Connie Rose – a Florida bluegrass legend

Connie Rose as Harpo Marx on Halloween at Orange Blossom, and on the air at WELE

Connie Rose (Smith) was a groundbreaker, entrepreneur, and game changer during the 1970s in the Florida bluegrass world. She loved the music and wanted to be a part of it, and nobody was going to tell her she couldn’t! Now 74 years of age, she has a lifetime of memories from her time in the business.

Radio was a natural medium for someone as colorful and determined as the young Connie Rose, and after achieving success there, moving on to do stage work at festivals was an obvious progression. Starting out, however, she discovered that the Florida bluegrass community wasn’t always quite ready for a female radio personality or announcer.

A gifted storyteller, radio was perfectly suited for her natural skills and outsized personality. But she tells us that her entry into professional radio was purely by accident.

“I called the local radio for a contest and won tickets to a country concert. When I picked them up, the program director asked me if I had ever done any radio. I said I did a little when I was in high school. He asked if I would consider doing commercials for them, that they just didn’t a have a female with a good voice.”

Connie agreed to try. She began recording commercials for the country music station.

“I kept pounding the station manager every time I went out, ‘Why don’t you guys play any bluegrass? There are all these festivals I go to and people really want to hear it.’ He said he’d never heard much about it.”

After continually asking, the manager finally agreed on a trial basis.

“He said, ‘Make a half hour show. We’ll see if we can find a sponsor for it.’ After the station closed for the day, I had all my records and I went into the control room and recorded a half hour show. He played it and really liked it. He went to the owners and said, ‘I think we should do this.’

The first person they called about sponsoring the show said yes. It was a car dealership. He ended up sponsoring it for four or five years.

I did everything at the AM station. They played it on their FM station on Saturday night at 8:00. After the first show, the station received over 300 postcards, letters, and phone calls saying ‘we love this, it needs to be longer, and we’ve been waiting for something like this.'”

So the station agreed to expand Connie Rose’s program to an hour. Her weekly show, Bluegrass Today with Connie Rose, ran from 1978 to 1986.

“Red & Murphy Henry wrote the opening song [for my show]:

‘WELE has records spinnin’, bluegrass music pickin’ and a grinnin’
So from the state of F-L-A, here’s Connie Rose, Bluegrass Today.'”

Next, Connie Rose got an offer to MC a bluegrass festival, but not without some resistance.

“I was going to festivals and collecting albums. There was a festival in south Florida sponsored by Orange Blossom Bluegrass. Oscar Singleton came up to me and said, ‘How would you like to share MC responsibilities with Tom Henderson?'”

Connie agreed, but was hesitant.

“I had never done this before. I wondered, what am I getting myself into?”

Singleton introduced Connie to Tom, radio personality and host of the This Is Bluegrass program that ran on Tampa’s WMNF. He immediately refused.

“He said, ‘I’m not working with her. This is no place for women. You shouldn’t be back stage and hearing what the guys are saying.’ I told him, ‘My husband’s a mechanic. I’ve heard every word there is. I can stand up for myself; you don’t have to worry about that.’ He said nope, got in his car, and left… so I did all three days. 

After that, they paid me. I wasn’t expecting that! They asked if I would you like to do all their festivals. I said that I would love that! During those festivals, I was able to record interviews with the Osborne Brothers, Mac Wiseman, and Bill Monroe. It was great! I was able to come back and insert these into my Saturday night (radio) shows.”

More doors opened, but drama ensued.

“Roy Martin called and asked if I would do Lavonia, GA. It was the same thing with the guy that was normally the MC. He was not happy. He was fuming! I asked why. He said, ‘It’s not a place for a woman.’ I said I’ve been received pretty well at other places. He went to Roy Martin, talked with him, came back, and agreed to try it. There were a lot of bands there that I knew and I felt very comfortable.”

It worked out.

“I did four of those [festivals]. I stayed during the week and there was picking on the stage. I played bass with them. It was one of the best festivals!

Red & Murphy Henry were just such ambassadors for bluegrass and equality. They wanted everybody to stay and pick during the week of the Lavonia festival. Jim McCall did a vocal class and taught people how to do the harmony. Chubby Anthony taught a fiddle workshop. Don Reno did a banjo one. They would tell you how to do something. They were not stingy. If you wanted to know how to do something, they would show you.

