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Jules Verne Allen
Jules Verne Allen was one of a handful of authentic and documented cowboy singers and writers -
along with Carl T. Sprague - who lived the life that his songs dealt with. He also learned those
songs before radio and records carried them to the world, when they were still part of an oral
tradition. A cowboy from the age of 10, and participant on cattle drives until the end of the
first decade of the new century, Allen began singing as an amateur for the pleasure of his
After a stint in law enforcement, including a
possible period as a Texas Ranger, and service in the army during World War I, he began
working as a professional singer in the 1920's. and was appearing on radio in Dallas,
San Antonio, and Los Angeles by the end of the decade, sometimes under various pseudonyms,
including Longhorn Luke. Allen began cutting music for Victor starting in 1928, and cut a
total of a dozen sides for the company that year and the next. He cut what were among the
earliest known versions of "The Cowboy's Dream" and "Home On The Range," and "Days of Forty-Nine."
His recording of "The Dying Cowboy," more familiar as "Oh Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie, "
is one of the more notable authentic oral tradition derived versions of a song dating, in that
form, at least since the 1830s.
Born 1883, died 1945, Allen was also a composer
and writer in his own right, and published Cowboy
Lore, a collection of three dozen songs and accompanied by details about cowboy life, in 1933 -
it has been reprinted several times, most recently in 1971, some 26 years after his death. -Bruce Eder
Appalachia-born Red Allen had a voice that personified the "high lonesome sound" of traditional
bluegrass music. He was born in Perry County, Kentucky, and grew up influenced by the music of such
performers as Charlie Monroe. After serving two years in the U.S. Marine Corps, the 19-year-old
Allen moved to Dayton, Ohio in 1949. Many other musicians - including Frank Wakefield, the Osborne
Brothers and Noah Crase - also relocated to Ohio, and together they all frequently played together
local clubs and the radio.
Born Feb 12, 1930 in Perry County, KY, died Apr 3, 1993. in 1954, Allen made his recording debut on an independent Kentucky label. Later he joined
the Osborne Brothers, and the group became a mainstay on the Wheeling Jamboree. They began
recording on MGM, which is where they made such classics as "Ruby" and "Wild Mountain Honey."
Allen stayed with the Osbornes until 1958 and then left music for a time. In 1959, he moved to
Washington, DC, where he formed the Kentuckians with Wakefield; over the years, the group included
musicians like Bill and Wayne Yates and David Grisman.
In 1967, Allen moved to Nashville to temporarily replace a recuperating Lester Flatt
in Flatt & Scruggs. The next year he and J.D. Crowe founded the Kentucky Mountain Boys. In 1969,
Allen went back to Dayton and formed a band with his four teen-aged sons. As Red Allen and the Allen
Brothers, they began playing the Wheeling Jamboree, and recording for King Bluegrass and Lemco.
Throughout the '70s, he toured America and Europe, usually playing bluegrass and folk festivals.
A decade later, Allen recorded two albums for Folkways. He continued to be play clubs and
festivals near Dayton until his death from cancer in 1993. -Sandra Brennan
Died Oct 26, 1999 in Victor, MT.
First rising to prominence as a songwriter, Hoyt Axton carved out successful careers as a singer
and actor as well; rooted equally in country, folk and pop, his gravelly baritone and wry,
earthy songs projected an uncommon wit, warmth, and optimism, yielding a consistently
engaging body of work extending across four decades. Axton was born March 25, 1938 in Duncan, OK,
the son of a naval officer and his English teacher wife. Raised primarily in Jacksonville, FL, he
studied classical piano as a child before switching to guitar, writing his first songs at 15.
Despite the musical impact of his mother, Mae Boren Axton - the co-author of Elvis Presley's
landmark 1956 chart-topper "Heartbreak Hotel" - he initially pursued a career in athletics,
attending Oklahoma State University on a football scholarship before serving a stint in the navy.
From there Axton relocated to San Francisco, performing at local folk clubs and in 1962 writing
his first hit, the Kingston Trio's "Greenback Dollar." Later that year he issued his first album,
The Balladeer, a live effort recorded at the Hollywood nightspot the Troubadour; a concurrent
appearance on the television western Bonanza also launched his acting career.
Axton resurfaced in 1963 with Thunder 'N Lightnin',
followed later that year by Saturday's Child; around that same time one of his best friends
suffered a fatal drug overdose, inspiring his song "The Pusher," a hit for the rock band
Steppenwolf subsequently included on the soundtrack to the film Easy Rider. Despite his
success as a songwriter, Axton's performing career failed to catch fire, and after
1965's Sings Bessie Smith he was without a recording contract for several years before
signing to Columbia in 1969 to issue My Griffin Is Gone. While opening for Three Dog Night
in support of the album, the band heard his composition "Joy to the World" - their recording
of the song topped the pop charts in the spring of 1971 - and early the following year
they returned to the Top Ten with Axton's "Never Been to Spain." He signed to A&M
to release 1973's Less Than the Song; the follow-up, Life Machine, launched two of his
biggest solo hits, the lovely "When the Morning Comes" (a duet with Linda Ronstadt)
and "Boney Fingers." In 1975, Ringo Starr also notched a Top Three smash with Axton's
"The No No Song."
Following the much-acclaimed 1977 album
Snowblind Friend, Axton completed his deal with MCA with the release of Free Sailin';
he then formed his own label, Jeremiah Records, and with 1979's A Rusty Old Halo
scored his biggest solo hit with the classic "Della and the Dealer." In the wake of
appearances on dozens of television series including I Dream of Jeannie and McCloud,
he landed his first major film work that same year in the acclaimed family drama The
Black Stallion; Axton's subsequent movie roles included co-starring appearances in
projects including 1983's Heart Like a Wheel, 1984's Gremlins, and 1989's We're No
Angels. After 1982's Pistol Packin' Mama, Jeremiah folded, and Axton was noticeably
absent from recording until issuing the comeback album Spin of the Wheel in 1990.
The LP was Axton's last major new release, however, and in 1996 he suffered a stroke;
his health continued to decline, and after a series of heart attacks he died October 26,
1999 at the age of 61. -Jason Ankeny
Bobby Bare's story is nearly as fascinating as his music. Bare's mother died when he was five.
His father couldn't earn enough money to feed his children, forcing the family to split up.
Bobby was working on a farm by the time he was fifteen years old, later working in factories
and selling ice cream to support himself. Building his first guitar, he began playing music
in his late teens, performing with a local Ohio band in Springfield.
In the late '50s, he moved out to Los Angeles. Bare's first appearance on record was in 1958, as
he recorded his own talking blues "The All American Boy" which was credited to Bill Parsons. A number
of labels refused the record before the Ohio-based Fraternity Records bought it for $50; the
fee also included the publishing rights. "The All American Boy" was released in 1959 and it
surprisingly became the second-biggest single in the U.S. that December, crossing over to the pop
charts and peaking at number three. The single was also a big hit in the U.K., reaching number 22.
Before Bobby Bare could capitalize on his success,
he was drafted into the armed forces. While he was on duty, Fraternity hired another singer
to become Bill Parsons and sent him out on tour. After Bare left the army, he became roommates
with Willie Nelson. During this time, he decided to become a pop singer. Soon, he was touring with
rock/pop stars like Roy Orbison and Bobby Darin, recording records for a number of California labels.
Meanwhile, his songs were being recorded by a number of artists; three of his tunes were featured in
the Chubby Checker movie, Teenage Millionaire.
Even though he was having some modest success, Bare
decided he wasn't fulfilled playing pop music. Instead, he turned back to country, developing a
distinctive blend of country, folk, and pop. In 1962, Chet Atkins signed him to RCA Records. By
the end of the year, he had a hit with "Shame on You," which was notable for being one of the
first records out of Nashville to make concessions to the pop charts by featuring horns.
