Originally created 03/13/98

TNN variety show has had many faces



The Nashville Network's prime-time variety show has been billed under three names since the cable network went on the air 15 years ago, but it has kept the same basic formula of most late night talk shows.

Good conversation with star guests and strong musical performances by those guests have been at the heart of the 9 p.m. program, no matter who has been host.

Originally, the show was called Nashville Now, with Ralph Emery as the host. Mr. Emery had worked with Nashville's WSM radio and television and was the host of the syndicated series Pop Goes The Country.

Nashville Now was originally broadcast from a small nightclub in the Opryland Hotel. When it became clear that Nashville tourists wanted to see the show, it was moved to the larger Gaslight Theatre at the Opryland amusement park.

That's where the Lewis Family bluegrass-gospel group of Lincolnton, Ga., taped their first live album.

In 1993, Mr. Emery chose semi-retirement from The Nashville Network. He still makes frequent appearances on his in-depth interview specials. His next one, Ralph Emery on the Record With Olivia Newton-John, airs at 10 p.m. Wednesday, April 15.

When Mr. Emery gave up his show, Lorianne Crook and Charlie Chase (sort of country music's Regis and Kathie Lee) took over the program, and its name was changed to Music City Tonight.

They already had been very popular on The Nashville Network as co-hosts of their own interview show, Crook & Chase. They left in December 1995 over "creative differences" and to pursue syndicated efforts.

For several months, a list of has-been celebrities and yet-to-be known faces tried the host's chair.

The TNN powers-that-be decided on Tom Wopat, an overweight actor who had recorded several country albums that bombed and who had co-starred on The Dukes of Hazard TV series with John Schneider.

Along with the new "permanent" host came a new name for the show: Prime Time Country.

Mr. Wopat, a really nice and sincere guy, was the wrong person for the job. And, to make sure he wouldn't succeed, the network's design team came up with one of the ugliest sets in TV history. Some insiders swore it must have been designed as a parting gift by Miss Crook and Mr. Chase.

It took only 3 ‡ months for Mr. Wopat and TNN to come to an amicable d-i-v-o-r-c-e.

Along came Gary Chapman, a gospel music singer and songwriter, who got the job after eight times as guest host. His official first day was Oct. 7, 1996.

In January, the show moved from the old Gaslight Theatre at Opryland into the rear of the Grand Ole Opry House. Ironically, it was the same room where the show's original host, Mr. Emery, had taped his Pop Goes The Country show and where the series Hee Haw was filmed.

Mr. Chapman was asked recently if he ever felt the ghosts from the great stars who once used that room.

He laughed and replied, "Every now and then, the spirit of Junior Samples comes over me."