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Fiddlin' Arthur Smith
Born Apr 10, 1898 in Humphreys County, TN, died Feb 28, 1971.
There are many, many people named Arthur Smith in the world. There are at least two famous
Arthur Smiths in country music, and each of them seem to have decided to use their instrument
to identify themselves. So besides Fiddlin' Arthur Smith there is also Arthur "Guitar Boogie"
Smith. And if one really wants to get Smith-happy, there is also a famous banjo builder, Arthur
E. Smith. But let's say one was hanging out in the corner of Tennessee formed by the Cumberland
and Tennessee rivers. In that case, there would be one and only one Arthur Smith of any note,
and that would be the one who fiddled. He was called the "king of the fiddlers" in this neck
of the woods, and literally all one has to do is go for a drive to be reminded of it.
One can hum "Chittlin' Cookin' Time in Cheatham County" while driving through Cheatham County;
likewise Smith has documented "Dickson County Blues," "Indian Creek," "Sugar Tree Stomp." Oh,
and Smith's "Paris Waltz" was hardly written while he chomped on a baguette. That's Paris,
TN, the little town across the river. Smith is the giant of fiddle in the Tennessee valley,
certainly one of the most influential fiddlers from the old-time school whose tunes, approach,
and innovation continued to be copied by progressive bluegrass players decades later.
He played professionally for nearly a half of a century, with only a few lulls in his career.
Smith was born on a family farm and had no formal education beyond fifth grade. As was common
in this time in the Tennessee hills he married quite young, just after the outbreak of World War I.
Smith was 16, his bride Nettie was only 15. Already music was a big part of his life, although
researchers have been unable to pinpoint exactly when he started playing.
As a youngster he was already a fiddler,
and good enough to work in some local bands,
mostly playing dances. His wife played guitar in one of these groups. Nettie Smith recalled
selling chickens to buy her husband a fiddle. The original price of this instrument was six
dollars and 50 cents, and decades later it would be worth at least 100 times that much.
The neighbor who sold this instrument was the appropriately named fiddler Grady Stringer,
who would have to have been the first main influence on Smith as a musician. Another early
influence was the fiddler Walter Warden, whose tunes are still part of the old-time repertoire.
Smith continued performing in the area, working with his wife, his cousin Homer Smith, and a
fiddler named Floyd Ethredge who went on to work with the early Grand Ole Opry stars the Crook
Brothers. In 1921 Smith moved to Dickson and began a railroad career, first as a logger and
then later a linesman. The job involved travel back and forth across the state. Smith would
pack his fiddle and pick up music from people he met along the way. One of these musicians
that recalls Smith from this time was Jack Jackson, the first country artist to record in Nashville.
This era was the very beginning of that city's life as the world's country & western music capital.
The radio station WDAD at first wouldn't touch country music, finding it undignified.
That was until a fellow named George D. Hay was hired as station manager, and the wealthy
Henry Ford decided to promote fiddle contests to "preserve authentic American values."
This is where Smith could step in, as he was already winning fiddle contests across
Smith's first appearance on the Opry was on December
23, 1927, for a 30-minute
solo fiddle set. At this stage of his career he was not singing, but just played unaccompanied
fiddle in the style of so many rural players. His cousin Homer re-joined Smith after several
weeks on the Opry. The two of them wound up appearing on the show 28 times that year, more
than any other act except the harmonica player DeFord Bailey. Nonetheless, he carried on with
the railroad job, as nobody could have survived on the Opry wages of five dollars per man per
show, regardless of how much farther a buck might have gone back then. But the travel in and
out of Nashville definitely had an effect on Smith's ability to be in the right place at the
right time to score a recording date with companies that were actively documenting the work of
fiddlers, many of whom were much less popular than Smith. Smith and his cousin split up their
relationship in the early '30s, and a new band called the Dixieliners was formed with the very
talented brothers Kirk and Sam McGee. In many ways this was one of the first supergroups,
putting together three virtuoso string players. The three players all had a great deal of
repertoire in common, all were in their mid-'30s, ambitious, determined, and energetic. It was,
in short, a great match. It was in this combination that Smith began singing, an event about which
Kirk McGee recalled, "Once he finally got to singing, and then we couldn't stop him." For the
most part the group divided up chores thusly: Smith did the fiddling, Sam did the comedy,
and Kirk and Sam did the vocals. A pianist was added to the group in due course, and Smith
looked no farther than his daughter Lavonne Smith, who began to tour with the Dixieliners
while still a high school student, picking up her five-dollar pay at the Opry like the rest
of the country greats. Fans of dissonant country music have spent lifetimes searching for a
tape of an early broadcast by this band in which Lavonne was so startled by a steam whistle
being blown on stage that she pounded out a harsh chord in the style of avant-jazz pianist
Cecil Taylor. This didn't make Smith very happy. "It was a goof, and Daddy didn't like goofs,"
The Dixieliners became more and more professional
through the Opry, the
sponsorship of a glue company, and the hiring of an all-purpose booker, manager, and
advance man. The group toured through the region, playing in many small communities.
Sometimes they would be part of a larger Grand Ole Opry package tour that would feature
performers such as Uncle Dave Macon. Some of these tours also involved the famous Delmore
Brothers. Smith was working with both groups in various combinations through about 1934,
then began working with the Delmores exclusively, and it was with this combination that he
finally began recording a series of sides for the Gennet label. The first sessions were done
in New Orleans, and it included two tunes that came to be known as Smith classics, "Blackberry
Blossom" and "Red Apple Rag." On sessions for Victor the next year, Smith once again opened
his mouth and recorded some vocal numbers, and according to Alton Delmore it was a matter of
economics, not choice as the record label felt instrumental music wasn't going to sell.
The first Smith vocal hit went on to become another standard repertoire number, as do so
many country tunes that have such a basic philosophy included right in the title: "There's
More Pretty Girls Than One." More than five sessions were cut with the Delmores in the next
few years, the tracks coming out under the name of the Arthur Smith Trio rather than the
Dixieliners, although later album reissues on County reverted back to the Dixieliners name.
Listeners of the time would have no idea whether a new record was a Smith feature or a Delmore
Brothers cut, so completely had their styles meshed. Corrupt business practices also added to
the confusion, as the guys would sometimes cut a song for one label under Smith's name, then
redo it for a competing label as the Delmore Brothers. More than 50 different songs were cut
during this period, the most famous of the batch being Smith's song "Beautiful Brown Eyes,"
which would later lead to court action when the artists behind a cover version decided the
song was in the public domain.
Fiddle contests continued to be popular in these years, with
promoters presenting bigger and bigger showdowns between fiddlers such as Curly Fox, Clark
Kessenger, Clayton McMichen, and the native American fiddler Natchee the Indian. These players
were all so hot it was often impossible to choose a winner, unless one of them happened to have
organized the contest in which case he would sometimes present the first-place prize to himself.
The railroad job was taking a back seat to touring, and sometimes the music on tour was taking a
back seat to hard drinking. Smith fell in with a bunch of rowdies at a 1938 fiddle contest
and didn't even show up to square off against a team of fiddlers that included the sponsor,
a local sherrif. The lawman was so upset with the Smith no-show he tried to have him arrested.
