Pat Boyd’s “Magnificent Obsession”
by Kim Rush
As early as 1918, women were employed as radio broadcasters throughout the United States. Two of the earliest were Eunice Randall from Boston and Bertha Brainard, of New Jersey. 1
Patricia Ann Boyd (Holton) was the first woman radio announcer to work in Grand Rapids, Michigan, beginning at WMAX- AM in 1955. For over five years her popular country music show, named “Make Mine Country Style,” could be heard throughout the Western Michigan area, and as far as northern Indiana, according to some accounts. She also worked for WLAV, WJEF, WERX and WBYW.
Pat’s predilection for country music came to her through her parents’ influence. Yet it was not until her teenage years that her passion for ‘old time’ country music developed into what she describes as a “magnificent obsession.”
George Hawkins was raised in Grand Rapids and moved to Nashville in 1961 to pursue a music career. Hawkins maintains that Pat Boyd “was the uncontested voice of country music in Grand Rapids.”
Tennessee and country music legacy
Pat Boyd’s parents were born in Tennessee. Her mother, Carrie Etmo Roberts was born in Boma on October 21, 1909. She was the firstborn of sixteen children.
The tiny town of Boma is located in Putnam County, centered between Knoxville and Nashville. Boma can rarely be found on road maps, and reportedly, a population count has never been compiled for town.
It is situated slightly north of Interstate 40, the main highway running east and west across Tennessee. When the course of this freeway was originally laid out, it was routed through Pat’s grandfather’s property. A cloverleaf interchange was built on a portion of land that Daley Roberts sold to the federal highway system.
Patty’s father, Owen Hayden Boyd, was born in McMinnville on January 7, 1907. McMinnville is located thirty six miles south of Boma.
In 1910, Owen’s parents were farming cotton on Sparta Road in Putnam County. During the next ten years, they moved to a 77-acre farm on McMinnville Road in Warren County. 2
Carrie and Owen met at a Decoration Day celebration, which is still an important annual event in the south. It is a festival which occurs on the fourth Sunday in May. “That’s how so many couples met back then. There were some members of the Boyd family living in Putnam County at the time my mom and dad met.”They were married on July 3rd, 1927 by Carrie’s cousin, R.B. Stewart, who served as the local justice of the peace.
Carrie and Owen Boyd (Pat Boyd Holton collection)
Owen’s father was a cotton farmer. Carrie’s father produced tobacco. “Money was always scarce, quite often due to ‘failed crops.’ There were few other ways to make money back then in Boma, Tennessee. Cotton and tobacco, that’s about all there was.”
Around 1890, the route of The Knoxville and Nashville railway ran through Carrie’s father’s property. Originally, there was a railroad switchyard named Robert’s Switch positioned near Boma, although it no longer exists.3
Carrie’s father, Daley Roberts, and his sons cut and sold ‘cross-ties’ (wooden railroad ties.) They were used to build and repair railways. The Roberts family considered this to be “just another cash crop,” similar to the tobacco they were growing and selling. The workers would begin before dawn. They built fires to provide enough light to see what they were doing.
The Great Depression approached during the early years of this young couple’s marriage. Economic conditions were already dire in Boma before this major decline. industrialization was slow to develop in this area.
Fortunately, Owen’s brother Malcolm (“Mack”) Boyd was employed by the Grand Rapids Brass Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Once he assured Owen that he could get him a job as a molder there, Carrie and Owen left Tennessee promptly, arriving in Grand Rapids in 1927, the same year they were married. Upon arriving, Carrie and Owen settled at 940 Godfrey S.W. In 1929 they moved less than a block away, to 919 Underhill S.W. They relocated again in 1930 to a home located at 336 New Hall Road (currently 36th Street). 4
‘Hillbilly Music’ from the Radio reaches Grand Rapids
Like many music lovers of the late 1920s, Owen and Carrie enjoyed the new-fangled ‘hillbilly’ music. As Pat suggests that “listening to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights brought our little family closer to our roots.”
