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Though other performers sold more records and earned greater fame, few left as profound an impact on contemporary music as Emmylou Harris. Blessed with a crystalline voice, a remarkable gift for phrasing, and a restless creative spirit, she traveled a singular artistic path, proudly carrying the torch of "Cosmic American music" passed down by her mentor, Gram Parsons. With the exception of only Neil Young - not surprisingly an occasional collaborator - no other mainstream star established a similarly large body of work as consistently iconoclastic, eclectic, or daring; even more than three decades into her career, Harris' latter-day music remained as heartfelt, visionary, and vital as her earliest recordings.
Harris was born on April 2, 1947, to a military family stationed in Birmingham, AL. After spending much of her childhood in North Carolina, she moved to Woodbridge, VA, while in her teens, and graduated high school there as class valedictorian. After winning a dramatic scholarship at the University of North Carolina, she began to seriously study music, learning to play songs by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Soon, Harris was performing in a duo with fellow U.N.C. student Mike Williams, eventually quitting school to move to New York, only to find the city's folk music community dying out in the wake of the psychedelic era.
Still, Harris remained in New York, traveling the Greenwich Village club circuit before becoming a regular at Gerdes Folk City, where she struck up friendships with fellow folkies Jerry Jeff Walker, David Bromberg, and Paul Siebel. After marrying songwriter Tom Slocum in 1969, she recorded her debut LP, 1970's Gliding Bird. Shortly after the record's release, however, Harris' label declared bankruptcy, and while pregnant with her first child, her marriage began to fall apart. After moving to Nashville, she and Slocum divorced, leaving Harris to raise daughter Hallie on her own. After several months of struggle and poverty, she moved back in with her parents, who had since bought a farm outside of Washington, D.C.
There she returned to performing, starting a trio with local musicians Gerry Mule and Tom Guidera. One evening in 1971, while playing at an area club called Clyde's, the trio performed to a crowd which included members of the country-rock pioneers the Flying Burrito Brothers. In the wake of the departure of Gram Parsons, the band's founder, the Burritos were then led by ex-Byrd Chris Hillman, who was so impressed by Harris' talents that he considered inviting her to join the group. Instead, Hillman himself quit to join Stephen Stills' Manassas, but he recommended her to Parsons, who wanted a female vocalist to flesh out the sound of his solo work, a trailblazing fusion of country and rock & roll he dubbed "Cosmic American music." Their connection was instant, and soon Harris was learning about country music and singing harmony on Parsons' solo debut, 1972's GP. A tour with Parsons' backup unit the Fallen Angels followed, and in 1973 they returned to the studio to cut his landmark LP, Grievous Angel.
On September 19, just weeks after the album sessions ended, Parsons' fondness for drugs and alcohol finally caught up to him, and he was found dead in a hotel room outside of the Joshua Tree National Monument in California. At the time, Harris was back in Washington, collecting her daughter for a planned move to the West Coast. Instead, she remained in D.C., reuniting with Tom Guidera to form the Angel Band. The group signed to Reprise and relocated to Los Angeles to begin work on Harris' solo major-label debut, 1975's acclaimed Pieces of the Sky, an impeccable collection made up largely of diverse covers ranging in origin from Merle Haggard to the Beatles. Produced by Brian Ahern, who would go on to helm Harris' next ten records - as well as becoming her second husband - Pieces of the Sky's second single, a rendition of the Louvin Brothers' "If I Could Only Win Your Love," became her first Top Five hit. "Light of the Stable," a Christmas single complete with backing vocals from Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Neil Young, soon followed; Harris then repaid the favor by singing on Ronstadt's "The Sweetest Gift" and Young's "Star of Bethlehem."
For her second LP, 1976's Elite Hotel, Harris established a new backing unit, the Hot Band, which featured legendary Elvis Presley sidemen James Burton and Glen D. Hardin as well as a young songwriter named Rodney Crowell on backup vocals and rhythm guitar. The resulting album proved to be a smash, with covers of Buck Owens' "Together Again" and the Patsy Cline perennial "Sweet Dreams" both topping the charts. Before beginning sessions for her third effort, 1977's Luxury Liner, Harris guested on Bob Dylan's Desire and appeared in Martin Scorsese's documentary of the Band's legendary final performance, The Last Waltz. Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town followed in 1978, led by the single "Two More Bottles of Wine," her third number one. The record was Crowell's last with the Hot Band; one of the tracks, "Green Rolling Hills," included backing from Ricky Skaggs, soon to become Crowell's replacement as Harris' vocal partner.