It did lead to an Opry suspension, and as was often the case this momentary vacancy helped
someone else get his foot in the door, in this case a little curly-haired singer named Roy Acuff.
In the late '30s Smith was hired by the Tennessee
Valley Boys, a young band on the rise that
needed a well-known, senior statesman on fiddle out front. By 1939 this band included three
fiddlers: Smith, the young Howdy Forrester, and Georgia Slim Rutland. In 1940 Smith moved to
Shreveport, LA, to join the Shelton Brothers on radio station KWKH. This job didn't keep Smith's
interest and after roaming around the Gulf Coast he rejoined Lavonne in Decatur, AL, putting
together a local radio band that somehow ended up consisting of players that all had the first
name "Arthur," except of course for Lavonne. But unsure of how well the Band of Arthurs would
fare on a 1940 recording date, Smith instead threw together a collaboration with the young Bill
Monroe. This session was in many ways historic. It was the first recording Monroe would do and
the last of Smith's Bluebird sessions. In the early 40s, as the world's attention was focused
more and more on tragic events in Europe, Smith joined the Bailes Brothers in West Virginia.
He had several featured solos with this show, and is credited with helping to popularize the
song "Orange Blossom Special" as a feature for fiddlers. In 1943 Smith began emphasizing his
singing and songwriting, and published two important songbooks, Songs From the Hills of
Tennesse and Arthur Smith's Original Song Folio No. 1.
Smith continued working with different groups during
the '40s including a duo with his son
Ernest Smith and a backup stint with the cowboy singer Rex Griffin. His flair backing up the
increasingly popular western style of music led to gigs with Jimmy Wakely, a former backup
singer to cowboy star Gene Autry. Smith rode this horse ride into Hollywood, where he wound
up appearing with Wakely's band in a series of low-budget Monogram oaters such as Oklahoma Blues.
But a cowboy Smith was not, and luckily his bowing arm wasn't injured when one director made
the mistake of putting the fiddler on top of a horse without first attaching him to the
saddle with a strong adhesive bond. His recording career continued while on the West coast,
leading to a contract with Capitol, where he recorded "Orange Blossom Special" "Crazy Blues"
and other successful numbers. For the first time he ran abreast of the North Carolina guitar
picker with the same name, and the sides were released as The Original Arthur Smith and His
Dixieliners to avoid confusion with the Guitar Boogie man. The next decade would be the low
point of Smith's career. After backing several country singers including Billy Walker, he
wound up in Nashville working as a carpenter rather than as a musician, a development that
can be partially blamed on Smith's alcoholism, although its significance as a symbol of
that city's cultural backwardness shouldn't be downplayed. In the middle of this low period,
Smith had the pleasure of hearing Roy Acuff singing "Beautiful Brown Eyes," no doubt while he
was sawing a board on some job. The song became so popular that there were scores of cover
versions, but everyone followed Acuff's lead and declared the song "public domain," despite
it having appeared in a published Smith song folio in 1943. Smith won the suit but it
was settled for a lump sum rather than any actual account of royalties. By the mid-'50s rock &
roll was on everyone's mind and it seemed a nadir for old-time music.
But by 1956 Smith
had been invited back to the west coast by Wakeley, where he struck up a new collaboration
with the famous country guitarist Merle Travis. In the meantime a new folk revival had begun
with groups such as the New Lost City Ramblers, whose member Mike Seeger was combing the
hinterlands looking for authentic old-time musicians to research and document. His efforts
led to combining Smith with his old pals the McGee brothers for a 1957 recording session held
in Kirk's livingroom. Seeger was originally unsatisfied with the results, released one album,
and then held onto the outtakes for nearly eight years, hoping a new session could be arranged.
Finally the balance of the material was released. Fans of old-time music find this reunion of
old friends, playing casually and with growing excitement at every tune, to be one of the
finest recordings ever done in this genre. Another helpful development during this time was
the interest in Smith's music coming from the modern bluegrass camp, as Flatt and Scruggs'
fiddler Paul Warren began introducing a whole series of features based on Smith's material
into the act. More work for the Opry old timers turned up in 1963 with the Starday label
inaugurated a series of releases devoted to this music. The Smith album Rare Old Time Fiddle
Tunes features fiddle accompanied only by son Ernest on guitar, and is considered another of
Smith's masterpieces. Seeger issued invitations for Smith and the McGees to join the new folk
circuit including appearances at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, where they received a
thunderous ovation. The mainstream audience attraction for this type of music was shortlived,
though, and Smith wound up in his later years travelling on the same old rural circuit that
he had started out in, frequently performing for old friends who would go to trouble to
record the event because they sensed Smith was on his way out. He made his last appearance
in 1969 in Louisville in a group with Sleepy Marlin and Tommy Riggs. He was buried near McEwen,
TN, just a few miles from where he had first learned to fiddle a tune. His music remains so
strongly remembered, and completely influenced so much of the country fiddling that came
after it, that it seems no exaggeration to say that he lives on in a form more like a part
of the landscape than the legend of a man. -Eugene Chadbourne
The Sullivan Family
(Formed in 1949).
The Sullivan Family, a bluegrass/gospel group who have played extensively on the festival
circuit, were known for their distinctive, driving beat and the robust singing of Margie Sullivan.
The trio was founded by Enoch and Emmett Sullivan, both of whom were born in the Tombigbee
Valley in southern Alabama. The sons of a minister, the brothers grew up with a love of
gospel music; they also liked string-band music and were influenced by Bill Monroe and
Johnnie & Jack. Born in northern Louisiana, Margie also grew up influenced by the traditional
bluegrass singers she heard on the radio. In addition to Monroe's music, she was also
influenced by such female singers as Wilma Lee Cooper and Molly O'Day. After touring
with evangelist Hazel Chain, she met Enoch at a revival in 1949; they married and bought
a farm near St. Stephen, Alabama. As a group, the Sullivans started out playing in local
churches and then appeared on a local radio station in Picayune, Mississippi. In 1950,
they moved to a station in Jackson, Alabama and six years later moved to Thomasville.
In 1959, they made their recording debut for Revival and later that year were befriended
by Walter Bailes, on whose Loyal Records they recorded for many years. The Sullivans
primarily performed at churches, on television, and on radio. Longtime friends of
Bill Monroe, the Sullivans began playing at his various bluegrass festivals in 1968
and soon gained a whole new following. Over the years, the band has included other
family members, including father Arthur, uncle Jerry, and Margie's youngest daughter
Lisa. The band continued to perform and record on different American and Canadian
labels through the '80s up to the mid-'90s. -Sandra Brennan
AKA Ben Colder, Born Apr 10, 1921 in Erick, OK .
