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 Texas : Features : Music : "Words and Music"

JOHNNIE HIGH

People Told Him It Would Not Work
by Dorothy Hamm
Today almost every county in Texas has an “opry,” a country music variety show that showcases local talent, but that has not always been the norm. In 1975, when Johnnie High, a handsome, super-personable entertainer who had been picking and singing since his early teens, dreamed of establishing a wholesome, quality, country music show using local “unproven” talent, his friends told him there was no way it would succeed.
Johnny High, Country Music Revue
Johnnie High in front of his Country Music Revue

Photo courtesy Dorothy Hamm
Thirty years later, Johnnie High’s Country Music Revue is a North Central Texas "institution" that has earned international recognition, growing into one of our most enduring country music traditions.

High is a singer, musician, songwriter and businessman. His credits run the gamut from school auditoriums to presidential inaugurations, with radio and TV (including PBS) credits along the way. But he seems happiest when he is promoting the talents of the thousands of entertainers who perform on the CMR.

In a business where no one will talk to you until you get a record contract...and you can't get a record contract until someone talks to you...High has been willing to talk. More importantly, he has been willing to listen.  He opened a door to newcomers, holding open auditions on a regular basis.  He estimates about 20,000 aspiring performers have auditioned through the years. Of those, he says, about twenty percent get called to perform on the Horizon shows on Friday nights. About twenty percent of those will make it to the Saturday night shows.

High says he has probably listened to more acts than anyone in the business. When he is convinced an act has talent (they don’t get on his show if he isn’t convinced) and they demonstrate a willingness to work hard, he can be a valuable coach with experience in every aspect of live entertainment.

Some CMR performers have gone on to international stardom. LeAnn Rimes, who was a regular for more than six years, is probably the most famous. She is followed closely by Lee Ann Womack, Linda Davis and Steve Holy.

Joey Floyd "grew up" on the CMR stage. He had already been performing professionally for several years when, at age seven, he won the role of Willie Nelson's son in the movie Honeysuckle Rose. He currently plays guitar in Toby Keith’s band.

Oklahoma native Danny Cooksey was only about four years old when he was bringing the house down performing rousing renditions of Merle Haggard songs. Cooksey landed the role of Sam on the TV show Different Strokes and moved to California. He continues to live in Hollywood and has a long list of acting and voiceover credits.

High says it is a special thrill to see so many performers he has worked with move on to national prominence. He predicts the number will continue to grow. He feels there are quite a few performers on his show right now who are ready for national stardom.

“It isn't just a matter of being talented,” he explains. “The ones I’ve known through the years who have been the most successful have all have shared one particular trait -- the ability to stay focused on their dream.”


High was born during the lean years of the Depression in McGregor, Texas. Music was a major interest from a very early age. He managed to acquire a $6 guitar and when he was 13, hitchhiked to nearby Waco to audition for a radio show. The station manager told him to get a better guitar, practice two hours every day, and come back in a year. High did as advised and when he was 14 he was given his own radio show, which was broadcast live, 6 to 6:15 a.m. five days a week. For the next several years, the teenager was at the radio station, singing and accompanying himself on guitar. He collected words to songs from Country Song Roundup a magazine that published lyrics. He couldn’t read music nor did he need to. As with many other country musicians he played guitar by ear. He says he never missed a show nor was he ever late.

Entertainment has changed considerably since High was a youngster on radio. It has also changed since he began producing the CMR in the 70s, becoming progressively more and more risqué. But High has consistently held tight to a G-rating for his shows. It is a policy he has no plans to ever change.

“I want people to be able to bring their entire family, from grandmother to grandchildren, to my shows knowing they will not be offended by the language or the costumes,” High says.


Family is very important to High. He met and married his life partner Wanda when they were still teenagers. They observed their golden wedding anniversary several years ago. His mind zips along in a creative gallop while she is his rock, a calm anchor in his fast moving, hyperactive world. It is obvious to even the most casual observers that they adore each other. Wanda, along with their only daughter LuAnn, works behind the scenes at the CMR. Both are gracious and charming but too shy to be comfortable in the spotlight. Granddaughter Ashley is as comfortable onstage as her grandfather. An accomplished singer, dancer and actress, she took on MC duties during High’s most recent surgery and is now a permanent co-host.

High has counted more than 70 birthdays and logged 30 years, as producer and host of two musical productions a week. He has survived four seriously major surgeries…three heart bypass operations and surgery to repair a stomach aneurysm. He has also survived four location changes, Grapevine, Fort Worth, Haltom City and Arlington. Through it all he remains endlessly cheerful, striding through life at a pace many men half his age wouldn’t be able to match. While writing this column I called his office to ask a question and was told he could not be reached at the moment. He was on a cruise ship headed to Alaska.
© Dorothy Hamm
"Words and Music" Column
- September 9, 2005 column
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