The production worked, as the single broke into the pop charts. The following year, he
recorded Mel Tillis and Danny Dill's "Detroit City," which became his second straight single
to make both the country and pop charts. Bare followed up the single with a traditional folk
song, "500 Miles from Home." It was another big hit for the singer, peaking in the Top 10
on both the country and pop charts. Bare continued to rack up hits in 1964 and 1965, as well
as appearing in the western movie, A Distant Trumpet.
As the '60s progressed, Bobby Bare continued to blur
the lines between country and folk, as he was influenced by songwriters like Bob Dylan, recording
material by Dylan and several of his contemporaries. Not only did he explore American folk, but
Bare traveled to England, where he was popular. In 1968, he recorded an album with a Liverpool
country band called the Hillsiders (The English Country Side), which signaled his artistic drive.
Bare switched record labels in 1970, signing with Mercury
Records. He stayed at the label for two years, producing a string of Top 10 hits, including "How
I Got to Memphis," "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends," and "Come Sundown." Upon leaving
Mercury, he recorded an album for United Artists called This is Bare Country,
which remained unreleased until 1976; instead, the label released a collection,
The Very Best of Bobby Bare. After leaving UA, he re-signed with RCA in 1973.
Later in 1973, Bare released a double album of Shel
Silverstein songs, Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends and Lies. Not only did the album represent
the beginning of a collaboration with Silverstein, it was arguably the first country concept album,
adding fire to the outlaw movement of the '70s in the process. The record was a hit with country
audiences as well as rock fans, gaining airplay on FM radio stations. The following year, he had his
first number one single with "Marie Laveau." Bare released another record of Silverstein songs,
Bobby Bare and the Family Singin' in the Kitchen, in 1975. Unfortunately, the singer's oldest
daughter died shortly after recording the album; she was only 15.
In 1977, Bare received a major publicity push from
Bill Graham, the legendary rock concert promoter. Graham signed the singer to his management company,
proclaiming that Bare was the "Springsteen of country music." Soon, the singer found new audiences
at college campuses and Canada. He switched record labels the same year, recording the self-produced
Bare for Columbia. Two years later, he released Sleeper Whenever I Fall, which featured contributions
from Rodney Crowell and rearranged rock & roll songs like the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time" and
the Byrds' "Feel a Whole Lot Better." Bare resumed his collaboration with Silverstein in 1980,
releasing the live collection Down and Dirty, which spawned two humorous hits, "Numbers"
and "Tequila Sheila." The following year, he released As Is, which showed that he was continuing
to record a diverse selection of songwriters, including Townes Van Zandt, J.J. Cale, and Guy Clark.
Despite the fact that his work was consistently
critically acclaimed, Bare's record sales began to slip in the early '80s, as the 1982
Silverstein collaboration Drinkin' From the Bottle, Singin' From the Heart and his 1985
record for EMI failed to launch any major hit singles. Nevertheless, Bobby Bare retained a
devoted following in the U.S. and the U.K. into the '90s, and his influence on contemporary
country music is evident. -Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Jim Ed Brown
Born April 1, 1934 in Sparkman, AR. Jim Ed Brown came to fame as a member of the '50s vocal group the Browns, where he was the band's
lead male vocalist. In 1965, when the group was still together, he embarked on a solo career that
would eventually eclipse the success of the Browns.
Brown and his older sister, Maxine, began performing while he was still in high school. In
1954, the duo signed a contract with the Fabor label, where they released five singles. Later
that year, their sister Bonnie joined the duo and they became the Browns. From 1956 until 1967,
the Browns were signed to RCA records, where they had a number of moderately successful hit singles,
highlighted by the 1959 number one "The Three Bells."
Brown began his solo career in 1965, two years before the Browns disbanded. Initially,
he didn't have much success and just scraped the bottom of the country Top 40. Once the Browns
disbanded, Brown began to have more substantial hits, beginning with the number 18 single "You Can
Have Her," which was a cover of the Roy Hamilton hit. That was followed by the beer-drinking
anthem "Pop A Top," which climbed to number three. Although his next single, "Bottle, Bottle,"
reached number 13, Brown didn't have any major hits for the rest of the '60s.
As his chart performance stagnated in 1968, he formed a backing group called the Gems and
began a residency at the Sahara Tahoe's Juniper Lounge. In 1969, he hosted the syndicated television
show, The Country Place, which ran until 1970.
As The Country Place was ending its run, Brown had his first major hit since "Pop A Top," with
the number four single "Morning." Again, he wasn't able to immediately follow "Morning" with another
Top 10 hit, but he began charting more frequently. In 1973, he had two Top 10 hits, "Southern Loving
and "Sometime Sunshine," which were followed by the Top 10 "It's That Time of Night" in early 1974.
Jim Ed Brown had his greatest success in the late '70s, when he regularly dueted with Helen Cornelius.
The duo had six Top 10 hits between 1976 and 1980, including their debut single, "I Don't Want To Have
To Marry You," which went to number one in 1976. During this time, he had some solo hits, but only two
of them broke the Top 40. Brown and Cornelius ended their partnership in 1981, following the number
13 hit "Don't Bother to Knock."
After the breakup of his duo with Helen Cornelius, Jim Ed Brown pretty much retired from recording.
He made the occasional appearance on the Grand Ole Opry and he sometimes reunited with Cornelius.
Brown also hosted TV game shows and talent contests throughout the '80s. Toward the end of the decade,
he opened the Jim Ed Brown Theater near Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee, where he performed regularly
well into the '90s. -Stephen Thomas Erlewine
A contemporary of Elvis Presley in the Memphis scene of the mid-'50s, Burnette played a similar
brand of fiery, spare wildman rockabilly. Born Mar 25, 1934 in Memphis, TN.
Died Aug 1, 1964 in Clear Lake, CA. With his brother Dorsey (on bass) and guitarist Paul
Burlison forming his Rock 'N Roll Trio, he recorded a clutch of singles for Decca in 1956 and
1957 that achieved nothing more than regional success. Featuring the groundbreaking fuzzy
tone of Burlison's guitar, Johnny's energetic vocals, and Dorsey's slapping bass,
these recordings - highlighted by the first rock & roll version of "Train Kept a-Rollin'" -
compare well to the classic Sun rockabilly of the same era. The trio disbanded in 1957,
and Johnny found pop success as a teen idol in the early '60s with hits like "You're Sixteen"
and "Dreamin'." Burnette died in a boating accident in 1964. His brother, Dorsey,
achieved modest success as a solo act in the early '60s, and Burlison
resurfaced as a member of the Sun Rhythm Section and still performs into 2002. -Richie Unterberger
The Callahan Brothers were most popular during the 1930s and were known for their yodeling.
They were born Walter and Homer Callahan (they later changed their names to Joe and Bill because
they were shorter) in mountainous Madison County in western North Carolina. Their childhood was
filled with the traditional music of the mountains and the recorded music of such singers as Ernest
Stoneman, Riley Puckett and Jimmie Rodgers. After the Callahans began performing, they integrated
yodeling into their act and it was this talent that called attention to them during a festival in 1933.
Joe and Bill made their recording debut the following year
in New York for ARC; they became the label's most popular duo during this era. That year, they also
began appearing on WWNC Asheville, North Carolina. During their recording career, the Callahans
moved to several different radio stations, including WHAS Louisville, Kentucky and WWVA Wheeling,
West Virginia. Some of the Callahans' most popular tunes include "Little Poplar Log House" and
country standard "She's My Curly Headed Baby." In addition to performing their own songs,
the two also covered the songs of other performers.
In 1940 the Callahans moved to Oklahoma to briefly work
at a radio station in Tulsa. The following year they moved to KRLD Texas and spent the rest of the
decade there and at KWFT Wichita Falls, Texas. The duo signed to Decca but didn't release many singles,
instead recording transcriptions for the Dallas-based Sellers Company which were usually played on
the radio. In 1945, the brothers went to Hollywood to make a movie, Springtime in Texas with
Jimmy Wakely. Afterward they did a nationwide promotional tour with the cowboy crooner.
