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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Photo courtesy of the Country Music Foundation
PERFORMERS Tommy Hunter
Dave Thomas, Bill Lynn, David Koyle, Les Pouliot, Maurice Abraham,
Joan Toson, and others
1965-1970 Half hour weekly during fall/winter season 1970-1992
One hour weekly
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.
Charles. "Work Songs, Hegemony, and Illusions of Self." Critical
Studies in Mass Communication (Annandale, Virginia), Spring
Fenster, Mark. "Country Music Video." Popular Music (Detroit,
Tommy, with Liane Heller. My Story. Agincourt, Ontario, Canada:
Liam. "Canada's Country Gentleman." The Globe and Mail (Toronto,
Canada), 24 October 1987.
Greg. "Country Music: The Folk Music of Canada." Queen's Quarterly
(Kingston, Ontario, Canada), Summer 1988.
Programming in English