Among pop-culture scholars, Sheb Wooley is best remembered for his late 1950's rock 'n roll/comedy
hit "Purple People Eater," which sold over three million copies. But among country music
afficianados, especially fans of cowboy songs, Sheb Wooley is the real article, or as near as
one gets to it in modern times. A rodeo rider from the time that he was a boy, he was making
a living on the circuit as a teenager, before he ever turned to music as a career. He turned
to music and then acting, appearing in such westerns as High Noon, before he was ever well
known as a singer, and later spent six seasons playing cowhand Pete Nolan on the television
series Rawhide, even as he pursued a career in country music. In addition to cowboy songs,
his repertory includes traditional country music and hillbilly tunes, along with the ubiquitous
"Purple People Eater." Later on in the 1960s, he also developed a drunken comic persona named Ben
Colder, whose success in satirizing various elements of country music, its audience, and its
sensibilities actually threatened to eclipse Sheb Wooley.
Sheb Wooley was born in Erick, Oklahoma,
on April 10, 1921. An avid rider from an early age, he was competing in local rodeos before
he was 10 years old, and by the time he was a teenager was one of the best young riders on the
circuit. Music was also one of his interests, and Wooley got his first guitar when his father
swapped a shotgun for the instrument. The family was poor, and living was very tough during
the 1930s ‹ more than once their crops were virtually blown away by the dry dustbowl winds.
Wooley led his own country band in high school, but music didn't offer the prospect of a living,
and he made his living for a time working the oil fields of Oklahoma as a welder. As with many
Oklahomans looking for a better future, Wooley headed to California in the late '30s and
nearly earned a living at a packing plant, moving crates of oranges. By then Wooley was
married to Melba Miller, the older sister of future country music star Roger Miller.
When World War II broke out, Wooley found himself labeled 4-F (ineligible for military
service) because of injuries he'd suffered as a rodeo rider, and he spent much of the war
working in defense plants.
In 1945, he made his first records for the Bullet label in Nashville, and began appearing
as a singer/guitarist on WLAC ‹ the job paid nothing, but allowed him to get paid work elsewhere.
His Bullet sides were cut at WSM, home of the Grand Ole Opry, but they saw almost no play or
exposure of any kind.
A year later he moved to Fort Worth, Texas, and got a regular spot on radio there, sponsored
by Calumet Baking Powder. Finally, in 1949, at the suggestion of a friend at WSM, Wooley decided
to take the plunge and head for California in hope of getting some movie work. Around this same
time, he was signed as a songwriter to Hill & Range, the publishing company, which, in turn,
led to his being signed by the newly founded MGM Records in 1950. MGM already had a legendary
figure in its roster, in the person of Hank Williams, but country music was booming, and
there was room for as many worthwhile talents as the label could find.
He also took acting lessons in the hope of getting some work on the screen. Wooley succeeded
more than he could have hoped in this capacity, appearing in small parts in 40 feature films,
beginning with Rocky Mountain, Errol Flynn's final western, in 1949. His most notable screen
came two years later in the classic High Noon (1952), in which he played Ben Miller,
the leader of the outlaw gang gunning for town marshal Gary Cooper. He also played an
important supporting role in the historical drama Little Big Horn (1951), starring Lloyd
Bridges and John Ireland, and was seen in The Man Without A Star (1955), Giant (1956),
and Rio Bravo (1959), starring John Wayne.
Amid all of his film work, Wooley continued
recording and writing songs. It wasn't until 1958, however, that he had a hit of any
consequence, and it was a most unexpected song. Wooley had written several songs that
were hits for other singers, most notably "Are You Satisfied," which got to No. 11 on
the country charts as recorded by Rusty Draper in 1955. Wooley had always displayed a
gift for parody, and the song he finally scaled the pop charts with was "Purple People Eater,"
a parody of various pop culture crazes including monster movies (some people at the time
suggested‹incorrectly‹that the sci-fi/horror classic The Blob, starring Steve McQueen,
which was released at around the same time as Wooley's song, was virtually a film of the
song). Wooley had to fight to get the song released, and it ultimately became one of the
biggest hit singles in the history of MGM Records.
He was unable to follow up the success of "Purple People Eater," however, and it wasn't
until 1962 that he had another hit, this time a country chart-topper called "That's My Dad."
In 1958, Wooley was cast in the role of Pete Nolan in the television western Rawhide,
starring Eric Fleming and Clint Eastwood, which premiered in January of 1959. He later
wrote some scripts for the series as well, and in 1959, in order to fulfill public demand
for a recording of the series' title song, he recorded his own version of the Rawhide
theme song and an entire album of western songs, which failed to chart. He later recorded
an album of folk-style material that was released in the wake of the MGM widescreen epic
blockbuster movie How The West Was Won, but this also failed to catch on with the public.
His film work continued during this time, and it was because of movie and television commitments
that he was unable to record the song "Don't Go Near The Indians." Instead, former movie
cowboy/singer Rex Allen recorded it and had a hit with it. In response to his bad luck,
Wooley cut a joke parody follow-up to the song, entitled "Don't Go Near The Eskimos," and
created a new, inebriated comic persona to present it. "Ben Colder" was born with "Don't Go
Near the Eskimos," and for the rest of his career Wooley ‹ in a manner anticipating the lot
of David Johansen/Buster Poindexter ‹ has had to split his time between appearances as "straight"
country/cowboy singer Sheb Wooley and drunken comic Ben Colder. (Some of the other names that
Wooley had considered for this persona, according to one source, were "Ben Freezin"
and "Klon Dyke"). In 1969, when the country music showcase Hee Haw went on the air,
Wooley became the show's resident songwriter, providing the series' comic musical numbers.
"Ben Colder" went on to have several more hits, including "Almost Persuaded No. 2," and
in 1968 the Colder persona was voted Comedian of the Year. Wooley continued recording under
both guises into the 1980's, although his last chart single in either persona dated back to 1971.
Born 1903 in Lamb, KY, died Apr 11, 1980.
This mountain music gal might have been born in a log cabin, but she was often known as "the
first hillbilly to own a Cadillac." She began recording for Decca in the late '40s, her album
winding up a cherished item among folk music revivalists of the '60s. One such outfit, the
New Lost City Ramblers, wound up backing up Cousin Emmy on a Folkways record, but she leaves
them in the dust. She was born Cynthia May Carver and from the age of seven, she enjoyed being
the star entertainer among the children. Her musical ambitions eventually drove her to seek a
wider audience than just the neighborhood kids. She finally saved up her money and traveled
the difficult distance of 135 miles to the big town of Louisville, where radio station WHAS
beckoned. Nobody at the station would listen to her, however, so she went back home and
continued singing at events such as bean hullings, quilting parties, and pie suppers.
Finally, someone at the aforementioned station caved in and she wound up with her own spot.
She still had to make a living doing personal appearances and would typically have to drive
500 miles within a single day to fulfill both the stage and radio commitments. Her radio
shows began to pick up sponsors and the country girl was moving on to even bigger towns such
as Chicago and St. Louis, where she performed on KMOX. During this time, she was chosen by
the City Art Museum of St. Louis as the most-perfect singer of mountain ballads.