Later Bill went on an Eastern tour with Ray Whitely and in 1947 recorded a solo for Cowboy Records
in Philadelphia. Four years later, the Callahans became Lefty Frizzell's opening act and recorded
eight singles for Columbia.
Later, Joe went back to Asheville and became a grocer
while Bill stayed in Dallas to become a photographer; he occasionally returned to music as a bass
player or a comic. The brothers briefly reunited in Dallas during the mid-'60s to do a few shows,
but by this time Joe's health was failing and he soon returned to North Carolina. He died in 1971.
Bill retired and remained in Dallas. -Sandra Brennan
Born May 6, 1904 in Taylorsville, KY, died Apr 2, 1983 in Lexington, KY.
White country bluesman Cliff Carlisle was among the most prolific recording artists of the 1930s;
a blue yodeler in the tradition of Jimmie Rodgers, he helped pioneer the popularity of the Hawaiian
steel guitar in country music, while the ribald imagery of his material established him among the
wittiest and most reckless composers of his day. Born in Taylorsville, Kentucky on May 6, 1904,
as a child Carlisle was enamored of the Hawaiian guitar recordings of Frank Ferera, and eventually
placed a steel nut under the strings of his own guitar to achieve a similar sound. Rural blues was
also an early influence, and while working on his family's farm he also absorbed the inspiration of
old-timey string bands and sacred songs; he began his performing career at the age of 16, performing
socials and local talent contests alongside a cousin, Lillian Truax. After Truax's marriage disbanded
the duo, in 1924 Carlisle began collaborating with Wilbur Ball, a construction worker who also played
guitar and sang tenor harmony; over the course of the decade to follow, the duo regularly toured the
vaudeville and tent show circuit, performing across the country as quite possibly the first blue
yodeling duet team.
In 1930, Carlisle and Ball debuted on Louisville radio WHAS, a fledgling station their popularity
helped establish; that same year Carlisle made his first recordings on the Gennett and Champion labels,
virtually all of them firmly in the tradition of Jimmie Rodgers. In 1931, he and Ball actually
recorded with the Singing Brakeman himself; that same year Carlisle also cut "Shanghai Rooster
Yodel," the first in a series of ribald barnyard-themed outings which served him throughout his
career and which may have influenced similar tracks by Charley Patton ("Banty Rooster Blues")
and Howlin' Wolf ("Little Red Rooster"). Upon signing to ARC in late 1931, Carlisle's career
truly took flight; landing a regular spot on Charlotte, North Carolina station WBT, followed by
subsequent gigs at Chicago's WLS and Cincinnati's WLW. His younger brother Bill replaced Ball
as rhythm guitarist circa 1934, and when Carlisle resumed recording in 1936 after a lengthy hiatus,
his material became even saltier - "Get Her by the Tail on a Down Hill Drag" was a classic barroom
boast, while "That Nasty Swing" employed metaphorical imagery of surprising explicitness.
(He typically recorded his more blue material under a variety of pseudonyms, including Bob
Clifford and Amos Greene.)
During the mid-1930s, Carlisle's son - billed as "Sonny
Boy Tommy" - began regularly appearing on live dates and recording sessions, a situation which often
ran afoul of individual states' child labor laws. The recordings Carlisle made with his son were
typically mild and innocuous, but his solo sides continued to get down and dirty - "A Wild Cat
Woman and a Tom Cat Man" offered a cartoonish portrait of domestic disputes, while the snarky "You'll
Miss Me When I'm Gone" was later covered by Elvis Presley as "Just Because." In 1939,
he recorded "Footprints in the Snow," later to become a bluegrass standard; the song
offered clear proof that consumers' appetite for blue yodels was on the wane; in the years to
follow, Carlisle was a regular on Memphis' WMPS, but by the early 1950s he was essentially
retired from the music industry, having recorded well over 300 sides during his heyday.
He was rediscovered a decade later when the Rooftop Singers covered his "Tom Cat Blues,"
leading to a handful of reunion performances with Wilbur Ball and even recording new material
for the Rem label. Carlisle died in Lexington, Kentucky on April 2, 1983; he was 78. -Jason Ankeny
Fiddlin' John Carson
Born Mar 23, 1868 in Fannin County, GA, Died Dec 11, 1949 in Atlanta, GA.
Fiddlin' John Carson was already 55 when in 1923 the Okeh label released "Little Old Log
Cabin in the Lane"/"The Old Hen Cackled" - the first recording by a strictly country artist
and arguably the beginning of the country music recording industry. Carson was born in the
Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia in 1868, and worked in cotton mills for over 20 years until
his fiddling talents won several contests. He began performing on minstrel shows, and came to
be quite popular around the Georgia area. So much so that Atlanta furniture salesman Polk
Brockman recommended Carson's name to Okeh field-recorder Ralph Peer. Though Peer agreed
to record the fiddler, he was disgusted with the results and sent only a few copies to the
furniture store - then the only outlet for records. Brockman sold out of several pressings,
convincing Peer that there was a market for hillbilly recordings.
Carson was brought to New York late in 1923 to
begin recording the first of his over 150 sides for the label. The following year, Carson
updated his old-timey sound by recording with a string band called the Virginia Reelers.
He also recorded as a comedy duo with his daughter, Rosa Lee (known as Moonshine Kate).
Carson's fortunes declined during the Depression, however; his final recordings were for
Victor Bluebird in 1934. He later worked as an elevator operator at the Georgia State Capitol,
a job he received from governor Eugene Talmadge in return for the popular musician's campaign help.
Rounder has released a compilation of the fiddler's recordings with the Virginia Reelers and
Moonshine Kate. -John Bush
Born Mar 31, 1933 in Maces Springs, VA, died Jul 29, 1999 in Goodletsville, TN.
A member of country music's most famous family, Anita Carter found success of her own as a
folk solo act during the early '50s and late '60s. The Carter Family had ruled country music during
the 1930s, but broke up in 1943 after patriarch A.P. Carter and his ex-wife Sara decided to retire.
Sara's cousin Maybelle, the third member of the Carters, re-formed the group the same year -
as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters - with her daughters Helen, June and Anita.
The sisters had sung on Carter Family radio broadcasts in 1935, and the new group more than made
up for the break-up of the originals. The Carters performed on radio from Virginia, Tennessee and
Missouri during the late '40s, but moved to the Grand Ole Opry in 1950.
In 1951, Anita stormed the charts on a one-off duet
with Hank Snow; both "Bluebird Island" and its B-side "Down the Trail of Achin' Hearts"
reached the Country Top Five. During the mid-'50s, she also performed with the teen trio 'Nita,
Rita & Ruby, but spent most of her time with the Carters. The group continued to be popular
on the Opry and even opened for Elvis Presley in 1956-57. After A.P. Carter's death in 1960,
Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters became the Carter Family and performed more contemporary
country than gospel.
In 1961, the Carters began a long-running association
with Johnny Cash by appearing on his roadshow. They recorded the Country Top 15 single "Busted"
with Cash in 1963, and after June Carter married him in 1967, the Carters appeared
on his ABC-TV show from 1969 to 1971. Though the Carter Family continued to record -
usually with Johnny Cash - during the early '70s, they disbanded in 1969. Mother Maybelle became
recognized as a major figure in the folk revival that year, appearing with Sara at the
Newport Folk Festival and on the Rounder album, An Historic Reunion.
