Country music radio legend Ralph Emery passed away peacefully surrounded by his family on Jan. 15, 2022. The 2007 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee was born March 10, 1933, in McEwen, Tennessee, and rose above his difficult childhood with dysfunctional parental relationships to become known as “the Dick Clark of country music” and “the Johnny Carson of cable television.”

“Radio became my surrogate family,” he once said.

Emery worked as movie theater usher and a Kroger stock boy during his teen years to save enough money to enroll in a broadcasting school taught by John R Richbourg, a legendary DJ in his own right.

“I practiced and practiced, in school and at home,” Emery recalled, “talking and listening real hard to myself to rid my speech of its horrendous regionalism.”

Richbourg recommended Emery for his first broadcasting job in 1951 at WTPR in Paris, Tennessee, where he made $39.50 a week and his first assignment was a 15-minute newscast. He soon moved back to Nashville and signed on at WNAH, but soon found himself at WAGG, in Franklin, Tennessee, where he interviewed country stars Webb Pierce and Marty Robbins.

“I suddenly felt,” he later explained, “that being in radio was unequivocally the right thing for me after all.”

In late 1953 Emery joined the staff of pioneering Nashville radio station WSIX, which was his first station of more than a thousand watts (five thousand), his first station with network affiliation (ABC) and his first full-time job in radio. Emery’s first television experience came in 1954 at WSIX-TV as an announcer for live studio wrestling. In 1956 he spent a month working for WLCS Baton Rouge, Louisiana. On his return to Nashville he worked at rock & roll radio station WMAK.

Emery started the graveyard shift at Nashville’s fifty-thousand-watt radio station WSM, “the Air Castle of the South,in November 1957 at age 24, where he remained as an all-night disk jockey from 1957 to 1972.  Emery welcomed newcomers as well as seasoned artists into his WSM studio.

“My old friend, and he was a friend, Ralph Emery, was a real piece of work, as we’d say in Texas,” said Larry Gatlin. “Not long after I left Texas and hit Nashville, Ralph took Dottie West’s advice / hint / order to put this upstart Gatlin boy on his TV show. Well, old Ralph did just that and that Gatlin boy’s life was forever changed.”

It was not uncommon for his guests to perform on the show, and sometimes there were even impromptu jam sessions with some of Country’s biggest stars like Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, and Marty Robbins.

“It breaks my heart to learn of Ralph Emery’s passing,” said Lynn. “Ralph and I go way back. He was a Nashville original and you cannot underestimate the role he played in the growth and success of country music. He made you feel at ease and interviewed everyone just like an old friend… he was one of the best.”

Emery, who announced on the Grand Ole Opry from 1961 to 1964, was elected to the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame in 1989.

“He helped introduce a whole galaxy of country artists to the world, myself included, and I will be forever grateful,” said Pam Tillis. “His contribution to Nashville and beyond is nothing less than country music history.”

When a Nashville television producer named Elmer Alley heard Emery on the radio, he thought the engaging disc jockey would be good on television. Emery’s first local show, the early morning Opry Almanac, began in 1963 on WSM-TV and featured Emery in front of a mock sink, as if in a kitchen having coffee and chatting with viewers.

He moved to afternoons with Sixteenth Avenue, which ran from 1966 to 1969. He then left local television for three years before spending early mornings from 1972 to 1991 hosting the Ralph Emery Show.” Emery also hosted the nationally syndicated weekly TV series Pop Goes the Country from 1974 to 1980, and the live weekly show Nashville Alive 1981 to 1982 on cable superstation WTBS.

When The Nashville Network launched, Emery was tapped to host its first primetime show, Nashville Now. During its 10-year run from 1983 to 1993, Emery brought new stars and country legends together for music and talk in a setting reminiscent of his radio talk show.

“Ralph was one of the best friends country music ever had,” said John Anderson. “He loved the music but also brought to life the stories surrounding the singers and the songs through his interviews and TV programs. He really helped take our format into people’s living rooms and broaden the fan base with integrity for the art and humor.” 

Emery became a national star on TNN and was even voted Favorite Cable Personality in Cable Guide magazine at the time.

“He did more to promote country music than anyone I know,” said Ricky Skaggs. “First of all, his late-night radio show on WSM was heard from coast-to-coast and border-to-border, but his ‘Nashville Now’ television show on TNN was the biggest boost country music ever had. People were buying satellite dishes all across North America just so they could watch Ralph’s TV show. All of us wanted to be on his show, and if you were lucky enough to be asked to host the show, which I did quite a few times, that was a big deal…Thanks Ralph.” 

Emery’s close friend, Barbara Mandrell, organized a televised all-star salute to Emery in 1990, during which 70 top country stars paid him tribute. When he passed, she shared a video of her favorite interview with him on social media.

Emery recounted the story of his life and career and shared stories of the many country stars and celebrities he has known in best-selling volumes beginning with Memories: The Autobiography of Ralph Emery (1991), which spent 25 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. He followed with More Memories (1993), The View from Nashville (1998) and 50 Years Down a Country Road (2000).

In 2007, Emery returned to TV, hosting an interview show, Ralph Emery LIVE, on cable channel RFD-TV. A mammoth collection of his many past interviews, Emery’s Memories,was offered for sale as a set of 46 audio CDs and two DVDs.

“I’ve always tried to bring respect to country music,” Emery has said. “I’ll be very content if people can look on me and say, ‘He brought dignity to his craft,’ or, ‘He brought class to the business.’”

He is survived by his wife, Joy Emery, three sons, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.


by Claudia Johnson