Anybody could walk up to a motor home and join in a pickin’ party. It didn’t make any difference if you were a beginner or had been doing it for 20 years. That’s the kind of people that this genre of music presents.

One Saturday night, George Custer, Toby Stroud, and Bobby Hicks were all going to be in the area and I invited them over for a pickin’ party. There were three of the finest fiddle players you could ever ask for in my house!”

Connie Rose had lots of humorous tales. One special one comes from Lavonia.

“I had gone to where the bands were practicing. I opened the door and there stood Marty Stuart in his underwear. He was getting ready to play with Curly Seckler. I just said hi and walked right on in. Nothing was ever said about that.”

As we talked, the memories kept flowing…

“Orange Blossom always did a Halloween festival, and the bands had to dress up. It was in their contracts. The Heights of Grass came one year as KISS. They had all the make-up on. Lost & Found’s Gene Parker came out with a brown garbage bag tied like a diaper. He was a sumo wrestler. Every year it was just so much fun to see everybody. A lot of people in the audience dressed up which made it even more fun.

Another funny Lost & Found story… During a festival in Florida, Allen Mills asked if they could use my hotel room to shower and change for their Saturday evening show. When I returned to change, I found they had emptied my suitcase and hid my things all over the room. They had items hanging from the mirror and draped over the curtain rods so they were visible on the outside of the window. They left a message on the mirror written in my lipstick. It was always a good time with them.

One time I was MCing the South Florida Bluegrass Association’s festival in the Everglades, and there was only one hotel. I called and booked a room for Friday and Saturday night. I paid for the room, stayed Friday night, and came back on Saturday evening to change into my evening clothes. The lady at the front desk said, ‘We need you to get your things out of that room. We have someone else coming in.’ I said, ‘No, you don’t! That’s my room! I paid for two nights.’

The lady said, ‘I don’t know what to do. There are people already waiting for the room.’ I took everything out of the room and loaded it into my car. I got back to the festival and asked Dudley Connell if he knew of any other hotels. He said, ‘No, that’s the only one.’

I told him that I guess I’d have to sleep in my car. He said, ‘You can come stay on the [Johnson Mountain Boys’] bus.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t think the other guys will like that.’ Dudley assured me that we were all friends so I got on the bus and climbed in the top bunk. I said, ‘If you guys hear anything in the middle of the night, it’s just me falling out.’ Eddie Stubbs said, ‘We’ll pick you up!'”

Getting to know all the bands over the years, her pranks became the stuff of legend.

“Let me tell you how I got the name, Tootie Green. In the Orange Blossom Bluegrass Band, there was a guy, Don Ripple. He was the best rhythm guitar player, and we joked around all the time. If I was ever in the Tampa area, I would stay with him and (his wife) Mary.

I decided that I was going to dress up and no one would know at Peace River. I wore combat boots, a white skirt with big flowers, a striped shirt with a plaid jacket, with a wig, and wore black glasses with rhinestones. I started at the back of the tent hollering, ‘Hey, Donald!’ When I got on stage, it took him a few minutes to figure out who I was. I made like I had fell in love with him. He was so quick witted. We went back and forth for several minutes. When I got off, I put my MC clothes back on. There are some people to this day, that didn’t know it was me.

I was always doing stuff to Don. I took a guitar to a music store and had them take the neck off another guitar and put it on the opposite end. I came on stage and said that Don played a 12 string guitar. Don kept saying, ‘no, I don’t!’ So I said, ‘I called Mary and she brought his 12 string. How many of you would like to hear Don pick it?’ So I go to the back and bring out this guitar that has two necks, one on each end. He stood there like, ‘I can’t believe this. How do you think these things up?’

That’s the kind of things that made bluegrass so much fun.”

 She could give back when the guys gave her a hard time as well.

“Nelson Young of the Sandy Valley Boys was always tormenting everybody. I said you guys stop by the house and I’ll fix breakfast for you. I made homemade biscuits, sausage gravy, home fries, eggs, pancakes, bacon, and sausage. It was this huge meal. On stage, Nelson started telling everyone how puny my biscuits were. 

