By Robert Price
(Second of two parts on the 50th anniversary of country music television's storied beginnings in Bakersfield.)
y the middle of 1963, Cousin Herb Henson's life was a paradox.
His business demeanor reflected sheer optimism. He was as popular as ever, now that he'd become the "Kuzzin" Herb of KUZZ radio, and he saw big things ahead on TV, too, having quietly made arrangements to switch from KERO to competing KBAK.
He'd be hosting his "Trading Post" show's 10-year anniversary concert at the newly opened Bakersfield Civic Center, too, with stars like Glen Campbell, Buck Owens, Roy Clark and Merle Haggard on the bill.
But Bakersfield's favorite piano-playing emcee was also beginning to suspect that his days were short.
In October 1963, the month following the big anniversary show, he suffered a heart attack. He told his wife, Katherine, how painful it was to think that another man might raise their four sons.
About six weeks after the big show, Henson woke up in the middle of the night and roused his wife from her sleep. As young and pretty as she was, he told her, she should marry again after he died.
Henson's son, Rick, will never forget the events of Nov. 26, 1963. His celebrity father, finished with that evening's "Trading Post" broadcast, had come home for the day. Katherine was off playing with the KUZZ bowling team, so Cousin Herb went for a walk over to his sister's house, a regular activity prescribed by his doctors.
A few minutes later there was a knock at the door of the Henson home. Someone needed to use the telephone: Cousin Herb was lying in the street.
The four boys -- Rick, Dusty, Mike and Rusty -- were taken to their aunt and uncle's house. Their aunt tried to keep the boys' minds elsewhere, but that proved difficult. Every five minutes, it seemed, a TV announcer was telling viewers that Cousin Herb had died. News broadcasts had been full of grief and speculation for four days now, ever since the assassination of President Kennedy. And now this -- the music man of Bakersfield, dead at 38.
"It was like losing the president all over again," said Al Brumley Jr., the TV show's producer.
Several entertainers stepped up to fill the void. Some, of course, had been there all along. Foremost were Jimmy and Louise Thomason, who'd launched WACO-TV's own live-music program, "The Home Folks Show," back in Waco, Texas, before returning to Bakersfield in 1956.
Billy Mize, a young, handsome steel guitar player, had taken advantage of the Thomasons' self-imposed two-year exile, stepping in to host his own program. He called his KBAK show "The Chuck Wagon Gang" and teamed for a year and a half with Cliff Crofford (later to earn a reputation writing songs for Walter Brennan and composing mid-'70s film soundtracks including those for "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Every Which Way But Loose").
Mize "sang like a bird," said Roy Nichols, former guitarist for Merle Haggard's Strangers and a sometime-regular on the "Trading Post." "Looked good, too."
"He had a lot a trouble with girls," Red Simpson said. "Trouble keeping them away."
Mize, who rejoined the "Trading Post" gang after the Thomasons' return, became the show's host in October 1963 when Cousin Herb was forced to scale back following his first heart attack. After Henson's death the following month, the show moved to KBAK, and Mize continued as the show's host for its final years. The Thomasons essentially switched places with Mize, landing on KERO-TV.
A native of Kansas by way of Riverside, Mize was all over the Southern California airwaves in those days. In a two-year display of road-warrior grit during 1964 and 1965, he racked up 3,000 miles a week driving his pink 1959 Cadillac back and forth between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, appearing on two live, daily TV music shows: "Trading Post" in Bakersfield and "Melody Ranch" on KTLA.
Mize performed on several Los Angeles-area TV shows, including "The Hank Penny Show," "Town Hall Party," "The Cal Worthington Show," and "Country Music Time." He eventually sold his heroic, well-traveled Caddy to Buddy Mize, his songwriting brother.
Before the Academy of Country Music gave its "TV Personality of the Year" award to Glen Campbell in 1968, Mize owned the trophy, winning three years in a row. He recorded for Columbia, Decca, United Artists, Zodiac and others, but his finest moment in the studio was probably the day in June 1966 that Dean Martin recorded three of his songs, including "Terrible Tangled Web."
Dave Stogner was the other memorable personality who helped fill the void created by Henson's death. A genial, Texas-bred fiddler whom Henson had tried previously to recruit into Bakersfield, Stogner had been charming TV audiences (on three stations in Fresno, 100 miles north) for twelve years.
