Much like the kind of establishment that serves as its setting, the RFD-TV sensation Larry’s Country Diner is meant to be a respite for weary travelers, an oasis that caters to a group of patrons largely ignored elsewhere in the TV landscape.
So says Larry Black, a longtime radio host and sometimes film and TV actor who is also the show’s creator. That’s him behind the counter of the fictional (although not everyone realizes it’s made up) diner, entertaining customers and welcoming the visiting musicians, most of whom just happen to be country music legends. Over three seasons and more than 100 episodes, the diner has welcomed the likes of Bobby Bare, Larry Gatlin, Ray Stevens, the Oak Ridge Boys, Riders in the Sky, T. Graham Brown, Bill Anderson and many others, delighting an ever-growing legion of fans hungry to see what some of their favorite artists are up to these days. The show has grown its own roster of stars as well, including Nadine the Church Lady. Mona Brown used to just perform as Nadine a few times a year at the Tennessee church she and Black attended. Now she’s holding her own against showbiz veterans and taking her character on the road.
The folks watching Larry’s Country Diner tend to be no-nonsense types, and the show’s freewheeling nature reflects that. There is no script, and the camera never stops rolling. I talked with Black recently about the show’s success — which has spawned tour stops, cruises and soon a real-life diner — and why it means so much to its fans.
Channel Guide Magazine: Tell me how Larry’s Country Diner got started, and how the format developed.
Larry Black: I’ve always enjoyed the interview process, but what I hated was sitting around a fireplace or a living-room setting. The Carson show was great for Carson, but then everybody did it. Every interview show had a Carson-type setup. Letterman does it. And I understand it, because of cameras and all that stuff, shooting positions. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do a very casual something. So the impromptu or drop-in concept is what really hit my hot button. I just started thinking through that process and thought, “Hmm, how about a diner setting in Podunksville, Middle America? And it just so happens that at lunchtime the local cable company sends over a camera crew because they need programming, and they just crank the cameras up and shoot the crowd.” In this little make-believe town, which is on a main thoroughfare but off the beaten path, the sheriff, who had been a world-class guitar player, always has a guitar in the back of his car. Country stars would stop by and sit down from time to time for lunch, and you’d get them to sing. And since the sheriff was a great guitar player, they would just have him get his guitar and play with them.
CGM: So the setup makes it more than your average music show.
LB: There’s another side to that, in that producing this type of show can be very, very expensive if you use a lot of musicians. We have no budget for it, so we figured we could get everybody to work with one guitar player. The beauty of Nashville and the guy we call “Sheriff,” Jimmy Capps. He’s been with the Opry for 50 years and he’s played on everybody’s hit records. We had the Oak Ridge Boys in, and they sang “Elvira,” and they looked over at Jimmy and said, “You played on the original record.” … The artists then are very comfortable coming in. … The fun thing is, although he’s been in the Opry for 50 years, now everybody’s calling him the Sheriff, so it’s kind of created a persona for him. Keith Bilbrey, who had been the announcer for the Grand Ole Opry for years, I got him to come over and sit in a corner and just say, “Well, welcome to …,” just like you would say at a small local cable show. Then, everybody’s got to have the town gossip. So there’s a gal that we’d gone to church with for 17 years and she had this character, Nadine, that she did for Valentine’s parties and stuff like that. I asked her for the first go-round — we didn’t know if we were going to be successful — to read some old church bulletins. Some of them are online, and they had some absolutely funny things, like mistyped things. For the first 13 shows, that’s what she did. But then her rapport with the artists — they don’t know her, they don’t know what she’s going to do — but she’s in some respects like a female Don Rickles. Not as abrasive as Don [is]. But when she’s got her wig on and her dress on and her purse and her Bible, she just jumps all over them. We saw her with Larry Gatlin, and Larry is very quick on his feet, and she just had him back on his heels. It was fun to watch. So she’s really developed into a character. She’s now going out and doing things on her own. She’s just the wife of a local optometrist in Franklin. But she loves comedy, and has always done this thing as shtick at church. It has really developed.
CGM: Over the first 100 episodes, were the fans there right away, or was it more of a slow build getting the word out?
LB: It’s been a slow build, but we didn’t really plan on all this. We just figured we’d invite friends to come sit on this diner set. Then after the first 13 shows we had people calling in and asking if they could come to the diner. Stranger than that, people would come to Nashville and get on the Gray Line tour and want to go have lunch at the diner. You have to tell them, “Well, it’s not a diner, it’s a television set.” We’re in an office park and every once in awhile you’ll see a car full of some people driving real slow around the complex. You go out and ask, “Can I help you?” and they go, “We’re looking for the diner.” “It doesn’t exist.” Strangely enough, though, we are going to build one. We purchased some land and we’re going to build one. But it’s just captivated people. The ratings keep going up. We are now booked into next year with people flying in from all over to be a part of the diner when we tape it. It amazes me more than anyone else, I think, because we’re just doing it for fun. There’s no script, no Teleprompter, no cue cards, no plan. We literally just turn the camera on. My background is radio, and I just told everybody on the very first day, “Never stop the camera. I don’t care what happens, don’t stop it.” In the old radio days, you get yourself in trouble, you get yourself out, because it’s live. That’s the feel we’re going to have. The artist understands. We had one taping where the waitress Renae came out and dropped a whole plate of food on the floor. It crashed behind the singer, and the singer just kept singing, because we’re not stopping tape. It was funny. That just kind of adds to the levity of it, and then people know it’s real.
CGM: So it is real food that people are being served then?
LB: Yes. We tell them they can order anything they want, but we’re going to give them what we got. That’s why they think it’s a real diner, because they see people eating real food. It’s all a perception.
CGM: With the demise of a network like TNN, do you feel that Larry’s Country Diner is filling a void in TV?
