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The Forgotten Bluegrass Pioneers.

Rock historian Ed Ward remembers the pioneering Bluegrass group of the 1950s Reno & Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups.

07:04

Other segments from the episode on April 24, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 24, 2000: Interview with Bret Hart; Commentary on Reno & Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: APRIL 24, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 042401np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Interview With Bret Hart
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

On today's FRESH AIR, Bret "The Hitman" Hart talks with us about his life in wrestling. He grew up hearing tough guys like Abdul the Butcher groaning in the basement, where Hart's father ran a wrestling school. Bret Hart became a wrestler, winning 15 championship belts with World Championship Wrestling and the World Wrestling Federation. He's become critical of the way wrestlers are treated. His brother, Owen Hart, was killed in the ring last year while executing a stunt.

Also, rock historian Ed Ward tells us about the pioneering bluegrass group Reno and Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups.

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First, the news.

(BREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Wrestling has become a pop phenomenon. My guest Bret "The Hitman" Hart has been connected to the sport his whole life. His father was a wrestling promoter in Canada who ran the wrestling circuit Stampede Wrestling. Bret Hart has wrestled with Vince McMahon's WWF, the World Wrestling Federation, and is currently with Ted Turner's WCW, World Championship Wrestling. He's won 15 championship belts.

He's been a good guy and a bad guy in the ring. At 235 pounds, he describes himself as "one of the small guys."

Recently, Hart has become very critical of professional wrestling and the risks that wrestlers are required to take. His brother, Owen Hart, was killed in the wrestling ring one year ago, falling 90 feet while executing a stunt. Hart talks about his family and the changes he's seen in wrestling in his new book called "Bret `Hitman' Hart."

We'll talk first about his father's Stampede Wrestling.

BRET "HITMAN" HART: It was a strange environment, the Stampede Wrestling, the world of Stampede Wrestling. You know, we -- my dad promoted wrestling for, I think, from, like, 1948 or something on. He was long trips, you know, sometimes 500 miles a day. I never planned on getting into wrestling. I watched a lot of the great wrestlers.

My dad's Stampede Wrestling had a unique quality to it, in the sense that it was kind of a place for old has-been wrestlers to end up, and at the same time it was a place where all the young wrestlers started out. When you first needed a break, they always sent you up to Canada to work for my father.

So you had this cross-section of young and old. And then at the same time, there was a lot of wrestlers that couldn't break the barrier of getting into the United States for legal reasons, like papers and whatnot, and they ended up in Canada, where it was easier to work. So we had this really interesting cross-section of Japanese wrestlers, Mexican wrestlers, English wrestlers, Canadian wrestlers, American wrestlers, you know, Australia -- like, you can name any different country kind of thing.

And me as a kid growing up, I had the ability to watch the -- or had the fortune of watching -- the good fortune to watch these varied wrestling styles and all different ages and techniques and stuff.

GROSS: Who were some of the names that we might recognize of these -- of the has-beens and the up-and-coming wrestlers who worked with your father?

HART: Well, literally, just about everybody passed through, all the world champions always worked up there. There was Harley Race and Dorey (ph) (inaudible). And in particular for me, there was some of the real great wrestlers that I found that started there, and always the namesake guys for the territory, where Abdul the Butcher was probably the most scariest wrestler. Even now I think he's the most frightening character that ever was in a wrestling ring.

Archie "The Stomper" Goldie (ph), which is maybe not a name that most people in the States recognize, but in my opinion was probably the greatest wrestler of all time. He just looked the part and carried that whole character the best, and he could scare the hell out of you. I mean, literally, I used to have goosebumps on my arms as a kid when he used to talk about coming up to my dad's house and tearing it down brick by brick until he got to my dad. (laughs)

GROSS: (laughs) What led him to threaten that?

HART: Oh, it was just some intense feud with my father, who was really just a promoter, but it -- I just remember him saying that on TV. And then I can remember him only, like, two days later, in the house, in the kitchen, and my mom coming up and giving him a big hug and handing him this check. (inaudible) what the heck is going on here? you know.

GROSS: (laughs)

HART: But it was always hard to understand. I never really -- as a kid, no one explained wrestling to me, no one said that it's, you know -- no one went through any of that, and I had to figure it out on my own. And I'm still figuring it out.

But again, Sweet Daddy Seek (ph), he's another one that drew a lot of money for my father. I don't know if you remember him. He was a black wrestler that had white hair, and he used to have the mirrors and the sunglasses. And probably that's even -- has something to do with me wearing them.

