Local musical power plant Cameron Cochran isn’t old enough to have experienced firsthand the Cincinnati-based Midwestern Hayride, the incredibly popular radio/television Country music and variety show that ran on WLW radio and WLWT television stations from 1937 to 1972. It featured the talents of Willie Nelson, Tex Ritter, Grandpa Jones, Hank Penny, Homer and Jethro, Kenny Price and dozens more during its 35-year run.
But Cochran, a Northern Kentucky native and pedal steel phenom, did find a direct connection in fellow pedal-steeler and mentor Chuck Rich, a longtime studio musician for Midwestern Hayride. Rich’s anecdotes about the show’s production sparked Cochran’s curiosity about its illustrious history.
The result is Hayride!, a live performance at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Woodward Theater that is also being recorded for a podcast. Cochran plans for it to be the first of many.
“Chuck’s really the one who inspired this,” Cochran says. “I’ve been working with Brian Powers at the library, watching rare clips of Jerry Byrd playing in 1949-1959. I visited Darren Blase at Shake It and listened to 78s that were cut at the Emery Theatre when the Boone County Jamboree (Midwestern Hayride’s predecessor) was happening in the early 1940s. I’ve heard the radio show before it went to TV, when it was a half-hour. That was the first time I heard the blueprint.”
Late last year, Cochran set out to realize his longstanding idea to reanimate the Country variety show concept in tribute to Midwestern Hayride. It was not an inspiration borne of Cochran’s boredom; the husband and father is perpetually busy with production jobs and his membership in both Jeremy Pinnell and the 55s and The Midwestern Swing, with guitarists Brad Myers and Nick Fryer, as well as constant session work. Luckily, Cochran has assembled a talented creative staff that’s been crucial to shaping and realizing his vision for Hayride!, a cumulative homage to Midwestern Hayride with contemporary twists.
“Since November, I’ve been focused on not only doing this Midwestern Hayride tribute, but also on developing this Country music variety show that would be in a modern, digitally distributed format, like a podcast, so that it could be on a phone or a computer,” Cochran says.
“Caroline Creaghead was the first person I approached about this,” he continues. “She’s from here but she was in New York producing comedy shows. She connected me with Karl Spaeth and Logan Lautzenheiser from Future Science and said, ‘These guys are writing a lot, you should see if they’re interested.’ They were so excited to write in this format. Then Midwestern Swing, which is really the linchpin of the show, is doing the music. Ashley Shepherd recently started a company called Picture Music and they’re recording the night, and we’ve got a great sound guy, Aaron Hacker, who’s doing front house for us. That’s a giant team right there.”
The general structure of Hayride! will be a two-act presentation within the standard variety format of song/bit/song/bit, closing with a Gospel number. One of the twists that Cochran and his team are bringing to the concept is a sequential show-within-a-show angle about putting on the Hayride! performance.
“There’s a through-line with character development,” Cochran says. “I’ve done musical productions, so I’m very conscious of not having acts that are too long. It’ll probably be a half-hour to 45 minutes per act, in quickly digestible bits, but it will be a slowly developing story.”
Cochran also mined Rich’s stories of his Midwestern Hayride days for characters and settings within the Hayride! universe. “Talking to Chuck over the past five or six years, the stories are of musicians doing work together, being creative together,” Cochran says. “When you have a show like that where you can pour your creative energy in, amazing things can happen.”
At least part of the show’s challenge is that much of Hayride!’s potential audience wasn’t even born when rising costs forced Midwestern Hayride’s 1972 cancellation. Cochran has been reintroducing the older program to the public through various engagements — he’s appearing 2 p.m. this Saturday at Cincinnati’s Main Library where he’ll perform old Jerry Byrd songs with Harold Kennedy and Chris Douglas.
Cochran is confident that Hayride! will attract music and theater aficionados regardless of their familiarity with the show’s roots.
“The biggest thing for me is this format can appeal to anyone,” he says. “Music and comedy can really bring families together. If you talk to anyone who was within the WLWT area, or (within the range of) any of the syndicated channels that did Midwestern Hayride, they’ll say, ‘When Midwestern Hayride came on, everything stopped and we all gathered around the TV and watched it.’ And that is incredible.”
Cochran is also quick to point out there is a glaringly positive difference between Hayride! and its predecessor: There is a total lack of the denigrating humor that sullied the original’s image.
“The humor part was always the part they struggled with,” Cochran says. “A lot of times, they made jokes at other peoples’ expense, and it was derogatory humor. And one of the first rules we made was ‘No fake Country accents.’ Karl and Logan are powerhouses, so it’s very smart humor.”
Still in all, Hayride! obviously owes a debt to the hundreds of people that created the original Boone County Jamboree/Midwestern Hayride outline. Cochran recognizes the greatness of the overall concept and is just attempting to tweak it for the new millennium.
“To say that there’s much innovation happening would be a stretch,” he says, with a laugh. “We’re definitely standing on the shoulders of giants here. But really, where it departs is in making sure that the comedy is just as smart as the music. There’s no reason why the music and comedy can’t be on par.”
HAYRIDE! occurs 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Woodward Theater, 1404 Main St., Over-the-Rhine. Tickets are $10. More info: woodwardtheater.com.