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Carl Lamm: Glory Days of Country Music Radio

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 11/10/2002. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

I interviewed Carl Lamm in his broadcast studio at WMPM-AM in Smithfield. Legendary as "the voice of Johnston County," Lamm has been a part of country music radio since 1946. He has been a disc jockey and co-owner at WMPM since 1958, and the station still plays a vibrant mix of old-time country, bluegrass and Southern gospel. Surrounded by photographs signed by friends at the Grand Ol' Opry like Little Jimmy Dickens and Kitty Wells, Lamm recalled the years when some of the finest country music bands came out of North Carolina and radio, not television, was king in America.

Carl Lamm. Photo by Chris Seward, 2002.In Carl Lamm's words:
When I was a child, radio was exploding and growing day by day and week by week. It was almost a new thing then. The first broadcast station in the United States, KDKA, Pittsburgh, came on the air in '20, '21, and around 1924 WPTF went on the air up in Raleigh. Everybody back in those days mostly had a battery radio. My father would string an outside antenna wire, and I remember on Saturday night it was a ritual to listen to WSM, the Grand Ol' Opry. The Opry had a young man out there named Roy Acuff, and when he sang songs like "The Wabash Cannonball" and "The Great Speckled Bird, " it just shook the whole world.

WPTF in Raleigh used to be really a dominant, influential station in the early days. Farm programming was very popular, and WPTF had a farm director called Connie B. Gaye from Lizard Lick up here in Wake County. Connie B. Gaye is the gentleman that discovered Patsy Cline, you know. Carl Goerch also did a program called Carolina Chats, and that was heard every Sunday night, a very popular program, Kingham Scott at the organ.

A lot of folks liked the country music shows they had up there. Early in the mornings at WPTF, maybe 5 o'clock to 6:30, they'd have country bands come right in the studio. They had Roly-Poly Reid and Looney Luke, the Tobacco Tags, Bill Monroe and Charlie Monroe, Homer Briarhopper and the Dixie Dudes. And did you know Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were up there at one time? A lot of country entertainers from WPTF became stars on the Grand Ol' Opry.

Starting in Rocky Mount after World War II, just about every town started getting a radio station, and everybody listened to the radio. WCEC in Rocky Mount is where I had my first job. I would average about 200 letters a day from people that would write in and want to hear songs. We'd play songs by people like Wesley Tuttle, Tex Ritter and Gene Autry. And while I was there in Rocky Mount, Hank Williams came out with his "Lovesick Blues," which propelled him into national prominence.

A lot of the people that requested songs would be high school boys and girls. The typical request would be: This song goes out for Billy and Theresa, Mary and Tom, George and Anna Mae, and they want to hear "I Love You Most of All."

I did big band stuff, too -- Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Kay Kyser. Kay Kyser lived there in Rocky Mount, and he would come over to the radio station from time to time. Now, Kay for about five years had the No. 1-rated radio show in America called "Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge," sponsored by the American Tobacco Company. During World War II his band had out big hits like "The White Cliffs of Dover" and "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition."

We originated all the programming at WCEC. During the tobacco market, we'd go to the Masonic Temple and do a country music show down there. We'd have sponsors like Golden Bell Fertilizer and Smith-Douglass. I remember we had Howard Gurganus and the Rocky Mountaineers and they'd come on with a theme song, like, "Roll along tobacco wagon, roll along, roll along tobacco wagon, roll along. We'll be here both day and night, Rocky Mount will treat you right, roll along tobacco wagon, roll along."

Any idea we could dream up, we did it. Every afternoon, Ray Wilkinson did a broadcast called "The Old Oak Tree." He'd have rabbits and squirrels, and he'd give voices to them. He had a voice like Grandpappy, Clem Kadiddlehopper, different people. And each one of the little characters would be in some kind of predicament at the end of the broadcast. Well, the next day Ray would have to extract them from all the trouble he got them into. He'd just make it up as went along and it was absolutely funny.

Another thing I did there, around 10 o'clock I would go out under the marquee of the Center Theater and tape a broadcast. I would intercept passers-by on the sidewalk, and I'd have a different question every day. And at the end of talking to a person, we'd find out where they were from, what they were doing in Rocky Mount and a little about their family.

To tell you how much fun we had and how much showmanship was in radio in that day and time, there was one broadcast I remember it was raining so hard that nobody was coming up and down the street. And so Ray came out there, and I interviewed him three different times as three different persons! He'd change his voice and no one ever caught the difference.

Another thing Talmadge Pollard did there at Rocky Mount was read the funny paper on the air. He would talk about Popeye and Maggie and Jiggs and Dick Tracy and Li'l Abner, Little Henry, all the characters in the funny paper. He would make it entertaining, too.

Paul Byrd from here in Smithfield was one of the country music pioneers. Paul and Talmadge called themselves the Johnston County Ramblers and they had a 30-minute program every day at noontime there in Rocky Mount. Then they'd go out to the schoolhouses and pack 'em in, three or four hundred people a night. Used to, a band could just load up an automobile with their guitars and fiddles and buy a half tank of gasoline and that was all it took.

I remember one time there was a boy named Junior that sang for one of the bands. I told the listening audience that if they'd send us a hundred letters the next week we'd buy Junior all the hot dogs he could eat. Of course, the next week we had a whole stack of post cards and naturally we had to buy Junior all the hot dogs he could eat. To me that was showmanship.

You can't imagine how big radio was prior to TV. Seems like once TV became a competitor, radio put on a business suit and it changed in a lot of ways. But it was incredibly exciting just after World War II. And you really established a good rapport with your listeners back in that day and time. I had people write and tell me that they put a plate at the table for me every morning, like I was part of the family.

"Johnston County's Lamm is a radio staple," February 25, 2015:

Lamm, Carl E. Sixty-three years on the air: my life and times. Edwards Brothers, 2010.

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