GROSS: When you were first introduced to wrestling as a kid, I don't think the characters were as heavily costumed and as deep into the personas as they are now. What were the characters like when, when, when you were a child watching these older guys fighting in your basement?

HART: Well, there was always some pretty strange characters. And I got a really, you know, intense background on it. I mean, I think about some -- Gorgeous George and all those -- I remember them when I was real small. You know, and some of them were, you know, in their -- you know, their last days. But I think in the middle '60s it changed a lot. You know, I said Sweet Daddy Seek, he was a very colorful wrestler with the white hair and the white sunglasses and the striped trunks.

And, you know, there was always -- wrestling, the characters that I remember from -- more from those -- that era, they were very -- like there was Haystacks Calhoun (inaudible)...

GROSS: (inaudible), I remember him, (laughs) yes.

HART: ... blue jeans and coveralls and a big horseshoe tied around his neck.

GROSS: And he was huge. I mean, they'd always mention what he ate for breakfast, like seven steaks, two dozen eggs, that kind of thing.

HART: Yes. But the characters were, I think, were pretty kind of fun characters that I remember. And the one that stands out is Abdul the Butcher showed up, and he had a pair of white karate pants on. And he was a black guy that was billed from the Sudan, Khartoum in the Sudan kind of thing. And he had -- he was a terrifying wrestler. He scared the heck out of me every time he walked past me.

And he had that -- you know, he had that eye contact, which is really important, because wrestling, you know, is based on reality. And he would stop and turn and look at me, and I would wilt, you know, and I was only about 9 or 10 years old, but, you know, I really did have nightmares that Abdul the Butcher was going to, you know, come get me kind of thing.

But I was -- you know, I look back on it now, it was a lot of fun to have that -- wrestling's lost that. It -- you know, there was a certain intensity that came from the wrestling matches, and there was a lot of blood and kind of gore, and it was always a very violent kind of performance. But at the same time, I don't think there was any fix quite like it.

GROSS: Your father used to work with wrestlers in the basement. I guess you had a ring in the basement. So you probably heard a lot of grunts and groans coming out of the basement. Did you think people were getting, like, seriously hurt down there? Did you have a sense that this was just rehearsal?

HART: You have to see it to believe it. It was the strangest thing. You'd see these wrestlers show up, a lot of these big football players and body builders and power lifters and that, they would show up, and, you know, even then my dad was, you know, say, 60. And, you know, you almost had to kind of drag him down there. And I think it was more of a show that he pretended he was not -- you know, reluctant to go down, but finally he would kind of make out he was going down because he was forced into it.

In fact, he loved every minute of it. And he would pull on these old woolly tights, and then he would wrestle with these guys. And he would literally put them in wrestling holds, these submission wrestling holds, which is his obsession. And he would torture these big, huge football players for hours, and they would scream, literally, these high-pitched screams. It was terrifying. I'd be upstairs in the room above it, until I finally -- you know, it was really scary stuff.

And then as I got older, I would go down and actually venture into the room and sit on the bench and watch. And he -- sometimes these wrestlers would run out -- when they would -- when they'd get -- when my dad finally let them go, they'd actually run out, tear out of the -- out the doorway and out the -- outside, sometimes in the snow, and run out in their bare feet, and you wouldn't even see them again.

GROSS: So what was your father's point in getting them into these submission wrestling holds, to show them how to get out of it, or to teach them how to take pain?

HART: I think both. I mean, he loved that part of it. He -- first he wanted them to appreciate -- because they didn't have the -- you know, if they couldn't take that, then maybe they should check out another profession. But the ones that survived that, then he sort of broke them in and started teaching them more the sort of basic pro wrestling after that.

But the other side of it, my father really -- he loved submission wrestling the way I love the artistry of professional wrestling. He was obsessed with it. And he really tried to pass it on, he really tried to teach you these holds. He didn't want to just hurt you, and he never -- there was never any damage done to anybody. I mean, I don't want anybody to think my dad would ever hurt anybody. It was more of a pain while you're in it, and once he let you go, you were fine.

GROSS: (inaudible) would you describe one of those holds for us, that I'm sure he taught you also? (laughs)

HART: Well, he's got some -- he's got a whole bunch of them. But my dad's famous for his leg wrestling. He would -- you know, he could wrap his legs around you sort of like a python on -- and sort of -- it's kind of hard to say, but -- describe, but it's like leg grapevines. But sometimes he could make you think he was going to, you know, snap your legs in half, that kind of thing.

Or there was different moves where he could actually get his leg -- he'd have your arms and your whole body sort of tied up, and he'd get his leg behind the back of your head. And if he -- he would sort of show you how that if he wanted to, he could, you know, pop your head off your shoulders if he had the desire.

