Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Powerhouse from Alabaster, Alabama (Part 1)

For the last week and a half, I'd been thinking about a young performer who was a regular on a syndicated TV series called Nashville on the Road. She was a regular on this country music show from its debut in 1975 to 1981 (NOTR limped along for another two years afterwards). 

At first, the show's cohosts were singer Jim Ed Brown and comic Jerry Clower; every week, they'd introduce a guest or two (as well as the show's two regular acts).

That's right...I like almost all forms of music, and that includes country. 

One late Saturday night in 1976, I was flipping channels...and ran into Nashville on the Road, which, at that time, was locally (the Des Moines/Ames area) on WOI-TV, the Des Moines/Ames area's ABC station. 

I noticed this thirteen-year-old girl who was picking a mean, mean banjo and moving along to her own (and her bandmates') beat.

She hooked me...and things got to the point where, every Saturday night at 10:30 PM (Central time), I'd flip the station over to "ABC5" and check out Jim Ed, Jerry, the Cates Sisters (their successors, the Fairchilds, were replaced in 1977 by singer Helen Cornelius), and that young instrumentalist-singer-comic.

Instead of getting ready to blow out 53 candles this coming 4-19-2016, Wendy Lou Holcombe passed away on 2-14-1987.

At age 23.

Of a heart attack. 

At the time Wendy died, I was into my first stint of living here in Omaha...and working two jobs (I was an inventory specialist and a pizza-delivery driver at this time in 1987). I was coming back from my job at Domino's (that's right, THAT Domino's) when I turned on my TV, started flipping through channels, and I stopped at The Nashville Network...the forerunner of today's Spike.

When the news came on about the death of the most famous performer to ever come out of Alabaster, AL, I was completely flabbergasted.

Wendy Holcombe- that total bundle of energy- dead? At 23? Of heart failure? How'd that happen?  

Then I got to thinking about the fact that not one single sizable recording company offered her a contract. 

What stopped the record industry's Billy Sherrills, Owen Bradleys, and Chet Atkinses from having Holcombe sign her John Hancock to a recording contract? If not age, what? 

I still, to this very day, feel it all came down to dirty rotten, filthy sexism.

I mean, at a time when Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell, and Roni Stoneman (she of Hee Haw fame) were showing what they could do with five strings, the thinking in corporate boardrooms was (and, in too many cases, still is) that a banjo is a man's instrument. After all, Uncle Dave Macon, Grandpa Jones, and Earl Scruggs led the way. (Oops...I should've mentioned Earl first!)

A man's instrument.

That was the way it was supposed to work out in the house where Bill and Helen Holcombe were raising their three children when, sometime in 1974, Bill brought a used banjo home (it even came with an instruction booklet and an instruction record). 

Bill struggled for two months to be the next Roy Clark or, well, Earl Scruggs...but, in the end, he couldn't even get one tune down. Wendy begged for the chance to see what she could do with that banjo, only to get turned down by her father: "This banjo is too expensive for you to fool around with."

Wendy found an ally in her mother.

Helen let the then eleven-year-old pick around with Bill's pride-and-joy while Bill was off at his nine-to-five. By the time that afternoon session came to end, Wendy mastered "Mountain Dew" and other numbers her dad tried to learn.

And when Bill came home from his job, he was so impressed with Wendy's version of "Dew" that he let her keep the same banjo he'd struggled with.

Helen's and Bill's little daughter practiced on that banjo day and night; she'd take it out to the Holcombes' barn and try her music out on her cows, goats, and horses. 

It paid off, because Wendy went on to win $50 at a county fair talent show...and that led to her going to nearby Birmingham to appear on TV's The Country Boy Eddie Show. 

WLH's big break was just up the road...Interstate 65, that is.

After seven months of pickin', Wendy wanted to go to Nashville's Grand Ole Opry to celebrate her twelfth birthday.

Bill and Wendy couldn't get tickets (you needed- and still need- to get those ducats in advance), so father and daughter decided to hang around Music City for a few hours. At the first music shop they ran into, WLH saw a snazzy-looking banjo and asked for permission to test it out.

Holcombe's version of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" attracted the bass player in Stoneman's band. He then took the young picker and her dad to a nightclub, where she played a few songs onstage...while "Billy Jack" met a promoter who said he could get the Two Holcombes backstage at Opryland.

That's where Wendy Holcombe met Roy Acuff.

Next thing she knew, she ended up backstage playing alongside his Smoky Mountain Boys, Jones, and several other Opry regulars. And that led to an appearance the next night at the "Midnight Jamboree" at Ernest Tubb's Record Shop.

And that spawned appearances on two other TV shows: The Porter Wagoner Show and Pop! Goes the Country. 

And then...and the fall of '75: NOTR, put out by the same production company that came up with Pop! Goes the Country. 

Because of Nashville on the Road, Wendy Lou closed out 1975 by fulfilling her lifelong wish.

She performed at the Grand Ole Opry. 

On the main stage this time.

And what's more, Wendy Lou worked alongside Jim Ed at the Opry that night.

With Nashville on the Road becoming a hit, things continued to look up for "Muley's" and Cindy's kid sister, who went on to master the fiddle, the guitar, the mandolin, and the dobro...and topped that off by playing trumpet in her school's band back in Alabaster. 

All of that from a teenager who, at first, took piano lessons.

And as the 1970s started to morph into the 1980s, Wendy wanted to become a total entertainer. (She wanted to try acting...and in the process, follow Johnny Cash.)

Non-NOTR TV appearances began to mount up for the Alabaster Kid; they included turns on shows like Big Blue Marble, The Mike Douglas Show, and The New Mickey Mouse Club. And in 1979, she appeared on a Christmas special on ABC; the show was hosted by none other than Loni Anderson, of WKRP in Cincinnati fame; and Robert Urich, who was knocking 'em dead on that network's (ABC's) Vega$.  

Well, a guest shot on Hee Haw took Wendy's life in another direction...and we're going to look at that direction when we come back.

SHOUT-OUT TIME: A lot of this information came from an excellent Website, (Check it out whenever you get a chance!) 

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