THE TOMMY HUNTER SHOW

Canadian Country Music Program

Known as "Canada's Country Gentleman", Tommy Hunter was for many years one of Canada's most popular and well-known television personalities. He became a fixture on Canadian television as the host of The Tommy Hunter Show, one of North America's longest-running variety shows, and is also one of the few figures in Canadian popular music to have evolved through television rather than through recording and radio airplay. He has received numerous awards for his role in television, in country music, and in Canadian cultural life.

The London, Ontario native's career in television started when he was 19 years old on Country Hoedown, a weekly country music program produced and aired at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), where Hunter would spend the rest of his television career. The show was an on-stage revue with a house band and featured various musical guests both from Canada and the United States. Starting out as a rhythm guitarist, Hunter soon became a featured performer on the show, leading to his own daily noontime CBC radio program, The Tommy Hunter Show; it became a television series in 1965.

Much of Country Hoedown's format and tone were carried over into The Tommy Hunter Show. Over its 27-year run on CBC (1965-92)--rerun three times a week on The Nashville Network between 1983 and 1991--the show was noted for nurturing Canadian country music, which it showcased alongside big-name American country stars. Hunter wanted to break with the hokey, country-hick feel characterized by shows like Hee Haw, though, and tried to present country music as "respectable". The result was a program that some labelled a country version of Lawrence Welk's show. Inspired by television variety show hosts such as Johnny Carson and Perry Como, Hunter felt that the host should have a relaxed, comfortable style, establishing a certain rapport with the audience. By sticking to his country purist approach, he was able to establish such a rapport, building up an intensely loyal fan base which planned its Saturday evenings around The Tommy Hunter Show. Over the years, Hunter sustained an ongoing battle with CBC producers who wanted to rely on demographics and "slickify" the show. He maintained that targeted programming precluded establishing a real relationship with the audience. His show relied upon the on-stage revue format, which mixed various musical sequences with dance and other country entertainment. Despite attempts to alter the program by incorporating other styles and sensibilities, Hunter persevered in maintaining the show's traditional country tone. It was this purist approach that would ultimately sound the show's death knell, however, and a lack of younger viewers and slipping audience ratings led to its cancellation in 1992.

As a long-running music television program, The Tommy Hunter Show demonstrated how television's imbrication with popular music dates back long before the rise of MTV and the music video. Hence, while it provided country music fans with entertainment each week, it also helped to rearticulate a brand of country music many associated with Nashville as a Canadian popular music genre, in a period which saw the rise of an anti-American Canadian cultural nationalism. Indeed, through the program's year-in, year-out presence on the CBC, the State-owned broadcaster and self-styled "national network," the country music of The Tommy Hunter Show became a national symbol for many Canadians, and Tommy Hunter a figure of Canadianness. This ability of television to reach around the generic division of popular music into record or radio formats, then, helped shape a "Canadian country music" genre which would combine the traditional music of Canadian folk performers with the country music of artists like Tommy Hunter.

As much as The Tommy Hunter Show displayed how television intervenes into other areas of popular culture such as popular music, though, it also threw into relief the tensions that arise between them. The behind-the-scenes conflict between CBC television workers and Tommy Hunter, a country musician, derived from their emergence from two separate cultural formations: on the one hand, the "world" of television production, with its own sensibilities and its own priorities; and on the other hand, the "world" of country music, with its internal organization and logic. Thus, CBC personnel wanted to target specific demographic ranges by "updating" the show with natty set designs and a wider variety of musical styles. But Hunter's desire for austere sets and traditional country music, and his concern with providing family entertainment for a country audience, derived from the emphases on "sincerity" and "authenticity" which underpin country music as a genre and define fundamental aspects of the country music "world". Indeed, the conflicts behind The Tommy Hunter Show foreshadowed a later reticence towards music videos on the part of the country music industry as a whole, wary of the videoclip format's "slickness" that is so antithetical to country music's "authenticity".

The privileged role played by authenticity in country music, with its accompanying stress on "ordinary people", was central to The Tommy Hunter Show. Although based in Toronto, the show went on the road frequently, playing to sold-out audiences across Canada. Hunter's insistence that the set in each city reflect the locale of the taping illustrated his constant striving to reinsert a local feel into the globalizing pull of television. A harsh critic of the television industry even as a television star, Hunter felt that TV programmers had little understanding of country music audiences; for Hunter, the institutional imperatives of a mass-mediated country music compromised his audience's position. These views carried over to his recording career. Hunter preferred to record albums independently rather than with major record labels, reasoning that this would allow him to aim at pleasing country audiences, rather than radio stations. And in 1992, following cancellation of The Tommy Hunter Show's, he toured Canada with a stage version of the show, playing to sold-out audiences, meeting his fans from the other side of the television screen.

The only program to survive a wave of rural, family-oriented CBC programming in the 1950s and 1960s that included shows like Don Messer's Jubilee, The Tommy Hunter Show was a country show produced in an urban environment. It was a family-oriented show in an age of splintering demographics. It made a country singer into a television star. And in the process it had a profound impact on the Canadian popular music landscape. By the end of the show's run, Hunter had won three Juno Awards as Canada's best male country singer (1967-1969) and become the fifth Canadian to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame's Walkway of Stars (1990) for his music; received an award from the Broadcast Executive Society as well as a Gemini Award for best Canadian variety show (1991); and was named to the Order of Canada for his part in Canadian cultural life.

-Bram Abramson

 


Tommy Hunter
Photo courtesy of the Country Music Foundation

REGULAR PERFORMERS Tommy Hunter

PRODUCERS Dave Thomas, Bill Lynn, David Koyle, Les Pouliot, Maurice Abraham, Joan Toson, and others

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

CBC
1965-1970 Half hour weekly during fall/winter season 1970-1992 One hour weekly

FURTHER READING

Abramson, Bram. "'A Country of One's Own': Rita MacNeil, Infomercials, and Canadian Country Music." In, Anderson, C., editor. Working Papers in Canadian Studies: Proceedings of the "Instituting Cultures/Cultural Institutions" Conference. Montréal: McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, 1995.

Conrad, Charles. "Work Songs, Hegemony, and Illusions of Self." Critical Studies in Mass Communication (Annandale, Virginia), Spring 1988.

Fenster, Mark. "Country Music Video." Popular Music (Detroit, Michigan), 1988.

Hunter, Tommy, with Liane Heller. My Story. Agincourt, Ontario, Canada: Methuen, 1985.

Lacey, Liam. "Canada's Country Gentleman." The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), 24 October 1987.

Marquis, Greg. "Country Music: The Folk Music of Canada." Queen's Quarterly (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), Summer 1988.

 

See also Canadian Programming in English