On April 25, 1952, Niagara Falls welcomed a tall, gangly 29-year-old country singer by the name of Hank Williams. Williams – not to be confused with his son, Hank Williams Jr. – was playing the Capitol Theater.
He bantered with the audience, then sang and yodeled his way through a set including “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Why Don’t You Love Me?” and the haunting “The Funeral.” At the end, he bade the audience a unique goodbye.
“God bless all of you,” Williams says. “Don’t never worry about nothing, cause there ain’t nothing gonna be all right no-how, you can count on that. So, good night, here. Bye!”
Then a clear tenor voice cut in, rapid and confident. The voice of Ramblin’ Lou Schriver.
“Friends, let’s give him a hand for a job well done. ... Thanks very much friends, on behalf of all the boys ... and from yours truly, Ramblin’ Lou.”
Ramblin’ Lou was 22 when he booked that show. Sixty years later, he got a phone call from Time/Life. A rare recording of the Niagara Falls show had turned up and Time/Life was releasing it on a CD called “Hank Williams: The Lost Concerts.”
For the country music world, it was like something out a dream. Williams had died of a heart attack just months after that gig. It was one of only two recorded Hank Williams shows known to exist. Poignantly, they played it for Ramblin’ Lou over the phone.
“I heard my own voice,” he said. Eyes twinkling beneath his trademark Stetson, he added: “And I said, ‘I guess I can’t deny this.’ ”
The whole world has Ramblin’ Lou to thank for that priceless recording. Western New York has him to thank for so much more.
For almost 70 years, Ramblin’ Lou has been the soul of country music in Western New York. His station, WXRL 1300 AM, a rare independent station, is like something out of the 1950s. His family staffs it, and though he has nothing against new country songs, the station plays mostly the old. Ramblin’ Lou himself is at the mic six days a week.
The WXRL bus tours are legend, taking groups of Buffalonians to Nashville, Tenn., Branson, Mo., and Dollywood.
And this year, the Erie County Fair is celebrating 50 years of Ramblin’ Lou and his Family Band.
Luckily for his fans, he’s playing the Tops Avenue of Flags stage. “He’d have his own little concert area for years,” said Dwane Hall, owner of the Sportsmen’s Tavern. “You couldn’t get a seat.”
Hall and Ramblin’ Lou go way back.
“My mom would sit at the kitchen table with a seven-inch reel-to-reel tape recorder. She’d record his shows so we could later go back and listen to them. She’d record the new songs, and I would learn to sing them. He is really a famous guy outside the city,” Hall added. “If you go to Nashville, they have a big, big bust of him hanging on the wall, in the Country Music Hall of Fame.”
Growing up, Hall particularly admired the guitar artistry of Ramblin’ Lou’s wife, Joanie Marshall. “She used to play a double neck guitar. It was a dream for us – wouldn’t it be great to have one? She had her name going right down the middle of it, ‘Joanie Marshall.’
“We all looked up to Ramblin’ Lou. He was the cat.”
At 85, the cat moves a little more slowly than he used to. Ramblin’ Lou broke a hip a few years ago, and uses a walker. At a show, he shakes a tambourine from a sitting position.
But he continues to do all the talking.
On stage recently at M&T Plaza, he congratulated a couple on their anniversary. From there he launched into a story.
“Wife tells her husband, she loves fast things. Fast cars, things like that,” he said. “She says, ‘I want something that’s gonna go from 1 to 250 in two seconds flat.” He pauses. “So he bought her a bathroom scale.”
The crowd cracked up at this old vaudeville humor. “People like to laugh,” Lou said later. “It’s all clean.”
Besides Joanie and Lou, the band boasts Lou Jr. on drums, Lori Ann on violin and Lynn Carol on keyboards. Daughter Linda Lou plays bass and is an Eastman School of Music grad. Her clear, sweet voice has won her top spots in local jingles, including “Tops Never Stops.” Lou’s teenage grandchildren, in addition, get one song per gig.
Lou and Joanie’s four children all work at WXRL. Country music, they admit, has always been pretty much involuntary.
Once, Linda recalled, her mom offered her a bass amp as a reward for acing algebra. Recalling those days, she laughed about the time a school friend excitedly showed her a new Beatles album.
“I’m like, ‘Who are they?’ ” she said. “All we heard at home was Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn.”
For Lou Jr., who at 50, has inherited his dad’s boyish look, grade school humiliation came in the form of a Buffalo Evening News story that likened him and Linda to Donny and Marie Osmond.
“I walked into class and everyone was saying, ‘Hey, Donny,’” he laughed. “That day was interesting.”
Ramblin’ Lou grew up country in the City of Tonawanda.
He got his first guitar when his father, a barber, gave a customer a haircut in exchange for it. “I still see the guy. He lives in Clarence,” Ramblin’ Lou said. “He comes up to me and says, ‘Do you remember me?’ I learned to play it myself. We didn’t have much money.”
In the 1950s, he made his mark as deejay and program director at WJJL in Niagara Falls, and by performing at the Grand Ol’ Opry and the WWVA Jamboree. WWVA was a fabled station in Wheeling, W.Va., dating to 1935.
He left WJJL when the station changed focus. “My boss was not a country fan, so I left in ‘64 to go to Buffalo. I asked, ‘Can I buy the records?’ He said, ‘You can have them.’ ”
After a colorful stint at WWOL, a station converting to country, a station came up for grabs, and so he founded WXRL.
Rhinestone Niagara Falls
On a typical Thursday, Ramblin’ Lou signs on at 1 p.m. with the late Wilf Carter singing “Two Little Girls in Blue.” Unhurried songs follow, mostly by dead artists, all about time passing, love gone wrong, heard-earned wisdom and goodbyes.
Lou is a man of few words. “Right now we got one by Tammy Wynette,” is a typical intro. He does commercials himself. “That is a terrific deal,” he says of a special on Shur-Fine vegetables.
Besides a trove of country, WXRL boasts 3,500 classical albums. “I’ve got so many records,” Lou boasted. “Someone brought in 78s last week.” He plays 78s, using a special turntable, on his Saturday show “Old Country Church.”
WXRL’s walls are plastered with pictures. A framed letter from President Ronald Reagan begins: “As a former member of the broadcast fraternity …”
One shot shows Lou in a suit picturing Niagara Falls in rhinestones. It was custom made by Nudie Cohn, who designed Elvis’ gold lame suit as well as suits for John Lennon, Elton John, George Jones and Cher.
Countless artists beam from portraits. Ramblin’ Lou made history by bringing country acts to Kleinhans Music Hall, wildly popular events reported on in Billboard magazine.
“They said to me, ‘Country? You can’t bring country to Kleinhans.’ I brought Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, BoxCar Willie, Dolly Parton.” The family grows misty recalling the time Faron Young sang “This Little Girl of Mine” on the Kleinhans stage to Linda Lou, who was then a toddler.
One of the wildest artists Lou booked, luckily not for Kleinhans, was Jerry Lee Lewis. Lewis ended his show in Youngstown by destroying the upright piano Lou had rented for him. “He ripped out all the hammers and threw them into the crowd.”
Next to Jerry Lee Lewis, the unpredictable, alcoholic Hank Williams Sr. was manageable. “He knew I had booked him,” Lou said, implying that not everyone had that level of understanding.
Many of those singers are gone now, but the music continues on WXRL, and at the Erie County Fair.
“He’s always kept it country,” Dwane Hall said of Ramblin’ Lou.
Linda Lou, fielding requests at the WXRL reception desk, acknowledged that.
“It’s a tradition,” she said.