Despite her growing fame, she only recorded one
single, "Come All You Virginia Gals," and one album for Decca. This recording and her
performances with Cousin Emmy & Her Kinfolk, both on-stage and on radio, created an incredibly
enthusiastic fan base. Among the classic country players who credit Cousin Emmy with inspiring
them to play is Grandpa Jones, who worked with her on WWVA when he was too young to be a
grandpa and had no banjo on his knee. The bluegrass pioneers the Osborne Brothers heard her
version of "Ruby Are You Mad" on a jukebox and decided to run with it, turning it into
their band's signature song. Her original version was finally put back in print via both a
CMH anthology, Fair Tender Ladies, and a set of classic Decca recordings released by MCA.
Unlike some old-time music artists, Cousin Emmy
also had a bit of a career in Hollywood, appearing in films such as Swing in the Saddle and
Under Western Sky. She relocated to Los Angeles during the making of these films and wound up
living there for years, raising a set of adopted children and playing at local country music
clubs. The members of the New Lost City Ramblers convinced her to record with them in 1967,
again resulting in a superior album. A new cycle of gigs involving collaborations with this
band were set in motion, including a famous appearance at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles and the
Newport Folk Festival. Excerpts from the latter event were released on an anthology collection
by Vanguard. She performed with the Clinch Mountain Boys on Rainbow Quest, a series of
televised programs of folk music produced by Pete Seeger, and is in Festival, a late-'60s folk
festival documentary in which big wigs such as Bob Dylan and Donovan tend to hog screen time.
She also toured Europe in the late '60s. An essential aspect of the Cousin Emmy experience
is her brassy and even outrageous personality. This puts her in the class of performers such
as Uncle Dave Macon or Minnie Pearl. It is certainly not an unheard of stance in country
music, but is a contrast from the serious, brooding nature of much Appalachian balladry.
Not that she doesn't touch on that, as her haunting song "Graveyard" attests. But she is
just as likely to come on-stage dressed in an outlandish costume and begin blowing up a
rubber glove for a gag, or producing a harmonica from the valley of her cleavage.
Showmanship was always a big deal with her, and she once played almost two dozen different
instruments during her show. She also seems to inspire songwriters to write songs - about her.
Singer/songwriter Laura Lind has recorded "Cousin Emmy's Blues," while the band Gallon Drunk
has cut "Ruby/Us and Cousin Emmy." -Eugene Chadbourne
Karl and Harty
(Formed 1930). Karl & Harty are more important for their influence over other groups such
as the Blue Sky Boys and the Everly Brothers (who recorded their "I¹m Just Here To Get My
Baby Out of Jail") than their own career. Though not related, Karl & Harty were a psuedo
brother act, performing regularly on Chicago¹s National Barn Dance in the Œ30s. The
performances led to a recording contract with the American Record Corporation, where Karl
penned his best work including "I¹m Just Here" and "Kentucky," a beautiful ode to his home
state. The duo later recorded for Capitol in the late '40s but soon retired from music not
long after.-Steve Kurutz
The Girls of the Golden West
The opening round of biographical details in the story of the Girls of the Golden West sets
the tone with names that seem properly ironic. Sisters Mildred and Dorothy "Dolly" Good
were born in Muleshoe, TX, in 1913 and 1915, respectively. They grew up listening to cowboy
songs from the Southwest, and wound up getting the credit for spreading this regional
influence into the blend of what developed into country & western music. The sisters began
their duo the way many talented children do ‹ by entertaining family and friends in the
comfort of their home. And although this audience preferred the girls' versions of cowboy
and western material, the sisters themselves personally preferred pop music. When Dolly was
only 14, they made their professional debut on radio station WIL in St. Louis. Making their
home near Chicago, the Girls of the Golden West appeared regularly on a variety of radio
shows heard from Northern Canada to south of the Mexican border. Regular appearances on the
Chicago radio station WLS' National Barn Dance began in 1933 and led to guest spots on Rudy
Vallee's syndicated NBC show. The sisters were such a hit on the Vallee program that it led
to them being offered their own weekly NBC program, and a recording contract followed posthaste.
Dorothy Good took the lead on most of the solo passages and played guitar in a basic manner
that worked suitably as an accompanying instrument. She did not try to play lead fills in
the manner of Maybelle Carter, instead specializing in top-quality harmony parts and catchy
yodelling. In the recording studio, the girls created a repertoire that consisted of about
half newly composed ditties based on western themes. Then, there was a certain number of
traditional cowboy songs from the realm of orally passed-on folk music, and the sessions were
filled out with cover versions of pop standards they liked. What had always been a strong
interest of the girls increased as their career went on, until the pop material started to
take over more territory during their recording sessions. The Girls of the Golden West
performed and recorded sporadically until Dorothy Good's death in 1967. Their discography
includes three albums for the Fort Worth Bluebonnet label. In 1978, Sonyatone released a
collection of their cowboy- and western-orientated material. -Eugene Chadbourne
AKA Lecil Travis Martin. Born Sep 1, 1931 in Sterret, TX, died Apr 12, 1999.
Boxcar Willie is perhaps the most successful invented character in the history of country music.
With his kitschy persona and stage act ‹ highlighted by his amazingly accurate impersonation of
a train whistle ‹ Willie played into the stereotype of the loveable, good-natured hobo that spent
his life riding the rails and singing songs. Since his popularity had more to do with his image
than his music, it makes sense that he was massively successful in England, where he personified
Americana. Willie's English success carried him over to American success in the early '80s, where
he ironically was perceived as carrying the torch for traditional country, because he kept the
Born Lecil Travis Martin, Boxcar Willie never
worked on the railroads ‹ his father did. However, Willie loved the railroads and kept
running away to ride the trains when he was a child. He also loved country music, particularly
the songs of Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff, and Ernest Tubb.
As a teenager, Boxcar Willie would perform under
his given name, eventually becoming a regular on the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, Texas. In his
early 20s, he served in the Air Force. After he left the service, he continued to sing in
clubs and radio shows.
In the late '50s, he began performing as Marty Martin, while working blue collar
jobs during the day. Marty Martin released an album, Marty Martin Sings Country Music and
Stuff like That, around 1958, but it was ignored.
In the mid-'60s, Martin wrote a song called "Boxcar Willie," based on a hobo he saw on a
train. Martin continued to struggle in his musical career until the mid-'70s. By that time,
he had become a DJ in Corpus Christi, TX. In 1975, he decided to risk everything he had on
one final chance at stardom. He moved to Nashville and developed the Boxcar Willie character,
using his song as the foundation.
Initially, Boxcar Willie wasn't very successful,
but he had a lucky break in 1976 when he was called in to replace a sick George Jones at a
Nashville club. During that performance, he was spotted by Drew Taylor, a Scottish booking
agent. Taylor brought Boxcar Willie over to England for a tour, where he was enthusiastically
received. Later that year, he released his first album which was a moderate success in the U.K.
Through the rest of the '70s, Willie toured Britain and every tour was more successful,
culminating in a performance at the International Country Music Festival at Wembley in 1979.
After his Wembley show was finished, he received a standing ovation - the performance established
Boxcar Willie as a star. His next album, King of the Road, became a humongous success in
England, reaching number five on the album charts; the record was helped immeasurably by
its accompanying television advertisements, which sold the record through the mail.
By the end of 1980, Willie had become the most
successful country artist in England and his American success had just begun. King of the Road
was available through an American television advertisement. "Train Medley" was a minor hit on
the country charts, and he was becoming a popular attraction on U.S. concert circuits.
