Our Avery County: The Hayloft Gang
Michael Hardy / (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In the 1920s, radio was a relatively new phenomenon. The first officially licensed commercial radio station was KDKA of Pittsburg, Penn. There were other stations before this, but KDKA, obtaining its license in October 1920, was the first one to be officially sanctioned. In April 1924, Sears and Roebuck Company in Chicago started its own radio station, with the call sign of WLS, which stood for the company’s claim to fame as the World’s Largest Store. A day after first going on the air, the station hosted its first National Barn Dance program. The show was four hours long and featured folk, hillbilly and old-time music that catered to the farm families in the Midwest as well as to urban transplants.
The nation’s oldest farm newspaper, Prairie Farmer, acquired the 50,000-watt station in the late 1920s. The managers of the radio station sought out talent from across the nation. Red Foley came from the mountains of central Kentucky; Patsy Montana hailed from Arkansas, but studied violin in California at the University of the West; Gene Autry came from Texas; George Gobel was a Chicago native.
One of those early talents was Myrtle Cooper. She was born near Boone in 1913, but contrary to the lovely narration by Garrison Keillor on the PBS program, she did not grow up in Avery County. She lived in West Virginia, Florida and Tennessee, before moving to Chicago. She was only 19 when she landed a job at WLS, singing the songs with which she had grown up and playing a $3 guitar.
Lula Belle, her stage name, quickly became a star of the Hayloft Gang, singing at times with Red Foley. When Foley married, Lula Belle sang solo, until she was teamed up with Skyland Scotty. Scott Wiseman actually was from present-day Avery County, and grew up hearing the old ballads and songs that still haunt our region. Before long, the couple was married, and became the Hayloft Sweethearts.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Barn Dance was its role in creating some of the first media celebrities. Long before tabloids blared out the news of stars’ joys and tribulations, radio listeners eagerly gobbled up any scrap of information about the WLS musicians, often in one of the many publications devoted to the radio celebrities. Fans often felt as if they knew the performers, flooding the station with fan mail and gifts, including huge numbers of baby items when Lula Belle and Scotty first became parents. Though hardly any of the performers used their actual names and most cultivated personas very different from their actual personalities, they seemed very real to those who clung to the Barn Dance as a lifeline of hope in dark times.
The PBS documentary covers the development of the show and how it became popular nationwide, helping to comfort listeners through both the crushing challenges of the Great Depression and the dreadful years of World War II. Possibly more important than the original show were the other programs that spun off from the National Barn Dance, including the Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville, the Renfro Valley Barn Dance in Kentucky and our very own Carolina Barn Dance in Spruce Pine. The Opry and Renfro Valley still provide entertainment to this day. Sadly, the Carolina Barn Dance, which in its heyday was broadcast to more than 500 radio stations, went off the air in 1954 or 1955. Performers such as Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline, Sonny James, Kitty Wells, String Bean and Chet Atkins, along with Lula Belle and Scotty, all performed on the Carolina Barn Dance.
That is part of the legacy of the National Barn Dance on WLS. According to the PBS program’s producer, “For farm families and small-town folk unsure of the future, for ethnic immigrants looking for acceptance into the mainstream, for city-dwellers searching for the nostalgia and simplicity of rural life, the National Barn Dance served as a touchstone, creating a sense of a radio family that stretched from coast to coast.”
Though the show went off the air more than 50 years ago, its influence is still widely felt. Lula Belle and Scotty, of course, retired here to Avery County, and are buried at Pine Grove Methodist Church in the Ingalls section of our great piece of the mountains. Many of their wonderful items of memorabilia are on display at our own Avery County Museum.
If you get a chance, check out PBS’s “The Hayloft Gang: The Story of the National Barn Dance” when you can. It’s not yet available on DVD, but likely will be soon, especially with sufficient demand. Viewers will be treated to plenty of original footage of early stars, and the wonderful music that was once sent out across the airwaves. Lula Belle and Scotty are featured at length, as they were some of the biggest stars on the National Barn Dance. Footage of the couple performing on stage is part of the ending credits.
Perhaps, when the program becomes available on DVD, we should have a Lula Belle and Scotty Day, watch the video and collect our memories of our own Hayloft Sweethearts. Until that time, we’ll just need to visit the Lula Belle and Scotty exhibits at Avery County Museum.