Ralph Emery, a radio and TV personality whose steady voice and buttoned-up likeness were synonymous with country music, has died. According to a statement from his family, Emery died Saturday at a Nashville hospital. He was 88.
Along with being a DJ at Nashville radio stations like WSIX and the legendary WSM, the home of the Grand Ole Opry, Emery became the face of The Nashville Network (TNN). From 1983 until 1993, he hosted the cable channel’s primetime talk show Nashville Now, interviewing legends of the genre: Waylon Jennings, Chet Atkins, John Prine, Keith Whitley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Crystal Gayle, and Barbara Mandrell all sat across from Emery’s desk.
While country music was the bedrock of the series, rock singers, adult-contemporary crooners, and politicians also made appearances. Neil Young and Waylon Jennings sat for an interview and performance in 1984, Grand Funk Railroad’s Mark Farner sang “I’m Your Captain” in 1989, and Wayne Newton paid tribute to Elvis Presley in a melodramatic 1992 performance. Most notably, a month before the 1992 presidential election, Emery interviewed candidate Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, along with Al Gore and Tipper Gore, peppering them with questions about jobs and, for Gore, the health of the planet. The Democratic ticket would win the White House a few weeks later.
Emery was a Tennessee native, born March 10, 1933, in the town of McEwen, about an hour west of Nashville. He began his radio career in 1951, working for a spell at WTPR in Paris, Tennessee, before relocating to Nashville. He landed at WSM in 1957 and stayed at the home of the Opry until 1972. Along the way, he began to make inroads into television, launching his on-camera career in earnest in 1963 with the local show Opry Almanac. The series Sixteenth Avenue and The Ralph Emery Show followed.
During an appearance by Johnny Cash on his eponymous Ralph Emery Show, he measuredly asked the country singer about the burning of the U.S. flag. “John, how do you feel about burning the flag?” he asked. “Do you feel we should have a law against burning the flag — an amendment if you will?” “Yeah, I do,” Cash replied somberly, going on to share a personal story of a visit to Vietnam in 1969.
But while Emery went on to host other series like Pop Goes the Country and Nashville Alive, it was his decade at Nashville Now that introduced him to fans nationwide.
The broadcaster published his memoir, Memories: The Autobiography of Ralph Emery, in 1991. The next year, during the Clinton/Gore appearance, he ribbed then-Tennessee senator Gore, who was promoting his book Earth in the Balance, about Memories’ 25 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. “How long were you on there?” Emery quipped. “I just thought I would put the knife in a little bit.”
Emery — known as “The Dean of Country Music Broadcasters” was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007. He joined the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2010.
CMT personality and DJ Cody Alan remembered Emery on Twitter as “an amazing conversationalist, brilliant broadcaster and one of the genre’s truly great ambassadors.”