Meanwhile, Anita had begun to record for RCA in 1966,
hitting the Country charts with "I'm Gonna Leave You." Another single charted in 1967, and her
duet with Waylon Jennings on "I Got You" reached number four in March 1968. Later in 1968,
Anita moved to United Artists, but several singles proved unsuccessful. She recorded
for Capitol in the early '70s and almost hit the Top 40 with "Tulsa County." Her last chart
appearance with the Carter Family, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup," was released in August
1973. In July of 1999, ten years after the release of the collection Ring of Fire on the Bear
Family label, vocalist Anita Carter passed away in Tennesse. -John Bush
Born Oct 16, 1918 in Harman, WV. Died Mar 22, 1977.
Dale Troy "Stoney" Cooper and his wife Wilma Lee were one of the premier husband-and-wife duos
in country music. Staples of the Grand Ole Opry for twenty years, they performed together for
close to four decades, and helped old-time music evolve into modern country music.
They were born four years apart on opposite ends of Randolph County, West Virginia. Cooper
came from a family of fiddle players, while Wilma's family loved performing sacred songs,
billing themselves as the Singing Leary Family. Following his high school graduation,
Cooper began fiddling for Rusty Hiser's Green Valley Boys at a radio station in West Virginia;
Wilma's family was singing on the air in Virginia. Following the breakup of his band, Stoney
joined the Learys as a sideman. He and Wilma began singing together and were married in 1941.
The couple began their career together singing at various radio stations around the country,
ending up on the Wheeling Jamboree and staying there for the next 10 years as one of the show's
most enduringly popular acts.
The duo signed to Columbia in 1949 and remained for five years, releasing several classic singles,
including "Sunny Side of the Mountain" and the devotional "Walking My Lord Up Calvary Hill."
Stoney and Wilma formed a backing acoustic band called the Clinch Mountain Clan, which featured
several dobro, fiddle, and mandolin players over the years. They moved to Hickory Records in
1955 and the following year had two small hits. In 1957, the Coopers joined the Opry. Their
most successful year was 1959, when they released three Top Five hits: "Come Walk With Me,"
"Big Midnight Special," and "There's a Big Wheel." They had two Top 20 hits in 1960 and
scored their last chart appearance in 1961 with the Top Ten hit Wreck on the Highway.
Stoney suffered a heart attack in 1963 and was forced to slow down considerably.
The two moved to Decca in 1965 and tried to update their sound, without much success.
In 1977, Stoney finally succumbed to his health problems; Wilma Lee continued to tour
and play the banjo in a more bluegrass-oriented style. -Sandra Brennan
AKA Marion Try Slaughter, born April 6, 1883 in Jefferson, TX, died Sep 14, 1948.
Vernon Dalhart was one of the first country performers to gain national recognition, thanks
to an ability to make his music palatable to a wider audience. Dalhart was born Marion Try Slaughter
in Marion County, Texas. His grandfather was a Confederate soldier who became a deputy sheriff and was
a member of the Ku Klux Klan; when he was a boy, his father was killed in a knife fight. Dalhart sang at
community gatherings, where he also played the harmonica and the jew's harp. In the early 1900s,
he studied music at the Dallas Conservatory and married. He moved to New York in 1910 and worked in
a music store. After studying light opera, he earned extra cash singing for funerals. He appeared in
his first opera two years later and in 1913 appeared in HMS Pinafore and Madame Butterfly.
In 1916, he made his recording debut as a pop singer with "Just a Word of Sympathy" When his
version of the "Wreck of the Old 97" became a smash hit, he helped popularize country music,
selling over 25 million copies. In 1925, Dalhart had success with a series of topical songs
based on current events such as the death of a Kentucky spelunker, the notorious Scopes Trial,
and a song about the terrible Santa Barbara Earthquake, selling enough copies to firmly establish
the Columbia label's country division. During the '20s and '30s, he used over one hundred pseudonyms
to record over 5, 000 singles; among the names he appeared under are Frank Evans, Vernon Dale,
Tobe Little, Bob White, Hugh Lattimer, Sid Turner, and Al Craver. He continued on with recording
through the late '30s, at which time his rather formal interpretation of hillbilly music fell out
of favor as radio stations began airing music from "authentic" country singers such as the Carter Family.
Up through 1942, Dalhart kept trying to convince the labels to record him, but his bids were
unsuccessful, and he ended up largely forgotten and working as a night clerk at a hotel in Bridgeport,
Connecticut. He died of heart failure in 1948. It wasn't until 1981 that Dalhart's contribution was
finally given its due recognition when his few diehard fands successfully lobbied for his election to
the Country Music Hall of Fame. -Sandra Brennan
Born Sep 4, 1948 in Broken Bow, OK . Gail Davies, a member of the first wave of intelligent
female country-rock songwriters of the '70s, influenced such artists as Mary-Chapin Carpenter and
the Judds. Born Patricia Gail Dickerson on June 5, 1948 in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, she was the daughter
of Tex Dickerson, a former member of the Louisiana Hayride. She moved to Seattle as a youngster,
though, and was early influenced by rock as well as country. Davies toured with a rock band during
the late '60s, but later married a jazz musician and moved to Los Angeles with him. After attempting
a career as a jazz singer, she returned to country music. Davies performed for several years around
the L.A. area, but turned to songwriting after her doctor cautioned that her voice needed a rest.
During the mid-'70s, she gained a songwriting contract with Lawrence Welk's Vogue Music and did
some back-up vocal work with Hoyt Axton and Roger Miller.
The exposure got her a contract with Lifesong/CBS,
which released her self-titled debut album in 1978. The single "No Love Have I" hit number 26
on the Country chart, and the following year "Someone Is Looking for Someone like You" narrowly
missed the Top Ten. After signing with Warner Bros. the same year, "Blue Heartache" hit number
seven and her album The Game was applauded by critics. Gail Davies' biggest hit, though, was the
title track from her 1980 LP I'll Be There. It reached number four in the Country chart early in
1981, and was followed by three Top Tens: "It's a Lovely, Lovely World," "Grandma's Song" and "'Round the
Clock Lovin'," from Givin' Herself Away.
Davies slipped into the Top 20 on three singles
from 1983's What Can I Say, and moved to RCA the following year. Where Is a Woman to Go also
fared poorly on the charts, though Davies still received support from the critics. "Break Away"
managed number 15 on the Country chart in 1985. The following year, Gail Davies formed Wild Choir.
The band recorded a self-titled album for RCA, and their two singles - "Next Time" and "Heart to Heart" -
charted modestly. She returned to solo recording in 1989 with Pretty Words for MCA and The Other
Side of Love, released the following year for Capitol. Davies had gradually moved into production
during the late '80s, and she accepted a position at Liberty Records as country music's first female
staff producer, working with a teenaged Mandy Barnett.
Neither the Barnett sessions nor any of Davies' other
production projects ever saw release, however, so in 1993 she left Liberty to tour Europe as a
member of the songwriting group Nashville Unplugged. In 1995 she wrote and recorded the album
Eclectic, issued on her own Little Chickadee Records; two years later Davies and her new husband
Rob Price re-recorded all of her biggest chart hits, issuing Greatest Hits on Koch in 1998. -John Bush
The Dixon Brothers
Group Members Dorsey M. Dixon Howard Dixon -
As tough as the life of a professional musician must have been in the '30s, the
plight of a typical Carolina millworker was a whole lot worse. This was the background
that Dorsey and Howard Dixon were born into, as they and their family all worked in the
mills of Darlington, Lancaster, and Greenville, SC, as well as East Rockingham, NC. Dorsey
was born October 5, 1897, and his brother on June 9, 1903. Music was an outlet from the
long hours, lousy pay, and miserable factory conditions, with the workers often picked on by
their bosses for being so-called hillbillies, and persecuted by local police for being
so-called communists. Perhaps a career in country music was inevitable for hillbilly
communists and it surely must have seemed like it would be more rewarding. At any rate,
Dorsey picked up guitar at 14 and switched to fiddle later.
