Larry’s Country Diner” is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2019, and Keith Bilbrey has been the show’s announcer since its very first episode aired.
Inducted into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame in 2015, Bilbrey has spent half a century following his passion for Country music and taking his fans with him.
“He’s been a fixture in Nashville forever,” said Larry Black, who asked Bilbrey to join him as co-host and announcer on Larry’s Country Diner when Bilbrey departed WSM after almost 35 years. “When I called him, he said it was a Godsend.”
Black said that Bilbrey’s success could not have been more well-deserved. Like the stars he’s spent a lifetime introducing or discussing on radio and television, Bilbrey has a distinctive and recognizable voice.
Born in Cookeville, Tennessee, in 1952 to Leo and Ethel Bilbrey, he began his career when he was only 14, at which time he obtained his broadcast license. At 16 he started a six-year stint at regional station WHUB, where he worked while attending Tennessee Tech University.
Bilbrey’s move to Nashville in 1974 to work at WSM radio opened up tremendous opportunities for a young man of 22. Beginning as a substitute announcer for WSM-FM, he soon became a full-time disc jockey on WSM’s FM and AM stations, working every time slot and endearing himself to an appreciative and loyal fan base. He hosted the mid-day show at WSM-AM for 30-years, and from 1982 until 2009 Bilbrey was known to millions as the announcer for WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. He was also the announcer for Ernest Tubb’s Midnight Jamboree from 1982 until Tubb died in 1984.
Not only did Bilbrey’s voice become recognizable, his handsome face and engaging personality made him a natural for television. He spent 24 years on WSM-TV and was the weatherman on the nation’s top-rated local morning show, “The Ralph Emery Show,” which featured news, weather, sports, live music and skits.
When The Nashville Network (TNN) began televising a 30-minute portion of the Opry in 1985, Bilbrey became the host of “Grand Ole Opry Live” and the Opry warm-up show, “Backstage Live,” until 2000.
Bilbrey announced the Country Music Association (CMA) Award Show for three years and as well as CMA’s 35th Anniversary Special. He served as emcee for a variety of television specials, including the “TNN/Music City News Awards,” “An Evening of Country Greats,” “Honky-Tonkin’ at the Wildhorse,” which featured Aaron Tippin and Marty Stuart, and the American Federation of Musicians’ 100th Anniversary Show.
When the biographies of Buck Owens and Ronnie Milsap were documented for A&E television network, Bilbrey was the on-camera historian. He received the prestigious March of Dimes Air Awards Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.
Bilbrey’s shocking release from WSM in 2009 after a decades-long relationship was not well-received by the public nor the musicians with whom he had forged strong relationships.
“Keith has so much depth,” Black said of Bilbrey’s history with the Country music industry. “He’s been on more buses with more Country stars than anyone, developing deep friendships.”
Black recalled one friendship with a Country legend that Bilbrey maintained until the star’s death.
“He was a very good friend of George and Nancy Jones,” Black said. “On the day of George’s funeral, Nancy had him drive one of the Mercedes over. Keith told her he was afraid to drive because he might wreck it. Sure enough, he hit something.”
On March 14, 2009, the day of Bilbrey’s last Opry appearance, Nashville’s daily newspaper, The Tennessean, stated that Bilbrey was let go after 34 years “because of money,” when Gaylord Entertainment, owner of WSM, fired some 350 employees as a cost-cutting measure.
“I’ve had this dream since I was 6 years old,” Bilbrey told Tennessean writer Gail Kerr in an interview about his career and his departure from WSM. “The beautiful part is, I have lived my dream. I’m hurt. I’m sad. But how can I be bitter?”
His last night at the Opry, performers dedicated songs to Bilbrey. Marty Stuart brought him on stage to say goodbye, where he received a standing ovation.
Among Bilbrey’s accomplishments since leaving WSM was to be recognized in 2012 by his college fraternity, Sigma Chi, with the Significant Sig Award presented to “those alumni members whose achievements in their fields of endeavor have brought honor and prestige to the name of Sigma Chi.”
“He’s everywhere,” Black said of Bilbrey’s myriad of on-air and on-screen credits.
Bilbrey and wife Emy Jo hosted the show “Nashville Country Cookin’” for several years. His syndicated “Classic Country Today” two-hour weekly radio show was carried by radio stations across the country.
“Artists love him,” Black said, explaining that Bilbrey’s intuition and humility has enabled him to maintain the respect of the artists he works with and interviews. “He never seeks the limelight, yet he emerges in the forefront.”
Currently Bilbrey is the studio announcer for the Mike Huckabee show on TBN and for “Music City Roots” on Public Television. Of course, he’s Black’s sidekick on “Larry’s Country Diner” and at the show’s live performances in Branson, Mo.
“Keith has a heart of gold and can always be counted on to help or take over when he’s needed,” Black said. “As long as we’re doing Larry’s Country Diner, Keith will be here.”
This copyrighted story by Claudia Johnson was originally published in Country Reunion Magazine and Country Reunion News.