But he really always tried to teach people these -- he loved the submission wrestling, and he'd always try to teach it and make you understand it and sort of pass it on to someone else.

GROSS: My guest is wrestler Bret "The Hitman" Hart. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: My guest is wrestler Bret Hart. He has a new book called "Bret `Hitman' Hart: The Best There Is, the Best There Was, and the Best There Ever Will Be."

Now, how did you end up being trained as a wrestler? Is this something you wanted to do or something that your father initially nudged you into doing?

HART: No, my father never nudged me into it at all. I think he was always satisfied with me getting into it, though. I don't think he encouraged any of us to do it in my family. My mother was dead against it. I was an amateur wrestler and was, you know, provincial champion. I was actually being sort of maneuvered into setting my goals at going to the Tomaloff (ph) Games and that kind of thing.

And the truth was, I think for me and my brother, Owen, is that we really wanted to get out of the amateur wrestling. It was more like joining a monastery. It was a very dedicated, tough kind of sport, which was -- we -- I think I loved that part of it. What I didn't like about it was that you really got little recognition for the hard work that you put in. And often after sort of struggling for years being an amateur wrestler, you ended up with very little in your pocket and little notoriety for it. And you ended up being just the high school wrestling coach or something.

So I was kind of looking for a way out of amateur wrestling, and used the pro wrestling as a springboard to get out of that. In a lot of ways, I went through a period, I think, when I was about 16 where I did not want to become a professional wrestler. I had promised myself that I'd never follow in my dad's footsteps and get into it.

But by the time I was 20, I was having trouble with my school. I originally was enrolled in film school, and that seemed to sort of peter out on me. And I sort of -- in regrouping, I thought, Wow, I'll try this pro wrestling out for a little while, I'll travel, see the world a little bit, get my head together, make a little bit of money, maybe two years' pro wrestling at the max, and then I'll come home and get serious about my school and film and get, you know, get my life together.

So there was two Japanese wrestlers, and Japanese wrestlers are generally the two -- or they're the -- generally the best pro wrestlers in the world over in Japan as far as technique and all that. And there was two that were working for my father that had not been allowed to work in the States, so they were really grateful that my dad had taken them in.

And it was a wrestler named Mr. Hito and another wrestler, Mr. Sakarata. And they promised me they would teach me how to wrestle, and I took them up on it, and they taught me really, really well. They taught me how to fall, they taught me how to protect my opponent, they taught me how to protect myself. And they just sort of taught me a respect for the art of wrestling that I don't think a lot of people understand, and it's turned out to be -- they were two of the best teachers that I can think of in the world of wrestling.

GROSS: How did -- can you pass on some of what you learned about how to protect your opponent?

HART: Well, yes, you -- for example, you never kick anyone with the toe of your boot, like, you don't kick anyone in the ribs with the toe of your boot, because you obviously would probably break somebody's ribs. The whole art of wrestling is to look like you're hurting somebody. You're not supposed to -- you know, I see these wrestlers today, and they're all talking about how they -- you know, they're all broken and beat up and hurt from wrestling.

And I always understood it a different way. You're not supposed to get hurt. And I've never -- 22 years, I've never hurt one single wrestler that I can think of, that ever -- you know, where he didn't get up the next day and go home to his family. It's never happened. And it's a shame, because I don't think that's all that important any more to these wrestlers today.

But, you know, you -- in wrestling, when you fall, and you take some really hard, long falls from high, high, you know, from the top of the turnbuckle, for example. The whole idea when you land, you should break your fall, you should land as one, like, it should be a one sound. You just sort of pancake, you land like a pancake in the middle of the ring, and you use your feet and your hands or your arms to break your fall, and you tuck your head.

And I learned from these Japanese wrestlers to fall like that from any -- you could throw me any way, almost like a cat, and I always landed perfectly. And, you know, if I look at how I am today, I'm still pretty much held together, because I learned how to do it right.

GROSS: What did you learn about taking pain and how much was an acceptable amount of pain and what threshold of pain meant serious damage, and you had to stop?

HART: Well, you know, you -- you know, in wrestling, if somebody's hurting you, he's doing it wrong, and, you know, you can (inaudible) -- sometimes -- you know, there's always -- in wrestling, there's a thing called -- they're referred to as potatoes, is when you accidentally hurt somebody for real. And, you know, it -- one potato's OK, two potatoes is crossing the line, and the third one, you usually give what they call a receipt, which is you give one right back.

And usually -- and when you get to that point, the next level is the real fighting, which usually happens in the dressing room after.