1979's Blue Kentucky Girl was her most country-oriented work to date, an indication of what was to come a year later with Roses in the Snow, a full-fledged excursion into acoustic bluegrass. In the summer of 1980, a duet with Roy Orbison, "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again," hit the Top Ten; a yuletide LP, Light of the Stable: The Christmas Album, followed at the end of year, at a time during which Harris had quit touring to focus on raising her second daughter, Meghann. Evangeline, a patchwork of songs left off of previous albums, appeared in 1981. Shortly after, Skaggs left the Hot Band to embark on a solo career; his replacement was Barry Tashian, a singer/songwriter best known for fronting the 1960s rock band the Remains.
In 1982, drummer John Ware, the final holdover from the first Hot Band lineup, left the group; at the same time, Harris' marriage to Ahern was also beginning to disintegrate. After 1981's Cimarron, Harris and the Hot Band cut a live album, Last Date, named in honor of the album's chart-topping single "(Lost His Love) On Our Last Date," a vocal version of the Floyd Cramer instrumental. Quickly, they returned to the studio to record White Shoes, Harris' final LP with Ahern at the helm. Her most far-ranging affair yet, it included covers of Donna Summer's "On the Radio," Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love," and Sandy Denny's "Old-Fashioned Waltz."
After leaving Ahern, she and her children moved back to Nashville. There, Harris joined forces with singer/songwriter Paul Kennerley, on whose 1980 concept album The Legend of Jesse James she had sung backup. Together, they began formulating a record called The Ballad of Sally Rose, employing the pseudonym Harris often used on the road to veil what was otherwise a clearly autobiographical portrait of her own life. Though a commercial failure, the 1985 record proved pivotal in Harris' continued evolution as an artist and a risk taker; it also marked another chapter in her personal life when she and Kennerley wed shortly after concluding their tour. Angel Band, a subtle, acoustic collection of traditional country spirituals, followed, although the record was not issued until 1987, after the release of its immediate follow-up, Thirteen.
Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt had first toyed with the idea of recording an album together as far back as 1977, only to watch the project falter in light of touring commitments and other red tape. Finally, in 1987, they issued Trio, a collection which proved to be Harris' best-selling album to date, generating the hits "To Know Him Is to Love Him" (a cover of the Phil Spector classic), "Telling Me Lies," and "Those Memories of You." The record's success spurred the 1990 release of Duets, a compilation of her earlier hits in conjunction with George Jones, Willie Nelson, Gram Parsons, and others. Fronting a new band, the Nash Ramblers, in 1992 she issued At the Ryman, a live set recorded at Nashville's legendary Ryman Auditorium, the former home of the Grand Ole Opry. At the time of the record's release, Harris was also serving a term as President of the Country Music Foundation.
In 1993, she ended her long association with Warner Bros./Reprise to move to Asylum Records, where she released Cowgirl's Prayer shortly after her separation from Paul Kennerley. Two years later, at a stage in her career at which most performers retreat to the safety of rehashing their greatest hits again and again, Harris issued Wrecking Ball, perhaps her most adventuresome record to date. Produced by Daniel Lanois, the New Orleans-based artist best known for his atmospheric work with U2, Peter Gabriel, and Bob Dylan, Wrecking Ball was a hypnotic, staggeringly beautiful work comprised of songs ranging from the Neil Young-penned title track (which featured its writer on backing vocals) to Jimi Hendrix's "May This Be Love" and the talented newcomer Gillian Welch's "Orphan Girl."