In 1981, he received a spot on the Country Music Hall of Fame's Walkway of the Stars and
became a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
Boxcar Willie enjoyed his time in the spotlight,
becoming a regular on the television show Hee Haw in 1982 and turning out albums as fast as
he could make them. "Bad News" became his only American country Top 40 hit in 1982.
In 1985, he played a hobo in Sweet Dreams, a film about Patsy Cline. By the mid-'80s,
his star had faded, but he remained a popular concert attraction, particularly in England,
into the '90s. -Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Born Apr 12, 1925 in Raines, UT. While Ned Miller was best known for his international
1962 hit "From a Jack to a King," during the 1960s he had 11 chart hits and made it to the
pop charts three times. Miller was born in Raines, Utah, and started writing songs and
singing at local parties and on the radio when he was only 16. After his discharge from the
Marines, Miller worked at several jobs before moving to California in 1956 to become a full-time
songwriter. The following year, singer Gale Storm scored a Top Five hit with his song "Dark Moon";
Bonnie Guitar also had a hit with the composition, and both continued to record Miller's songs.
He began his own recording career in 1957 for the Fabour label, issuing "From a Jack to a
King" as his debut single. Later that year, he released "Roll O Rollin' Stone," again
without much notice. In 1962, following a short detour to Capitol Records, Miller
persuaded the Fabour label to re-release his prior version of "From a Jack to a King";
this time, the single soared to the Top Three on the country charts, the Top Ten on the pop
charts, and even made it to number two on the British pop charts. The following year, Miller
scored two Top 30 hits, "One Among the Many" and "Another Fool Like Me." In 1965, he had another
Top Ten hit, "Do What You Do Do Well," which later provided success for Ernest Tubb;
Miller's version also crossed over to the Top 60 on the pop charts. Later that year, he
returned to Capitol. Songs he wrote or co-wrote with his wife Susan also found chart success
for other artists, among them Gale Storm's "Love by the Juke Box Light," Faron Young's
"Safely in Love Again," Porter Wagoner's "Your Kind of People" and Hank Snow's "The Man
Behind the Gun." Miller faded into obscurity after the 1960s, but decades later Ricky Van
Shelton recorded "From a Jack to a King" and had a number one hit. -Sandra Brennan
Born Mar 8, 1933 in Kilgore, TX, died Apr 13, 1986.
Vocalist Johnny Dollar (born John Washington Dollar, Jr. in Kilgore, Texas) began his recording
career in 1952 at Shelby Singleton's D Records, but these songs went nowhere. He then became a
deejay in Louisiana and New Mexico while also leading the Texas Sons, who played regularly
on Louisiana Hayride. By 1955, he left the Sons to join Martin McCullough's Light Crust
Doughboys. Dollar signed with Columbia in 1964 but did not have a hit until two years later
with the Top 50 song "Tear-Talk." His next song, "Stop the Start (Of Tears in My Heart),"
reached the Top 15 and stayed there for months. That year and the following year he won Best
New Artist awards from Billboard and Record World magazines, respectively. Dollar signed with
Dot in 1967 and scored a minor hit before moving on to the Date label. There he scored two Top
40 hits with "The Wheels Fell Off the Wagon Again" (1967) and "Everybody's Got to Be Somewhere"
(1968). After that, he moved to
Chart and had two minor hits with "Big Rig Rollin' Man" (1968) and "Big Wheels Sing for Me"
(1969). In 1970, he returned to Johnny Dollar and scored his final hit for Chart with "Truck
Driver's Lament." When not involved in the music business, Dollar worked as a trucker, in
the oil fields, in lumber yards, on a cattle ranch, and in life insurance. He died in 1986.
Born Jun 14, 1909 in Huntington Township, Jaspar County, IL, died Apr 14, 1995 in Anacortes, WA.
With his grandfatherly image, Burl Ives parlayed his talent as a folksinger into a wide-ranging
career as a radio personality and stage and screen actor. After spending his early 20s traveling
the country as an itinerant singer, Ives moved to New York City in 1937. By the end of 1938,
he had made his Broadway debut, and he also sang folk songs in Greenwich Village clubs.
In 1940, Ives began to appear regularly on radio, including his own show, The Wayfarin'
Stranger, on CBS. Ives made his first records for Stinson, a small folk label, then was
signed to Decca, a major label. He made his movie debut in Smoky in 1946. In 1948, his
first book, Wayfaring Stranger, was published. In 1949, he had his first chart hit with "Lavender
Blue (Dilly Dilly)." The same year, he moved to Columbia Records. With the advent of the
long-playing record, Ives suddenly had a flurry of LP releases from his three labels:
The Wayfaring Stranger on Stinson; three volumes of Ballads & Folk Songs, Women: Folk
Songs About the Fair Sex, Folk Songs Dramatic and Humorous, and Christmas Day in the Morning
on Decca; and Wayfaring Stranger, Return of the Wayfaring Stranger, More Folk Songs, American
Hymns, The Animal Fair and Mother Goose Songs on Columbia. He also recorded a series of albums
for Encyclopedia Brittanica Films under the overall title Historical America in Song.
In 1951, he hit the Top Ten with "On Top of Old
Smoky." In 1952, he returned to Decca. While continuing to publish books and to act on Broadway
and in the movies, Ives made a series of albums that included Coronation Concert, The Wild
Side of Life, Men, Down to the Sea in Ships, In the Quiet of the Night, Burl Ives Sings for
Fun, Songs of Ireland, Old Time Varieties, Captain Burl Ives' Ark, Australian Folk Songs,
and Cheers, all released in the second half of the 1950s. In 1961, Ives oriented himself
toward country music, resulting in the hit "A Little Bitty Tear," which made the Top Ten in
both the pop and country charts. The single was contained on The Versatile Burl
Ives. "Funny Way of Laughin'" was another pop and country Top Ten in 1962; it appeared on
It's Just My Funny Way of Laughin' and won Ives a Grammy Award for Best Country Western
Recording. He turned his attention primarily to movie work from 1963 on, especially with
the Walt Disney studio. But he charted with Pearly Shells in 1964 and made a children's album,
Chim Chim Cheree and Other Children's Choices, for Disney Buena Vista Records.
At the end of the '60s, Ives returned to Columbia
Records for The Times They Are A-Changin' and Softly and Tenderly. He gave up popular recording,
but returned in 1973 with the country album Payin' My Dues Again. He also continued to record
children's music and also released several religious albums on Word Records. Turning 70 in
1979, he became less active and finally retired to Washington State. In the '90s, Decca and the
German Bear Family label reissued many of his recordings. -William Ruhlmann
The Nashville Bluegrass Band
Formed 1984 -
Group Members: Blaine Sprouse, Mike Compton, Stuart Duncan, Pat Enright, Mark Hembree,
Gene Libbea, Alan O'Bryant, Roland White. The Nashville Bluegrass Band was made up of several
excellent musicians more interested in preserving their group sound than showing off their
individual expertise. The band favored a traditional, earthy sound that led one critic to call
them the band that "put the blues back in bluegrass."