But generally speaking, you know, you do get hurt. I mean, I was in a situation, it was in my documentary that was out about a year ago, where I got knocked off the ring apron in Toronto, Canada, into a steel barricade that was outside on the floor, and it was, like, a metal fence that was bolted into the ground. And I broke all my ribs and my sternum, actually crushed my heart. I almost -- you know, I did a lot of real bad damage to myself.

And I was lying on the floor in -- you know, really in fear of my life. I thought I was going to die, I didn't know if had punctured lungs, or -- I just knew I couldn't even breathe. And, you know, the sad thing about that was that no one seemed to know that this was not part of the show, and I was really fearful for my life, and yet I couldn't get anyone, including the wrestler that I was wrestling with actually came out on the floor and asked me if I was OK, which is sort of normal, except I couldn't speak. So he assumed I was OK and proceeded to stomp me across the chest a bunch of times, which was not good.

But, you know, there's some situations that can be really scary for wrestlers. And, you know, I'm even right now dealing with (inaudible)...

GROSS: A concussion, right?

HART: ... I've got a really severe concussion that has really affected me, and it does affect my train of thought, and I still get really severe headaches, and it's been probably the scariest injury of them all for me.

GROSS: How'd you get the concussion?

HART: I wrestled a guy named Bill Goldberg, and he's the -- really the franchise wrestler for the WCW, and he's a great guy, and I -- there was no -- you know, I'm sure it was an accident, and, you know, I have a lot of respect for him, and I don't want him to think that he -- you know, that he, you know, is in disfavor with me at all.

But he did what the -- what I would classify as a backwards mule kick with one leg, and it was almost like an uppercut with his leg. And he literally almost kicked my head off my shoulders, and I turned at the last minute to try to avoid it, but he kicked me right in the back of the head behind my right ear, and tore a muscle in the back of my neck, and really just really clocked me good. And I'd taken a couple of hard falls in that one match.

It was a little bit like that gorilla in the Samsonite luggage commercial that you see years ago, where the gorilla's smashing that suitcase around. I was the suitcase, and I had, I think, three good shots in the head in that one match, and then I -- without realizing it, I sort of stumbled through another three weeks of wrestling and took maybe three or four more. And when I finally -- it was about January 11, I think, that I actually went and find this doctor about my neck. I had no idea my concussion was as severe as it was.

I kept telling the people in charge that I had a -- I thought I had a slight concussion. But it was -- I was -- I had a severe concussion, and I don't think you -- as my doctor told me, you're not in -- you're not capable of diagnosing that yourself. And you could have talked me into walking across eight lanes of traffic without -- you know, I would have done almost anything without -- you know, because I just couldn't -- you don't have your faculties with you, and you...

So I finally realized that I, you know, that I was -- really had a severe concussion, and it's affected my speech and a lot of different things. And when you get banged on the brain, it's -- I realized -- I've realized a lot in the last three months how severe a concussion is. It's a really bad injury.

GROSS: Have you been back in the ring recently, or are you staying out for a while?

HART: No, I'm out indefinitely, at least till July. And even in July, I have to consider whether it's safe or the right thing for me to even go back into the ring. It's conceivable that my wrestling days are over. But I won't say that till I know.

GROSS: Would you mind if they were? I mean, you're, what, 42 now?

HART: Forty-two. Oh, I would like to have left on a better note than an injury. I'd like to have had a proper farewell and a proper sendoff. But I've also learned that I'm not going to -- you know, I'm not going to put my health second to anything. And I've realized quite scarily in the last few months that the most important thing is being able to remember a lot of the great memories and the people and the countries and the places that I've seen.

And to lose that is quite fearful, and I found myself a lot in the last two or three months really struggling with trying to remember things and put things back in perspective. It's almost like someone erases part of your brain or your memory, and it's -- it was a far more scary thing than, you know, a lot of people realize.

GROSS: Bret "The Hitman" Hart has a new book about his life in wrestling. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: Coming up, Ed Ward tells us about the 1950s bluegrass band Reno and Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups. Also, Bret "The Hitman" Hart talks about the risks facing wrestlers today. Last year his brother, Owen, was killed in the ring while executing a stunt.

(BREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

I'm Terry Gross, back with Bret "The Hitman" Hart. He's written a new book about his life in wrestling. His father was a wrestling promoter in Canada. His brother, Owen, was killed in the ring last year while executing a stunt.

Bret Hart has 15 championship belts with the World Championship Wrestling and World Wrestling Federation.

Are there some wrestlers who have a reputation for inflicting more pain than they need to?

HART: Yes, about 95 percent of them.