‘Hillbilly’ music radio programs were heard throughout much of the United States, years before Pat was born. Chicago’s WLS National Barn Dance and Nashville’s WSM Barn Dance (1925-1927), which was renamed as the Grand Ole Opry show in 1927, could both be ‘picked up’ on west Michigan radio sets.
“WLS was one of the original 50,000 watt clear channel stations which did not share its frequency with any other station during sunset to sunrise hours.” WSM was also a clear channel station, which accounts for the long-distance reception of both of these early stations. 5
The popularity and marketing of hillbilly music on the radio
The origins of ‘hillbilly’ music are commonly assumed to be associated with Tennessee and particularly the city of Nashville. However, even the earliest forms of this music, dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, were also performed in locations which were outside of Tennessee’s borders.
The legendary renown of the Nashville-based Grand Ole Opry radio program is at least partially responsible for creating Nashville’s reputation as the presumed ‘birthplace of country music.’
Yet there were similar radio programs in other areas of the United States, and some preceded WSM. In 1922, a “radio station based in Atlanta, Georgia (WSB) became the first to broadcast (‘hillbilly’) music. Also, in January of 1923, a radio station from Fort Worth, Texas (WBAP) was the first to use the term ‘barn dance’ as the name for their ‘hillbilly’ music show. By 1925 WBAP was also broadcasting its own version of a barn dance program. During the previous year, Chicago radio station WLS began airing their version of a barn dance program which could be heard throughout the Midwest.” 6
Indisputably, WSM’s ‘Grand Ole Opry’ eventually became the most popular and enduring of all the ‘barn dance’ radio shows. Chicago’s WLS Barn Dance show was also a significant presence within this niche of the radio industry for four decades. As of 1933, over thirty stations across the United States were broadcasting the WLS Barn Dance second show on Saturday evening. 7 By 1935 there were approximately 5,000 ‘hillbilly’ music-related programs on the radio. 8
Major companies of that era such as National Life and Accident Insurance Company, which originally owned WSM; and Miles Laboratories, makers of Alka-Seltzer, advertised their products on stations that featured ‘hillbilly’ music. Initially, Sears–Roebuck and Company was the first owners of WLS. Advertisers targeted farmers on the popular WLS National Barn dance programs. Similar radio marketing strategies were commonplace in most regions of the United States by the late 1920s.
During the Great Depression (c. 1929-1939) sales of recordings fell sharply, which served to make listeners more dependent on the radio. The sale of an estimated 104 million records in 1927 plummeted to a mere 6 million in 1932. Some of these struggling recording companies resorted to selling radios instead of records. 9
“The new medium of radio was in fact crucial to the rapid growth of the hillbilly music market. Many farmers and working-class people who could not afford to buy phonograph records were able to purchase a radio on a monthly installment plan and thereby gain access to a wide range of programming.” 10
Where did it come from and what should we call it?
Two of the first musicians to record this new music were from Texas and Georgia. According to country music historians, accomplished Texan fiddler A.C. Eck Robertson created the first commercial recording of “old-time music” for Victor Records in New York City during 1922. It resembled an instrumental form of what is now referred to as ‘bluegrass’ music:
The next ‘hillbilly’ recording was also produced by a violinist (and vocalist) called Fiddlin’ John Carson in 1923. This recording was made in Atlanta and was released on the Okeh label:
Various names were gradually assigned to this ‘new’ form of folk music, such as ‘old-time music.’ Actually, it took decades for its proponents to settle on country music as its primary descriptor.
Many, including the musicians who played it, were still referring to it as hillbilly music as late as the 1940s. Up to that time “country (music) had been a musical genre in search of a label… something less degrading than ‘hillbilly.’ ” ‘Folk music’ was another term that was applied. “Even Hank Williams called himself a folk singer.”13
Pat Boyd’s Childhood and School Days
Patricia Ann Boyd was born in Grand Rapids on March 7, 1932, while Carrie and Owen were residing in a home on Pinehurst Street in Wyoming. Tragically, Pat’s sister Katherine had died as an infant four years before Pat was born, so Pat was commonly considered to be their ‘only child.’
