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Q & A

RALPH EMERY : The Talk of Nashville

March 07, 1993|Michael McCall | Nashville pop and country music writer

Ralph Emery has been The Nashville Network's most-recognized face since the cable channel premiered a decade ago. Emery introduced TNN to American homes in March, 1983, with five consecutive hours of "Nashville Now," a live country-music talk show he continues to host nightly Tuesdays through Fridays. During the last 10 years, any country star worth his twang has stopped by to chat with Emery.

The 61-year-old Emery's autobiography, "Memories," written with journalist Tom Carte, spent 25 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list last year, helped, no doubt, by the popularity of "Nashville Now." Nashville pop and country music writer Michael McCall talked with Emery about the impact his show and The Nashville Network have had on the current country music boom, as the show and the network celebrate their first decade on the air.

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In 1986, when TNN was only three years old, you were voted the most popular cable TV personality by readers of Cable Guide magazine. What has made you so popular with viewers?

I have no idea. I once said that you could take a gorilla, and if you put him on TV enough, he'd become popular. But I try to be friendly and honest and treat everyone the same, and I've had viewers tell me they appreciate that.

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Do you see yourself more as an entertainer or as a celebrity interviewer?

Some of both, really. On "Nashville Now," I'm basically an interviewer. But I interact with the crowd, and I've sung with the talent on occasion. My principal preoccupation is making the guest look good.

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A frequent criticism of TV talk shows is that they lack depth.

Our interviews are done in four-to six-minute intervals, and it's hard to get in-depth with those time constraints. But we try to give people interesting information. I don't want to bring someone out just to talk about the latest record and plug their product.

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But the chance for publicity and exposure is why they come on the show, isn't it?

Well, I always try to find out beforehand why someone is coming. Are they coming to entertain us? Or do they want to promote something? Sometimes there's a charity involved, But sometimes it's just for the visibility. Some of them only come because of a new record. They like to have something to hang their hat on.

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TNN is in more than 55 million households now, making it one of the most successful cable networks. What would you say has been the key to TNN's success?

You know, when we launched this, a lot of people didn't think it would work. We were met with a lot of negative reactions at first. There was a lot of skepticism in the press, especially the Eastern press. I suppose they couldn't imagine that these hayseeds, these hillbillies from Nashville, could pull it off. But the reason I always thought it would be successful was the loyalty of the country music fan. I think George Jones could shoot his mother and still have this army of loyal fans.

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How did the entertainment industry react to the network?

I think the record companies and a number of artists took a wait-and-see attitude. I will say that Barbara Mandrell, Merle Haggard and Mel Tillis were three acts who have never failed to support us. They were there from the start, no matter how small our viewership was in the beginning. There were a number of artists who I personally tried to persuade to come on the show, and they wouldn't come.

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Have those artists been on since?

Oh yes. I think it began to change about 1986. I think a show we did that year with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was real important. They introduced a new song, "Dance Little Jean,"on the program. The radio stations began receiving calls for the song by people who saw the band on the show, and it became a hit. That was the first indication that the show made a difference in breaking a record. Artists began to think that if we could do that for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which is not a hard-core country act, then we could do it for them.

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Do you think TNN's success is connected to the upswing in popularity that country music is experiencing today?

I'd dare to say that country music wouldn't be enjoying the success it is today if TNN hadn't been there. I think TNN opened the door. The visibility of the performers on "Nashville Now" and on video programs has played a major role. Before, it took a good while for people to understand who was singing what. The song became popular, not the artist, because the fans didn't necessarily know who was singing. And they didn't know what that person looked like or what their personality was.

Now, with the country music networks, the visibility of the artists has gone up. It communicates to the public who these people are. People like Travis Tritt, Clint Black, Ricky Van Shelton--they wouldn't have become as big as fast if it wasn't for television. There's not an act in country music that doesn't want to come on the show now.

"Nashville Now" airs weekdays at 6 and 10 p.m. on The Nashville Network; the special 10-year anniversary show airs Monday at 6 and 10 p.m.

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