December 23, 2010
For 38 years, many in the Birmingham area started most days with the startling sound of a man braying like a mule on their TV sets. “I used to could really do the mule call before I had my teeth fixed. It messed my whistle up some way,” says Eddy Burns as he demonstrates his mule call in a Jack’s Hamburgers in Warrior on a recent weekday morning. “Hee-haaaaw, hee-haaaaaw! People loved that, and then I’d ring the cowbell.” Better known as Country Boy Eddy, Burns is Birmingham’s most memorable media icon.
“The Country Boy Eddy Show” ran from 5 to 7 each weekday morning on WBRC Channel 6. Probably best described as a hillbilly variety show, its audience was a diverse collection of famers, businessmen, housewives, and kids (I recall watching the show in Selma, as Channel 6 was one of only two stations we received in the early 1960s. As a six-year-old, I remember being intrigued—and often scared—of Eddy’s heavy eyebrows and loud, rhythmic, vocal punctuations when he pitched advertisers’ products.) Eddy played fiddle or guitar and sang with his band, though it was his homespun quips for sponsors for which he is perhaps best remembered.
“Most of the time I usually just had a business card when I’d do a commercial (instead of a script). But I could remember what I was supposed to talk about.” He explains. “I’d play my guitar and sing, then go, ‘Uh oh, I gotta tell you about these folks. Eagles 7 Rat Bait!’ That was a funny commercial. Eagles 7 never gave me any script or any copy. I just read it off the box, what all it did. Then I’d add, ‘If you love your rats, don’t put this out there because it’ll kill the heck out of ‘em.’ And man, we sold lots of Eagles 7 Rat Bait. This guy who owned a chicken farm put out Eagles 7, and he told me he picked up four 50-gallon drums full of rats.”
Country Boy Eddy, Outside ABC affiliate WBRC in Birmingham, Alabama
|Country Boy Eddy. (Photo by Mark Gooch.) (click for larger version)
When he wasn’t playing fiddle, Burns had an acoustic guitar in his lap, strumming incessantly as he carried on conversations with guests. He often invented songs on the spot when a guest made a reference to anything that inspired him to sing or that he could turn into something funny. Burns was a natural-born entertainer. One of his more amusing habits was strumming the guitar (not always solemnly, either) as he read funeral announcements.
Burns grew up on the same 200-acre farm near Warrior, Alabama, that he and his wife, Edwina, live on today. He learned to play the fiddle at age 13. “I saw an ad in a magazine that said, ‘Sell a $4 order of Garden Spot Seeds and get this beautiful violin.’ Boy, it was pretty,” he recalls. “[It was from] the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) County Seed Company. I sent off and ordered them seeds, it was 40 packages. I sold them for $4. I bet you I walked a hundred miles trying to sell them seeds to farmers that had cribs full of seeds. I started playing and I think I drove everybody crazy, and my daddy sometime would make me go to the barn.” (Laughs)
One of his first audiences was North Korean soldiers during the Korean War. “I was drafted into the infantry and when I got to Japan, they sent me to psychological warfare school for eight weeks,” Burns says. His unit’s role was similar to that of Tokyo Rose in World War II, the difference being that Burns was helping spread pro-American propaganda. “We broadcast on the front lines. We were set up in a bunker and we had our loudspeakers and our record player. We’d play [Korean] nostalgic music and then the Korean interpreter came in and would do whatever he did. And one night our record player broke down. So I said I’d play a tune on my fiddle. I played them a song I had learned over there, a song called ‘China Nights.’ There was all this mortar fire coming at us and I’d be playing my fiddle in the bunker.” His army buddies had chipped in to purchase Eddy a $20 violin in Seoul.
After the war, Burns played with bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe and honky-tonk vocalist Webb Pierce, often performing at the Grand Ole Opry. “Bill Monroe had heard me on a tape playing with Roland Johnson [a singer on Decca Records, Johnson was also mayor of Garden City, Alabama, for several years] and he wanted to know who the fiddler was. I drove to Nashville to the Andrew Jackson [Hotel] to audition for Bill Monroe. I did ‘Johnson’s Old Gray Mule’ at about six o’clock in the morning in the hotel room and some of them guys [in Monroe's band] were still in bed (laughs). Bill Monroe said, ‘Boy, that’s all right,’ but I knew it wasn’t the best he’d ever heard, but I got the job.”