A three-disc retrospective of her years with Warner Bros., Portraits, appeared in 1996, and in 1998 Harris resurfaced with Spyboy. Following the release of Trio II later that year, she and Ronstadt again reunited, this time minus Parton, for 1999's Western Wall: Tucson Sessions. Harris returned the following year with Red Dirt Girl, her first album of original material in five years, which featured appearances from Bruce Springsteen, Patty Scialfa, Jill Cuniff, and Patty Griffin. -Jason Ankeny
Soulful balladeer Con Hunley was born (April 9, 1945 in Fountain City, TN) and raised near the Smoky Mountains foothills in East Tennessee, and learned about music singing gospel songs in church. Hunley idolized Chet Atkins, but wasn't much of a guitarist, so he taught himself piano by listening to Ray Charles' "What'd I Say." He began playing publicly in high school, and by 1963, Hunley lived in Knoxville, working at a mill by day and performing at the local Eagles club for $12 a gig at night. For a while, he and two siblings performed as the Hunley Brothers Band. He joined the Air Force in 1965, teaching taught aircraft maintenance and playing with local musicians as much as possible.
Following his discharge in 1969, Hunley worked as a lounge singer in L.A., eventually returning to Knoxville to work at a textile mill and sing at a local lounge. He released five singles in 1977 and made his chart debut with "Pick Up the Pieces." Another, "I'll Always Remember That Song," also became a minor hit. His career began to look brighter after he released the 1978 Top 40 hit "Cry Darling Cry." Later that year, he made the Top 15 with "Week-End Friend." Over the next two years, Hunley had a small string of hits, including "I've Been Waiting for You All of My Life." In 1983 he released Once You Get the Feel For It, which produced two minor hits. After his 1984 output failed to yield a major success, Hunley left music to live in Knoxville, where he organized charity golf tournaments and worked on antique cars. -Sandra Brennan
Born Mar 31, 1926, died Dec 9, 1979. If there was a Jimi Hendrix of country fiddlers, it was Tommy Jackson. And if square dance music had its Eric Clapton, then it was Tommy Jackson. Would-be stars on the country fiddle snapped up his records as fast as he could release them during the late '50s and early '60s. This makes it a special tragedy that Tommy Jackson isn't very well remembered today, except by his fellow musicians. In his time, from the end of the 1940s until the beginning of the 1960s, he was the first important session fiddle-player in Nashville, and the best and busiest violinist in country music, working on records by Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, and George Jones, among numerous others. One of the sad ironies of his career was that his influence led to Jackson's own forced retirement - so many younger players followed in his footsteps, that he found precious little work during the final decade of his life, and died in relative obscurity.
Thomas Lee Jackson was born in Birmingham, Alabama, but his family moved to Nashville before he was a year old, and he grew up there listening all of the best country music that local radio and the Grand Ole Opry had to offer. Among his favorite groups growing up were George Wilkerson and the Fruit Jar Drinkers and Arthur Smith's Dixieliners. His father was a barber, not a musician, but he encouraged the boy - by age seven, Tommy Jackson was playing fiddle tunes at local bars for nickels and dimes, and at 12 he was going on tour with John Wright and Kitty Wells. He formed a group called the Tennessee Mountaineers and became a regular guest on Nashville's WSIX. By 17, he was playing on the Opry with Curly Williams and His Georgia Peach Pickers. A year later, however, his budding musical career was interrupted when Jackson joined the U.S. Army Air Force - he spent 1944 and 1945 as a tail gunner in a B-29 flying missions in the Pacific, earning four Bronze Stars and an Air Medal.
When Jackson returned to civilian life, he re-entered the music world immediately, touring with various stars of the Opry. He didn't like life on the road, however, and in 1947 he hooked up with producer Milton Estes, who had a radio show on WSM in Nashville. Jackson became a member of Red Foley's band, the Cumberland Valley Boys, and was regularly featured on his broadcasts.
His fiddle playing was in demand, and with the other members of the Cumberland Valley Boys, he began working recording sessions. Jackson played on Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light" in 1947, providing the distinctive fiddle introduction, and later appeared on such records as "Lovesick Blues." He also played sessions with Red Foley ("Satisfied Mind" was one of the resulting singles). The session work only increased after the group moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, becoming regular participants on recordings at King Records. Jackson played on records by Grandpa Jones, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins, among others. In the early '50s, he made his first records for Mercury, which sold well, and in 1953 he signed to Dot Records.