When his little brother
also figured out chords on the guitar, the two put together a fiddle-guitar duo,
although the older brother continued practicing guitar. The most important musical
influence on the Dixons was a local guitarist named Jimmy Tarleton, who
had been a member of a successful duo, Darby and Carleton. The Depression had sandbagged
this duo's career, so Tarleton had returned to the Little Hanna Pickett Mill in
East Rockingham and his old job as a textile worker. He made friends with the brothers
and the talk frequently turned to music, with lots of song trading going on.
The brothers flipped over Tarleton's slide-guitar sound, which was much more
heavily influenced by black blues styles. A strength of the Dixon Brothers'
sound inevitably was the blues influence they filtered down through their friend,
the result being a bit less of an overt blues influence, but plenty of stylistic
shading. Howard also switched instruments because of his new friend, so enamored was
he with the sound of the National steel. This in turn had an effect on Dorsey's guitar
style. He ditched the flatpick and began working out his own approach to the instrument.
Tarleton later repaid the debt by recording "Weaver's Blues," his own version of a Dixon
Brothers song entitled "Weaver's Life."
The Dixon Brothers began performing in 1932 at
local shindigs, but really began their professional career two years later on the WBT
Saturday Night Jamboree. This was a popular show and led to work outside the area and
eventual recording opportunities with Victor. The company taped more than 60 numbers
between 1936 and the close of the decade. Legend has it that at one Dixon Brothers
recording session, the brothers Bill and Earl Bolick walked by the studio for
an audition and were so frightened by the intense Dixon Brothers sound that they
fled, later regaining their composure to do rather well as the Blue Sky Boys.
The recordings were certainly not flops by any means, but when the contract with
Victor ran out and the second World War began, the brothers basically retired from music.
Dorsey was a loom-fixer the rest of his life, retiring in 1951.
In 1960 Howard died on
the job, but a year later Dorsey felt fit enough to make some new recordings and
eventually to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, where he was introduced to the
crowd by folksinger Pete Seeger. The elderly statesman did so well he was invited back
to the festival the next year. He did a new record for Piedmont as well as the archives
of the Library of Congress, but neither was released commercially. Keeping up a schedule
of concerts was more than he could handle at his age. He retired to Florida and died
in 1968 at the age of 71. -Eugene Chadbourne
Died Jul 19, 1975 in Nashville, TN.
Lefty Frizzell was the definitive honky-tonk singer, the vocalist that set the
style for generations of vocalists that followed him. Frizzell smoothed out the rough edges of
honky tonk by singing longer, flowing phrases - essentially, he made honky tonk more acceptable for
the mainstream without losing its gritty, bar-room roots. In the process, he changed the way country
vocalists sang forever. From George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson to George Strait,
John Anderson, Randy Travis, and Keith Whitley, hundreds of artists have emulated and expanded
Lefty's innovations. Frizzell's singing became the foundation of how hard country should be sung.
Despite his influence, there was a time when Lefty
Frizzell wasn't regarded as one of country's definitive artists. Unlike Hank Williams - the only
contemporary of Lefty that had greater influence - he didn't die young, leaving behind a romantic
legend. After his popularity peaked in the early and mid-'50s, Frizzell continued to record, without
having much success. However, his recordings continued to reach new listeners and his reputation
was restored by the new traditionalists of the '80s, nearly 10 years after Lefty's death.
Lefty Frizzell (born William Orville Frizzell)
was born in Corisicana, TX, in 1928, a son of an oiler; he was the first of eight children.
During his childhood, his family moved to El Dorado, AR. As a child he was called Sonny, but
his nickname changed to Lefty when he was 14, because he won a schoolyard fight; it was later
suggested that he earned his nickname after winning a Golden Gloves boxing match, but that was
eventually proven to be a hatched publicity stunt by his record company. Initially, Lefty was
attracted to music through his parents' Jimmie Rodgers records. He began singing professionally
before he was a teenager, landing a regular spot on KELD El Dorado.
Lefty spent his teenage years playing throughout the
region, singing on radio shows, in nightclubs, for dances, and in talent contests. He travelled
throughout the south, playing in Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, and even Las Vegas. During this
time, he was refining his style, drawing from influences like Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb, and
Ted Daffan. Lefty's career was going fine until he was arrested in the mid-'40s, serving a jail
sentence for statutory rape.
Frizzell's run-in with the law led him away from music,
as he temporarily worked in the oil fields with his father. However, his time as an oiler was brief
and he was soon performing in clubs again. By 1950, he had landed a regular job at the Texas
club Ace of Clubs, where he developed a dedicated following of fans. At one of his concerts at
the Ace of Clubs he caught the attention of Jim Beck, the owner of a local recording studio.
Beck recorded music for several major record labels, and he also had connections within the
publishing industry. Impressed with Lefty's performance, he invited the singer to make some
demos at the studio. In April of 1950, Frizzell cut several demos of his original songs,
including a new song called "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time," which Beck took to
Nashville. Beck intended to pitch the song to Little Jimmy Dickens, but Dickens disliked the song.
However, Columbia record producer Don Law heard the tape and liked Frizzell's voice. After hearing
Lefty live in concert, Law signed the singer to Columbia; within a few months, he had his first
"If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time," Lefty's
first single, climbed to number one upon its release. It was a huge hit - its B-side, "I Love You a
Thousand Ways," even hit number one - with other artists hurrying into the studio to cut their
own versions; over 40 performers wound up recording the song. Within 17 days of the single's
release, Columbia had Frizzell record another single. The result, "Look What Thoughts Will Do"/"Shine,
Shave, Shower (It's Saturday)," wasn't as big a hit, but it did reach the Top Ten.
By now, the Lefty Frizzell sound was being perfected
by the vocalist and Don Law. Frizzell was working with a core group of Dallas-based studio
musicians, highlighted by pianist Madge Sutee. In the beginning of 1951, he formed the Western
Cherokees, which was led by Blackie Crawford. Soon, the Western Cherokees became his
primary band for both live and recording situations. Lefty was in the studio frequently,
recording singles. His third single, "I Want to Be with You Always," was number one for 11
weeks and its follow-up, "Always Late (With Your Kisses)" spent 12 weeks at number one. At one
point in early 1951, he had a total of four songs in the country Top Ten, setting a record
that was never broken. Frizzell was a popular concert attraction, playing shows with the
Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry. He had three more Top Ten hits in 1951 - "Mom and
Dad's Waltz," 'Travelin' Blues," and the number one "Give Me More, More, More (Of Your Kisses)."
The hits continued throughout 1952, as "How Long Will
It Take (To Stop Loving You)," "Don't Stay Away (Till Love Grows Cold)," "Forever
(And Always)," "I'm An Old, Old Man (Tryin' to Live While I Can)" all went to the Top Ten.
Even though he was at the peak of his popularity, things began to unravel for
Lefty behind the scenes. Frizzell fired both his manager and his band. He joined the Grand
Ole Opry, but he decided he didn't like it and left almost immediately. Lefty was earning a lot
of money but he was spending nearly all of it. He worked with Wayne Raney, but the sessions
were a failure. In early 1953, he moved from Texas to Los Angeles, where he got a regular job
on Town Hall Party. That year, he had only one hit - the Top Ten "(Honey, Baby, Hurry!)
Bring Your Sweet Self Back to Me."
Early in 1954, he reached the Top Ten with "Run 'Em
Off," but it would be his last Top Ten record for five years. During the mid-'50s, Frizzell
felt burned out and he didn't have the energy to invest in his career. He had a total of
two hits between 1954 and 1959 - "I Love You Mostly" in 1955, "Cigarettes and Coffee Blues" -
because he decided to stop recording. Lefty was frustrated that Columbia wasn't releasing
what he believed to be his best material, so he simply stopped writing and recording songs.
However, he did tour sporadically, occasionally with his brother, David Frizzell.
Deciding it was time for a change, he began working
with Jim Denny's Nashville-based Cedarwood publishing company in 1959. Cedarwood gave him "The
Long Black Veil," a song written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin that had overt folk music
influences. Lefty recorded the song and it became a surprise Top Ten hit in the summer of 1959.