The Nashville Bluegrass Band was founded by
guitarist Pat Enright, banjo picker Alan O'Bryant, mandolin player Mike Compton, and acoustic
bassist Mark Hembree. North Carolina native O'Bryant came to Nashville in the mid-'70s,
where he did session work with such artists as Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, and John Starling.
He was also a songwriter whose tunes, including "Those Memories of You," were recorded by
several major artists. An Indiana native, Enright began playing with the popular bluegrass
band Phantoms of the Opry while living in San Francisco in the early 1970s. He too went to
Nashville in 1974 and there met O'Bryant, and they teamed up and were soon playing clubs. In
1978, Enright moved to Boston and joined Tasty Licks. The following year he returned to Music
City and recorded with the Dreadful Snakes and Bela Fleck. Compton hailed from Mississippi
and moved to Nashville in 1976, where he teamed up with banjo picker Hubert Davis. Compton's
style was influenced by Bill Monroe and blues player Robert Johnson. Hembree came
from Wisconsin and first gained experience with the Monroe Doctrine, whom he joined in
1977. He came to Nashville in 1979 to work with Bill Monroe, spending five years as a Blue
Grass Boy. He met Compton as he and the Dreadful Snakes were recording Snakes Alive.
The Nashville Bluegrass Band came together in
1985 and released My Native Home, which featured fiddle player Blaine Sprouse and production
by Bela Fleck. Before the year's end fiddler Stuart Duncan, a session player and sideman from
California, joined the band. In 1987, they released another Fleck-produced album, Idle Time,
and before the end of the year released a bluegrass/gospel album, To Be His Child. In 1988,
they were involved in a terrible bus accident near Roanoke, Virginia; Hembree was so badly
hurt that he had to leave the band, and Compton, whose mandolin was also broken in the accident,
soon left the group as well. They were eventually replaced by bassist Gene Libbea and mandolin
player Roland White. In 1990, the Nashville Bluegrass Band released The Boys Are Back in Town.
A series of albums followed, including 1993's Waiting for the Hard Time to Go and 1998's
American Beauty. -Sandra Brennan
AKA Loretta Webb, born Apr 14, 1934 in Butcher's Hollow, KY.
Loretta Lynn is one of the classic country singers. During the '60s and '70s, she ruled the
charts, racking up over 70 hits as a solo artist and a duet partner. Lynn helped forge the way
for strong, independent women in country music.
As her song (and movie and book) says, Loretta Lynn
is a coal miner's daughter, born in Butcher Hollow, KY, in 1934. As a child, she sang in
church and a variety of local concerts. In January 1948, she married Oliver "Mooney" Lynn.
She was 13 years old at the time. Following their marriage, the couple moved to Custer, WA,
where they raised four children.
After a decade of motherhood, Lynn began
performing her own songs in local clubs, backed by a band led by her brother, Jay Lee Webb.
It took her a decade of gigging before she was noticed by a record label. In 1959, she signed a
contract with Zero Records, which released her debut single, "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl," in 1960.
The honky tonk ballad became a hit thanks to the insistent, independent promotion of Lynn
and her husband. The pair would drive from one radio station to the next, getting the DJs
to play her single, and sent out thousands of copies to stations. All of the effort paid off -
the single reached number 14 on the charts and attracted the attention of the Wilburn Brothers.
The Wilburns hired Lynn to tour with them in 1960 and advised her to relocate to Nashville.
She followed their advice and moved to the city in late 1960. After she arrived in Nashville,
she signed with Decca Records. At Decca, she would work with Owen Bradley, who had produced
Lynn released her first Decca single, "Success," in
1962 and it went straight to number six, beginning a string of Top Ten singles that would run
through the rest of the decade and throughout the next. She was a hard honky tonk singer for
the first half of the '60s and rarely strayed from the genre. Although she still worked within
the confines of honky tonk in the latter half of the decade, her sound became more personal,
varied and ambitious, particularly lyrically. Beginning with 1966's number two hit "You Ain't
Woman Enough," Lynn began writing songs that had a feminist viewpoint, which was unheard of in
country music. Her lyrical stance became more autobiographical and realistic as time wore on,
highlighted by such hits as "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)" (1966), "Your
Squaw Is on the Warpath" (1968), "Woman of the World (Leave My World Alone)" (1969), and a
tune about birth control called "The Pill" (1974).
Between 1966 and 1970, Loretta Lynn racked up 13
Top Ten hits, including four number one hits ‹ "Don't Come Home A'Drinkin'," "Fist City" (1968),
"Woman of the World," and the autobiographical "Coal Miner's Daughter." In 1971, she began a
professional partnership with Conway Twitty. As a duo, Lynn and Twitty had five consecutive
number one hits between 1971 and 1975 ‹ "After the Fire Is Gone" (1971), "Lead Me On" (1971),
"Lousiana Woman, Mississippi Man" (1973), "As Soon As I Hang Up the Phone" (1974), and "Feelins'"
(1974). The hit-streak kick-started what would become one of the most successful duos of country
history. For four consecutive years (1972-1975), Lynn and Twitty were named the Vocal Duo
of the Year by the Country Music Association. In addition to their five number one singles,
they had seven other Top Ten hits between 1976 and 1981.
Loretta Lynn published her autobiography, Coal Miner's
Daughter, in the mid-'70s. In 1980, the book was adapted for the screen, with Sissy Spacek as Lynn.
The film was one of the most critically acclaimed and successful films of the year and Spacek
would win the Academy Award for her performance. All of the attention surrounding the movie made
Loretta Lynn a household name with the American mainstream. Although she continued to be a popular
concert attraction throughout the '80s, she wasn't able to continue her domination of the country
charts. "I Lie," her last Top Ten single, arrived in early 1982, while her last Top 40 single, "Heart
Don't Do This to Me," was in 1985. In light of her declining record sales, Lynn backed away from
recording frequently during the late '80s and '90s, concentrating on performing instead. In 1993,
she recorded the Honky Tonk Angels album with Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Still Woman
Enough was released in 2002. -Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Born Apr 15, 1937 in Nacogdoches, TX, died Dec 27, 1978 in Nashville, TN.
Bob Luman started out as a rockabilly performer, switched to country and then in the late '50s
nearly ditched the music industry altogether. Through his teens, Luman was primarily interested
in singing country music like his idol Lefty Frizzell, but then he saw Elvis, which inspired
him to try his hand at the rockabilly sound. Soon after graduating, Luman won a talent contest,
leading to his debut on the Louisiana Hayride. He became a regular in the mid-'50s, and had a
small role in the 1957 film Carnival Rock; still, his singles did nothing on the charts.
In 1959, the Pittsburgh Pirates offered Luman a contract; fed up with his lack of success,
he announced his intention to accept the offer during a concert one night. However, the
Everly Brothers talked him into recording the Boudleaux Bryant song "Let's Think About
Living"; sure enough, it was a Top Ten hit on both the country and pop charts.
His follow-up, "The Great Snowman," was also a hit, but he was drafted, and spent
the next two years in the military.