Over the next ten years, Jackson cut 11 albums and 30 singles, hooking into the burgeoning square dance boom. The recordings all sold well, and were swept up eagerly by aspiring fiddle-players, for whom Jackson rapidly became a major inspiration. In 1954, he left Red Foley and began playing sessions with Ray Price and Faron Young, and Jackson virtually invented the standard modern fiddle accompaniment.
During the 1960s, Jackson was one of the busiest fiddle players in country music, appearing on hundreds of recordings apart from his own solo sides. The end of the square dance boom saw a slackening off of his own records' sales and production, but he continued to be one of the Nashville session musicians most heavily in demand. Jackson became a victim of his own success during the 1970s, as the growing number of session fiddlers - their career inspired by him - made it difficult to find work. He'd stopped playing by the middle of the decade, and he was virtually forgotten at the time of his death in 1979, outside of the Nashville music community and the ranks of Opry musicians, among whom he'd once been a star.
Tommy Jackson is remembered today primarily by country music scholars. The acquisition of Dot Records by MCA Records has opened the way for reissues of his solo material on compact disc. - Bruce Eder
John D. Loudermilk
Born Mar 31, 1934 in Durham, NC. Although his music isn't exactly weird, John D. Loudermilk is one of the weirdest figures of early rock & roll. Much more famous as a songwriter than a performer (although he made plenty of records), his material was incredibly erratic. He could range from the most mindless, sappy pop to a hard-bitten, bluesy tune that rang with as much authentic grit as a Mississippi Delta blues classic. That tune was "Tobacco Road," and if he'd written nothing else, Loudermilk would have been worth a footnote in any history of popular music.
Loudermilk wrote plenty of other songs, though, in a lengthy career that saw him straddling the fields of rock, pop, and country. Originally striving to be a performer in a very mild pop/rockabilly style, he found his first success as a songwriter, when George Hamilton IV took "A Rose and a Baby Ruth" into the Top Ten in 1956. Recording as Johnny Dee, Loudermilk made a few singles for the small Colonial label in North Carolina. The best and most successful of these was "Sittin' in the Balcony," which made the Top 40 in 1957. Eddie Cochran's cover, based closely on Loudermilk's version (though performed with more force and style), stole most of Johnny Dee's thunder when it outsold the original by a wide margin, making the Top 20.
Johnny Dee changed his name back to John Loudermilk when he signed with Columbia in 1958, and also decided to concentrate on songwriting when he relocated to Nashville, eventually working for Chet Atkins at RCA. Although Loudermilk had a pleasantly passable voice, his early records aren't worth much, often purveying material that was mindlessly lightweight or, worse, idiotically humorous ("Asiatic Flu"). "Tobacco Road" was a different story - a stark, stomping tale of hard-bitten Southern poverty, it had a strong blues flavor that was virtually absent from most of his material. It took a one-shot British Invasion group, the Nashville Teens, to fully realize the song's menace in their magnificent, hard rocking 1964 cover, which made the U.S. Top 20. The song was also covered by Lou Rawls, the Jefferson Airplane, Edgar Winter, and others.
"Tobacco Road" was far from Loudermilk's only success. In the late '50s and early '60s, he supplied material for country stars, teen idols, and pop/rock singers, including "Waterloo" (Stonewall Jackson), "Angela Jones" (Johnny Ferguson), "Ebony Eyes" (the Everly Brothers), "Norman" (Sue Thompson), and "Abilene" (George Hamilton IV). In the mid-'60s, he was briefly in vogue in Britain: the Nashville Teens did both "Tobacco Road" and "Google Eyes" (the latter of which was a hit in the U.K., though a flop stateside), and Marianne Faithfull had a British hit with the moody "This Little Bird."
