As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
March 25 2005
There’s a rich source of wonderful music -- weird as America itself -- hiding within the nether regions of satellite television, the 9400s where you find low-budget, handmade channels featuring religious, educational, left-wing (Free Speech TV, World Link) programming -- television seemingly untouched by modern technical glitz.
The one I’m talking is RFD-TV, “Rural America’s Most Important Network,” up on channel 9409 (That’s Dish Network. It’s channel 379 on DirectTV. I don’t think it’s carried on cable tv around here.)
In between shows like Training Mules and Donkeys, Classic Tractor Specials and Prairie Farm Report, this Dallas-based network has a treasure trove of music shows featuring some musicians you’ll recognize, some that you’ve never even heard of.
RFD-TV shows a couple of classic and influential syndicated country music shows from the 1960s and ‘70s -- The Porter Wagoner Show and The Wilburn Brothers Show.
Both shows featured great guest stars as well hot little house bands.
I’ve caught a couple of old black-and-white Wagoner shows on RFD-TV lately. Wagoner usually sang a couple of solo tunes, but his main job was being the host, introducing other singers -- guests and regulars -- and stepping out of the way. His famous sequined suits played hell on the tv cameras of the day, offering occasional psychedelic distortion as the lights caught the sequins.
The shows I’ve caught recently were from the days before Dolly Parton was with Wagoner. Here his female counterpart was “Pretty Miss Norma Jean,” who had a sexy alto, singing songs like Charlie Louvins‘ “I Don’t Love You Anymore.”
Wagoner’s shows always featured a comic solo by Speck Rhodes, who played slap bass with the Wagon Master Band and sang funny songs like “Too Old to Cut the Mustard.” Rose dressed like a ventriloquist dummy -- checkered suit, bowler hat, bow tie. With his bowl-over-the-head haircut and blacked out front teeth (or were they blacked out? I swear the closer I look the more his mouth looks real) Rhodes was a bizarre throwback to vaudeville and medicine shows.
Wagoner had some extremely impressive guests. One recent show on RFD-TV featured Lefty Frizzell singing “Saginaw, Michigan” and “Always Late.” Another had Red Sovine, who performed a dead-child weeper called “Little Rosa.” The song had a lengthy and surely politically-incorrect speaking park that Sovine performed in a bad Chico Marx pseudo-Italian accent.
Speaking of impressive guest stars, the Wilburn Brothers segment I saw this week featured a young, beehived Loretta Lynn singing “Fist City” and a lesser-known song called “If Loneliness Can Kill Me.”
But also noteworthy on the show was a far less famous singer, a soulful guy named Vernon Oxford from Rogers, Ark. He sang a honky-tonk heartbreaker called “This Woman is Mine” and a truck driving tune called “Roll Big Wheels Roll.”
The Wilburns’ answer to Speck Rhodes was Harold Morrison, who wore a pink (!) checkered jacket and a red taxi driver cap. (Yes, this show was in color.) On this show he sang a raucous “Little Brown Jug,” laughing insanely throughout the whole song. But Morrison could really sing. He joined the Wilburns and Lynn on a moving hillbilly gospel song.
The Wilburns themselves -- Doyle and Teddy -- were an underrated act. Their harmonies remind me of a hardened version of The Everlys.
But old country shows aren’t the only ones offered by RFD-TV. A couple of weeks ago I caught a very enjoyable bluegrass program, The Cumberland Highlanders Show that featured Joe Isaacs and Stacy as guest stars. The Cumberland Highlanders, a Kentucky group, is the house band. Their web site says Ralph Stanley and James Monroe (Bill’s son, not the former president) have appeared as guest.
There’s a gospel show called Gospel Sampler, with a set designed like a country church. The one show I saw was spotty musically. Most of the music was too restrained, though I enjoyed a group called The McGruders, featuring a woman named Priscilla McGruder who sings as if she’s in a religious trance, frequently reaching an arm up to Heaven.
Strangest of all, RFD-TV apparently is the world television headquarters for polka music.
Polka star Jimmy Sturr has his own RFD-TV show. But the most fun is The Big Joe Polka Show featuring the portly Joe Siedlik, who is known for his vests that look like accordion keyboards. Big Joe seems to have a different colored cummerbund every time he introduces a new band.
The show is recorded live at various Midwestern venues. The camera often shows the dance floor. Sometimes there are only a handful of couples on the floor and few seem to be under the age of 65.
The quality of the bands vary widely. Some are pretty weak, though one band I recently saw on the show was as fun and energetic as Brave Combo or The Polkaholics. That’s The Chmielewski Funtime Band. It’s led by Florian Chmielewski, a former Minnesota state senator. But the real star is his son Jeff Chmielewski, who plays sax -- on one song, “The Chmielewski Twirl” he played it upside down -- and fiddle, where he sounds like the Doug Kershaw of polka.
After the show, I was googling to get more information on this amazing musician. I found a disturbing little news story that said Jeff Chmielewski, in 1999 was sentenced in federal court to 46 months in prison in connection with a scheme to undervalue slot machines sold in South Africa.
South African slot machines? Hunter Thompson couldn’t have dreamed this one up.
Could this be a new subgenre emerging -- outlaw polka?
The Wilburn Brothers Show was on when I first started writing this column Monday morning. But then came an actual bull auction for at least a couple of hours. (”Look at the cow wrecker on that one, boys.”) Anyone who’s ever heard one of these knows that auctioneering is a weird, hypnotic kind of American music itself.
Most of these shows are scheduled several times during the week. Check RFD-TV’s Web site for the schedule.
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