On Saturday, Brian Powers of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County — so instrumental in organizing that institution's ongoing tribute to the legacy of Cincinnati's King Records — put together and conducted one of the best King events yet, a panel discussion on Cowboy Copas & the Golden Age of Country Music.
Despite his use of the name "cowboy", Lloyd Copas was born in a remote hollow in Adams County. Learning to play rhythm guitar with the support of his father and schoolteacher, and blessed with an agreeably smooth and expressive voice, he developed a career as a Country-music sideman until scoring King's first national hit record with 1946's "Filipino Baby." More hits followed — including the first recording of "Tennessee Waltz" — until he was killed in a 1963 plane crash that also took the lives of Patsy Cline, Hankshaw Hawkins and Copas' son-in-law (and Cline's manager) Randy Hughes.
At Saturday's discussion were John Simon, a Portsmouth-based professor who has just published the book Cowboy Copas and the Golden Age of Country Music; Cathy Hughes, Copas' daughter (and Randy Hughes' widow); and Judy Perkins, now a spry octogenarian, who was Copas' friend and a country singer on WLW-TV's Midwestern Hayride as well as a syndicated radio show featuring Eddy Arnold. All three told some fascinating stories about a time when Country was still an entertainment-business subculture known as "hillbilly music" to society-at-large, but was a growing and lively scene just waiting to become as large as it is today.
Simon recalled how, as a child, he saw Copas perform at a Portsmouth theater on a white horse — without either band or microphone. Powers had assembled an impressive collection of audio and video clips, not just of Copas but also of Perkins singing on television and radio. The panel discussion also served as the formal announcement that the Cincinnati Museum Center is planning to host the exhibit Back Roads to Big City: A Journey Through the Heart of Honky Tonk Music: Collections From the Nashville Honky Tonk Hall of Fame. It will feature some 300 artifacts, tentatively including Nudie suits. Johnny Cash baptism notes, Patsy Cline's cowboy boots and a handwritten letter from Dolly Parton to Skeeter Davis among much else.
There will also be audio recordings and a special section on King Records, including James Brown's pink stage cape and jacket. More details as they become available, but in the meantime don't miss the next superb panel discussion organized by Powers, "Blues Stay Away From Me: A 60th Anniversary," at the downtown library at 3 p.m. on May 9. It will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the recording of one of King's most important milestones, the Delmore Brothers' "Blues Stay Away With Me," a classic country song written by African-American producer Henry Glover with Wayne Ramey on harmonica and cited as a precursor of Rock & Roll. And there will be more — much more.