Stogner arrived at Bakersfield's KLYD (later KGET) in 1965, bringing along that theme song so familiar to Fresno viewers: "Hello friends and neighbors / How do you do? / We're gonna play and sing / and we hope we bring / some happiness to you."
Stogner's Western Rhythmaires had a great lineup: Norman Hamlett played steel guitar, Red Simpson was on piano and guitar, and Sonny O'Brien played drums. Dennis Payne sat in every once in a while, as did Ray Salter and Kay Adams. And on bass, starting in 1965: Dave's teen-age son Daryl.
For the first six months, Stogner hosted a videotaped music show that originated in Nashville, introducing pre-recorded singers. It evolved into an all-live, one-hour show with local heroes such as Mize, Buck Owens, and Jan Howard, as well as Nashville-based guests like Dottie West and Roger Miller.
Sensing a change in America's musical tastes, Stogner left Bakersfield in 1967. "Dad had the feeling that something was happening in country music," Daryl Stogner said. "You could see the pendulum swinging, and he was ready to step away."
Hamlett went on to take a job playing steel guitar for Haggard's band, the Strangers, and Simpson signed with Capitol Records. Stogner, who recorded songs for the Decca and Mosrite labels, went into semi-retirement. He died in 1989 at age 69.
Thomason, whose show ran for 81/2 years in its third and final KERO incarnation, was forced to quit in 1974 because of impending heart surgery. In 1975, he began teaching a course on the history of country music at California State College, Bakersfield, a pursuit that lasted several years. He died in 1994 at age 76.
Mize's last run at more enduring fame came in 1972, when he taped two pilots of the "Billy Mize Music Hall," which he hoped to sell into national syndication. Despite guest appearances by Merle Haggard on one show and Marty Robbins on the other -- and a new-look Billy, with medallion, leisure suit, and sideburns -- no one picked it up.
Since suffering a stroke in 1991, Mize speaks a little slowly but has recovered enough to play guitar again. Until just a couple of years ago, he remained a fixture in the crowd most Monday nights at Red Simpson's weekly showcase gig at Trout's Cocktail Lounge in Oildale, just north of Bakersfield. The bar is located just a couple of blocks south of the building that was once Owens' recording studio and the original offices of KUZZ radio.
Simpson also plays at a senior center three or four times a month and a local grange hall the first two Saturdays of each month. He's still writing and recording songs, including an album project called Songs About Bakersfield, with tracks like "Cousin Herb's Trading Post," "The Mighty Hag," "Bill Woods from Bakersfield," and "Hey Buck, You Gave Everybody a Guitar But Me." (Red finally got one.)
There were other Bakersfield TV hosts along the way. The best of the rest was Jelly Sanders, a fiddle player who'd come west from Oklahoma in 1938 at age 17. He became a familiar sight on Bakersfield bandstands and television sets in the early 1950s and got his shot at the limelight for about six months in the early 1960s, filling in on KBAK during one of Mize's longer expeditions into L.A. When Mize came back, Sanders returned to his role as sideman.
Chester Smith, in a sense, became the Northern California version of Cousin Herb. When television came to Sacramento, he signed on with the local CBS affiliate, KXTV, and hosted a show every Friday night at 7 p.m., from 1955 through 1958. He had a show on Fresno's CBS affiliate, KFRE, for much of that same time. It was on Monday nights at 7 p.m. from 1956 through 1957.
"It was a haul, but I had a driver and a new Cadillac," Smith said. "I didn't do the pink, though. Didn't put any signs in windows, either."
The two TV commitments left Smith's schedule open for travel during the middle of the week, and he sometimes visited Bakersfield. "Somebody would book me for a weeknight at the Blackboard -- a Tuesday or Wednesday, or whatever it was," Smith said. "The Blackboard was very colorful." To put it mildly.
By the mid-'60s, things were changing. Vietnam, the Beatles, and network television had conspired to alter the national mood and the nation's entertainment tastes. By the end of the decade, if viewers wanted country music variety shows, they turned to Glen Campbell or Johnny Cash. Or, for that matter, to one of Bakersfield's own.
Buck Owens' first national TV appearances were in 1963 and 1964 -- guest spots on ABC's "Jimmy Dean Show" and NBC's "Kraft Music Hall."
