"How's Gram?" Emery asked.
"Still dead, Ralph," answered McGuinn.
Emery's career, by contrast, is anything but. With more than 1 million nightly viewers, his nine-year-old Nashville Now is the most popular show on the Nashville Network. In addition, 445 radio stations carry Emery's taped interviews with country music stars. And recently Emery's autobiography, Memories (which even coauthor Tom Carter called "a literary dark horse"), passed the 300,000-copies-sold mark and leaped all the way to No. 2 on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list. So what is Emery's secret? "He don't sing, he don't dance, he just talks—but he does that as good as anybody," theorizes Jerry Whitehurst, Emery's Nashville Now musical director. Or, as the 59-year-old Emery puts it himself, "I may kid you, but I never try to hurt you, and I'll never ask you about anything I think would be painful."
Over his 40 years in broadcasting, Emery has been credited with helping to establish the careers of Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Lorrie Morgan and Randy Travis, among many others. Emery "has launched almost as many country music careers as NASA has rockets," says pop kingmaker Dick Clark, who interviewed Emery for an upcoming TNN special.
Of course, there were also a few who got away. When the Byrds tried to get Emery to play their countrified Sweetheart of the Rodeo album on his radio show in 1968, he refused to turn over his airwaves to people he considered rock-and-roll hippies. Emery's attitude prompted band members Parsons and McGuinn to write the satirical ditty "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man," about a redneck deejay ("He's a drug store truck drivin' man/ He's the head of the Ku Klux Klan"), and dedicate it to Emery. "The pen being mightier than the sword," explains McGuinn.
These days, however, all is forgiven. "We manage to chuckle about it now," says ex-Byrd Chris Hillman, who sometimes appears on Nashville Now with his Desert Rose Band.
And while Emery's penchant for asking out-of-left-held questions has led some artists to term a Nashville Now appearance "getting Ralphed," Emery won't rethink his improvised interviewing techniques. ("People remember when you screw up longer than they remember when you get it right," he says.) Nor will he apologize for his traditionalism and allegiance to the country music industry. After all, he says, "we've grown up together."
For him, the process began on a farm in McEwen, Tenn., where he remembers gathering round the family radio with his mother and grandparents to hear the Grand Ole Opry. (Ralph's mother divorced his father when Emery was 4.) After high school, Emery went to broadcasting school, he says, "simply because I wanted to be somebody." He started as an announcer at radio stations in Tennessee and Louisiana, then landed a job as overnight disc jockey at Nashville's WSM. His show lasted 15 years and became an after-hours hangout for stars like Marty Robbins and Patsy Cline. "Of course, when you're making history, you're not aware of it," Emery says.
In 1962, Emery became a Grand Ole Opry announcer and, a year later, the host of his own morning TV talk show, an endeavor he continued until last November. But the strains of all-night radio and early-morning TV soon began to take their toll. In 1966, Emery remembers, "I told a studio musician I was having a hard time getting up emotionally, that my butt was dragging, so he gave me an amphetamine. I felt much better, but I got so I was taking more and more with my own prescription and got hung up on them for about five years." Breaking the habit, Emery says, was difficult. "I went into withdrawal where I didn't want to see anybody or interview anybody, so I'd lock the studio door and just play records," he says. But he credits third wife Joy, 45, an interior designer he married in 1967, with helping him through it.
"I used to get married for the wrong reasons," says Emery, who was previously wed (twice) to high school sweetheart Betty Fillmore, and once, for a tumultuous four years, to country singer Skeeter Davis. "Joy," he says, "has saved me."
With Nashville Now cut to 60 minutes from 90—and guest hosts subbing for him each Monday—Emery, the father of three (Steve, 38, Michael, 24, and Kit, 22) and grandfather of three, is spending more time at his 4,500-square-foot Brentwood, Tenn., home, contemplating a sequel to Memories. But the cable show remains his priority. "I plan to do Nashville Now" he says, "till they run me off."
JANE SANDERSON in Nashville