“You didn’t make much money playing on the road in those days, so I came back to Birmingham and got married,” he says. Burns soon decided he wanted to work in television. “I started on Channel 13 around ’56.” His first sponsor was Big Hearted Eddie’s Used Cars, which he secured before approaching the station, to convince them give him a midnight show on Saturdays after the station’s studio wrestling matches. “Big Hearted Eddie sold 50 cars the next day [after Country Boy Eddy's first appearance]. Bad credit, good credit didn’t matter, Big Hearted Eddie would trade for anything of value—rifles, mules, cows, or whatever it was. Lots of people traded in shotguns on cars. $95 down would get you any car on the lot. Big Hearted Eddie used to say, ‘We don’t condone bad credit, but we don’t hold it against you either!’” Burns says. “I came on at midnight on Saturday nights after the wrestlin’ matches. We were live, I had four or five musicians and we set up next to the wrestlin’ ring at the TV studio. We were on for half an hour after the wrestlin’ went off. We did that for about two years.” Burns recalls a wrestler who took his fiddle away one night. “One night I had this one wrestler who played the fiddle. He said, ‘Gimme that fiddle!’ I was afraid to take it back away from him because I was afraid he’d throw me in a body slam. He was one of them mean-type wrestlers. I finally had to say, ‘Gimme back my fiddle, please.’”
In 1957, Burns got his morning show, on Channel 6, at the 5 a.m. time slot he would maintain for nearly four decades. “I was working on a percentage basis with the station. I was trying to sell and line up the sponsors and everything. I used to run 15,000 commercials a year, 300 a week. I used to make the calls and sell it to the client,” he explains. From 1961 to 1962, Burns also hosted a TV show in Nashville while still doing his Channel 6 program in Birmingham. “Yeah, I was on in Nashville every morning. When I got off at Channel 6 I’d go to Nashville on Monday and Tuesday, and we’d tape five one-hour shows to run every weekday morning. Dolly Parton was on my show up there before she ever became a star. I had Pat Boone and Eddy Arnold on, too. If I had moved there, I could really have done well. They had big billboards all over Nashville of me and Steve Allen. He was on at night, and I was on in the morning. But I stayed in Birmingham because I had a good deal with Channel 6.”
One morning a timid blond hairdresser from Midfield named Wynette Byrd arrived at the Channel 6 studio for an audition. Burns recalls, “When she finished her song, she asked, ‘How did I do?’ And I said, ‘You did terrific!’ (laughs) She sang on my show for a year or so. I finally told her, ‘You need to be in Nashville. Why don’t you go up there and get on a record, there’s nothing around here like that.’” Wynette Byrd moved to Nashville, changed her name to Tammy Wynette, and soon had back-to-back hits with “Apartment Number 9″ and “Stand by Your Man.”
Burns once interviewed baseball pitching great Dizzy Dean on his Birmingham morning show. “Me and Dizzy Dean sang ‘Wabash Cannonball.” Ol’ Dizzy Dean told me, ‘You ought to be making four or five [thousand dollars] a week.’ I said, ‘Well, I can’t take the cut, Dizzy.” (laughs) He later interviewed Steve Allen. “I don’t know who was funnier, me or him,” he says, laughing. “I was advertising Buffalo Rock and he was sponsored by Pepsi-Cola. We was talking and I was drinking a Buffalo Rock and he was drinking Pepsi, and I asked him, ‘Steve, how you like that Pepsi?’ And he said, ‘Boy I love it.’ So I said, ‘Take a drink of this Buffalo Rock, you’ll really like it.’ He took a swig of it and he said, ‘Boy, that’ll rock a buffalo!’ I also had cowboy actor Chill Wills on, then I had [country music performer and comedian] Smiley Burnette. I had Pat Buttram on [Buttram played Mr. Haney on "Green Acres"]. I had Roger Miller on before he had a big hit. He rode a motor scooter from Nashville down here. We also had Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield on—they were passing through town and were on the show, though I forget what they were promoting, probably some movie or something.”
Country Boy Eddy and his band the Country Cousins played grand openings for several of Birmingham’s retail establishments on weekends. They also played a lounge or two. He laughs as he recalls the night they played a club in the middle of nowhere in south Alabama. “The guy working the door at the club had a chainsaw. I said to Zeke the Hayseed—a comedian that worked on my show who could lick his nose with his tongue—I said, ‘Zeke, we’re in trouble tonight,’” he recalls. “They had a big brawl at the club, a big fight broke out,” Burns says, shaking his head. “So we took that chainsaw and cut a hole in the wall and got out real quick!”
In 1995, Country Boy Eddy performed his final live TV show. Regarding his retirement, Burns notes, “Well, after 38 years I kinda got tired. That old mule that I used to ride from Warrior to the TV station in Birmingham was getting worn out. He got to where he couldn’t make it, he was limpin’ on me.” When asked what he’s been doing since his retirement, he says, “I played nursing homes, played at First Baptist Church every year for their wild game suppers—there’d be 3,000 people there, I’d bring my guitar and sing—and also I played different local deals for people I knew. I raised cattle.”
Burns is a member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, located in Tuscumbia, where the set from his Channel 6 show is on display. He turned 80 on December 13. Eddy admits he has slowed some in his twilight years, noting, “I’m still kickin’ high, just not quite as high as I used to.”
