Many country music fans come to Nashville just to have lunch at Larry's Country Diner, but they search for the eatery in vain. They've seen "Larry's Country Diner" on RFD-TV and assume it's a real location, but, for the present time, Larry's only exists on the studio set of the popular show, which celebrated its milestone 100th episode on June 5.
"A lot of our fans want to be taken to Larry's," says Larry Black, the host and creator of the show. "We just purchased some land to build a real country diner that'll look like the diner we shoot in, but we'll still do the show in the studio."
With an estimated audience of 1.4 million viewers per month, according to Black's representatives, "Larry's Country Diner" is one of the top-rated shows on RFD-TV, a network that delivers news about agriculture, raising horses, gardening, livestock auctions, and music and entertainment to America's rural heartland. The show is taped live before a small audience and features interviews and performances by classic country music artists such as Bill Anderson, Jim Ed Brown and Moe Bandy, as well as comic turns by a small cast of regular characters. It's unscripted and unrehearsed, harkening back to the early days of TV.
"I was a radio DJ for most of my life," says Black. "Radio is still more spontaneous than television. I wanted to do an interview show with no fireplace or desk and imagined a country diner in Podunkville, Middle America. A live camera crew would come in to shoot the typical folks having lunch in a diner and country music stars would just happen to float through to chat and sing a few songs. You don't see much spontaneity, even on the live TV morning news programs. My idea was that once the cameras are rolling, they don't stop. It's all ad-lib and if a singer or one of the cast members, including myself, gets in a jam, they have to get themselves out of it. We may clean up the audio a bit in post-production, but we don't make any cuts. You see what really happened. If someone drops a fork or breaks a plate during a song, it's left in. I grew up listening to old radio shows and you could tell when [the performers] went off card. They'd say, 'Where are we?' and laugh. When they were off script, it made the show more fun. We don't have a script, so we don't know when we're off [laughs]."
The regulars at Larry's include Black, a host who keeps things moving along with his down-home patter, busybody Nadine (comedian Mona Brown) a gossip-loving church lady and announcer Keith Bilbrey, who has served as a Grand Ole Opry announcer for more than 30 years. Renae the waitress, who is Black's secretary in real life, serves the catered meals Black serves his audience, while Sheriff Jimmy Capps — a renowned Nashville guitarist who has performed with country artists including Patsy Cline and Marty Robbins, among countless others — is always ready to get his guitar out of the squad car to accompany a guest star. The show has been a hit since the first episode aired in 2009. So much so that for the second consecutive year the show creators are taking "Larry's Country Diner" for a trip across the Gulf of Mexico in January 2013 on the Country's Family Reunion and Larry's Country Diner Cruise. The cruise will feature artists Anderson, Brown, Joey And Rory, and Rhonda Vincent, among others, and sets sail Jan. 19.
"We've captured a segment of the market that the country music business has forgotten about — folks over 50 who are hungry for entertainment," adds Black. "We're the most [underserved] demographic for TV and radio. Even though there are more of us than there are of them, they don't care."
The only preparation before the cameras roll is a brief meeting between Capps and the day's visiting musicians. "Jimmy will sit with them and make up a few quick charts, like the session players do, to find the key and set a rhythm," Black says. "That's it. Everything else is spur-of-the-moment. We never know what's going to happen. Nadine may wander in and start bothering a guest like Larry Gatlin, and he'll have to deal with it."
The show airs on Thursdays with 26 segments throughout the year and has featured guest artists Jim Lauderdale, Joe Dickie Lee, Freddy Weller, the Whites, Ray Stevens, the Oak Ridge Boys, and Riders In The Sky, among dozens of others. According to Black, these artists fit the bill because the show caters to an "older rural audience." "They'd rather see Gene Watson or Helen Cornelius than the latest country singer," he says. "If we brought Brad Paisley on, it would be fun, but it wouldn't help our ratings [because] older fans aren't connecting with present-day country music [artists]. It's one of the benefits of what we're doing. TV and radio [don't] play the old stuff anymore, so we're able to create some new old stuff."
"Larry's Country Diner" has become a cult favorite, and not only among older country fans. "Brad Paisley told me he tapes every episode and watches it on the tour bus," Black says. "Someone called us the other day and told us Drew Carey had just tweeted that he'd been watching 'Larry's Country Diner' and was trying to 'figure it out.'" That made Black chuckle. "When people find [the show], they tend to latch onto it."
(J. Poet lives in San Francisco and writes about Native, folk, country, Americana, and world music for many national and international publications and websites.)