Loudermilk continued to record on his own, though more as an afterthought than a specialty, reserving most of his focus for writing songs for other performers. Much of his material followed a faint-hearted, goofy pop/novelty thread, which made his somber efforts seem all the more incongruous. His last big songwriting success was another of his serious-minded tunes, "Indian Reservation," which topped the charts for Paul Revere & the Raiders in 1971 (it had previously been a hit for British singer Don Fardon). He withdrew from professional activities to spend most of the '80s and '90s studying ethnomusicology. -Richie Unterberger
Bascom Lamar Lunsford
Born 1882 in Mars Hill, NC and Ddied in 1973. The traditional folk songs and buck dancing of the United States' southern mountains region may have faded into the past without the efforts of collector, musician, and impresario Bascom Lamar Lunsford. During the nearly three-quarters of a century that he collected songs and dances in the Appalachian Mountains, Lunsford laid the groundwork for the preservation and revival of traditional folk music and dance. Although Lunsford composed such now-standard songs as "Old Mountain Dew" and "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground", he's best remembered for the hundreds of songs that he collected and recorded for Columbia University and the Library of Congress' Archive of American Folk Song.
The son of a school teacher, Lunsford began collecting songs shortly after graduating from college at the turn of the century. Traveling on horseback, Lunsford worked a variety of jobs including selling fruit trees, working as an attorney and serving a short stint with the FBI. Claiming to have "spent nights in more homes from Harpers Ferry, North Carolina to Iron Mountain, Alabama than God", Lunsford spent most of his time collecting folk songs. Dressed in a white starched short and black bow-tie, Lunsford railed against the stereotyping of the "hillbillies" and used music and dance as a way to draw attention to the strengths and value of the southern mountain culture.
"The Minstrel of the Appalachians", Lunsford helped to spread the southern style of buck dancing, an energetic technique of rhythmically accompanying a tune with one's feet that fused Scottish, Irish, Black and Cherokee dancing. Beginning with dance competitions in North Carolina, often at his home where he installed a special dance floor, Lunsford helped to turn buck dancing into a national fad. A turning point came in 1928 when Lunsford was hired to organize a folk music and dance show at the Rhododendron Festival in Asheville. The show attracted more than 5, 000 people and was turned into an annual event, becoming one of the first folk festivals in the United States.
Although he was criticized for excluding songs of politics, labor strive, Black culture and bawdy material, Lunsford's efforts were essential to the preservation of the culture of "the true southern mountaineers" and served as an inspiration for everyone from Mike and Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. While most of his attention was focused on collecting the songs and dances of others, Lunsford toured the world performing and lecturing. - Craig Harris
Born Apr 2, 1938, Warner Mack was a popular performer for Decca Records during the 1960s. He was born Warner MacPherson, the son of a Presbyterian minister, and raised in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he taught himself to play guitar as a youth. A talented athlete, he had offers to play both college baseball and football; he was also offered a spot on the St. Louis Cardinals, but Mack really wanted to be a musician. He got his start on the KWKH Louisiana Hayride and then appeared on Red Foley's Ozark Jamboree, gaining an even greater following. He still kept a day job at a tire company and also worked as an announcer on a Vicksburg radio station.
Mack moved to Nashville in the late '50s; in 1957, he began his profitable association with Decca, becaming "Mack" thanks to an inattentive secretary. He wrote his debut single "Is It Wrong (For Loving You)" and scored a Top Ten hit that remained on the country charts for over nine months and crossed over to become a minor pop hit. While at Decca he did a fine rockabilly track: "Rock-a-Chicka".He later signed with Kapp Records and produced several albums for them.
