On the surface, the term “reality show” sounds simple enough. Just let the cameras roll, and, voila!—real life, real people, are captured for your viewing pleasure. Discerning viewers, however, realize that the “reality” unfolding on their screens is frequently manipulated through crafty editing, controlled circumstances and an unnatural emphasis on drama. You can guess how a network might defend such practices: “No one will tune in to watch people simply being themselves, without conflict! Who would be crazy enough to do nothing more than roll the cameras?”
Meet Larry Black.
Among numerous other pursuits, Black has created two 60-minute programs that air weekly on rural-themed network RFD-TV. Both are fashioned around classic country music and both share the core elements of simplicity, spontaneity and sincerity—reality at its unaffected finest. The tagline for his “Larry’s Country Diner,” a show set in a fictional small-town eatery, says it perhaps best: “where the cameras are rolling and WE DON’T CARE!”
“Diner” is a marvel of minimalism and naturalness, featuring lead characters with genuine appeal but no prior acting experience (minus Black himself, an entertainment industry veteran who’s appeared in numerous movies and TV programs). It’s also a rarity in today’s TV world.
As Black figures it, “I don’t really know of another show that is totally improvised that has sustainability and that allows the artist to come in and just be themselves,” he says. “And you just capture it. And that’s the only way I wanna do it; I don’t wanna read cue cards.” Neither does Black want any cuts or edits. If a tray of food hits the floor (and it sometimes does), the action doesn’t stop. “We’re gonna shoot four segments,” says “Larry’s” easygoing namesake, “and whatever we get, we get.”
Musical guests are initially caught off-guard by the show’s loose-knit proceedings, which permits them an on-camera freedom most are not accustomed to. Says Renae Johnson, the show’s omnipresent waitress (and Black’s longtime secretary), “Sometimes it takes [our guests] a good five or ten minutes into the show for them to realize that anything goes. They get really into it. And they have a ball,” reports Johnson, “and then they want to come back.”
Ditto for viewers, some of whom tune in while on a two-year waiting list to scoot into a mismatched wooden chair on the “Diner” set for a live taping. Others head to Branson for the cast’s occasional live appearances or book themselves on Diner-based cruises that Black now offers to the show’s faithful cult of followers, who skew in the upper baby-boomer age group or older but include viewers of all ages.
Now entering its seventh year in the RFD-TV lineup, “Larry’s Country Diner” is reaching nearly a million and a half viewers per month—small potatoes to a major network, perhaps, but a pile of Yukon gold for the show’s creator and his like-minded team, who treasure this opportunity to create a product that reflects their personal values, honors the elders of country music and feeds an audience famished for wholesome fare.
Black buys the airtime for the show, partly because he has a recipe he isn’t willing to allow some network executive to tamper with. The other reason? “No one’s paying us to air our stuff,” Black says candidly. “We have to buy our way onto television. So we had to figure out a way to produce and sell [a DVD project], and make television shows out of it.” The solution appeared in 1997 in the form of “Country’s Family Reunion,” first seen on The Nashville Network.
“Reunion” is Black’s adaptation of gospel music entrepreneur Bill Gaither’s “Homecoming” series, which captured musical performances and behind-the-scenes interaction from older gospel acts whom the mainstream media had all but abandoned. With Gaither’s blessing, Black set about doing a similar project for country music’s similarly overlooked older generation and its many fans.
For “Reunion,” Black corrals a couple dozen or so seasoned country performers and, you guessed it, just lets the cameras roll. Songs and unplanned stories flow from the guests, whose common industry bonds prompt recollections, conversations and quips that might otherwise only be heard in private quarters such as an Opry dressing room. “Oftentimes,” says Black, “an artist will just go off on a tangent. Which is hilarious. They’ll say things
that, if you were gonna write a script, you would not ask them to say. I think that’s where some of the charm of it comes from.”
“Larry Black had a history of sharing stories with country music entertainers going back to his days as a DJ on WSM radio,” explains Grand Ole Opry star and “Reunion” regular Jeannie Seely. “He interviewed just about everybody in the business. He was smart enough to know that our fans would enjoy hearing these ‘inside and backstage’ happenings, too. It didn’t take much research,” Seely says, “to know that there was nothing like that on television for our people and that they were starved for authentic country music, to see and hear the artists they had followed for years.”