The next weekend I was MCing a festival where they were going to be. I made a biscuit that I cut with a Cool Whip container. It was like six inches across. Nelson got on stage and started up again about my puny biscuits. I pulled out this biscuit. It weighed over a pound, I know. 

I just had such a good rapport with the musicians. Little Roy Lewis was always doing something. He would take my hat and put it on, but his head was so much bigger, it wouldn’t fit. I did a couple things with him. It was a great time! I pranked people and they pranked me. We had fun.”

There were serious moments, too.

“I was really close with Chubby Anthony. When he went into dialysis and was in the hospital, I would take my tape recorder and he would tell me all about playing with the Stanley Brothers. I probably recorded eight cassette tapes of his life. When he passed, I did a show just about him. I got so many phone calls because people really loved him.”

There were still times when Connie Rose was slow to be accepted into the bluegrass community.

“The first time I did Myrtle Beach for Thanksgiving, I saw the Osborne Brothers back stage. I had never met them so I handed them a business card. I said, ‘My name is Connie Rose and I’m going to be the emcee and introduce you tonight.’ They just looked at me and turned around and walked away. Most of the time, I would talk with bands about what they were involved in prior to introducing them.

Since they walked away without talking to me, I had nothing to say so I when I introduced them I just said, ‘Our next group is from Nashville, the Osborne Brothers.’ Sonny walked out on stage and if looks could kill, I would have been dead right then. They were used to big introductions, but they wouldn’t talk to me. After they got done, Sonny came to me and said, ‘I think we got off on the wrong foot.’ He invited me into their brand new motor home and I sat there for over two hours and recorded stuff that I turned into a show all about them. Sonny and I became the best of friends.

Sonny really admired [Florida fiddler] Chubby Anthony. When he passed away, I called to tell Sonny. He asked if I could get flowers and send them from the Osbornes. So I did. He did the same thing for the McClain girls. He said, ‘I want them to have some flowers.’ So I got some little corsages and gave them. They were surprised and pleased.

I was really lucky. On the way back from festivals, performers would come right up I-95 and stop at the radio station. I would record shows live. The McPeak Brothers was one of them. It just got bigger and bigger.”

Connie Rose’s experiences included the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

“The first time I came to the Opry, I went to the guards to get in. One looked at the other and said, ‘Well, we both lost. When we saw the name Connie Rose, we thought you’d be this long-haired red head.’ Well, I was a blond with short hair. All the guards were making bets on what I would look like.

I came to the Opry one time as the guest of Jimmie Skinner. I took a picture back stage of Roy Acuff and Jimmie Skinner. They had not seen each other in years. I framed them and sent one to Roy and one to Jimmie. Then the Osborne Brothers invited me back to the Opry as their guest. I walked in Roy Acuff’s office and he had that picture hanging up. I was thrilled!

That night Porter Wagoner was the MC. I love Kermit the Frog, and they had come out with bed sheets that had Kermit the Frog playing banjo. I made a western shirt with one of those bed sheets and had it on. The whole evening Porter kept asking me for that shirt. So I went home and made him a shirt and sent it to him.”

Later, Connie went to Opryland Park with some friends and spied Porter. He was wearing the Kermit the Frog bed sheet shirt.

“I went up to him and said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ And he said, ‘You’re Miss Piggy.’ He really appreciated it.

Once when I was at the Grand Ole Opry, Bill Monroe was there. I was talking to Connie Smith, who is now Marty Stuart’s wife, and said, ‘Oh, Bill is on the program tonight!’ Connie said, ‘Oh, you should introduce him. I’ll be right back.’ She came back with a man and he said that I could introduce Bill.

The announcer introduced me. When I got to the microphone, I restated, ‘I’m Connie Rose from Florida.’ From the audience’s response, I was surprised at how many people knew me. Standing on that stage and introducing The Father himself was above anything I had ever done, or did after that. When he walked out on stage, he stopped and gave me a kiss on the cheek that topped it off perfectly.”

Things changed as they often do in life, and so did Connie’s priorities.

“I moved from Daytona to Orlando and I just didn’t want to drive back and forth to do the radio show. I continued to MC festivals a few more years.”

Connie decided to step back due to time away from family.

“My kids were calling me Aunt Mommy.”

Though now her stories are memories, they will remain with her forever.

“Those things will be implanted in me for the rest of my life.”

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.