Ralph Emery became the dominant disc jockey in country music in the late twentieth century, featured on major syndicated radio programs and national cable television networks.
Born in McEwen, Tennessee, in 1933, Emery spent the first seven years of his life with his grandparents in Humphreys County but subsequently moved to Nashville to live with his mother. After graduating high school, he held various jobs in the Nashville area before enrolling in the Tennessee School of Broadcasting, where he took classes with legendary WLAC radio star John Richbourg. Acting on a recommendation from Richbourg, WTPR in Paris, Tennessee, hired Emery in 1951, an assignment that would last three months. After stops at WNAH in Nashville and WAGG in Franklin, Emery landed his first job at a major network-affiliated radio station in 1953, WSIX in Nashville, where he had a successful country music radio show. An ABC affiliate, WSIX offered Emery the first opportunity for national exposure when he was selected to be the opening and closing announcer of a radio special called “America’s Town Meeting of the Air.”
His increased stature as a radio host brought him to the attention of a Baton Rouge radio station, which lured him away from WSIX. Emery left Tennessee for this job in 1956 but, unsatisfied with life in Louisiana, returned a month later for a new position at Nashville’s WMAK radio. In 1957 WMAK fired Emery, who then applied for the late-night Opry Star Spotlight show at WSM radio. This show would prove to be Emery’s true career break. He was the third host of the Opry-Star Spotlight. His open invitation to all stars to drop in whenever they felt like it–a policy Emery kept for the rest of his career–made the show popular with the country stars and the public alike. Within months, Emery’s successful program became an important vehicle for aspiring artists who wanted to get recognition and airplay in the Nashville market, even at 3:00 A.M. WSM would be the base of Emery’s career and reputation for the next twenty-plus years.
During his time at the Opry-Star Spotlight, Ralph Emery met country singer Skeeter Davis, whom he married in 1960. The marriage lasted for four years. In his autobiography Memories, Emery says of the union, “I am confident that Skeeter was in love with Ralph Emery the disc jockey, not the person.” After his divorce from Davis in 1964, Emery began to descend into alcohol and drug addiction, leading him to resign from his radio show. However, after a brief hiatus, he rejoined the Opry-Star Spotlight, with his replacement, western movie star Tex Ritter, continuing on as co-host. He remained with the all-night radio show until 1972.
Emery’s career in television began in 1963 with a successful morning television program entitled Opry Almanac, which aired on on sister station WSM-TV (later WSMV). Three years later, Emery moved to the afternoon for the show Sixteenth Avenue North, which he quit in 1969. In 1972 Emery returned to WSM television and launched his most successful program, the early morning Ralph Emery Show, which dominated local airwaves until 1991. From 1974 to 1980, Emery hosted Pop Goes the Country, an influential syndicated program that explored the more pop-oriented elements of country music. He also hosted a live interview show called Nashville Alive for two years on the TBS network.
In 1982 WSM established The Nashville Network (TNN), a national cable channel devoted to country music. The fledgling network offered Emery a nightly interview and performance program called Nashville Now, which made him famous across the nation. He hosted the show from 1983 to 1993. In an effort to increase the number of viewers, Emery added Steve Hall’s puppet Shotgun Red to the program. Shotgun Red became a regular feature on the program and a minor celebrity, going so far as to record two records and be featured as a guest at Fan Fair. Nashville Now became one of the most popular shows on TNN and featured a wide variety of guests.
Since Nashville Now ended in 1993, Emery has hosted several other specials and television programs but has never been able to match that same success. Emery was named Country Disc Jockey of the Year six times and was inducted as a member of the Country Music Disc Jockeys Hall of Fame in 1989. In 2007 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Ralph Emery provided a face and voice for country music for more than forty years. ASCAP president Connie Bradley summed up his contributions to country music in the October 15, 2000, issue of the Nashville Tennessean: “Ralph Emery probably did as much for Nashville as anybody I know, because when [the] TNN cable network hit and Emery had his show on every night, that opened up country music to millions of people. . . . If we ever had a Moses, it was Ralph Emery.”
Suggested Reading(s): Ralph Emery and Tom Carter, Memories: The Autobiography of Ralph Emery (1991) and More Memories (1993).