For anyone growing in East Tennessee, Cas Walker was an inescapable presence. He owned a chain of grocery stores bearing his name–“shop at the sign of the shears” was his motto for cutting prices–and the income from these stores propelled him into a career as a politician, media figure, and regional embarrassment.Today’s News Sentinel tells of a new film about this singular individual. Born Orton Caswell Walker in 1903, he was universally known as “Cas,” pronounced as if his name rhymed with “razz.”
As a politician, Cas was a contrarian who opposed more things than he championed. Foreshadowing demagogues such as Rush Limbaugh, Cas rallied poor blacks and whites who were led to believe that he was on their side by being “agin” threats such as a unified Knox County and Knoxville city government.
Cas was adept in his use of media. Ignoring what we now call “mainstream media,” he got his message out through his own television show and a self-published newspaper in which he railed at his political enemies.
Monday through Friday beginning at 6:00 AM, Cas held forth on his Farm and Home Hour, where he read his own ads with poster-sized placards placed on an easel. He had guests who discussed the issues of the day–almost always people who shared his point of view.
No one wants to listen to just talk, so Cas featured country music on his show. He was the first person to put a pre-teen Dolly Parton and the Everly Brothers on the air. A longtime presence on the show was Honey Wilds, a large man who played comic songs on a ukulele. In an earlier incarnation, Honey had been one of country music’s most famous blackface acts. In Nashville’s original Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a poster of Wilds and a partner, billed as Jam-Up and Honey, was just about the only depiction of African Americans in the whole place. You can read more about Honey Wilds here: No Depression: Back Issues.
Overall, however, Cas was an embarrassment. A photo of his fisticuffs with a fellow member of the Knoxville City Council landed him on the cover of Life Magazine. He once gave a contribution or did some favor for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and required them to play an orchestral version of “Turkey in the Straw” in return. Worst of all were some of his grocery store ads. I remember billboards and TV ads in the 1970s depicting young black boys grinning and eating slices of watermelon that looked to be three feet wide. “Thumpin‘ good” ran the ditty that accompanied the television versions. I remember cringing at the impression of Knoxville that those billboards along I-40 must have conveyed to millions of travelers passing through.
Cas lived a long life, finally dying at age 96 in 1998. Most of his sins have been forgiven, and he now seems to be remembered as a colorful character who remained true to his populist beliefs.
No one has yet written the definitive book on Cas Walker. Given his influence on politics and music, it could be a most fascinating volume.