Encouraged by its success, Frizzell moved to Nashville in 1961, after Town Hall Party
closed in 1960. He began touring and recording at a more rapid rate, although it only resulted in
a couple of minor hits. Lefty's last big hit arrived early in 1964, when "Saginaw, Michigan"
climbed to number one and spent four weeks on the top of the charts. After that, he came close
to the Top Ten with 1965's "She's Gone Gone Gone," but he usually struggled to have any of
his songs break the Top 20 for the next decade.
Frizzell didn't stop recording, but he did develop a
debilitating alcohol problem that came to plague him throughout the late '60s and '70s. However,
alcohol wasn't the only thing holding his career back - Columbia was only releasing handfuls
of albums and singles, though Lefty was recording an abundance of material. Since his records
weren't as successful, he drastically cut back the number of concerts he performed. In 1968, he
cut some songs with June Stearns under the name Agnes and Orville, but none of the
tracks became hits. The lack of success helped him sink deeper into alcoholism.
In 1972, Lefty left Columbia, signing with ABC Records.
Though the change in labels helped revitalize him artistically, he didn't sell that many more
records. However, he did have the enthusiasm to record albums, as well as play concerts and television
shows. Frizzell's alcohol addiction worsened and he developed high blood pressure, but he wouldn't
take the medication because he thought it would interfere with his drinking. As a result,
he looked older than his 47 years when he died of a stroke in 1975.
Years of mediocre and mis-marketed records had
diminished Lefty Frizzell's reputation, but after his death, a new generation of artists
hailed him as an influence and an idol. Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and George Jones had
all sung his praises before, but in the mid-'80s, the kind words of George Strait and Randy
Travis were supported by a series of reissues, beginning with Bear Family's 14-LP set, His
Life - His Music (later replaced by the 12-CD Life's Like Poetry). In 1982, he was inducted
into the Country Music Hall of Fame, but the greatest testament to his music remains
the fact that his voice can be heard in every hard country singer that followed.
-Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Led by Larry Gatlin, the Gatlin Brothers are one of the most popular country groups in the music's
history. Adopting the close harmony vocal techniques of the Louvins and the Everlys to the highly-polished
country-pop era, Larry and the Gatlin Brothers scored a number of hits during the '70s and '80s.
Often, the group walked the line between intricate, inventive country and pure commercial material,
which resulted in strong sales but occasionally poor reviews. Nevertheless, they remained near the
top of the charts until the late '80s, when the new-traditionalists began to gain popularity.
Following their decline in popularity, Gatlin and the Gatlin brothers went into semi-retirement
during the early '90s, which resulted in the group relocating to Branson, Missouri, where they
ran their own theater.
The Gatlin Brothers didn't officially form until 1979,
when Larry Gatlin began crediting them as a supporting band on his solo singles, but the
three brothers - Larry, Steve and Rudy - had been performing together since childhood,
when they sang in church and on several local Texas television shows. While they were still
in their teens, they recorded a religious album for the independent Sword & Shield label.
Following high-school graduation, Larry, who was the eldest of the brothers, headed off to
the University of Houston, where he briefly joined the gospel group the Imperials. Larry
performed with the Imperials in Las Vegas, where he met Dottie West, who was impressed
enough by his songwriting talents to record two of his songs, "You're the Other
Half of Me" and "Once You Were Mine," and pay for him to move to Nashville. Once he
arrived in Nashville, he found that West had been circulating his demo tapes, which led to
Kris Kristofferson playing Larry's demo for Monument Records executive, Fred Foster.
Impressed by the tape, Foster offered Gatlin a contract in 1972. By that time, Larry had
already invited his brothers to Nashville to form a backing group, and they wound up singing
on his debut album, The Pilgrim, which featured his first country hit, "Sweet Becky Walker."
Gatlin's second album, Rain Rainbow, also featured
support from his brothers and it contained "Delta Dirt," which climbed to number 14. The
third Larry Gatlin album was officially credited to Gatlin with Family and Friends, and
contained his first Top 10 hit, "Broken Lady," which peaked at number five in early 1976.
Later that year, the Gatlin Brothers were made members of the Grand Ole Opry. In 1977,
Gatlin's fourth album, High Time, was credited to Larry with Brothers and Friends and
it contained his first number one hit, "I Just Wish You Were Someone I Love." After
releasing one more solo album, the Gatlin Brothers were officially credited as Larry's
backing band as of 1979, just as he signed to Columbia Records. The first hit single to
bear this name was the number one "All the Gold in California."
Throughout the '80s, the Gatlin Brothers ran up
a string of 15 Top 40 hits, including "Houston (Means I'm One Day Closer to You)," "Denver,"
"The Lady Takes the Cowboy Everytime," and "She Used to Be Somebody's Baby." All of their
recordings during this time were released under a variety of names, including Larry & the
Gatlin Brothers Band, Larry & the Gatlin Brothers, and Larry, Steve, Rudy: The Gatlin Brothers.
By the end of the decade, the group's popularity began to decline, due to the popularity of new
traditionalist performers. In 1991, the group decided to retire after they performed a farewell
tour. Larry appeared in the lead role in the Broadway musical The Will Rogers Follies the following
year, while Steve recorded an inspirational album, and Rudy opened two Gatlin Brothers Music
City Grilles. In 1993, the group opened their own theater in Branson, Missouri, which they
began performing at regularly; they also sang frequently in Las Vegas. That same year, the
group signed to the small label, Branson Entertainment, and released Moments to Remember,
which was followed by Cool Water the next year. -Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Singer/songwriter Don Gibson was one of the most popular and influential forces in '50s and '60s
country, scoring numerous hit singles as a performer and a songwriter. Gibson's music touched on both
traditional country and highly-produced country-pop, which is part of the reason he had such a broad
audience. For nearly a decade after his first hit single, "Sweet Dreams," in 1956, he was a reliable
hitmaker and his songs have become country classics - they have been covered by a wide range of artists,
including Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Kitty Wells, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, and Ronnie Milsap.
Gibson began playing guitar while he was a high
school student in North Carolina, playing local radio stations and dances. In 1946, he became a
regular with the Tennessee Barn Dance in Knoxville. Around the same time, he began recording
western songs with the Sons of the Soil, both on Mercury and RCA Victor Records. In 1950,
Gibson assumed control of the band, renaming them Don Gibson and his King Cotton Kinfolks and
switching their musical direction to honky tonk. Although their sound was more focused, they
remained unsuccessful. Gibson continued to perform on the radio, as well as Esslinger's Club in
Tennessee. At the nightclub, Wesley Rose saw Gibson perform and offered him a writing contract.
Don would only accept the deal if he was allowed to record. Rose managed to get Gibson a contract
with Columbia, which proved unsuccessful. Again, Rose secured him another contract, this time with
MGM. Gibson's first single for the label, "Sweet Dreams," became a Top Ten hit and was covered
by Faron Young, who took it to number three.
Following the success of "Sweet Dreams," Gibson was signed
to RCA in 1957 by Chet Atkins, who would become his producer for the next seven years. Released early in
1958, Don's first RCA single, "Oh Lonesome Me," was a blockbuster, spending eight weeks at the top
of the country charts and crossing over into the pop Top Ten. Gibson and Atkins developed a pop-friendly
style which featured rock & roll flourishes that brought him to a larger audience. In the course
of 1958-1961, Gibson had a total of 11 Top Ten singles, including "I Can't Stop Lovin' You, "Blue
Blue Day," "Who Cares," "Don't Tell Me Your Troubles," "Just One Time," "Sea of Heartbreak,"
and "Lonesome Number One."
Although his career wasn't as successful in the latter
half of the '60s, he still had the occasional Top Ten single, including "(Yes) I'm Hurting" (1966), "Funny,
Familiar, Forgotten, Feelings" (1966), "Rings of Gold" (1969), and "There's A Story (Goin' Round)" (1969).