After performing on the Grand Ole Opry, he re-signed to Decca, where "Sittin' in an All Nite Cafe" made it to the Top Five. Unfortunately, he had a serious auto accident in 1964 and spent several months recovering. In 1965, he scored his career hit with "Bridge Washed Out," which topped the charts for months. This was followed by a series of hits that stretched until 1973; among his most popular songs were ""Sittin' on a Rock (Crying in a Creek)," "Talkin' to the Wall," and "Leave My Dreams Alone." Mack left Decca in 1973. Four years later he signed to Pageboy Records and had one minor hit, "These Crazy Thoughts (Run Through My Mind)," his final chart entry. - Sandra Brennan
Uncle Dave Macon
AKA Dixie Dewdrop - Born Oct 7, 1870 in Smart Station, TN and died Mar 22, 1952 in Readyville, TN. David Harrison Macon, born in Smartt Station, TN, didn't perform professionally until he was past 50, but he became one of the first superstars of country music. A talented banjoist and comic (and sometimes preacher and farmer), Uncle Dave Macon was the Grand Ole Opry's first major star and an audience favorite from 1925 until his death in 1952. He derived much of his repertoire and stage patter from vaudeville and minstrel shows, but his songs reflected on a wide variety of subjects from political corruption to current events like the advent of the automobile. His presence affected country music like none before it; even today a three-day festival, Uncle Dave Macon Days, is held in Murfreesboro, TN, the site of the National Old-Time Banjo Championship. - Brian Mansfield
Janis Martin was a unique figure in the history of rockabilly - there were other women working in that male-dominated field (Lorrie Collins for one), but Janis Martin was the one dubbed "The Female Elvis Presley" by RCA, reportedly with the approval of Col. Tom Parker. This was probably the kiss of death, evoking images so contradictory that no one could really hold it properly in their mind. The fact that she was signed to RCA probably didn't hurt, but as a hot-rocking female in a field where men's libidinal gyrations weren't approved, she had too many strikes against her for a lasting career. She was good, though, and she left behind the records to prove it.
Martin was born in Sutherlin, Virginia in 1940, and had a stage mother on one side and a father and uncle who were amateur musicians on the other, a mix that practically made her predestined for a performing career. She was playing and singing before age five. By six, she'd mastered chords on her junior-sized guitar and was singing in a style influenced by Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams. She became a fixture in local talent contests and won all of them. Martin was playing and singing on the WDVA Barndance out of Virginia by age 11. By her mid-teens, she'd appeared alongside the likes of Ernest Tubb, the Carter Family, Sonny James, and Jean Shepard.
Her amazing amount of experience for one so young helped push her into rock & roll. It turned out that Martin had tired of country music by her mid-teens, especially the slow ballads, having been doing them for a decade. He timing was perfect, for she discovered rhythm & blues in the mid-1950s, and was soon bringing that material into her own song lists. RCA A&R chief Steve Sholes heard one of her demos and Martin was signed to the label at age 15, only two months after Elvis was signed up.
"Drugstore Rock 'N Roll," a Martin original, was her debut record and her biggest hit, selling some 750, 000 copies. By the middle of 1956, she was making the rounds of the Today Show, The Tonight Show, and other variety programs, as well as appearing on the Grand Ole Opry, and was voted Most Promising Female Vocalist in Billboard, the record industry's bible.
Some of the "Female Elvis" publicity rebounded fairly early, as fans felt she was hooking herself and her style of singing to him as a means of exploitation. Ironically, for all of the publicity that seemed to link them, and her recording of the single "My Boy Elvis" at the insistence of her management, plus the fact that they used the same session musicians and shared the same country-cum-R&B interests, Martin never saw the Memphis Flash perform until he made it to national television. By that time her own performing style - amazingly similar to his, but developed independently - was established and locked down. Additionally, she only met Presley twice, both times very briefly, with hardly a word exchanged. The two found themselves converging on a similar point.
For all of her early success, Martin was never able to sustain a rock & roll career, mostly because of her gender and the changing times. Her stage moves and lusty delivery appeared unseemly (or so people said, especially on the country circuit) in a girl, once the initial furor and enthusiasm for rock & roll quieted down. Additionally, the country shows on which she was booked usually put her on bills and in front of audiences that weren't overly enamored of rock & roll to begin with, and Martin found herself caught between conflicting currents. Her record company and management wanted her to keep pushing rockabilly in her stage act, while promoters doing the bookings preferred that she do straight country.
Martin might have finessed it all, but for a personal situation that came up in 1958. She'd been secretly married since 1956, and her husband was stationed overseas in the army; she went on a European tour and got to see him in 1958. The result was that the 17-year-old rockabilly star became pregnant, and was dropped by the label in short order. Martin tried to keep a music career going and was courted by both King Records and Decca Records before signing with a Belgian-owned label called Palette, for which she cut four sides in 1960. She was on her second marriage by then, and husband No. 2 (whom she later divorced) didn't take well to her career. She withdrew from music except for appearances near her home in Virginia, and then in the 1970s, on her own again, formed her own band, the Variations, and toured Europe, where she encountered strikingly enthusiastic audiences, ready to embrace her as though it were still 1958.
