Michael Ginsburg picked up his black flute and began playing the haunting theme to the “Heartland Series” clear and sweet. Thousands of folks sweating it out in 94-degree heat at the Museum of Appalachia Saturday fell into a reverent hush. The melody was sad and lonely and it seemed to hang in the air.
The atmosphere of the whole day was bittersweet. Official crowd estimate was 10,000. They all came to bid farewell after 25 years to the beloved WBIR-TV “Heartland Series.” Channel 10’s promotions director, Julie Morris, did a yeoman’s job working with Museum of Appalachia staff to organize a special day at the bucolic 65-acre farm. There were demonstrations, re-enactments, story-telling, and food booths.
But the emphasis clearly was on the main stage where various notables from the “Heartland Series” history somberly took the microphone and reminisced, sang and sadly bade goodbye.
Master of ceremonies Bill Williams, WBIR’s anchor-emeritus, called “Heartland” creator and long-time producer Steve Dean “a television genius” for his brilliant work.
Dean, for his part, gave the credit to Jim Hart, who was WBIR’s general manager at the time the “Heartland Series” was first conceived. “Jim Hart willed it to happen 25 years ago,” Dean said. Hart personally took two “Heartland” pilots and called on companies trying to get sponsors. Finally he signed up Martin Marietta and Oak Ridge National Lab for the first two years.
“The hardest thing for me is that ‘Heartland’ goes down on my watch,” Morris, the promotions director, said. “But on my watch, we’ll continue caring for ‘Heartland,'” she said. There are 1,900 episodes of “Heartland” and WBIR will continue to air the re-runs. Many hours of un-aired tape will be archived at the East Tennessee History Center.
A number of musical acts played Saturday, including the official “Heartland Series” musicians. The leader of that group, Tom Jester, explained that most of the music used in the series wasn’t really bluegrass, but “the grandfather of bluegrass” – music from Ireland and Scotland brought over by the people who first settled East Tennessee.
Jester also said all the music in “Heartland” was music in the public domain. “Public domain music belongs to everyone,” Jester said. “You might not know you know it, but you know it.”
Bill Landry, who as the host of the “Heartland Series” for the past 25 years has become like a member of all our families, delivered the poignant closing remarks.
“”Our ancestors led noble lives and the ‘Heartland Series’ took comfort and refuge in that. It was the history of normal folks,” he said. “There is much of value in a simple, decent life.”
Landry urged the crowd to “please pass your family’s past on to the next generation.”
“Thank you for sharing your lives with us,” he concluded.
The “Heartland Series” was canceled due to budget cuts imposed on WBIR by its parent company, Gannett, which also owns USA Today.
As we walked away from the main stage and headed back toward our car late Saturday afternoon, a gospel band sang the classic hymn, “Precious Memories.” It was so appropriate.