We can’t believe we’re only about 75 miles from Manhattan.
Seated within the Virginia Napurano Cultural Arts Center in Sergeantsville, the “old-time live radio barn dance show” Heartlands Hayride is about to go on the air, on WDVR FM on 89.7 in Delaware Township, and 96.9 in the Trenton area, as well as 90.5 in Easton, Pennsylvania. As the musicians tune up and do a sound check, it’s like a backstage peek at the Grand Ole Opry, the venerable country and bluegrass broadcast out of Nashville.
But this is New Jersey — and New York City is a heartbeat away — so there’s a moment of cognitive disconnect.
We had heard about Heartlands Hayride and had been curious for a while about the live performance and simulcast. So on a rainy Saturday afternoon, we meandered up the roads of Hunterdon County, arriving at the Napurano Cultural Arts Center, housed in the picturesque former Brethren Church. We entered the building and found the Hatfield, Pennsylvania-based Flint Hill Express band tuning up in the lobby.
We could smell the aroma of home-cooked food available upstairs in “Dottie’s Diner.” Dottie is Dottie Kurzenberger, who greets you as you enter the performance space to buy tickets; her husband, Paul, was roaming the space taking pictures and handing out cowbells to the audience. The Kurzenbergers volunteer as administrative support for Heartlands Hayride, which is ably engineered by Patrick Clifford.
Strains of the old Bob Wills song “San Antonio Rose” could be heard coming from the stage, where Ben Lawson was practicing on the pedal steel guitar. He’s part of the “Hayride Band,” the house band that backs up the guest and featured artists, and plays quite a bit on its own. The band — that gets paid “a little, but not a lot,” according to Heartlands Hayride executive producer, director, and emcee Rich Evans — is rounded out by Bill Brandon, Al Kessel, Bill Ponnett, Jim Thompson, and Kyle Miholics.
This particular evening there was a little bit of a scramble as a couple of the Hayride guys were unavailable. No worries, the rest of the band was to perform commendably.
Doors open at 4:30 p.m., and if you go, you might want to get there this early, as the former sanctuary fills up quickly with regular Hayride devotees. People even have their seats in the pews reserved in a room that supposedly holds some 150 people, which would be really close quarters.
Heartlands Hayride was created in the summer of 2000 by the late Frank “Napp” Napurano and Virginia “Ginny” Napurano, and Evans was also involved from the start. Frank Napurano founded WDVR in 1990, then served as its president and general manager.
Heartlands Hayride debuted on September 30, 2000, in the Loft at Studio D, a large studio on the second floor of WDVR’s studio building. When the audience grew beyond capacity, the show then moved to the Brethren Church, and then was located at the Kingwood Township Fire Hall in Baptistown.
Since 2010, when WDVR purchased the property at 522 Rosemont-Ringoes Road, the Napurano Cultural Arts Center has served as the venue for Heartlands Hayride, and other live music presentations.
“Frank, who passed away earlier this year, wanted to have this kind of show,” Evans says. “There were a lot of shows like this in the 1940s, but they started with the National Barn Dance from WLS in Chicago — before the Grand Ole Opry. This kind of radio barn dance show disappeared in the 1950s and ‘60s, so we wanted to provide the kind of radio entertainment that existed in this bygone era.”
Evans, 79, a former mechanical engineer who had a long career with Brooks Instrument in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, possesses a natural radio voice, and has been on the air at WDVR for 17 years, with several different shows, including “Echoes from the Hills,” his bluegrass broadcast that airs Mondays at noon. He also does a big block of programming on Saturdays, starting at noon with “Classic Country Gold,” then segueing to “Bluegrass Junction” from 1 to 4 p.m.
The Sellersville, Pennsylvania, resident has also been involved in broadcasts at various radio stations in the Lehigh Valley.
“We’re (almost) all volunteers,” Evans says. “We have very low expenses and that’s why it’s only $12 for admission. We give a lot of show for such little money.”
Heartlands Hayride has hosted some major new country talent, such as Tracy Grammer and Moot Davis, as well as many great bluegrass bands like Dixie Highway, the Sugar Sand Ramblers, Louie Setzer and the Appalachian Mountain Boys, and Mark Miklos and the Raritan Valley Ramblers, to name a few.
Back at the “barn dance,” Evans stands on the left of the stage at the microphone, dressed in a blue shirt and bright orange tie, wearing a white cowboy hat, doing a sound check, reminding the audience that, “when the light goes on, we’re on the air.”
He encourages “hootin’ and hollering” as well as cowbell ringing to amplify the merriment of the live broadcast, which goes out potentially all over the world through www.wdvrfm.org — apparently there are fans at a military base in Point Barrow, Alaska, as Evans says, “at the top of the world.”
All the musicians gather onstage to sing the Heartlands Hayride theme song, and there’s a crackle of excitement in the audience as we hear the WDVR announcer, in the studio just up the road, give the station identification at 6 p.m. sharp. Evans has the two-hour event timed almost to perfection.