To see Country Boy Eddy’s show as it was 22 years ago, tune in to FOX6 at 2 p.m. on Christmas Day, Saturday, December 25, when the station will air a Country Boy Eddy Christmas special.
• • •Let the Good Times Roll
“Doggone, everybody I knew is dead,” says “Country Boy” Eddy Burns, laughing when pressed for names of those who might share observations about his TV career. This isn’t exactly true; many are still “kickin’ high,” and when questioned about Burns, they all impersonate Country Boy Eddy at some point during the conversation, if only for a few seconds. Eddy Burns affects people that way. He’s the most unique personality in the history of local television, who never met a tale he didn’t like to tell.
Keith Williams was an advertising salesman who worked closely with Burns for 38 years. “Eddy has one tendency—and I’ll tell this right in front of him—he sometimes exaggerates,” says Williams. “He used to say, ‘Well, we had 6,000 people [in attendance at a show].’ He probably had 2,000 people, which was terrific. So anything he tells you, divide it by three and you’ll have it about right.” The 83-year-old Williams continues, “When you got up early in the morning and you wanted to know what was going on in the state of Alabama, there was only one station to tune in to, and that was Channel 6, because the radio stations weren’t on; there was nothing live. Maybe you weren’t really a fan of Country Boy Eddy but you wanted to get the information. And you soon became a fan.”
Allen Tolbert began appearing on “The Country Boy Eddy Show” at age six, playing guitar and mandolin with his father, local bluegrass legend Glenn Tolbert. “Eddy used to call me ‘Little Bill’ after Bill Monroe,” Allen, now 24, says, laughing. “We were always up there having fun, getting a cup of coffee after the show was over. He’s a good entertainer. I look at his business model and the creativity it took to be on in that time slot was a stroke of genius because nobody else wanted it. And he staked it out and made it his own.”
Glenn Tolbert played guitar and sang on the show several days a week from 1981 until 1995. “Eddy usually depended on me to do the bluegrass stuff on the show,” the elder Tolbert recalls. “Everybody else was pretty much into country music. Of course, I like country, but he’d always call on me to do a Bill Monroe song,” explains Tolbert, who says Burns’ perpetual upbeat persona amazed him. “If Eddy felt bad, you’d never really know it. If you met him out in the street somewhere, he acted just as down to earth as he did on TV. There wasn’t anything arrogant about him at all, just a real nice person.”
“Guitar Bill” Smelley performed on Burns’ show from 1983 until 1995. He’s 68 years old and lives in Sylacauga, Alabama. “They call me ‘Guitar Bill,’ but I was more or less a guest singer. I didn’t play much guitar,” says Smelley. “I guess you would say I was an extra. I sang on the program, so he featured me a lot. I was kinda like a sidekick, you know? He’d use me around the station to run errands; go get the newsman, the weatherman, and everything like that—I was a gopher man, I guess,” he says, laughing. “But I enjoyed it. I really hated to see that thing come to an end. I really think a lot of Country Boy, he’s my favorite person. He’s meant a lot to me. I wasn’t all that good. [laughs] All those other folks, they worked so hard to play those instruments and got so good at it. But they kinda envied me, I think, because Eddy liked me.” Guitar Bill understood the importance of staying out of the limelight. “Some guys come on the show and they want to do all the talking,” he says. “But I learned pretty quick to listen to Eddy and he could bring out things about you and your personality and everything that you couldn’t do on your own.”
Guitar Bill penned a Country Boy Eddy favorite: “Jesus Loves You Better Than a Cowboy Loves to Ride.” He currently hosts his own Internet TV program at http://sonshinesatellitenet.webs.com on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday at 5 p.m. The introduction to each half-hour program includes Eddy Burns welcoming viewers.
Popular local TV personality Tom York, who retired from WBRC in 1989, first featured Country Boy Eddy and his band on York’s Channel 6 “Morning Show” in 1957. “Very shortly, Eddy got so popular that he got his own show. Mine came on at 7 o’clock and they [put him on] at 6 o’clock,” says the 86-year-old York. “And everybody said, ‘Who wants to watch television at 6 o’clock in the morning?’ But he got a big audience, which I inherited at 7, so therefore I had a bigger audience.”
York remembers Burns as one of the hardest-working people in television, selling his own advertising by personally calling on area businesses. “Eddy had a talent for, number one, playing the fiddle. Number two was just talking to people. He would absolutely assure you that he was very genuinely interested in whatever it is you were doing or selling or whoever you are,” says York. “Eddy made a bit of money, and when somebody asks me, I say, ‘Well, I think he owns the south end of Blount County . . . The big [television] bosses from Cincinnati came to town once and Country Boy described them as ‘tall hogs at the trough.’ They loved it!” &