Ralph Emery, a radio and TV host who became as famous in the country world as most of the stars he interviewed over the decades, died Saturday.
He was 88. No immediate cause of death was given.
Emery’s renown as, alternately, “the Dick Clark of country music” or “the Johnny Carson of country” was significant enough to earn him a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007, in addition to the more expected plaudits befitting a top broadcaster in the industry, like his membership in the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame, an honour that came in 1989.
“Ralph Emery’s impact in expanding country music’s audience is incalculable,” said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
“On radio and on television, he allowed fans to get to know the people behind the songs. Ralph was more a grand conversationalist than a calculated interviewer, and it was his conversations that revealed the humour and humanity of Tom T. Hall, Barbara Mandrell, Tex Ritter, Marty Robbins and many more. Above all, he believed in music and in the people who make it.”
As a television host, Emery was best known for the series Nashville Now, a country music talk show that ran as the flagship of the genre’s premier cable TV platform, the Nashville Network, from 1983 to 1993, broadcasting 90 minutes each weeknight in the early years of the show.
This was hardly his only television gig: His first TV hosting job was on Opry Almanac in 1963 on Nashville’s WSM-TV.
Other television or radio series he presided over from the 1960s through the mid-2010s included Sixteenth Avenue (1966-69), The Ralph Emery Show (1972-91), Pop Goes the Country (1974-80) and Nashville Alive (which ran on WTBS in 1981-82).
In later years, Emery finally landed at the nostalgically inclined RFD-TV cable network, where he began hosting Ralph Emery Live in 2007, a show that continued into the mid-2010s. He also wrote a series of memoirs.
Besides his several books, the RFD show was also a platform for the sale of a massive collection of interviews he’d done over the years, titled Emery’s Memories, which was sold as as a boxed 46-CD set, with a two-DVD edition also available.
Emery first achieved prominence on radio as the late-night DJ on the quintessential country music station, WSM, a gig he got in 1957, when he was 24, and held onto through 1972.
For some of those years, in 1961-64, he was also heard nationwide as an announcer for the WSM-hosted Grand Ole Opry.
“Ralph Emery was often better known than the stars he introduced to larger and larger audiences over the years as country music’s foremost ambassador,” said Sarah Trahern, CEO of the Country Music Association.
“Our format had no better voice over the years than Ralph, who treated country music and its stars — many of whom went on to become his friend — with the kind of dignity and respect they deserved for decades. As a Country Music Hall of Famer, he will be remembered among so many of the artists he supported throughout his career.
On a personal note, I worked with Ralph for many years, and I always looked forward to his lively stories when we sat down for lunch. My thoughts are with his family today.”
The broadcaster was born March 10, 1933 in McEwen, Tennessee.
His Country Music Hall of Fame biography describes an often unhappy childhood with an alcoholic father and psychologically troubled mother that led him to find escape in the radio. “Radio became my surrogate family,” he said.
Enrolling in a Nashville broadcasting school, he “practiced and practiced, in school and at home, talking and listening real hard to myself to rid my speech of its horrendous regionalism.”
Conversations with Marty Robbins and Webb Pierce at one of his first local radio jobs in Nashville-adjacent Franklin, Tenn. in the early ’50s gave him the bug for becoming an interviewer. He caught bigger breaks when he joined Nashville’s WSIX in 1953 and television station WSIX the following year.
Decades later, Emery was enough of a friend to the stars that Barbara Mandrell organized a televised all-star salute to Emery in 1990, featuring 70 country stars.
His books included the 1991 New York Times bestseller Memories: The Autobiography of Ralph Emery, followed in the decade to come by More Memories, The View from Nashville and 50 Years Down a Country Road.
“We are saddened this week at the losses of Dallas Frazier, Jerry Crutchfield and now Ralph Emery,” said Joe Bonsall of the Oak Ridge Boys.
“Ralph was not only a legendary personality but a dear friend who meant so much to The Oak Ridge Boys’ career. If Ralph liked you… everyone liked you.”
Emery is survived by his wife, Joy Emery, three sons, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
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