GROSS: (laughs)

HART: It's -- you know, the artistry of pro wrestling, what I did or what I consider the -- what pro wrestling is, is becoming lost. It's not even important any more. They don't even -- wrestling's a bit like -- it's turned into kind of, like, "Baywatch," where you never see anyone actually swimming in the ocean any more, all the action's on the sand. It's kind of like that in wrestling, where no one actually wrestles in the rings much any more. All the action's on the floor and on the stairs and on ramps and out in the backstage areas where they're running over each other with cars and stuff.

There's no -- it's kind of lost its way, I think, because, you know, there's no -- like, when you're wrestling in the ring, you understand that it's a wrestling ring, and it's a padded floor that you wrestle on, and you understand the ropes, the dimensions of the ropes and what they're there for and how they protect yourself -- you know, how they hold you in the ring, and what you can do with wrestling ropes. There's a padded floor outside the ring surrounded by barricades.

And that was sort of the ring area, that's where your -- that was your stage that you had. And that's a pretty limited stage, you know, when you think of big Broadway shows with all these backdrops and different music. And, you know, wrestling's a very modest kind of stage. And to go out there with just sort of swim trunks and tell this incredible up-and-down epic struggle of good versus bad with your bodies, no props, no chairs, no canes, no fire, nothing like that, that was what pro wrestling -- that was what was so great about it, was this great story would unfold of David and Goliath kind of thing.

And you look at it today, it's totally changed. It's...

GROSS: Plenty of props.

HART: ... you know, there's a lot of wrestlers that are wrestling on the stairs, they're trying to run each over with cars, there's people wrestling with barbed wire and tacks and fire. And it's got so extreme that I don't think you can -- you know, you -- I don't justify it, and I don't think that it's fair to expect for us to do that kind of stunt work without a union. There's no one there to represent them, there's no one there to ensure that there's safety. And they're being called upon more and more and more all the time to cross over another line of extreme danger.

And wrestlers are doing stunts that you would do on a Hollywood set, except for they would go, "Cut, get the stunt man," and, you know, because no smart person would actually allow themselves to be put in that kind of circumstance.

But pro wrestlers are (inaudible)...

GROSS: Well, you are the stunt men in that sense.

HART: Yes, well, we -- I was always a stunt man in a wrestling ring. But now, you know, unfortunately even with my brother, Owen, you know, who was put in a situation where he had to perform a stunt that was -- you know, he had no skill or ability to perform, and I never had the chance to ever talk with him about that.

But, you know, and I'm sure you know that it would -- (inaudible) didn't end well for him on that.

GROSS: No, I know he died in the ring with that. I want to get to that in just a couple of minutes.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Bret Hart, and he has a new, a new book.

The WWF, the World Wrestling Federation, bought your father's wrestling group in, I guess, the late '70s.

HART: He bought it in 1984.

GROSS: Oh, 1984?

HART: Actually he -- it was a leased arrangement.

GROSS: Well, I think part of the deal was that you and your brothers would, would be wrestlers with the WWF, and so you, you joined the WWF in around '84, then?

HART: I joined in '84, my dad basically relinquished Stampede Wrestling. Basically, he was -- they paid him a certain amount of money to stop running, just to kind of go out of business. And then they took on some of his better wrestlers at the time, which was myself and I had a couple of brother-in-laws and another (inaudible) -- it was actually three brothers-in-law. And we -- there was just four of us that ended up working for WWF, but it was never really part of the deal. It was sort of unconditional, (inaudible), myself, and the two British bulldogs.

GROSS: So when, when you started working for the WWF, how much of what you did was scripted, and what was it like for you to have, you know, a kind of big organization writing your parts for you?

HART: Well, it's funny, because I remember, you know, I never won a match forever, for the longest time when I first started. And every once in a while they would let me win. And I just said, OK, what are you going to win with? And I'd name all these different move (inaudible). And you can't use that, because that's so-and-so's move. And you could pretty much run through the entire -- every single wrestling move -- what they call finish moves, until I was finally -- it's like I didn't have one. There was nothing left to win a match with.

But in the beginning, you know, it was pretty basic stuff. No -- wrestling was not so scripted or anything in those days. They always joke about wrestlers having scripts, but I never saw a script till maybe about a year ago in wrestling, and they certainly didn't have a script for me, actual match. Matches are worked out between the actual wrestlers most of the time in the ring, which was sort of the art form in itself, to be able to go in there and have this ability to do this spontaneous story.

And a lot of times you had to fight for what you could get in the match, again, which takes you back to that realism. The only thing that was scripted in a wrestling match was the last three seconds, and (inaudible)...

GROSS: Who would win, inaudible)...