The broadcast and concert begins to hearty applause as Evans welcomes the live and radio audience to Heartlands Hayride, “a down home trip back to a bygone era,” he says. “We’re going to set the clock back, so you can have the kind of fun on a Saturday night that you won’t regret on a Sunday morning.”
The house band plays “San Antonio Rose” and a few minutes later singer/guitarist Chris Val, a regular who has been a musical force with Heartlands Hayride since its beginnings, comes onstage. He sings “I’d Just be a Fool to Fall,” then “Honky Tonk Gal,” in a plaintive tenor, even launching into the stratosphere for some yodeling, which brings a rally of applause and clanging cowbells.
Another regular, Nancy Supkoe, takes the stage to perform “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” and the Conway Twitty hit, “Fifteen Years Ago.” Evans says she’s a former cabaret singer, and you can hear her professionalism in her finely tuned voice and style. Supkoe also hosts a country music show, “Nashville Nightlife,” Thursdays at 7 p.m. on WDVR.
The people in the audience, mostly from nearby towns in Hunterdon County, listen politely, nodding and tapping their toes along with the music, singing along here and there, and even dancing in the rear of the room, near the soundboard.
Len Rambo, from Califon in Hunterdon County, and another regular, comes onstage in a pink shirt and white cowboy hat, to sing, among other old favorites, “Cash on the Barrel Head,” and to tell a few jokes. Chuck “Cowboy Chuck” Pierman, who has also been performing on Heartlands Hayride since the beginning, is another jokester, and he sports a cowboy-style neckerchief, reminiscent of Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers’ garb.
Pierman even has a little humorous shtick with Evans, sharing the kind of gentle old jokes your dad probably likes. There is nothing mean-spirited or snarky about the humor, in fact the whole atmosphere is genteel and welcoming.
After half-past-six and another station identification, the featured band Flint Hill Express appears, comprising rhythm guitar, upright bass, five-string banjo, mandolin, and vocals. Self-described as “A Blend of Bluegrass, Gospel, and Folk Music, with a Nice Touch of Country,” Flint Hill Express kicks off the set with “Ring The Bell,” which brings a torrent of cowbells at the chorus.
A traditional tune by the Stanley Brothers and an instrumental called “Saint Anne’s Reel” follow; they then wrap up their first set with “Everybody’s Reaching Out for Someone,” featuring Jude Ruth’s lovely lead vocals.
The second half of the evening of music follows smoothly, and at one point, Evans reminds listeners that Heartlands Hayride is always looking for new talent, and auditions are easy to arrange, through him.
Evans grew up in the Ambler-Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, area when it was still quite rural; his father owned a couple of successful bituminous concrete (blacktop) plants and a quarry; his mother died when he was only 13. He says his family, like many families at the time, gathered around the radio to listen to great on-air dramas and serials like “Captain Midnight,” “Superman,” and “The Lone Ranger,” as well as music.
“It was also the golden age of country music,” Evans says. “My parents loved music on the radio, we all loved radio, and back then it was mostly country. It was the standard music of the land, before pop and rock and roll.”
Evans graduated from Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, in 1955. He then started his college career at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York, dropped out, then resumed his higher education at Temple University, graduating in 1971, with a BSME. He later returned to Temple, earning an MBA in 1990.
You have to go back quite a ways to find Evans’ favorite country performers, such as Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, and Roy Acuff — definitely not the pop-country coming out of Nashville today.
“As far as bluegrass, my favorites would be Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers, all members of the first generation of bluegrass performers,” he says.
Running and hosting Heartlands Hayride is really a labor of love for Evans, and so are his country and bluegrass radio shows. He drives at least 30 miles from his home to WDVR’s studios twice a week. He also “curates” his own shows, which means he is always on the lookout for country and bluegrass music, collecting in all media, CDs, vinyl, cassettes, even 78-rpms.
“I have plenty of music, always buying up new stuff, at my own expense,” he says. “I also prepare the paperwork, scheduling and whatnot for Heartlands Hayride. It’s all volunteer on my part, but the joy of seeing it become a success is the benefit for me.”
Heartlands Hayride, WDVR FM’s live, radio barn dance /country music variety show, produced, directed, and emceed by Rich Evans, at the Virginia Napurano Cultural Arts Center, 522 Route 604 (Rosemont-Ringoes Road), Sergeantsville, second and fourth Saturdays each month, 6 to 8 p.m. Doors open at 4:30 p.m. Next live show is on Saturday, September 12, with Maria Rose and Danny Elswick, plus Without a Paddle. $12 adults; $6 children age 12 and under. 609-397-1620 or www.wdvrfm.org/hayride1.htm.
Heartlands Hayride live broadcast, 6 to 8 p.m., WDVR FM 89.7 in Delaware Township, 90.5 in Easton, Pennsylvania, with a translator at 96.9 FM in the Trenton area. Streams live at listener-supported www.wdvrfm.org.
For performer auditions, contact Rich Evans at 215-257-8906 or firstname.lastname@example.org.