It’s near impossible to tune in to RFD-TV’s Larry’s Country Diner and not want to climb through the screen to share some pie and sociability with host Larry Black and his cast of amiable characters as they crack wise, reminisce about classic moments in music and television and generally have a fine time.
The 70-year-old, Alabama-born preacher’s son turned his love of music and rich baritone voice into a decades-long career as a disc jockey — during its heyday, the Larry Black Show aired on 125 radio stations across the country. Acting gigs followed on I’ll Fly Away and In the Heat of the Night and in feature films such as Ernest Goes to Camp and October Sky.
Now Nashville-based, Black also serves as producer of the downhome Diner and its equally nostalgic companion series Country’s Family Reunion that give folks longing for the homespun days of Hee Haw new options. We caught up with Black, recovering remarkably well after a horrifying June ATV accident that left him with a broken back and punctured lungs, to talk keeping the rated-G in TV.
CGM: First of all, how are you faring? That was some accident you had!
Larry Black: I’m good! We did four new shows yesterday, and it was the first time that I was back on camera doing the shows. We did four shows and they seemed to flow really well. So, I’m not back to 100-percent physically, but enough so that the television audience doesn’t know.
Country’s Family Reunion was your first TV venture — how did that come to be?
I was doing a project with [the Gaither Homecoming series’] Bill Gaither — a comedy album that he was producing for me — and when we finished the album, we were having dinner at Amerigo’s here in Nashville. I said to him, “What you’re doing with the Southern Gospel people, we ought to do with the country beat.” This was in 1997, just before it just all broke loose for Gaither with the Homecoming gatherings that he does. He said, “I’m too busy,” so I said, “Then I’ll do it.” We got together 30 people and put them in a room. Of those 30 people, about 18 have now died. So what we really created was a piece of video history and remembrance. Grandpa Jones. Johnny Russell. Little Jimmy Dickens. It has been a real jewel — and we’ve continued to do them.
And Reunion begat Larry’s Country Diner?
Once we hit RFD-TV, I realized what the audience was and that Ralph Emery was no longer going to do his TNN show. So I thought this was a perfect time to do a different kind of talk and variety show. But I don’t like sitting in front of fireplaces to do interviews, or across couches or a desk. So, “Hmm, we’ll do a little Podunksville diner, and every day at lunchtime the local cable company — because they have nothing better to do — brings some cameras into the diner to shoot the people having lunch. The sheriff in town [played by National Musicians Hall of Famer Jimmy Capps] just happens to be a world-class guitar player, so he’ll pull up and bring his guitar in, and if anybody drops by and wants to sing, they can sing and he’ll play the guitar for them!”
Nadine is your breakout star.
Every small town has the town gossip. I’d gone to church with Nadine for about 17 years — Ramona Brown is her real name — and she did this little character for a Valentine’s party one time. So I went to her and I said, “Why don’t you go online and get the church bulletins that are all screwy, and you come in and do that? You can mess with people all you want as the church lady.” So she did that and that character has just really blossomed. Her husband is an optometrist and she’s worked for him all of their married life. Now she goes out on weekends and will do 45 minutes worth of stand-up.
How do you choose your guests?
While we have the Larry Gatlins and the Vince Gills, Randy Owen of Alabama, there are other artists — Gene Watson, Moe Bandy, Jimmy Fortune — those guys say the shows just totally revived their careers and have given them a new lease on life in terms of touring. I want to reach out and help more artists who don’t get airplay anymore because they don’t have labels, but they still produce product. They just don’t have a way to get it to the marketplace.
Describe your audience.
Because we deal with a more mature audience, they introduce us to their kids and to their grandkids. Then the kids and grandkids become fans. Also, we find that when we go to Branson, oftentimes there are young adults who bring their parents because they know their parents want to come see the show live, and then they have become fans also. Our viewing audience is getting younger, because they’ve experienced the same thing.
That’s a rarity.
That’s a joy. Bill Medley, one of The Righteous Brothers, lives in Branson and performs there as well as Vegas, and he said, “It’s so funny. You perform in Branson and you see these busloads come in and you watch the old people get out of the bus … with their parents.” I thought, that is so true, man! You have these 60-year-old people getting off the bus with their 85-year-old parents! [Laughs]
And now you have an actual diner!
What happened after we were on the air for a while, people were coming to the Gray Line Tour in Nashville, and asking the driver to take them to Larry’s Country Diner. So the Gray Line Tours start calling, and going, “Where’s the diner?”
It’s not a diner, guys, it’s a television show! It’s a television set. Our offices are out in Bellevue and we would have people drive up. There’s kind of a cul-de-sac here, and Renae, the waitress who is also my secretary and has been for about fourteen years, we would sit there and look out the window, and we would see these old people driving around in cars, and we’d go, “You know what? They’re looking for us.”
We bought three acres right at the entrance to the sub division that we live in, which is right off of I-40. It’s just an incredible location. Our offices are there and we bought three acres on the corner and that’s where we’re going to build the real diner. That will be fun because we will continue with the restaurant. We won’t stop serving. They’ll just understand that hey, we’re shooting the show today. If you want to come in and order, you can come in and order food. But we’re going to keep talking … because we don’t care [laughs].
Your shows are devoted to the country/bluegrass scene. But what is playing in your own house?
I am still an old ’50s, and ’60s rock guy. I love rhythm, and blues. I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and when I got into radio … I got into radio in Mobile WABB. New Orleans was just down the road so we had a brand of rhythm, and blues that was really special. Groups like The Tans, Danny White, The Temptations, The Supremes, those are the ones that resonated with me. I think we all go back to our comfort zone, and that was the music I grew up listening to. When I got into radio in the ’60s, those are the songs that I played. When I hear, “Doo-da-lang-doo-da-lang-doo-lang, he’s so fine.” That song … on a six-hour shift, if the song was number one, I played that thing six times in one shift. That song was number on for six weeks. When I here “He’s so Fine” by the Chiffons, I’m immediately back in that control room working midnight to six. “Doo-da-lang-doo-da-lang-doo-lang!”