She continued to figure in some Elvis Presley-related discographies, thanks to "My Boy Elvis" and also as a result of a 1959 South African album called Janis And Elvis, a $2000 collectible that was heavily bootlegged in the late 1970s. Martin's RCA records, however, were forgotten and neglected by the company (which, in those days, could hardly reissue an Elvis Presley recording without screwing it up in some way). In the 1980s, Bear Family Records finally gathered together Martin's complete recorded history on one CD, entitled, appropriately enough, The Female Elvis, making her ultra-rare sides easily available for the first time in decades. - Bruce Eder
Born Oct 1, 1915 in Greenway, AR, died Mar 31, 1968. Best known for his self-penned chart-topper "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes," Skeets McDonald was a honky-tonk singer and songwriter whose work helped serve to bridge the gap between country and rock & roll. The youngest of seven children, Enos William McDonald was born on October 1, 1915 in Greenway, Arkansas, and earned his nickname after an incident involving a swarm of mosquitoes. He became interested in music at a young age, and according to McDonald family legend, even traded his hound dog for a guitar and six dollars. When his older brother moved to Michigan several years later, McDonald followed, and joined his first band, the Lonesome Cowboys, in Detroit in 1935. He continued to perform on local radio stations until he was drafted to serve in World War II in 1943.
After returning from battle, McDonald began performing on a Detroit-area television program, and in 1950 cut his first records with fiddler Johnnie White and His Rough Riders. In 1951, Skeets and his family moved to Los Angeles, where he was signed to perform on Cliffie Stone's TV program Hometown Jamboree. Soon after, he joined Capitol Records, and in 1952 released "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes," by far his biggest hit. McDonald remained with the label until 1959, the year he released the LP The Country's Best, and while he scored few chart successes, his music's evolution from honky-tonk to straightforward rockabilly proved to be influential with other musicians.
In 1959, McDonald signed with Columbia, which mandated that he return to country music. In the early '60s, he notched a handful of hits, including "Call Me Mr. Brown," which reached the Top Ten in 1963. A year later, he issued the album Call Me Skeets! As the decade wore on, he began branching out from the West Coast music scene, recording in Nashville and appearing on the Grand Ole Opry. Despite the country industry's shift towards slicker, more pop-oriented productions, McDonald remained a purist throughout his career; he died on March 31, 1968 after suffering a massive heart attack. - Jason Ankeny
Born Mar 26, 1950 in Fountain Head, TN and raised in rural Portland, Tennessee, north of Nashville, McDowell didn't take performing seriously until he was stationed in the Philippines with the navy. The first song he performed in public: "It's Now or Never," appropriate since Elvis Presley has had a huge impact on his career. McDowell wrote his first hit, "The King Is Gone," the day that Elvis died. Enough people shared his grief that a reported three million copies were sold. McDowell did all the Elvis vocal imitations for a 1979 Elvis TV movie, starring Kurt Russell, and he began to take on the image of an Elvis imitator. McDowell consciously distanced himself from those comparisons, which became easier when record producer Buddy Killen took over the reins of his career, bringing in solid uptempo material that consistently showcased McDowell's strong (though a bit nondescript) vocal talents. Now comfortable with his reputation, he's returned on occasion to more "Elvis" work, and providedthe vocal parts for the short-lived ABC series Elvis in 1990. - Tom Roland
AKA Hillybilly Waltz King - Born Sep 19, 1915 in Cherokee, NC, died Apr 7, 1989. Best remembered as one of Bill Monroe's original Blue Grass Boys, singer/songwriter/string player Clyde Moody also played in almost every other subgenre of country music during his over fifty-year career, and even performed as a solo artist. During the '40s, he was known as the "Hillbilly Waltz King" after his song "Shenandoah Waltz" became a certified gold hit.