LB: The sad thing is that there’s a whole [group] of people out there that are probably your mom and dad — and I’m certainly in that age group — we have disposable income, we have flexibility of time, we’re living longer, we’re healthier, and everybody ignores us. Television is just not for us. You can turn on the television any given night, and the one group of people that they ignore is the 55-plus audience. It’s a vast wasteland for them. CMT ignores them, GAC ignores them. TNN was the only one going down that road, and then they were faced with the same thing I just said, the advertising agencies want younger numbers, younger demos. Rather than find people that want to buy the older audience, they think, “No. We’ve got to young up our programming.” Well, then, you young up your programming and you lose your demographic. There is no TNN anymore. There [may] be again in the future, but right now I think RFD is the closest we’re going to get.
CGM: Tell me about your audience. What kind of people are they, and what do they want to say to you when they meet you?
LB: It’s grass roots. It’s very — where do you live?
LB: OK, Wisconsin is certainly the heartbeat of America. The Midwest, that whole culture, they’re still politically very conservative. They still go to church on Sundays. They don’t want all of the language that’s associated with television shows. I mean, they may cuss up a blue streak in their barn but when they’re sitting down and watching television with their kids or grandkids, they don’t want to see it. That’s who these people are. They want to be entertained. They don’t want to be assaulted. When they come here to us, they love the fact that I read a promise before the beginning of every show. It’s something from the Old Testament, so we’re not offending anybody. We’re not making any political statements except in humor, and we’re not making any proclamations from God’s perspective, but there is a sense that, “Hey, it’s safe here.”
CGM: So there’s the moral or cultural aspect that they like, but what about the show itself?
LB: I think they like the unexpected. You can watch the show, and we don’t even know what’s happening next. I’ve had some very jaded people — there was a photographer the other day who was from one of the national photographic distribution places, and he came in to take some pictures. He told me, “I figured I was going to come in and take some pictures and leave. But I got hooked on it, because you don’t know what’s going to happen next.” I said, “Neither do we.” … When I was growing up watching The Red Skelton Show or The Dean Martin Show, those guys would go off cue cards all the time. You would hear them laugh and giggle and throwing punch lines, and you would hear someone say, “Hey, that’s not what that card said.” Well, we don’t even have cards. It’s total shoot from the hip. I don’t know what Nadine’s going to do, she doesn’t know what I’m going to do. We do know who the singer is and we know that they’re going to sing three or four songs. I remember one time we had Riders in the Sky on, and we started talking about Roger Miller. So we all started singing “Dang Me” and “Chug a Lug.” It was purely improv. Here are four great musicians and they were able to slide in there real quick and play those songs.
CGM: So you’re not in the studio all day doing this. It’s basically an hour and you’re done.
LB: We never take more than an hour to shoot a show. It’s funny, because the artists that come in, they’re used to if they’re shooting an hour show that they’re going to be there all day. You go to makeup, you go to rehearsal, you run through it a couple times. I say, “Guys, listen, this is not rocket science. We’re starting the tape and we’re going to end the tape, that’s it. Be ready.” So it’s fun.
CGM: Since the show is so fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, have you ever looked at a show afterward and thought maybe it didn’t turn out as well as the others?
LB: Stacey, I don’t know when they’re good. I really don’t. They sent me home with a director’s line tag of the show. Invariably someone will come up to me after the show and go, “Man, that was a great show.” OK, fine. I don’t know that. Because in my mind, I’m just trying to keep the pieces together. I want to be in the moment and know what’s going on. When I used to do radio, you’d read the weather in the mornings almost between every break. But when I got off the air and someone would ask me what the weather was going to be that day, I didn’t have a clue, because it was something that just went through your mind. After the fact, it was just verbiage. It didn’t mean anything. So as long as we’re looking for humor in the show and trying to keep the timing going, I’m not really sure when the show is good or bad. The only negativity we had was with the Ray Stevens show, and Ray was doing his Obama thing, and that offended some of the people. But it’s humor. It’s like, “OK. Let it go.” But rarely does that happen. I have not had a show that I’ve ever second-guessed whether we should air it.
CGM: As the show keeps building, you’ll likely have access to more and more stars. Who do you have in your sights that hasn’t been on yet?
LB: The fun thing is that there is an excitement from the artist’s standpoint to do it. For instance, Vince Gill has never done Larry’s Country Diner. He’s done Country’s Family Reunion, but because of our shooting schedule and his travel schedule, we just haven’t found a day that works. The other day Charlie Daniels’ manager ran across one of our guys and said, “Hey, Charlie would love to do the show.” And we said, “Well, we’d love to have Charlie do the show!” But it looks like it’s going to be December before we get him on. People like Brad Paisely, Kenny Chesney, we’re told that they all watch it on the [tour] bus. So there is a buzz and excitement that it’s fun to do. They all seem to want to do the show, it’s just a matter of when can we fit them in and make them work.
CGM: Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney seem to skew younger than your target audience, but that’s OK?
LB: Yeah. People like specifically those two, and Vince Gill. Vince Gill loves the older artists. He loves the older fans. He’s very quick to tell you that. Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley both warm up to the older artists. They love them. I guess you could probably rattle off names of some of the younger country musicians who don’t have a clue who some of the older people are, so I wouldn’t have them on. I think they would do nothing for our audience. But if Brad wants to come on and sing his songs and talk about his history, he would probably talk about what the Opry had meant to his mom and dad at some point. Frankly speaking, a Jean Shepard would do more for our audience than Brad Paisley would, because a lot of them just don’t know who Brad Paisley is. They don’t listen to radio anymore. … It all depends on the artist. If they’re willing to give of themselves and be real, and not be so showbiz, then the older people are going to love them. They haven’t been given the chance to love them.
Photo: Phil Johnson © 2012