The Boyd family attended South Grand Rapids Methodist Church. “When I was a child, our pastor was from the south, too; so my parents became good friends with him and his wife.”
“I had great parents. They cared about me a lot, and provided everything I needed. We were very happy just to be together. ”
Owen Boyd holding his baby daughter, Pat (Pat Boyd Holton collection)
“My parents loved country music. At night, we could pick up country music shows on our battery-powered radio from Chicago, Nashville and Cincinnati. My parents also had a phonograph with a crank on it, like a Victrola, so we could listen to our records, too.”
“My Mom played the piano. My father bought me a guitar when I was five years old. He really wanted me to learn how to play it but I was just not interested in learning guitar at that time, so he returned it to the music store. “
“My uncle Clavis Roberts, (Carrie’s brother) stayed with us for a while. He would sing Jimmie Rogers songs for us. Jimmie Rogers was extremely popular back then.”
Dancing Lessons and Singing
Country music and guitar playing did not inspire Pat during her childhood. However, she was deeply involved with tap dancing lessons and singing, beginning at an early age. “My Mom got me enrolled in tap dancing lessons, starting at age three or four. Singing and dancing were taught together in those days. I stuck with my lessons until I was fifteen.”
The Keller twins, Pat’s first dance teachers, gave lessons at Kelloggsville elementary school. They hired a piano player named Harry Raymaker who provided the accompaniment for the student’s dance routines.
The Keller Twins, Barbara and Shirley, were Pat’s first dance teachers. (Pat Boyd Holton collection)
“Later, Gerri Gilette taught dance classes which I attended at the Majestic Theatre building. I even danced in a chorus line at Ramona Theatre with Jackie Wawee, about the same time that I decided to quit taking lessons.”
Gerri Gillette (Pat Boyd Holton collection)
Pat began to perform publically as a singer and dancer while she was very young. Her debut was at age six, on May 8, 1938. She sang a solo at the Nazarene Church in Burton Heights for a Mother’s Day program.
Less than a month later, on June 5, she appeared as the guest soloist for her church service at South Grand Rapids Methodist Church, located at 4500 Division. Also, on January 7, 1939, she sang and tap- danced for Uncle Nick’s Children’s Hour radio program, broadcast on the WOOD radio station.
Rose “Ma” Harmon (left) and Carrie Boyd (right) at the Octagon Eat Shop (Pat Boyd Holton collection)
During 1940, Pat’s Mom was working part-time at a restaurant located at 4428 Division, near Farnham Street. It was the Octagon Eat Shop. Rose “Ma” Harmon was a cook there. Her husband, Ole “Pop” Harmon had a band called Pop Harmon and the Blackbirds. At that same time, Carrie and Owen Boyd were running the concession stand at the Bowen Mills Hobby Club on Barlow Lake in Barry County. It was arranged that on October 15, 1940, Pat would sing and dance with Pop Harmon and the Blackbirds at Bowen Mills, which was her first public performance with a dance band.
Pop Harmon and the Blackbirds (Pat Boyd Holton collection)
Then in December, Peggy Blanksma’s Dance Studio presented a stage show at the Four Star Theatre on Division Avenue. Pat and a boy named Teddy Chambers performed two song and dance numbers. She also participated in a comedy skit during this same program.
That same year, Pat went to Boma with her mother to visit her grandmother Roberts. They travelled by train to Nashville to attend the Grand Ole Opry. This was Pat’s first time at the Opry. She recalls that the seating was constructed of wooden planks, which were extended over barrels.
