Hell yeah, Buck Owens used to annoy me. I was an 8-year-old watching Hee Haw every Saturday night at 7 p.m., and he was the guy picking and grinning. However, what really got on my nerves was the way the camera would cut to a guffawing Owens after a skit as if he were a one-man, cornfield-anchored laugh track. Sure, I was already a little on edge after having been subjected to The Lawrence Welk Show as the 6-7 p.m. warm-up, but it was more than that.
At least 15 years would pass before I’d learn about the Bakersfield Sound and “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” and why I should have been genuflecting when Owens was on the screen instead of hurling adolescent insults.
But ignorance is something that I, unfortunately, don’t appear to be outgrowing; it seems to be following me right into early middle age. If it weren’t for a recent offhand conversation with a co-worker and a sentence in Peter Doggett’s book, Are You Ready For the Country: Elvis, Dylan, Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock, I wouldn’t have known about the legacy of Arthur Smith, the host of the current UNC-TV entertainment series Carolina Calling, and his place in the country music and television worlds.
When Smith Sr. released “Guitar Boogie” back in 1948, the song was credited to The Rambler Trio, but the song’s “featuring Arthur Smith–guitar” subtitle was an understatement and a half. Smith’s genre-hopping composition went on to inspire “a generation of pickers, from Chet Atkins to Chuck Berry,” according to Doggett. “Guitar Boogie” emerged at the end of a long recording session held at a studio above a pharmacy in the Washington, D.C. area. The producer announced that they had five minutes left in the session–did anybody have a song he wanted to put on record?
We’ll let Smith take the story from there: “I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a song that I’ve been playing around the barracks, and the guys seem to like it’,” recalls the energetic 80-year-old. “I talked to the other guitar player and the bass and told them what the chords were and to push me. About this time [the producer] said, ‘If we’re gonna do it, we gotta do it.’ So the light came on and I gave them a little introduction on the E string and started the melody and the boys fell in with me. I felt the thing going right as we were playing it.”
Smith also wrote a tune titled “Feudin’ Banjos,” known as “Dueling Banjos” by the time it became an unexpected radio smash thanks to its use in the movie Deliverance. But despite being the author of these two truly enduring songs, Smith has made an even greater impact in the world of television. Besides The Arthur Smith Show, a nationally syndicated television program than ran 32 consecutive years, Smith, starting in the late ’50s and running through the early ’60s, hosted the original Carolina Calling show, which was produced at WBTV in Charlotte and shown weekday mornings from 7 to 8 a.m. “It was kind of a precursor to Good Morning America, Today, etc.,” explains Clay Smith, Arthur’s son and the executive producer of the show’s new namesake. “It was very localized, but they had news cut-ins. In fact, Charles Kuralt did some of the early news cut-ins.”
While you got some news, the original Carolina Calling was more about entertainment, with Smith displaying a knack for spotting and breaking new talent. Andy Griffith made his television debut on the show, unveiling his classic-to-be routine “What It Was, Was Football.” Maurice Williams of The Zodiacs and the hit “Stay” fame made many early appearances, and you even could have caught The Swingin’ Medallions romping through “Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love),” the second greatest frat-rock song of all time. Big names such as Johnny Cash and James Brown dropped by after sessions at Smith’s recording studio, the first of its kind in the Carolinas.
Close to 40 years later, there’s been, in the words of the younger Smith, “a re-face of an old show title” with the new UNC-TV sponsored Carolina Calling. Its format is nothing like the original. Thankfully, it’s nothing like Hee Haw either. The series is genuinely folksy and homespun, far removed from Hee Haw‘s reliance on taking Hillbilly Heaven and Daisy Mae stereotypes and blowing them up to outlandish proportions. Carolina Calling 2002 is more akin to Randolph County’s late Rand Ol’ Opry in that it features an amiable host, a talented but low-key house band and regional guests. And it’s a conservative gathering–however you want to define that word–characterized by the Carolina Calling orchestra’s suits and ties and the respectfully quiet studio audience. For that reason, things play on the stage’s big carpet that might not go over well elsewhere, such as “God Bless the USA” earnestly delivered on one episode by Marie Osmond’s apparent doppelganger, a young woman named Leann Medlin Broome.
The show’s steadfast format offers a certain comfort. There’s an opening number from Arthur Smith and the orchestra, and watching Smith’s still nimble fingers summon “Black Mountain Rag” from his guitar or “That’s My Baby” from his banjo, his face revealing a mixture of concentration and contentment, is a moving experience. Each episode has a special guest–Western Carolina-based singer/songwriter David Wilcox maybe, or the aforementioned Maurice Williams, as well as a special feature. A recent episode spotlighted “Singing on the Mountain,” a festival that Smith has hosted for 30 of its 75 years, with clips highlighting appearances by Cash, Bob Hope and Doc Watson. And the show always closes with a number from The Dove Brothers gospel group.
But the goal of Carolina Calling is to showcase North Carolina talent, namely a large collection of musicians (and one magician) that survived talent search competitions in Wingate, Hickory, Chapel Hill, Morehead City and Williamston. These guests range from a Faith Hill-idolizing 15-year-old vocalist from Beaufort to Wilmington journeyman Mojo Collins, and from the pop-leanings of Treva Brackett and the Mystic Buzz Band to an opera singer.
Jason Harrod, a North Durham native who recently returned home after releasing three albums as half of the Boston-based acoustic duo Harrod and Funck (dubbed “Simon and Garfunkel on drugs” by their first producer), made the drive to Charlotte to be on the show. While he didn’t perform “When I Get Home,” the song that won him first place in the bluegrass category of the Chris Austin Songwriting Competition at MerleFest 2000, his choice of “Carolina” (from his self-released solo album Living in Skin) was pretty much a no-brainer.
“It was a great opportunity to get some recognition and exposure,” Harrod says of his television debut, freely admitting that he did his homework and learned quite a bit about Arthur Smith’s history after learning he’d be appearing on the show with him.
Through it all, Smith seems authentic rather than anachronistic, even when using the introduction “Move over, Charley Pride; it’s Levi Jones,” to introduce an African-American country singer from Claremont. Smith always shares a few words with the performers, and his interviewing is disarmingly direct and fluff-free. “Tell me about yourself. What do you like to do?” he asks cowboy-hatted Mikele Buck, a construction worker by day and honky-tonk singer by night who hails from Aurora, N.C.
While the series concludes on June 29, those first 13 episodes will begin being rebroadcast the following Saturday, July 6. And there’s talk of producing another 13 shows. The only downside for me involves a flashback to my youth, something that no amount of musical education can help me to overcome–Carolina Calling‘s lead-in is The Lawrence Welk Show.
For more information on Carolina Calling, visit http://www.unctv.org/cc/indexa.html.