HART: That's it. And the rest was get what you can. And (inaudible) there had to be a certain respect that you had to earn, you know. If there was a wrestler that didn't consider you worthy, you know -- give you an example, like Andre the Giant, if he didn't like you, he would -- you know, he could just destroy you all night long. And there was a lot of wrestlers that he would really bully and beat up, because they -- most of the time because they deserved it.

But in my case, I wrestled Andre the Giant in Italy one time. I remember walking into the dressing room going, Holy smokes, I can't believe I'm wrestling Andre the Giant. And I -- and then I found out that he had actually requested my name, because he had such respect for me. And I remember I was actually really nervous about it, and thinking -- I didn't know what I was going to do and how to -- I just didn't know how to make it believable or credible.

And when I did wrestle, he made me look like a million dollars. He fell down and tied himself up in the ropes and did all these things, he made me look so great. And I realized that, you know, I was -- that's the respect that you get. And there were certain wrestlers that suffered the other way around, that if he didn't like you or thought you were a troublemaker, he would look forward to wrestling you.

GROSS: My guest is wrestler Bret "The Hitman" Hart. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: My guest is wrestler Bret Hart. He has a new book called "Bret `Hitman' Hart: The Best There Is, the Best There Was, and the Best There Ever Will Be."

What are the scripts like now in wrestling?

HART: Well, now it's like, Oh, OK, you're going to -- you know, you're -- I had a situation, which again is quite scary, where I had my -- I got kicked in the head from Bill Goldberg, and I had this concussion. This was in December 19th, and this is about two days later. So I was still kind of in a fog, foggy state. And I call -- I was called upon -- it was scripted for me at the very end of the wrestling show to -- I was doing some kind of dastardly deed in the ring with another -- on another wrestler, and Bill Goldberg, of course, came out to make the rescue. And he chases me out of the building.

And the script called for me to jump in a car that was parked, my car, my rental car, my very own rental car. I jump in it, and he's chasing me, and I -- as he's chasing me, I speed off out the back of the ramp and outside, out of the building, like I'm leaving. And, of course, that sounds great when it's all scripted. But in fact, I -- it was an icy, rainy time of year, this was in December in Salisbury, Maryland.

And I jump in the car. I got no seat belt on. And I strap -- I don't strap myself in. I got my wrestling costume on. And I zoom out of the back of the building, and I find I'm spinning totally, completely out of control and heading towards a television truck. And I found myself in this really awful circumstance of being in the same situation as my brother, Owen, was, where no one took into account the seriousness of the danger involved.

And here I am, a professional wrestler, doing stunt work again. And, you know, the sad thing about that was that I had this concussion, and I had come back to complain about it. And when I came back to the dressing room area, poor Bill Goldberg, the guy that had chased me, he was supposed to punch out some windows of the car, it was scripted where he was going to break the windows with his hand. And they gave him something to -- I think there was a little metal -- like a -- almost like a -- almost like Bic pen, but it was made of metal or something that's supposed to -- made to break all the windows so he wouldn't hurt his hand.

And it had broken, so he decided to punch a window out on his own, and he cut his forearm right to the bone. I mean, I'm talking about an 18-inch gash in his arm, right from -- right to the bone. And I, of course, forgot all about my incident in relation to that.

But it took me a few days to remember it. I remember when I was home I watched it on TV, and I watched -- you can actually see the car kind of lose control on me at the very end of the TV show. And I brought it up the following Monday. It was just, I think, right around Christmas time or a little after. And I explained that I'm not a stunt man, I'm really just going to do my stunts in the ring, and I found the whole thing really offensive.

And they were very apologetic and understanding about it. And then it was scripted for me to drive a monster truck over top of another car...

GROSS: (laughs)

HART: ... and (inaudible) if I'd do that. And I said, I don't think anyone seems -- no one seems to be getting this, you know. And that's unfortunate, it's sort of my problem with what's going on in wrestling today.

GROSS: Bret "Hitman" Hart is my guest, the wrestler, and he has a new book.

I want to ask you about what happened to your brother, Owen Hart, who, who died in the ring last year. Would, would you describe this stunt that, that he was doing?

HART: Well, I really don't know a lot about it, other than what people have read and have -- I'm very careful, because there's a pending lawsuit that I don't want to tread too much into that.

GROSS: Right.

HART: But all I know is that it was -- it's my understanding, and I might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure I'm pretty correct on this, is that this stunt was designed to make fun of Hulk Hogan and Sting in the WCW. And this was the WWF trying to make a spoof on Hulk Hogan and his sort of hero thing.

