1 9 6 5 – 1 9 9 2 (Canada)
Known as “Canada’s Country Gentleman”, Tommy Hunter was for many years one of Canada’s most popular and well-known television personalities.
He became a fixture on Canadian television as the host of The Tommy Hunter Show, one of North America’s longest-running variety shows, and is also one of the few figures in Canadian popular music to have evolved through television rather than through recording and radio airplay. He has received numerous awards for his role in television, in country music, and in Canadian cultural life.
The London, Ontario native’s career in television started when he was 19 years old on Country Hoedown, a weekly country music programme produced and aired at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), where Hunter would spend the rest of his television career.
The show was an on-stage revue with a house band and featured various musical guests both from Canada and the US.
Starting out as a rhythm guitarist, Hunter soon became a featured performer on the show, leading to his own daily noontime CBC radio programme, The Tommy Hunter Show. It became a television series in 1965.
Much of Country Hoedown‘s format and tone were carried over into The Tommy Hunter Show. Over its 27-year run on CBC (1965 to 1992) the show was noted for nurturing Canadian country music, which it showcased alongside big-name American country stars.
Hunter wanted to break with the hokey, country-hick feel characterised by shows like Hee Haw, though, and tried to present country music as “respectable”.
The result was a programme that some labelled a country version of Lawrence Welk. Inspired by television variety show hosts such as Johnny Carson and Perry Como, Hunter felt that the host should have a relaxed, comfortable style, establishing a certain rapport with the audience.
By sticking to his country purist approach, he was able to establish such a rapport, building up an intensely loyal fan base which planned its Saturday evenings around The Tommy Hunter Show. Over the years, Hunter sustained an ongoing battle with CBC producers who wanted to rely on demographics and “slickify” the show.
He maintained that targeted programming precluded establishing a real relationship with the audience. His show relied upon the on-stage revue format, which mixed various musical sequences with dance and other country entertainment.
Although based in Toronto, the show went on the road frequently, playing to sold-out audiences across Canada. Hunter’s insistence that the set in each city reflect the locale of the taping illustrated his constant striving to reinsert a local feel into the globalising pull of television.
Despite attempts to alter the programme by incorporating other styles and sensibilities, Hunter persevered in maintaining the show’s traditional country tone. It was this purist approach that would ultimately sound the show’s death knell, however, and a lack of younger viewers and slipping audience ratings led to its cancellation in 1992.
By the end of the show’s run, Hunter had won three Juno Awards as Canada’s best male country singer (1967-1969) and become the fifth Canadian to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Walkway of Stars (1990) for his music; received an award from the Broadcast Executive Society as well as a Gemini Award for best Canadian variety show (1991); and was named to the Order of Canada for his part in Canadian cultural life.