In 1964, he began recording for Hickory Records,
and the following year, he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Luman eventually
signed with Epic Records and had a string of Top 25 hits over the next ten years.
He toured extensively and became the first country singer to perform in Puerto Rico;
he also remained a regular on the Opry, where his lively performances veered close
to rock & roll at times. Luman had a major heart attack in 1975, and it took him
nearly five months to recover. His final chart appearance came in 1977; the following
year he contracted pneumonia and died at the age of 41. -Sandra Brennan
Born April 15, 1947 in Los Angeles, CA.
Whether serving as a session musician, solo artist, or soundtrack composer, Ry Cooder's
chameleon-like fretted instrument virtuosity, songwriting, and choices of material encompass
an incredibly eclectic range of North American musical styles, including rock & roll, blues,
reggae, Tex-Mex, Hawaiian, Dixieland jazz, country, folk, R&B, gospel, and vaudeville. The
16-year-old Cooder began his career in 1963 in a blues band with Jackie DeShannon and
then formed the short-lived Rising Sons in 1965 with Taj Mahal and Spirit drummer Ed Cassidy.
Cooder met producer Terry Melcher through the Rising Sons and was invited to perform at
several sessions with Paul Revere and the Raiders. During his subsequent career as a
session musician, Cooder's trademark slide guitar work graced the recordings of such
artists as Captain Beefheart (Safe As Milk), Randy Newman, Little Feat, Van Dyke Parks,
the Rolling Stones (Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers), Taj Mahal, and Gordon Lightfoot. He
also appeared on the soundtracks of Candy and Performance.
Cooder made his debut as a solo artist
in 1970 with a self-titled album featuring songs by
Leadbelly, Blind Willie Johnson, Sleepy John Estes, and Woody Guthrie. The follow-up,
Into the Purple Valley, introduced longtime cohorts Jim Keltner on drums and Jim Dickinson on
bass, and it and Boomer's Story largely repeated and refined the syncopated style and mood
of the first. In 1974, Cooder produced what is generally regarded as his best album,
Paradise and Lunch, and its follow-up, Chicken Skin Music, showcased a potent blend of
Tex-Mex, Hawaiian, gospel, and soul music, and featured contributions from Flaco Jimenez
and Gabby Pahinui. In 1979, Bop Till You Drop was the first major-label album to be recorded
digitally. In the early '80s, Cooder began to augment his solo output with soundtrack
work on such films as Blue Collar, The Long Riders, and The Border; he has gone on to
compose music for Southern Comfort, Goin' South, Paris, Texas, Streets of Fire, Bay,
Blue City, Crossroads, Cocktail, Johnny Handsome, Steel Magnolias, and Geronimo. Music
By Ry Cooder (1995) compiled two discs' worth of highlights from Cooder's film work.
In 1992, Cooder joined Keltner, John Hiatt,
and renowned British tunesmith Nick Lowe,
all of whom had played on Hiatt's Bring the Family, to form Little Village, which toured
and recorded one album. Cooder next turned his attention to world music, recording the
album A Meeting by the River with Indian musician V.M. Bhatt. Cooder's next project,
a duet album with renowned African guitarist Ali Farka Toure titled Talking Timbuktu,
won the 1994 Grammy for Best World Music Recording. ‹ Steve Huey
Born Roy Linwood Clark, April 15, 1933 in Meherrin, VA.
In the '70s Roy Clark symbolized country music in the US and abroad. Between guest-hosting for
Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and performing to packed houses in the Soviet Union on a tour
that sold out all 18 concerts, he used his musical talent and his entertaining personality to
bring country music into homes across the world. As one of the hosts of TV's Hee Haw (Buck Owens
was the other) for more than 20 years Clark picked and sang and offered country corn to 30 million
people weekly. He is first and foremost an entertainer, drawing crowds at venues as different as
Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and the Opry. His middle-of-the-road approach has filled a national
void, with Clark offering country that was harder-edged than Kenny Rogers but softer and more
accessible than Waylon Jennings. Among his numerous vocal hits are "Yesterday When I Was Young"
and "Thank God and Greyhound." Instrumentally he has won awards, for both guitar and banjo.
Clark has also co-starred on the silver screen with Mel Tillis, in the comedy Uphill All the Way.
The son of two amateur musicians, Roy Clark began playing banjo, guitar and mandolin at an early age.
By the time he was 14, he was playing guitar behind his father at local dances. Within a few years,
he had won two National Banjo Championships, with his second win earning him an appearence at
the Grand Ole Opry. Despite his success as a musician, Roy decided to pursue an athletic career,
rejecting baseball for boxing. At the age of 17, he won 15 fights in a row before deciding that
he would rather be a musician than a fighter.
Clark found work at local clubs, radio stations
and television shows. By 1955, he
was a regular on Jimmy Dean's DC-based television show, Country Style. Once Dean left
Washington for New York, Clark took over the show and over the next few years, he earned a
reputation as an excellent musician and entertainer. In 1960, he decided to leave the East
Coast to pursue his fame and fortune out West. That year, he became the leader of Wanda
Jackson's band, playing on her hit singles like "Let's Have a Party," as well as touring
with the singer and playing concerts with her in Las Vegas. Once Jackson decided to
break up her band, Clark continued to play regularly at the Frontier Hotel in Vegas
and through his new manager, Jackson's ex-manager Jim Halsey, he landed spots on The
Tonight Show and the sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, where he played both Cousin Roy
and Big Mama Halsey.
In 1963, Clark signed to Capitol Records,
and his first single for the label, "Tips of My
Fingers," became a Top Ten hit. Over the next two years, he had a handful of minor hits
for Capitol before he switched labels, signing with Dot in 1968. At Dot, his career
took off again, through covers of pop songs like Charles Aznavour's "Yesterday, When
I Was Young" (number nine, 1969). However, what really turned Clark's career around was
not records, it was a television show called Hee Haw. Conceived as a country version of
Laugh-In, Hee Haw began its run in 1969 on CBS. Roy Clark and Bakersfield country pioneer
Buck Owens were picked as co-hosts. Over the next two years, it was one of the most popular
shows on television. In 1971, CBS dropped the show because its corny country humor didn't fit
the network's new, urban image, but Hee Haw quickly moved into syndiacation, where
it coninued to thrive throughout the decade.
While Hee Haw was at the height of its popularity,
Clark had a string of country hits
that ranged from Top Ten singles like "I Never Picked Cotton" (1970), "Thank God and
Greyhound" (1970), "The Lawrence Welk - Hee Haw Counter-Revolution Polka" (1972), "Come
Live With Me" (1973), "Somewhere Between Love and Tomorrow" (1973), "Honeymoon Feelin'"
(1974), and "If I Had It to Do All Over Again" (1976), to a multitude of minor hits.
Though he didn't consistently top the country charts, Clark became one of the most
recognizable faces in country music, appearing on television commercials, Hee Haw, and
touring not only the United States, but a number of other countries, including a ground-breaking
sojourn to the Soviet Union in 1976. Frequently, he played concerts and recorded albums
with a wide variety of musicians from other genres, including the Boston Pops Orchestra and
Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.