And the whole idea, if you can believe this, is that my brother was supposed to descend from the ring, from 91 feet from the top of the ceiling of Kansas City's Kemper Arena. He was to descend with no background in any of this kind of stuff, descend all the way to the ring apron, or the -- to the floor, or to the -- I guess to the wrestling mat, release himself when he landed, and then take about two or three steps and trip and fall, you know, on his face, and that was the -- the whole thing was a spoof, like, it was that -- that -- it was all done for that moment, that this -- my brother risked his life and lost his life so that they could have that great moment of humor and sort of jab WCW and poke Hulk Hogan and Sting.

How it went wrong will be sorted out, I guess. But I just -- I shake my head and go, that -- it -- you know, I was very close with my brother, Owen. He was a great wrestler. I think like me he loved the actual wrestling. And I just can't imagine or understand, and I don't think I ever will, what would possess him or anyone else to be hanging from a ceiling that was -- with (inaudible) -- I don't think there was any -- safety was certainly not a priority.

GROSS: Did you want to get back in the ring yourself after your brother died in that stunt that you thought was so ill advised?

HART: No, I went through a -- right away I said I could never -- I don't think I can ever go back. And I felt really cheated, because I thought I didn't -- I don't deserve -- my fans don't deserve for me to leave on such a dark note kind of thing. But I just didn't feel I could ever go back. You think of all these sort of contrived story lines that they have in wrestling, you know, this guy's come in and he's going to do that and he's going to say this about you, or they're going to -- I just thought, everything you could possibly imagine is so pathetically meaningless com -- you know, when you relate to the real-life horror of what happened with my brother.

And so I really kind of concluded, maybe a little too quickly, that I could never go back. But I (inaudible) -- I'll give it some time, and I'll think about it. And the more I thought about it, I realized that -- took me a couple months, two or three months, to be honest, I realized that it's maybe the other way around, that I have to go back and just, you know, just -- if I can make a difference in wrestling, and maybe put a little more respect back in it, and at least leave on a high note, leave with my head up like I always promised myself that I would.

And just go back and maybe find the passion for it again, and find the fun in it again. And I think I was on my way to that with the WCW. I had a match with a guy named Chris Benoit (ph) who is a great wrestler, he's one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, maybe the best actual wrestler in the profession today. And we wrestled in Kansas City in the Kemper Arena in a match that we both dedicated to my brother. And he was a very close friend of my brother's, and they had started out together.

And it was -- I think in a lot of ways, it was almost like -- you could almost put a tombstone on wrestling after that match, because it was a -- it was just this magnificent wrestling match with the -- with no fire, barbed wire, or any of the gimmicks that they have in wrestling. It was just two wrestlers telling this great story, a great struggle. And all the fans were watching.

And it was funny, because when you watched this match, it was -- you know, it's basically a -- two good guys wrestling each other, which in a lot of ways is considered pretty boring. But in the first five minutes, they were kind of just of barely watching. And then when you sort of go -- we wrestled for, like, 30 minutes, I think. But as you get about the 11- or 12-minute mark, you can see that everybody in the arena is riveted to every single move, and it's, like, that's what pro wrestling is, that's what I loved about it.

And we had this great match. And that was a -- just the most special thing. And I think in a lot of ways, it was the most significant match I ever had, meant the most to me. And I kind of -- that was my -- I think it was, like, my final statement on wrestling.

GROSS: Well, Bret Hart, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

HART: My pleasure.

GROSS: Bret Hart has a new book called "Bret `Hitman' Hart: The Best There Is, the Best There Was, and the Best There Ever Will Be."

Here's some music from "Stop the Music," a solo piano CD by Joel Forrester (ph), the composer of the FRESH AIR theme.

(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "STOP THE MUSIC," JOEL FORRESTER)

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, Pa
Guest: Bret Hart
High: Pro-wrestler Bret "Hitman" Hart of World Championship Wrestling comes from a wrestling family. His father was a wrestling promoter and ran a wrestling school in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. All his brothers were wrestlers, including his brother Owen Hart who was killed in a wrestling stunt last year. Bret Hart is the subject of a new biography, "Bret 'Hitman' Hart: The Best There Is, The Best There Was, The Best There Ever Will Be."
Spec: Entertainment; Bret Hart

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview With Bret Hart

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: APRIL 24, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 042402NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Ed Ward Examines Don Reno, Red Smiley, and the Tennessee Cutups
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Don Reno, Red Smiley, and the Tennessee Cutups were a pioneering bluegrass band during the 1950s which never really got the recognition the members' virtuosity and fine songwriting deserved.

Rock historian Ed Ward takes a look at their early career.