During the late '60s, he suffered from alcoholism and drug addiction, but he cleaned up in the early '70s,
which led to a comeback in 1971. Switching record labels from RCA to Hickory, Gibson had a Top Ten
hit with "Country Green" in 1972. The following summer, he had his last number one single, "Woman
(Sensuous Woman)." He also had a series of duets with Sue Thompson between 1971 and 1976, which were
all moderately successful. After two Top Ten hits in 1974 - "One Day at a Time" and "Bring Back Your
Love to Me" - he settled into a string of minor hits that ran until 1980's "Love Fires." During the '80s
and '90s, he continued to tour and perform at the Grand Ole Opry. Don was born April 3, 1928 in Shelby, NC
- Stephen Thomas Erlewine
David Grisman, born 1945 in Hackensack, NJ, is normally associated with the bluegrass wing of
country music, but his music owes almost as much to jazz as it does to traditional American
folk influences. Because he couldn't think of what to call his unique, highly intricate,
harmonically advanced hybrid of acoustic bluegrass, folk and jazz without leaning toward one
idiom or another, he offhandedly decided to call it "dawg music" - a name which, curiously
enough, has stuck. A brilliant mandolinist, with roots deep in the Hot Club Quintette of France,
Grisman's jazz sensibilities were strong enough to attract the admiration of the HCQ's Stephane
Grappelli, who has toured and recorded with Grisman on occasion.
Grisman was already playing the piano, saxophone and
mandolin by the time he was a teenager,
taking up the latter at age 16. While attending New York University, he began playing with the
Even Dozen Jug Band, which at one time included Maria Muldaur and John Sebastian. He formed the
Great American String Band with violnist Richard Greene in 1974 and founded the Quintet
in 1976 that became known for the "dawg" hybrid. Grisman's breakthrough album was 1979's
Hot Dawg for A&M's jazz line, Horizon, featuring Grappelli, whom Grisman had met while scoring
the film King of the Gypsies. By 1980, the Grisman Quintet included such like-minded virtuoso
eclectics as fiddler/guitarist Mark O'Connor, violinist Darol Anger (later of the Turtle Island
String Quartet) and bassist Rob Wasserman. In 1987, Grisman recorded with jazz violinist Svend
Asmussen, and he has also done lots of session work with artists like Bela Fleck (for whom
Grisman's example has paved the way), Judy Collins, John Sebastian, Dolly Parton and James
Taylor. -Richard S. Ginell
Born Apr 6, 1937 in Bakersfield, CA.
As a performer and a songwriter, Merle Haggard was the most important country artist to emerge in the
1960s. Haggard became one of the leading figures of the Bakersfield country scene in the '60s. While his
music remained hardcore country, he pushed the boundaries of the music quite far. Like his idol Bob Wills,
his music was a melting pot that drew from all forms of traditional American music - country, jazz, blues,
and folk - and in the process, developed a distinctive style of his own. As a performer, singer, and
musician, he was one of the best, influencing countless other artists. Not coincidentally, he was the
best singer/songwriter in country music since Hank Williams, writing a body of songs that became classics.
Throughout his career, Haggard has been a champion of the working man, largely due to his rough and tumble
It's impossible to separate Haggard's music from his life.
Haggard was born to James and Flossie Haggard on April 6, 1937. His parents moved from Oklahoma to
California during the Great Depression, converting an old boxcar into a home. Before their marriage,
James played fiddle in local honky tonk bars. Flossie was a member of the Church of Christ, which led
to her forcing her husband to stop playing the honky tonks. James died from a brain tumor when Merle
was nine years old. After his father's death, Merle became rebellious. In an attempt to straighten her
son out, his mother put him in several juvenile detention centers, but it had little effect on Merle's
behavior. As a teenager, he fell in love with country music, particularly Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell,
and Hank Williams. When he was 12 years old, Haggard was given his first guitar by his older brother;
Merle taught himself how to play by listening to records that were lying around the house.
Even though he had begun to pursue music, Haggard continued
to rebel, running away with his friend Bob Teague to Texas when he was 14 years old. A few months later,
the pair returned to California, where they were arrested as robbery suspects. After the real thieves
were caught, Haggard was sent back to juvenile hall, but he and Teague took off to Modesto, CA. For a
brief time, he did manual labor, was a short-order cook, drove a truck, and committed a series of
small crimes. Soon after he moved to Modesto, Haggard made his performing debut with Teague at a bar
named the Fun Center; the two were paid five dollars and given all the beer that they could drink.
By the end of 1951, Haggard had returned home and he was
again arrested for truancy, as well as petty larceny. In the beginning of 1952, he was sent to Fred C.
Nelles School for Boys in Whittier, CA; again, he ran away. This time, the courts decided he was
incorrigible and sent him to the high-security Preston School of Industry; he was released after
15 months. Shortly after his release, he and a boy he met at PSI beat up a local boy during an
attempted robbery, and Haggard was sent back to PSI.
After getting out of PSI for the second time, Merle
Haggard had the first major event in his musical career. Haggard went with Teague to see Lefty Frizzell
in concert in Bakersfield. Before the show, he went backstage with several friends and he sang a couple
songs for Frizzell. Lefty was so impressed he refused to go on-stage until Haggard was allowed to sing a
song. Merle went out and sang a few songs to an enthusiastic response from the audience.
The reception persuaded Haggard to actively pursue a
musical career. While he was working during the day in oil fields and farms, he performed local
Bakersfield clubs. His performances led to a spot on a local television show, Chuck Wagon. In 1956,
he married Leona Hobbs; the couple moved into his family's old converted boxcar. Throughout 1957,
Haggard was plagued by financial problems, which made him turn to robbery. At the end of the year,
he attempted to rob a restaurant along with two other burglars; the three were drunk at the time.
Believing it was three o'clock in the morning, the trio tried to open up the backdoor of the restaurant.
However, it was 10:30 and the establishment was still open. Although the trio fled the scene,
Haggard was arrested that day. The following day, he escaped from prison in order to make peace
with his wife and family; later that day, he was recaptured. Haggard was sentenced to a 15-year
term and sent to San Quentin prison.
Prison didn't immediately lead Merle into rehabilitation.
He was fired from a series of prison jobs and planned an escape from the jail, but was talked out
of it by fellow inmates. Nearly two years into his sentence, Haggard discovered that his wife was
pregnant with another man's child. The news sent Haggard over the edge. Soon, he and his cellmate
began a gambling racket and brewing beer in their cell. Before long, Haggard was caught drunk and was
placed in isolation for a week. During his time in isolation, he had several conversations with Caryl
Chessman, an author and a member of death row. The conversations and the time in isolation convinced
Haggard to turn his life around. After he left isolation, he began working in the prison's textile
plant and took some high school equivalency courses; he was also allowed to play in the prison's
country band. At his second parole hearing in 1960, Haggard was given a five-year sentence - two years
and nine months in jail, two years and three months on parole; he left prison 90 days later.
Merle moved back in with Leona and returned to manual
labor. In the meantime, he sang at local clubs at night. After taking second place at a local talent
contest, Haggard was asked to become a relief singer for a band led by Johnny Barnett at one of the
most popular Bakersfield clubs, Lucky Spot. Soon, Merle was making enough money playing music he
could quit his ditch-digging job. While he singing with Barnett, he gained the attention of
Fuzzy Owen, who owned the small record label Tally Records. Owen and his cousin Lewis Talley
were instrumental in establishing Haggard's musical career. Owen made the first recording of
Haggard, cutting a demo version of one of the singer's first songs, "Skid Row." Shortly after
the recording, Haggard called Talley, who had praised him earlier in his career. Talley was able
to land Haggard a job at Paul's Cocktail Lounge, which led to a slot on a local music television show.