In 1966, at the height of his hitmaking powers, Owens forged a deal with two wealthy country music patrons, Oklahoma City furniture-store owners Don and Bud Mathes, to create a new, syndicated show.
Dubbed "Buck Owens' Ranch," the half-hour program was taped on a soundstage at Oklahoma City's WKY-TV. It lasted eight years.
The first show was broadcast on March 15, 1966. Owens bought out the Mathes brothers at the end of the first season, but he liked the arrangement at WKY: Four times a year he traveled back to Oklahoma with the Buckaroos, met up with his guest stars and, in marathon taping sessions, shot thirteen "as-live" shows over three challenging days.
Owens' son Mike Owens became the show's announcer and ultimately its director, and another son, Buddy Alan, occasionally performed on it. Guest stars included Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Jr., Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride, Conway Twitty, Wanda Jackson, Jimmy Dean, Roy Clark and Tommy Collins.
Owens developed a system: Starting in 1969, he and the band would record the instrumental tracks at Buck Owens Studios in Oildale, then do the singing in Oklahoma City, with the boys "air" strumming in the background.
At its peak, the Ranch show was in 100 markets around the country, fifty-two weeks a year. It ran until 1973 -- some 295 original shows plus dozens of additional programs repackaged with new and previously broadcast performances, totaling 380 shows in all.
In Bakersfield on a late-'60s Saturday afternoon, a country music couch potato could watch "Buck Owens' Ranch," the Wilburn Brothers' show, and "The Porter Wagoner Show" (featuring Dolly Parton), culminating that evening with "Hee Haw."
"Hee Haw," which Owens co-hosted with Roy Clark, eventually proved to be the undoing of the "Ranch" show. When Owens renegotiated a new deal with Yongestreet Productions, which then owned "Hee Haw," the producers made him quit the "Ranch." They had noticed what everybody in the band knew all too well: Owens was playing the same thing on both shows -- literally.
"It had become painfully obvious," said Jim Shaw, Owens' keyboardist. "Very often we'd do the same song on the 'Ranch' show and then 'Hee Haw.' We'd use the exact same instrumental tracks and Buck would just sing them fresh at the taping. They got aggravated. They said, 'Hey, you're competing against yourself.'"
"Hee Haw," first telecast on June 15, 1969, was more than enough for Owens anyway. Until he left the show in 1986 (it went on without him until the early '90s), "Hee Haw" in one way or another occupied a substantial portion of his life.
The rest of his life was business. He bought KUZZ radio (then at 800 AM) in 1966, and a year later purchased 107.9 FM, which he turned into KBBY, a rock station. The FM station went country in 1969, reverted back to rock in 1977, and finally became KUZZ's primary dial location in 1988. Owens' broadcast empire at various times has included Bakersfield TV station KDOB (later KUZZ-TV) and Phoenix radio powerhouse KNIX.
Owens has fared very well.
In 1999, Buck Owens' family company sold its two Phoenix radio stations to Jacor Communications for $142 million. Owens Broadcasting, owned by Buck Owens and family members Michael, Buddy and Mel Owens, sold country station KNIX (102.5 FM) to Cincinnati-based Jacor for $84 million. Also, OwensMAC Radio, a partnership between Owens Broadcasting and MAC America Communications, sold adult contemporary station KESZ (99.9 FM) to Jacor for $58 million. Today he owns only KUZZ-AM, KUZZ-FM and their sister station, KCWR.
Meanwhile, Cousin Herb's widow, Katherine Henson Dopler, has settled quietly in Oklahoma. She says people still ask her about her late husband.
"It amazes me that people in Oklahoma know him," she said. "A lot of people, I guess, have moved back here from California over the years, like we have. They tell me, 'Yeah, we watched him every night.' It's kind of nice, you know?"
A son, Mike Henson, intends to give Cousin Herb's many fans something more to gnaw on. He envisions a Cousin Herb Henson's Trading Post and Museum on his 20 acres some 100 miles south of Tulsa.
He plans to complete an outdoor amphitheater by spring 2003 and hopes to bring in enough quality country music acts to put Sallisaw, Okla. -- on Interstate 40, just west of the Arkansas state line -- on the country tourism road map.
Can he sell America on his ambitious little project? If he's got an ounce of his father's "come-on-down" DNA, he can.