Left out of most of the obituaries about renowned country music talk-show host Ralph Emery, who died Saturday, was how he infamous to many rock fans for having gotten into a tiff in the late 1960s with the Byrds. Their beef even resulted in Emery being dismissed, by name, in a Byrds track — “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man,” which had Gram Parsons and Roger McGuinn attempting to get the last laugh in song.
But, lest Emery be remembered forever by Byrds buffs as a villain in the story, Emery later invited McGuinn onto his highly rated cable series “Nashville Now” in 1985 for a reconciliation — albeit a deeply awkward one — that was captured for posterity and can be viewed on YouTube. The sight of the very, very proud Emery admitting his ingrained bias against rock music and extending a sort of olive branch to McGuinn years later manages to be both cringe-worthy and kind of touching.
The story of how the Byrds tried and failed to win over both the Grand Ole Opry and the influential Emery in 1968 has been oft-told. Former Byrds McGuinn and Chris Hillman made a point of telling it every night in 2018 when they reunited for a tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of the group’s landmark “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album, which was what occasioned their uneasy encounters with the Nashville establishment a half-century earlier.
With “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” the Byrds were convinced they’d succeeded in recording a country album — something that was close to unheard of for a counterculture group in ’68, and which certainly represented a risky turn from “Turn, Turn, Turn” and the other jangly folk-rock smashes the band was coming off of in ’68. It was the fulfillment of a dream particularly for Parsons, who’d grown up steeped in country. But would Nashville see it the way they did?
Signs seemed to be positive when CBS Records convinced the Opry to book the Byrds for its live national broadcast. But there was reportedly some rancor with Opry managers after Parsons surprised them by nixing what was supposed to be their second and final number, a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” in favor of his own “Hickory Wind” — shades of Elvis Costello changing tunes on “Saturday Night Live” midstream a decade later.
That was nothing compared to the chilliness Parsons and McGuinn received when they went on Emery’s clear-channel WSM-AM radio show to premiere their single, a song Bob Dylan had given them from his so-called basement tapes, “You AIn’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Or so they thought they would. No recordings or transcripts have surfaced of either the Opry or WSM appearances, so there’s little way of knowing whether it’s true that Emery actually told them on-air, and not just off-, just how bad he thought their music was. But the events certainly made a lasting impression on all parties.
As McGuinn recalled it at one of the 2018 anniversary shows: “We took the single to the radio station WSM in Nashville, a 50,000-watt radio station broadcast all over the country from Canada to Cuba, and we thought, wow, if we play it on there, maybe somebody will buy it — and we liked that idea. We took it to Ralph Emery, the DJ, and said, ‘Would you play our new record?’ And he put it on a little preview turntable and listened to about 10 seconds’ worth, and he said, ‘I’m not gonna play on my show.’ We said, why not? He said, ‘What’s it about?’ I said, ‘Ralph, it’s a Bob Dylan song!’” There was a pause for laughter and for the audience to consider the prospect of McGuinn trying to make sense of Dylan’s typically cryptic lyrics for Emery.
“He went into a commercial and he said, ‘No matter what kind of a rig you drive, Clark C will fit it. So go on down to your Clark dealers today and get a Clark C put in your rig. Mile after mile, you’ll be glad you did.’ We looked at each other and said, ‘This guy’s not a real trucker.’ He reminded us of the kind of people that dress up like cowboys and hang out in drug stores… So a couple of months later, Gram Parsons and I were in London, sitting in a hotel room across from each other and we had a guitar and we were passing it back and forth. We were trying to think of something to write about a song about. I said, “Remember that DJ in Nashville who wouldn’t play our record?… You know what? Let’s write a song about him.’”
Parsons left the Byrds between the time the song was recorded in October 1968 and released on the “Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde” album (and as a B-side) in early 1969. So it was McGuinn who not only sang the lead vocal but added the spoken tag line that made the song’s subject unmistakable: “This one’s for you, Ralph.” That was the coup de grâce to a song that didn’t pull any punches in its disdain — all the way to including a line that said the figure in the lyrics was so redneck, he was “the head of the Ku Klux Klan.” But in the less exaggerated portions of the song, they admitted just how much the encounter with someone they expected to be embraced by hurt them: “He’s been like a father to me / He’s the only DJ you can hear after three,” they wrote, referring to the late-night clear-channel slot that made Emery a favorite of traveling musicians as well as truckers. “I’m an all-night musician in a rock and roll band / And why he don’t like me I can’t understand.”