In 1979, the momentum of his career began
to slow down, as he left his long-time label
ABC/Dot for MCA. Over the next two years, he had a number of minor hits before leaving the
label. He recorded one inspirational album for Songbird in 1981 before signing to Churchill
in 1982. Hee Haw's audience was beginning to decline in the early '80s, but Clark diversified
his interests by investing in property, minor-league baseball teams, cattle, publishing
and advertising. None of Clark's recordings for Churchill were big hits, and his
brief stays at Silver Dollar in 1986 and Hallmark in 1989 also resulted in no hits.
Nevertheless, Clark had become a country icon by the mid-'80s, so his lack of sales
didn't matter ‹ he continued to sell out concerts and win awards; he even made the
comedy western Uphill All the Way in 1986 with Mel Tillis. In 1987, he was belatedly
made a member of the Grand Ole Opry. During the '90s, Clark concentrated on performing
at his theater in Branson, Missouri, sporadically releasing re-recordings of his big
hits on a variety of small labels, though 2000's Live At Billy Bob's Texas marked his
first live release in nearly a decade. Christmas Memories followed that same year.
Born Aug 18, 1918 in Birmingham, AL, died Apr 17, 1992 in California
Styles Western Swing, Traditional Country
Instruments Vocals, Leader
Tones Playful, Rollicking, Joyous, Earthy
See Also Hank Penny & His Radio Cowboys All Movie Guide Entry
Born Aug 18, 1918 in Birmingham, AL, died Apr 17, 1992 in California.
While he never achieved the kind of success enjoyed by fellow bandleaders like Bob Wills or
Spade Cooley, during the late '40s and early '50s Hank Penny ranked as one of the foremost
practitioners of the Western Swing sound. Born Herbert Clayton Penny on August 18, 1918 in
Birmingham, Alabama, his father was a disabled coal miner who inspired young Hank with his
skills as a guitarist, poet and magician before his death in 1928. By the age of 15, Penny
was performing professionally on local radio; in 1936, he moved to New Orleans, where he first
fell under the sway of Western Swing pioneers like Wills and Milton Brown. A friendship with
steel virtuouso Noel Boggs only served to further his enthusiasm for the swing form.
After a few years with New Orleans' WWL as a solo
performer, Penny returned to Birmingham, where he formed the group the Radio Cowboys, which
featured guitarist Julian Akins, steel guitarist Sammy Forsmark, tenor banjo player Louis
Damont, bassist Carl Stewart, and vocalist, guitarist and fiddler Sheldon Bennett. In 1938,
the group (minus Akins) first entered the studio under the guidance of legendary producer
Art Satherly to record numbers like "When I Take My Sugar to Tea" and Penny's own "Flamin'
Mamie." After the Radio Cowboys joined the cast of the Atlanta-based program Crossroad Follies,
Forsmark left the group, to be replaced by Noel Boggs; at the same time, they also welcomed a
new fiddle player by the name of Boudleaux Bryant.
After turning down offers to take over vocal
chores for both Pee Wee King's Golden West Cowboys and the Light Crust Doughboys, Penny
moved the group to Nashville in 1939, where they again recorded with Satherley. Shortly after,
Boggs left the group to join Jimmy Wakely, and was replaced by Eddie Duncan. After recording
songs like "Tobacco State Swing" and "Peach Tree Shuffle" in Chicago in mid-1940, the band was
forced to dissolve after most of its members were drafted. Penny remained in Chicago working
as a disc jockey before assembling a new group for a 1941 session in North Carolina, which
generated the songs "Why Did I Cry" and "Lonesome Train Blues."
After signing on with the Cincinnati station WLW's programs Boone Country Jamboree and The
Midwestern Hayride, Penny formed a new band called the Plantation Boys, which included Radio
Cowboy Carl Stewart on fiddle along with guitarist/bassist Louis Innis, fiddler Zed Tennis
and lead guitarist Roy Langham. In addition to work with the Delmore Brothers, Merle Travis,
Bradley Kincaid and Grandpa Jones, they also backed WLW's pop singer Doris Day. After the
departure of Langham, in 1944 the band toured with the USO before Penny traveled to California
at the urging of Merle Travis. There, he became enamored with the music of Spade Cooley, and met
Cooley's onetime manager Foreman Phillips, who offered Penny work as a bandleader. After a brief
return to Cincinnati which led to a brief recording date, Penny returned to California to assemble
another band which included Noel Boggs; however, when Phillips began ordering Penny how to play,
the bandleader balked and the group promptly disbanded.
Soon, he was fronting an all-girl band at a
Los Angeles club, but was quickly approached by Bobbie Bennett, Cooley's then-manager,
to lead one of several groups formed to play at the bookings Cooley and his Orchestra were
themselves too busy to fulfill. While Tex Ritter led one band and Travis led another,
Penny fronted the Painted Post Rangers, which scored a pair of significant chart hits with
"Steel Guitar Stomp" and "Get Yourself a Redhead." When the Painted Post Club went bankrupt,
he moved to lead the large house band at the Riverside Rancho. In 1946, he joined Slim Duncan's
ABC network show Roundup Time as a comedian. After moving first back to Cincinnati and then to
Arlington, Virginia, he returned to California and took a deejay position. He also formed yet
another new band, the Penny Serenaders, which included guitarist Speedy West as well as
accordion player Bud Sievert, fiddler Billy Hill and bassist Hank Caldwell. Together with
club owner Amand Gautier, Penny opened also opened his own dance hall, which featured Bob
Wills on its opening night.
In June 1948, Penny joined Cooley's massively
popular television program, where he performed as a comedian best known for his backwoods
character "That Plain Ol' Country Boy." A year later, he entered the studio to record a
number of songs, among them "Hillbilly Bebop," the first known bop effort cut by a country
act, and the 1950 hit "Bloodshot Eyes." After he and Gautier opened another club, the
legendary Palomino, he reformed the Penny Serenaders, which included singer Mary Morgan,
later known as Jaye P. Morgan. The group issued "Remington Ride" and "Wham Bam! Thank You,
Ma'am" before calling it quits and then reforming again, this time with guitarist Billy
Strange and steel guitar whiz Joaquin Murphy. In 1952, Penny left Cooley to join Dude
Martin's program; after first stealing Martin's wife, singer Sue Thompson, he began
hosting his own series, The Hank Penny Show, which was cancelled after only seven weeks.
By 1954, Penny had moved to Las Vegas,
where he began a seven-year run as a performer at the Golden Nugget Casino, fronting a
band which included the likes of Roy Clark. He also continued to record, even cutting a
jazz record in 1961. After divorcing Thompson, he also recorded a comedy album
before moving to Carson City, Nevada in 1970 to begin performing with his protege Thom
Bresh, the son of Merle Travis. After leaving his band to Bresh, Penny moved to Nashville,
where he was in the running for a slot hosting Hee Haw but lost out, ironically enough,
to Roy Clark. After a tenure on radio in Wichita, Kansas, he and fifth wife Shari returned
to California in the mid-'70s, and for the most part he retired. Hank Penny died of
a heart attack on April 17, 1992. -Jason Ankeny
E-mail "Traditional Country Hall of Fame"
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