With the popularity of “Reunion” and “Diner” still on the rise, Black, now 71, has more opportunities to do what he enjoys perhaps most—being creative and then getting out of the way. “I love thinking about things and putting them on paper,” he says, “and then run ’em up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes. If enough people salute, then you can find some people to help you do it, and you turn it over to them.”
Black, who believes that micromanaging others “takes too much time,” attributes the beyond-expectations success of his shows to the collective strengths of his team. Black praises the capabilities of Jamie Amos and Patrick Kennedy, who produce the shows, and talent coordinator/musical director Terry Choate, confessing that he lacks their patience and task orientation. He describes his team members as “the baseboards that run around Nashville: everybody’s aware of what they do, but they don’t have a huge persona. But,” Black affirms, “they get stuff done.”
In turn, longtime associate Renae Johnson credits Black with having a gift for team-building and encouragement. “He looks at people and says, ‘This is your strength. Just go for it.’
He gave me the confidence to try things, and be more than just a secretary or a customer-service person,” says Johnson, who now produces show-themed merchandise and a fan newspaper currently mailed to several thousand subscribers. Earlier this year she released a book, “Diary of a TV Waitress,” which began as a means of answering ongoing viewer questions about “Diner.” Johnson says the lighthearted, photo-packed book was designed to further extend the personal connection that exists between the show’s makers and its watchers, even down to the bonus audio version read by Johnson herself.
A key motivator for her, as well as for Black, is the opportunity to connect with fans, who they like to call “customers.” “They have written us letters when their spouses have died and their kids have gotten married,” says Johnson. “The fans feel like family, and we want them to feel that way. Sometimes we’re the only family they have.”
This mutual interest in making and maintaining connection, in fact, led to plans for an actual, bricks-and-mortar Larry’s Country Diner located just southwest of Nashville, near Black’s Bellevue offices. It’s likely to open its doors by mid-2016, and when it does, says Black, “I probably will eat most meals there!
It’s going to be like a home for everybody [in the cast and crew], you know, that we just flow in and out of. We will probably have a fight,” says Black, laughing, “for Renae not to go over and be a waitress occasionally. She loves the people, she loves the interaction with them . . . but all of us are that way.”
The sense of mission within Black’s Gabriel Communications company—a quiet nod to the lifelong faith that once led him to a job as a pastor—is one in which the notion of kinship looms large. Says Rory Feek of husband-and-wife duo Joey + Rory, “When we were first invited to be on one of his television shows, the sense of family and the welcome that we received from him and his team was something we hadn’t experienced up ’til then. And personally,” Feek adds, “he inspires me as a man—how he treats others and his family; how he puts God first and is a complete open book to newcomers who need the kind of insight and wisdom that he has.”
The 49-year-old Feek, whose own songs are informed by vintage-country values, cites Black’s shows as an important platform not only for traditional country’s veteran artists but for its future as well. “He understands that there is a huge part of the American audience that misses and longs to hear the kind of music that still values storytelling and humility,” Feek says. “What Larry’s doing might seem old-school to some, but it’s actually very cutting-edge.”
In any case, what Black is doing is also resulting in a present-day career resurgence for many of the artists he’s given a television home. Just ask six-time country chart-topper Gene Watson. “There were a lot of people out there that thought that we had all retired, and that there wasn’t any traditional country music anymore, because the radio don’t play it,” Watson says.
“But Larry kind of brought that to the forefront, and put us all in front of the camera. Larry Black reignited our careers,” says the singer, who’s now playing to sellout crowds and working more than he has in 20 years, at far more attractive rates. “Larry Black has been instrumental in my career. That’s one guy that I think the world of,” says Watson, “and I think all of the traditional country music industry feels the same way.”
The upbeat and genial Black turns uncharacteristically serious as he explains the core motivation for his work, quoting a line from the book of Romans. “There’s a scripture that says ‘bring honor to whom honor is due.’ If you have something you do well, then you deserve honor for that. Some of the musicians may not have lived pristine lives,” allows Black, “but they are due honor. And I think our industry, the country music industry, does not honor them properly. So that’s why we do it.”
While Black concluded years ago that pastoring was not his true calling, his ministerial style of operation reveals a desire to serve others, which explains plenty about the faithfulness of his followers. Certainly the artists he’s championed, as well as the growing flock that tunes in religiously to watch his shows, have been blessed by Larry Black and company. As long as he’s behind the counter of Larry’s Country Diner, the daily bread will surely keep on coming, with service that’s second to none. We hear the coffee’s not bad, either.