SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — The world can thank Missouri for developing some of the country’s and the world’s biggest musical acts. And before KOLR was KOLR, we were KTTS: The area’s first television station and sister station to one of the most popular country music stations around. So settle back and enjoy this look at Missouri’s musical legacy.
When we go back to the roots of Missouri music, there’s no better expert to call on than long-time radio host Wayne Glenn. He’s like a walking encyclopedia of music and Missouri’s role in shaping it.
So, what makes Ozark’s music unique?
According to Glenn, “If we talk about 200 years of America, Missouri, the Ozarks, and we start talking about Ozarks music, then, of course, the Irish and the scotch-Irish, all the different groups. They brought their instruments with them when they came in the 1830s, and 40s, and 50s, and 60s. And the heritage began there and has continued right on until the days of Branson, the Ozark Jubilee in the 1950s and 60s, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Big Smith, Tom Whitlock’s composition, ‘Take My Breath Away,’ which was an academy award-winning song written by an Ozarker. It’s just one thing after another. We have this wonderful mixture of fiddles (call them violins, if you want to be technical), banjos, the jew’s harp, the harmonica, and the guitar. And, the traditions of American families here in the Ozarks getting together around an organ or a piano with the stringed instruments and just having fun playing and singing.”
And when you talk about Ozarks music, Wayne says there’s one form in particular that made southwest Missouri a mecca.
“The most famous style of Ozark music, from a professional angle, would be country,” said Wayne. “There’s no doubt about that. And it all began, really, as far as the money part, with fiddlers getting paid on Saturday night to play at a square dance. And that would even be back in the 1800s. There were fiddlers who were known in their community to be good, and they would be paid. Not much, but some little amount of money. Then you come to the radio. When commercial radio came to the Ozarks, well, in this case, KWTO, KGBX Springfield in 1932/1933, then they began, those musicians, the Slim Wilsons, the Speedy Haworth, the Goodwill Family, the Hayden family, Lonnie and Thelma, all those names—they began to be paid to be on the radio.”
Ozarks radio led the way with nationally syndicated live music from its legendary radio stations, one of which, KTTS, had a future game show host as its DJ. At the time, the price, and the gig, were right for Drury University Alum Bob Barker.
But soon, Springfield was knocking on Nashville’s door as a country music centerpiece, with acts like Eddy Arnold—still the artist with the most top 10 country songs in history—hosting a national T.V. variety show from Springfield’s Jewell Theatre.
“Eddy, when he first became famous in Nashville, back in the mid-to-late 1940s, he did a syndicated radio show that was put together by Charlie Brown and Jim Brown,” said Wayne. “The Brown Brothers were from Springfield. They were working in Nashville in the late 40s. So then, in the 50s, when it became a possibility that Springfield might become an important venue for lots of network shows, then the Browns came back to Springfield and they approached Eddy Arnold about doing a T.V. show from the Jewell Theatre as part of the Radiozark, which is the company that owned the Jubilee and the Jewell concept. He came. Eddy came.”
Arnold came and went, and so did Springfield’s musical dominance. Soon Branson, led by entertainers like Ray Stevens and Andy Williams, would remake Ozark’s musical image for a new generation.
“You know the story is Ray Stevens was already here,” said Wayne. “Well when ray stevens came in the 1980s/early 1990s, ray stevens was a bigger entertainer, as far as hits, than andy Williams was. Andy was very well known, but his heyday of hit records was over. Ray Stevens was still going well. Ray stevens’ manager was andy William’s brother. And ray stevens’ manager—that brother—told brother Andy this is where you need to come to continue your fame and fortune. And that’s what andy did.”
And while it’s unclear what’s next for music in the Ozarks, the region will always have a sweet-sounding legacy to celebrate.