Town Hall Party

Feb 26, 2021

Liner notes for “Town Hall Party”, Bear Family Records

Originally published in 2004

One of the rarest country music albums ever released on a major label, the Town Hall Party soundtrack LP was always rumored to exist but was rarely if ever seen outside collectors’ circles. But here it is, for all to hear: a spotless reissue of the aforementioned rarity, now available in digital format!

A genuine barn-dance country-music show that was televised every Saturday night, Town Hall Party was Los Angeles’s equivalent to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Many country and rockabilly fans believe that during the 1950s, Town Hall Party was actually better than the Opry. This album certainly makes a case for that argument.

Los Angeles might seem like a strange place for a hotbed of hillbilly and country music, but in the mid-century period there was a resounding demand for it, driven by the large numbers of transplanted Okies and other people of rural backgrounds who migrated west seeking work after World War II. Even stranger still, the south-central suburb of Compton, today known only for its rap artists and gang violence, used to be the central nervous system of hillbilly Los Angeles, and the home of Town Hall Party.

Town Hall Party started in 1951 when country music promoter William B. Wagnon Jr. decided that the West Coast needed a top-notch country music Opry-type show. He put together a cast of musicians and singers for a weekly Saturday night shindig that was originally broadcast on NBC radio, then live on KTTV television beginning around 1952. Los Angeles was home to quite a few country music programs, and Town Hall Party was not the only show of its kind. The Hometown Jamboree in El Monte, the County Barn Dance in Baldwin Park, and Cal’s Corral in Long Beach were just a few of the other local Los Angeles country music television shows. However, Town Hall Party was always the biggest and the best, and the only one ever syndicated for national release (Western Ranch Party was the title of the syndicated version).

The Town Hall Band, who backed up all the guest artists, was a crack outfit led by superb multi-instrumentalist Joe Maphis. Maphis was a transplant from Maryland (via Richmond, Virginia, and Cincinnati, Ohio) who played guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and bass (among other instruments!), earning him the nickname “King of the Strings.” He and his wife, Rose Lee, were also featured performers on the show and had their own contract with Columbia Records as a vocal duo, in addition to Joe’s solo contract as an instrumentalist. The Town Hall Band also included Skeets McDonald on bass (he recorded for Capitol and Columbia as a vocalist—see Bear Family’s excellent Skeets boxed set), Dick Stubbs (later Marian Hall, and even later, Billy Mize) on steel guitar, blind pianist Jimmy Pruett, “Fiddlin’” Kate Warren on fiddle, and Marion “Pee Wee” Adams on drums. This group backed up many of the Town Hall artists on their various recordings, and they are playing on most of the tracks here.

Los Angeles might seem like a strange place for a hotbed of hillbilly and country music, but in the mid-century period there was a resounding demand for it, driven by the large numbers of transplanted Okies and other people of rural backgrounds who migrated west seeking work after World War II.

Regularly featured artists on Town Hall Party included the Collins Kids (Larry and Lorrie, who also have a Bear Family boxed set), Freddie Hart, Tex Ritter, Johnny Bond, Tex Carmen, Les “Carrot Top” Anderson, Dortha Wright, and Bobby Charles. As it turns out, all of them but Ritter recorded for Columbia, which made a soundtrack LP like this possible.

Many country music legends appeared as guest artists on the show: Gene Autry, Tex Williams, Ernest Tubb, Johnny Cash, the Sons of the Pioneers, Ray Price, Jimmy Wakely, Ted Daffan, Tommy Duncan, Hank Snow, Hank Thompson, Doye O’Dell, Lefty Frizzell, Wanda Jackson, Patsy Cline, Webb Pierce, Ferlin Husky, and Carl Perkins, among others, plus dozens of lesser-known artists.

Most of the tracks on this album appear to have been recorded specifically for this project, but Columbia did draw from other sources as well. At least two of the tracks by Joe Maphis had already been released as Columbia singles. One song by Tex Ritter was licensed from Capitol Records. “Wait for the Light to Shine” features the entire cast in a group sing-a-long.

Note to collectors: Some of the tracks have not been reissued anywhere else. Freddie Hart’s “Lonesome Love” was recorded specifically for this LP and doesn’t appear on his recent Bear Family collection. Jinks “Tex” Carman’s “Every Minute Seems a Million Years” appears to be the only track he ever recorded for Columbia, and if you’re a Tex Carman completist, this track is not found on any of the three Bear Family compilation CDs. The tracks by Dortha Wright, Les “Carrot Top” Anderson, and Bobby Charles were also recorded specifically for this project and have not been reissued anywhere else. The version of “Oklahoma Waltz” by Johnny Bond is a re-cut of his 1947 Columbia hit recording, this time featuring the Town Hall band.

One of the most appealing aspects of the original soundtrack album was the stunning full-color cover showcasing the entire cast in their finest western duds. In addition to showing off the various vibrant Nathan Turk and Nudie outfits, it also featured the great Mosrite custom doubleneck guitars played by Joe Maphis and Larry Collins. One could certainly make the claim, from viewing this album cover, that the West Coast country music scene was every bit as colorful and exciting as the Nashville scene, if not more so! (Interestingly, Fiddlin’ Kate Warren was incorrectly listed on the cover as Dortha Wright, who is not in the photograph.)

As great as this soundtrack album was, visually and musically, it sold poorly, probably because its target audience was largely limited to the Southern California region. Original copies are very rare and command collectors’ prices, so thankfully we now have this great reissue CD for all to hear. We hope you enjoy it!