Hard Times during Pat’s Childhood
“When I was a little girl, the entire country was suffering from the Depression. Many people in our community were poor, so most of us did not know the difference. The worst situation I recall was that there was a family that was living in a boxcar near the railroad tracks. Most people in our community had very modest, but satisfactory homes.”
By 1936 Owen purchased a home for his family at 4521 Pinehurst, near 44th and Division. He was extremely proud of their new place. Occasionally Carrie would secure part-time jobs such as working at Creamer’s fabric store, at Division and Farnham, to help with family expenses.
The Boyd home at 4521 Pinehurst, located near 44th and Division. (Pat Boyd Holton collection)
“My father made only $11.00 per week working at the brass foundry, and sometimes that was just enough to pay the interest on the mortgage. Foundry work is hard and dirty work. It led to his death, caused by lung disease. He passed away when I was eleven, onAugust 22, 1943, and my Mom and I were suddenly on our own.”
“In that day women rarely worked outside of the home and for much less money than men. After my father died my Mom decided to open our home to ladies and gentlemen from outlying districts that had come to work in Grand Rapids. They needed a place to stay where they could have their own room, their laundry done for them, and have good meals provided for them each day. One of these men owned a company and was quite successful. Some of these men were ‘just like brothers’ to me. A few of them actually married my high school girlfriends. One named his daughter after my mother.
My Mom and I got by. Actually it worked out swell. My mother certainly would not take hand-outs from the government.”
‘Country music didn’t look so bad all of a sudden’
There were no local radio programs which featured country music while Pat was growing up. However, WGRD began broadcasting ‘Cousin Ed’ Denkema’s country music program during 1949, while Pat was in her last year of high school. Denkema worked for WGRD until 1958.
Buck Barry and Ray Overholt also had their own country music radio shows during the 1950s on WOOD. Overholt also appeared on WOOD-TV from 1948 to 1952. Overholt’s radio program and his TV show were called “Ray’s Roundup.” Stuart Hamblen and Ray Price were among the guests on his show. 14 Hamblen was one of radio’s first singing cowboys on WBAP (Fort Worth), dating back to 1926.
Buck Barry also worked as a television personality for various WOOD-TV children’s programs during the 50s and 60s. Both Barry and Overholt were musicians, as well, who typically projected a ‘cowboy’ image. While Roger Miller was visiting Grand Rapids he watched Buck Barry’s TV show. Pat maintains that Miller recorded a satire called Kansas City Star which was based on Barry’s TV personality. It included the following lyrics:
“I come on TV grinnin,’ wearin’ pistols and a hat.
It’s a kiddy show and I’m a hero of the younger set.
I’m the number one attraction at every supermarket parking lot.”
Buck Barry with his horse, Thunder
Ray Overholt (Pat Boyd Holton collection)
Pat claims that despite her parent’s influence, she was “not really ‘big’ on country music until about the eleventh grade.” However, she had purchased a few records by Roy Acuff, Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams while still in high school. She bought them at Comstock Hardware store, located near the corner of Division and 44th Street.
She eventually “began to notice that some of the professional country ‘pickers’ were pretty good looking guys, so country music didn’t look so bad all of a sudden. I also liked the big band music which was popular when I was teenager. It was what you would hear at the school dances back then and what you listened to if you wanted to fit in.”
This is not the end of this article. Because of the length of this piece, it is being presented in seven sections. To read the remainder of the article, please click on the following six links:
(PART 2) Pat Boyd’s “Magnificent Obsession” – Part Two of Seven
(PART 3) Pat Boyd’s “Magnificent Obsession” – Part Three of Seven
(PART 4) Pat Boyd’s “Magnificent Obsession” – Part Four of Seven
(PART 5) Pat Boyd’s “Magnificent Obsession” – Part Five of Seven
(PART 6) Pat Boyd’s “Magnificent Obsession” – Part Six of Seven
(PART 7) Pat Boyd’s “Magnificent Obsession” – Part Seven of Seven
FS ~ 10-3-2014