Though few would dispute the claim that Nashville and its Grand Ole Opry are the epicenter for country music, most might be surprised to learn that Shreveport once gave that Tennessee town a serious run for its money.
In the mid-1900s, Shreveport emerged as a recording and entertainment mecca – largely in part to its popular Louisiana Hayride live radio show that debuted on April 3, 1948, on KWKH, a mighty 50,000-watt station reaching 28 states. By 1953, the program was syndicated on the CBS radio network, expanding its broadcast to 198 affiliates across the country. The show was held in the Shreveport Municipal Auditorium.
It was big, y’all.
Imagine watching a young Elvis Presley perform on the stage where he really got his start. It was a stage that jump started Elvis' career along with the future legend Hank Williams. It was a place to call home after being admonished by the Grand Ole Opry where he only played once. At the time, the Opry had musicians like Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton as regulars. So while the Grand Ole Opry was known to only welcome established country artists to its stage, the Louisiana Hayride – known as the “Cradle of the Stars” and the “Grand Ole Opry Farm Club” – prided itself in showcasing up-and-coming artists from a variety of genres in a largely improvisational environment.
Evolution of American Music at the Louisiana Hayride
As a performer on the show, Maggie Warwick saw first-hand the effects the Louisiana Hayride had on American music. “It was unrestricted,” Warwick recalls in an article on SavingCountryMusic.com. “So many of the great stars that were not accepted on other shows when they first started out, were totally embraced by the Louisiana Hayride. Nobody made them play a certain way. Everyone was free to play the way they wanted. It was a critical part of the evolution of American music.” Warwick strongly believes that had it not been for the Louisiana Hayride, some of the diverse music styles we have today may have never came to be. “I don’t know what would have happened with the (different) styles of music, because (this show) influenced them so much. It opened the doors to more great stars than any other show of its kind in history.”
So on Saturday nights, a loud and lively blue-collar crowd would pack the Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium to hear relative “unknowns” like Hank Williams, Slim Whitman, Kitty Wells, Johnny Horton and, yes, even the great Elvis Presley. Before he was Elvis Presley.
In fact, it was the Louisiana Hayride that contributed to Presley’s meteoric rise, having played the Shreveport show just two weeks after swearing off the Grand Ole Opry.
Elvis Hits it Big – in Louisiana
As the story goes, Presley’s high-energy rockabilly and gyration-filled theatrics were not well received in Nashville, prompting some to suggest the new singer not quit his day job driving trucks. Presley swore never to return to that stage – and it turns out he didn’t have to.
The future “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” went to the Opry’s biggest competitor, the Louisiana Hayride, just two weeks later. His raucous show there was so well received he was offered a contract to play for the next 52 Saturday nights. And the rest, as they say, is history. In fact, it was Presley’s last performance on the Louisiana Hayride that prompted the show’s emcee to coin the phrase, “Elvis has left the building” in an attempt to appease frenzied fans who were shocked he would play there no more.
Presley went on to sell what is estimated at more than one billion albums worldwide (nearly 135 million in the U.S. alone) and landed an impressive 149 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart – with 18 rocketing all the way to No. 1.
Relive the Hayride Days
If you are wanting a taste of what the Louisiana Hayride was like, then you are in luck. The Bear Family Records has released an enormous 20-disc box set with a large hardbound book filled with stories and rare photos. It chronicles (not in the show's entirety) the show's history with detailed text and audio that intends to re-create the experience of hearing the show. Learn more about the Louisiana Hayride compilation set.
More to See and Do in Shreveport
Elvis has indeed left the building, but you can still tour the historic 1929 Shreveport Municipal Auditorium today and walk across the stage where so many legends once played. Much of the building’s original features are still intact, and one-time “coat check” closets have now been converted to mini-shrines to the greats who played here, complete with some of the stars’ own memorabilia. They also have a great line-up of diverse music shows. To learn more about the Louisiana Hayride program and its historic home at the Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium, check out this video.
And when you come visit the stage where all of this music history took place, be sure to spend a few extra days exploring all the Shreveport area has to offer. Start with this list of the top things to experience in Shreveport.