born March 10, 1933, in McEwen, Tennessee, about 50 miles west of Nashville, the only child of Walter and Maxine (Fuqua) Emery.
His father, who suffered from alcoholism, was an accountant. Her mother, who struggled with poor mental health, worked as a stenographer and other jobs to pay the bills. The happiest times of young Ralph’s childhood were spent on his grandparents’ farm.
The radio also proved an escape from childhood trauma – Mr. Emery’s “surrogate family”, as he put it in the first of two memoirs, “Memories” (written with Tom Carter), if not a career path.
After his parents divorced, Mr. Emery worked as an usher at a Nashville movie theater. He also stocked groceries at a local Kroger store, paying his way through the Tennessee School of Broadcasting.
“I practiced and practiced, at school and at home, speaking and listening to myself very loudly to rid my speech of its horrible regionalism,” Mr. Emery said in an interview for his biography for the Country. Music Hall of Fame.
Perhaps inevitably, Mr. Emery dabbled in recording with “Hello Fool,” a response record to Faron Young’s “Hello Walls” that hit the nation’s Top 10 in 1961. He also made a album, “Songs for Children” (1989), with Shotgun Red, his “Nashville Now” co-host.
Mr. Emery also appeared in several B-movies, including “Nashville Rebel” and “Girl from Tobacco Row,” both from 1966.
Mr. Emery continued to host country-themed shows in the 2000s, perhaps most notably, “Ralph Emery Live”, a television production, later renamed “Ralph Emery’s Memories”, which aired on cable from 2007 to 2015.
Mr. Emery was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007 and the National Radio Hall of Fame three years later.
Besides his wife, he is survived by three sons, Steve, Michael and Kit, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Mr. Emery was married several times, including a brief union with singer Skeeter Davis from 1960 to 1964.
“I’ve always tried to bring respect to country music,” he said in his biography for the Country Music Hall of Fame. “I will be very happy if people can look at me and say, ‘He brought dignity to his craft’ or ‘He brought class to the business’.”