Cut to 1985, and McGuinn has been invited on Emery’s “Nashville Now” TV talk-show — the nightly flagship series for the then new and flourishing cable channel the Nashville Network — to back ’80s country star Vern Gosdin on his cover of the Byrds’ cover of Pete Seeger’s cover of the Book of Ecclesiastes, aka “Turn, Turn, Turn.” After some nervous banter in which Emery seems to be testing McGuinn — with short hair and a tie, the most conservative-looking guy anywhere on stage — on his actual Bible knowledge, the host starts leading the singer toward the real elephant in the room.
“Roger, have we met?” Emery asks, attorney-style, leading the witness. When McGuinn assents the host says, “That was not a good meeting, was it?”
“No it wasn’t,” McGuinn answers, “but I think it’s kind of funny now.’
“The Byrds, I recall, were a very hot rock group,” Emery says. “But I didn’t play any rock music.”
“No, and we were like invading enemy aliens or something.”
“No, it wasn’t enemy territory. I just didn’t play any rock music… I didn’t have any Byrd records.” In if-it-makes-you-feel-any-better fashion, Emery admits to having dissed an earlier rocker, many years before the Byrds. “Another embarrassing thing happened to me on that all-night show. The Jordanaires brought Buddy Holly by one night. I didn’t have any Buddy Holly records. I mean, I had Ray Price and George Jones, Carl Smith, Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells — those were the records I had.”
And then he brings up “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man.” “I had a reason to get the impression Gram was not happy with me. Because later he dedicated a song to me, didn’t he? Or somebody did in the Byrds organization.”
McGuinn, nervously grinning, does not go so far as to confess he was the one who said Emery’s name on the record, but does admit that “as a matter of fact Gram and I wrote the song together.”
“On the record, you can hear it: ‘This is for you, Ralph.’ Now, what was the point of all that?”
“Well, we were just sending a little letter to you.”
“Were you mad at me?”
“It wasn’t anything real serious,” McGuinn smiles.
“I think you were disappointed with me because I didn’t play the Byrds’ records.”
“Well, we were a little hurt by that. Yeah, we were hurt.”
“I was afraid that all the people that liked George Jones wouldn’t like the Byrds. See, the times were quite different then.”
“They certainly were,” McGuinn agrees. “I’m glad to see things go the way they are.”
“You didn’t cross over very much. Nobody crossed over very much. … Did the Byrds play on the Grand Ole Opry during that era? … What was the reaction?”
“The audience reaction? It was a little cool.”
“Did you have long hair? Were you dressed in the rock costumes of that day?”
McGuinn tries to explain that the Byrds were then dressing the country part. “See, you didn’t understand where we were coming from. We had fallen in love with country music in 1968. And Gram Parsons was from the South and he had always grown up on it, and his ambition in life was to play the Grand Ole Opry. And so with ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo,’ we were trying to do a sincere, genuine country album… It came off a little different from that, but we were really sincere at that time.”
Emery mentions, with seeming respect, however possibly begrudging, that Emmylou Harris — by that point, a big mainstream country hitmaker — credited her interest in country music to Parsons’ mentorship.
And then, almost out of nowhere after the preceding defensiveness, a kind of apology.
“Roger, I’m sorry it worked out that way back in 1968. Are we still friends?”
McGuinn’s handshake indicated that, indeed, the farmer and the cowman, or the country traditionalist and the Byrd-man, could be friends. And bygones were bygone enough that McGuinn came back on the show twice, to play “Chestnut Mare” the following year — an appearance during which he indulged Emery’s request to perform an acoustic version of “Turn, Turn, Turn” on the couch — and “Life in a Northern Town” in 1988.
For anyone watching today, the fact that the walls between genres were so strict in 1968, only to have a large part of country turn into rock by the turn of the century, will be unmistakable.
It’s not known whether Emery knew he was subject to what he might have considered the ultimate indignity: having the song written about him performed at the ultimate hippie-fest, Woodstock, in August ’69. Joan Baez covered “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” at the festival, and it appeared on the “Woodstock” soundtrack album, although she probably had little idea of its origins at the time. Rather than dedicate it to Emery, Baez said, “I’ll sing a song for the governor of California, Ronald Ray-Gun … zap!”