(AUDIO CLIP, BLUEGRASS EXCERPT, RENO, SMILEY, AND THE TENNESSEE CUTUPS)

ED WARD, ROCK HISTORIAN: Bill Monroe (ph) invented bluegrass and then spun off its second great band, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, at about the same time as the Stanley brothers were bringing vocal perfection to the form.

But there was a fourth band in the pantheon who aren't so well known these days, Reno and Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups. Ironically, banjo player Don Reno was asked to join Bill Monroe's group in 1943, but he'd already enlisted in the Army and had to decline. So Monroe hired Earl Scruggs instead, and the rapid three-finger picking style both men had perfected became known as Scruggs picking.

Arthur "Red" Smiley, for his part, was a guitarist and vocalist from North Carolina who joined Don Reno's group in the early '50s after Reno had spent a postwar year in Bill Monroe's band. It was a great combination and was soon snapped up by King Records in Cincinnati.

(AUDIO CLIP, BLUEGRASS SONG EXCERPT, RENO, SMILEY, AND THE TENNESSEE CUTUPS)

WARD: Their first single, "I'm Using My Bible for a Road Map," was a small hit, and it established them. But another song recorded on the same day in 1952 was more indicative of what was to come.

(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "CRAZY FINGER BLUES," RENO, SMILEY, AND THE TENNESSEE CUTUPS)

WARD: "Crazy Finger Blues" was a diabolical piece of virtuosity, and served notice that Don Reno was a force to be reckoned with. Still, bluegrass was never a high-dollar business, and the group which made these recordings broke up later that same year with both Reno and Smiley taking day jobs.

In 1955, though, they decided to take the plunge into full-time musicianship, and with bluegrass selling better than before, never looked back.

(AUDIO CLIP, BLUEGRASS SONG EXCERPT, RENO, SMILEY, AND THE TENNESSEE CUTUPS)

WARD: The Reno and Smiley sound was dependent on a number of things other bluegrass bands lacked. From the start, they sang four-part harmony, which obviously came from the church. Then there was their secret weapon, the baby-faced mandolinist and fiddler Mack McGaha (ph), who occasionally drafted a second fiddler to beef up the band's sound.

And finally, there was Red Smiley's increasing use of the guitar as a lead instrument in a genre dominated by fiddlers, banjoists, and mandolinists. This all came together in one of the strangest bluegrass numbers ever recorded.

(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "TUBBY BOY (ph) ROCK AND ROLL," RENO, SMILEY, AND THE TENNESSEE CUTUPS)

WARD: "Tubby Boy Rock and Roll" not only featured a guitar solo that was unlike anything ever heard before, it also featured a twin fiddle break that sounded more like the Western swing of Bob Wills than bluegrass. Records like this, plus their weekly radio and TV shows from Richmond, Virginia, made them one of the most in-demand bluegrass bands in the country. And in 1956, they were on the road for 342 days.

(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "NO LONGER A SWEETHEART OF MINE," RENO, SMILEY, AND THE TENNESSEE CUTUPS)

WARD: Their songwriting was of as high a caliber as their picking, too. So songs like "No Longer a Sweetheart of Mine" remain classics to this day. And when they couldn't write a great song, they were often offered one.

(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "I'M BLUE AND LONESOME," RENO, SMILEY, AND THE TENNESSEE CUTUPS)

WARD: "I'm Blue and Lonesome" was co-written by Bill Monroe and Hank Williams, although it was published under the name Smith. Reno and Smiley never charted a record until 1961, and by then Red Smiley's health was fading. Don Reno replaced him with an old friend, Bill Harrell (ph), and continued to play and record after his old partner's death in 1972.

Reno at least got to enjoy the fruits of the bluegrass revival which swept the nation in the '70s, but he too died in 1984. By then, their original recordings were long out of print, and it wasn't until just recently that King allowed them to be reissued. So now banjo players and guitarists can hear what they accomplished in the 1950s and weep in frustration.

GROSS: Rock historian Ed Ward currently lives in Berlin. A new compilation called "Reno and Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups: The Talk of the Town" is on the British label West Side.

FRESH AIR's interviews and reviews are produced by Phyllis Myers, Amy Salit, and Naomi Person, with Monique Nazareth, Ann Marie Baldonado, and Patty Leswing, research assistance from Brendan Noonam (ph).

I'm Terry Gross.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Ed Ward
High: Rock historian Ed Ward remembers the pioneering Bluegrass group of the 1950s Reno & Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups.
Spec: Music Industry; Entertainment

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Ed Ward Examines Don Reno, Red Smiley, and the Tennessee Cutups
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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