By DAVID JONES
Editor at Large
OKLAHOMA COUNTRY: Billy Parker started young in country radio. At 14, he played backup guitar for radio station KNED. After that, he worked for various radio stations as a disc jockey before becoming the front man for the Tulsa Troubadours. Above, Parker stands with Don White, middle, and Rodney Lay, right, at the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.
If you look at the official website, it will tell you that Tulsa country broadcasting legend Billy Parker began his radio career on radio station in 1959. That, the 75-year-old Parker laughingly admits, is not quite the truth. “I dropped out of school after the ninth grade and found myself in McAlester where I met a man named Carl Garnand who played the guitar and sang. He had a show on radio station and he hired me in 1951 when I was 14 to play backup guitar. We did a 15-minute show every weekday from the Aldredge Hotel with a 30-minute show on Saturdays.” Did Parker’s guitar wizardry set the musical world on fire? “I was awful,” he says.
For the next eight years, Parker knocked about, even including in his resume a stint at a classical music station in Golden, Colo. “I couldn’t pronounce a lot of the names,” he says, “but, happily, my duties pretty much just included putting the music on and giving weather reports.”
The next dozen years found Parker in a variety of positions. He had stints at stations in Wichita, Kan., and Oklahoma City and did some performing of his own. In 1968, Ernest Tubb, a major country artist at the time, had Billy become the front man for the Texas Troubadours, the lead-in act for Tubb’s band.
Through Tubb, Parker met the biggest names in the business and formed friendships that have lasted to this day. But Tubb, by virtue of being constantly in demand, was always on the road, and Parker, who had a young son and was rarely seeing him, decided to drop out of the traveling scene. He found refuge with radio station in Tulsa.
“I did the nighttime show from midnight to 5 a.m.,” he recalls. “People would call in requests and by the end of the night we would have handled around 350 phone calls. Being a 50,000-watt station, we had a wide range of listeners over several states. I loved it.”
The public apparently loved him right back. Only three years after he had begun at , the Country Music Association named him the country disc jockey of the year. He won similar awards from the Academy of Country Music in 1977, 1978 and 1984. In 1992, he made the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame, followed in 1993 with a place in the Western Swing Hall of Fame. In 1995, the Oklahoma Broadcasters Association presented him with the lifetime achievement award. He is in the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. He has even tried his hand at songwriting.
In all that time, Parker has seen a lot of changes in country music, not all of it to his liking. “What drew me to country music was its honesty and the way people played and sang from the heart,” says Parker. “Of course you usually wind up liking what you grew up with, but my all-time favorite country artist is still Hank Williams, Sr. There was a plainness and honesty in him that has never been surpassed.”
Ask Parker who he remembers most fondly, and he’ll come up with names like his old friend Ernest Tubb, plus Roy Acuff, Tex Ritter, Loretta Lynn and Faron Young as special favorites. These, he feels, were the no-nonsense singers who pierced right to the essence of a song. Parker also holds a special fondness for Roy Clark. “He’s a picker, a singer and he has heart.” Among the newer singers, he mentions Vince Gill, George Strait and Alan Jackson.
“In the old days, western bands had a distinct sound with guitars and fiddles and steel guitars, and if you turned to a country station you knew immediately it was a country station. Now the fiddles have been replaced by lush violins and the feeling just isn’t the same. “You could understand the lyrics of the songs then, now too often they seem muffled by the orchestrations.
“I’m not putting down the young country singers. People like Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift are enormously talented but, to my mind, they’re not really country.”
The kind of country that he loves he is helping keep alive through his current show on -FM (Big Country 99.5). He continues broadcasting, he says, just because he loves doing what he does. “I go in on Wednesdays and tape my show. It plays from 8-10 a.m. on Saturdays, and the same show is repeated from 8-10 p.m. on Sundays.”
At the age of 75 how long does he think he’ll continue? “I go to the station every week, and if they don’t say ‘leave’ then I’ll stay.”