During this time, Bakersfield country was beginning to
become a national scene, largely due to the hit singles of Buck Owens. At a time when mainstream
country was dominated by the lush, smooth countrypolitan sound of Nashville, Bakersfield country
grew out of hardcore honky tonk, adding elements of Western swing. Bakersfield country also
relied on electric instruments and amplification more than other subgenres of country, giving
the music hard, driving, edgy flavor. During the late '50s, Tommy Collins and Wynn Stewart
were two of the Bakersfield artists to have hits, and both were influential on Merle Haggard's
career, musically as well as professionally. Haggard had admired Stewart's vocal style, and it
helped shape his phrasing.
Early in 1962, Haggard traveled to Las Vegas to see
Wynn Stewart's club show. Stewart was not at the club, having left to find a replacement bass player.
During the show, one of Stewart's guitarists remembered Haggard and invited him to sing a couple of
songs on-stage. Stewart walked in while Haggard was singing and was impressed, asking him to join his
band as a bassist. For six months in 1962 and 1963, Merle performed with Stewart's band. During
this time, Haggard heard Wynn's song "Sing a Sad Song" and asked the star if he could record it.
Stewart gave him the song and Merle recorded it for Tally Records in 1963. Although Tally had
minimal distribution, the record became a national hit, climbing to number 19 on the country
charts early in 1964.
"Sam Hill," Haggard's second single, wasn't as successful,
but a duet with Bonnie Owens, the former wife of Buck Owens, called "Just Between the Two of Us" broke
into the Top 40. The next year, his version of Liz Anderson's "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers"
broke him into the Top Ten and established him as a budding star. Capitol Records bought out his
contract with Tally and Merle released "I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can," his first single for
Capitol, in the fall of 1965. The single wasn't a success, scratching into the Top 50, but his next
single, "Swinging Doors," was a smash hit, rocketing to number five in the spring of 1966. Late in
1965, Haggard began recruiting a backing band and named them the Strangers.
Merle Haggard became a genuine country superstar in 1966,
with three Top Ten hits, including "Swinging Doors." "The Bottle Let Me Down" climbed to number
three and "The Fugitive" (later retitled "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive") became his first number
one. He was voted the Top Male Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music Awards, while he and Bonnie
were named the Top Vocal Group for the second year in a row.
Haggard's songwriting was beginning to blossom and
audiences embraced his music, sending his "I Threw Away the Rose" to number three early in 1967,
beginning a remarkable streak of 37 straight Top Ten hits, including 23 number one singles.
"I Threw Away the Rose" was followed by four straight number-one hits - "Branded Man," "Sing Me Back
Home," "The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde," and "Mama Tried," which was heard in Killers Three, a movie
that featured Haggard's debut as an actor. With the exception of "Bonnie and Clyde," the songs
represented a change in Haggard's songwriting, as he began to directly address his troubled history.
By 1970, he was talking about his time in San Quentin in the press, yet these songs represented
the first time he had mentioned his past directly. Each single was a bigger hit than the previous
song, which encouraged Haggard to continue writing in a more personal style.
Throughout 1968, Haggard's star continued to rise,
with two number-one hits ("Bonnie and Clyde," "Mama Tried") and the number three "I
Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am," as well as four albums. Later that year, he recorded
his first conceptual album, Same Train, Different Train: A Tribute to Jimmie
Rodgers. Released in early 1969, the record was not only an affectionate salute to one
of Haggard's heroes, it reflected a fascination with American history and a desire to expand
his music by adding stronger elements of Western swing, jazz, and blues.
Merle released three singles in 1969 - "Hungry Eyes," "Workin'
Man Blues," and "Okie From Muskogee" - and all three reached number one. In particular, "Okie From
Muskogee" sparked a tremendous amount of attention. An attack on the liberal hippies that represented
American pop culture in the late '60s, the song struck a chord in audiences across the country,
just missing the pop Top 40. Because of the song, Haggard was asked to endorse George Wallace, but
he refused. "Okie From Muskogee" cemented the singer's stardom, and he won a large amount of
awards in 1969 and 1970. In both years, he was named the Top Male Vocalist by the ACM and the
Strangers were voted the best band, while the new Country Music Association voted him Entertainer
of the Year and Top Male Vocalist in 1970.
Haggard released a sequel to "Okie" called "The Fightin'
Side of Me" at the beginning of 1970, and it also shot to number one. That year, he released A
Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or My Salute to Bob Wills),
which helped spark a revival of Western swing in the '70s. Throughout 1971 and 1972, the hits
kept coming, including "Soldier's Last Letter," "Someday We'll Look Back," "Daddy Frank (The
Guitar Man)," "Carolyn," "Grandma Harp," "It's Not Love (But It's Not Bad)," and "I Wonder If
They Ever Think of Me." In 1972, the governor of California, Ronald Reagan, granted Haggard
a full pardon. The following year, his hit streak continued, and he scored his biggest hit, "If
We Make It Through December," which peaked at number 28 on the pop charts. As his reign
on the top of the country charts continued in 1974, he played on Bob Wills' last album,
For the Last Time. Wills died in 1975, leaving Merle his fiddle.
Haggard stayed with Capitol Records until 1977,
and never once did his grip on the American audience slip during his tenure there. During his
time on MCA, he continued to have a number of hits, but his work was becoming slightly
inconsistent. His first two singles for the record label, "If We're Not Back in Love by
Monday" and "Ramblin' Fever," hit number two and he continued to have hits with the label
throughout the end of the decade and the first part of the '80s."I'm Always on a Mountain When
I Fall" and "It's Been a Great Afternoon" were number-two hits in 1978. In 1979, he only had two
hits, while in 1980, two selections from the Clint Eastwood movie Bronco Billy reached the Top
Three, "The Way I Am" and "Misery and Gin"; Haggard also appeared in the film. The two
hits paved the way for his two biggest singles with MCA, the number-one duet with Eastwood,
"Bar Room Buddies," and the number one "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink."
Early in 1981, Haggard had a Top Ten hit with "Leonard," a tribute to his old friend
Later that year, Haggard published his autobiography,
Sing Me Back Home; he also left MCA and signed with Epic Records. Once he began recording for Epic,
he began producing his own records, which gave the music a leaner sound. His first two singles f
or the label, "My Favorite Memory" and "Big City," were number-one hits. The following year,
he released a duet album with George Jones, called A Taste of Yesterday's Wine, which featured
the number-one single "Yesterday's Wine" and the Top Ten "C.C. Waterback." From 1983
until the beginning of 1985, Haggard continued to score number-one hits, including the
number-one duet with Willie Nelson, "Pancho and Lefty."
Merle's chart fortunes began to change in
1985, as a new breed of singers began to dominate the chart. Nearly every one of the artists,
from George Strait to Randy Travis, was greatly influenced by Haggard, but their idol's new
singles now had a tough time reaching the top of the charts. He had two Top Ten hits in
1986, and 1987's Chill Factor was a success, spawning the Top Ten title track and "Twinkle,
Twinkle Lucky Star," which would prove to be his last number-one hit. In 1990, he signed with
Curb Records, but he continued to have trouble reaching the charts; 1994 spawned his last
modest hit, "In My Next Life," which reached the Top 60. When his contract with Curb ran
out, Haggard, hoping for better promotion and greater artistic freedom, signed with Anti,
a subsidiary of the Epitaph punk-pop label. His first effort for Anti was released in late
2000; titled If I Could Only Fly, the gentle acoustic album was greeted with strong reviews.
Even when success eluded him, Merle Haggard's music
remained some of the most consistently interesting and inventive in country music. Not only have
his recordings remained fresh, but each subsequent generation of country singers show a great debt
to his work. That fact stands as a testament to his great talent even more than his induction to
the Country Music Hall of Fame. -Stephen Thomas Erlewine
E-mail "Traditional Country Hall of Fame"
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