Moody was influenced by the traditional mountain music he heard there. During the mid-'30s, he and Jay Hugh, the brother of Roy Hall, teamed up to appear as the Happy-Go-Lucky Boys on the radio in Spartanburg, North Carolina. They then joined Wade Mainer, and with fiddler Steve Ledford they became the Sons of the Mountaineers. Moody joined Monroe in 1940 and performed with the Blue Grass Boys at WSM and at the Grand Ole Opry. About this time, Monroe and his Boys were becoming a bluegrass band, and the changes can clearly be heard in Moody's mandolin playing on the classic "Six White Horses." A year later, Moody spent a few months in Burlington, North Carolina playing radio duets with Lester Flatt. He later returned to the Blue Grass Boys and remained with them until again attempting a solo career in 1945.
He joined the Opry as a featured artist for a few weeks and then recorded for Columbia. He had his biggest hit, the sentimental "Shenandoah Waltz," in 1947, and followed it up with a series of similar tunes such as "Cherokee Waltz" and "I Waltz Alone." He had a few more hits through the end of the decade and then moved to Washington, D.C. to work for Connie B. Gay. In 1952, Moody signed with Decca, but only had a few singles up through the mid-'50s, when his health began to fail. He left music to become a mobile home salesman, but returned in 1962 with a solo album. He then tried a modern country album. During the folk revival, he played at bluegrass festivals and moved back to Nashville in 1972, where he performed both bluegrass and country music until his death in 1989. -Sandra Brennan
By rights, Moon Mullican should be a legend twice over, in country music and rock & roll. He merged them both - as well as blues, pop, and honky tonk - into a seamless whole at the drop of a hat and the ripple of a keyboard, and also managed to play a seminal role in the history of Western swing, all in a recording career that lasted less than 30 years. Instead, for decades he was one of those "lost" musical figures from the '40s and early '50s, whose career paved the way for rock & roll, who was born just a little too early and was a little too old to take advantage of what he'd started.
Aubrey "Moon" Mullican was born in 1909 in Corrigan, TX, a little more than an hour's drive north of Houston, to a family that owned an 87-acre farm that was worked (at least partly) by sharecroppers. It was one of them, a black blues guitarist named Joe Jones, who introduced Mullican to the blues before he was in his teens. Mullican's instrument of choice, however, was the keyboard: first the family organ, which had been bought so that his sisters could practice playing hymns, and later the piano. By the time he was 14, he was able to make 40 dollars - a good deal more than a day's wages in 1923 - for two hours of piano playing at a local café. Music was not only something he loved, but it offered a lot more renumeration than farming (or even overseeing land worked by tenant farmers) seemed to; it was also something that his father, a three-time-a-week churchgoer who regarded blues as the devil's music and the places where people listened to it as the devil's playground, despised. Thus at 16, Mullican left home for the big city of Houston. He made his living playing music and earned the nickname "Moon," which stuck for the rest of his life. During the mid-'30s, he joined the Western swing band the Blue Ridge Playboys, and moved from there to playing in Cliff Bruner's Texas Wanderers, as well as recording with the Sunshine Boys and Jimmie Davis.
Mullican's talents at the ivories were long established by the end of the '30s - he played the piano like it was a part of him - but he moved to the lead singer's spot in 1939 when Bruner recorded the pioneering country trucker song, "Truck Driver's Blues." He turned out to be every bit as good a singer as he was a pianist, with a stunningly expressive voice even if it didn't have an overly great range. This recording and the advent of the '40s heralded the busiest phase of Mullican's career, as he juggled a long-term association with Bruner, a stint in the backing band for Jimmie Davis during the latter's successful campaign for governor of Louisiana, and recording dozens of sides for Decca, RCA Victor, and Columbia Records. It was with King Records, however, beginning in 1946, that he came into his own as a recording artist, cutting a decade's worth of superb music, including a uniquely stylized version of "New Jole Blon" that was a hit in 1947, and the ballad "Sweeter Than the Flowers" in 1948. However, it was in the realm of hillbilly boogie that Mullican had his greatest influence, his versions of "Shoot the Moon" and "Don't Ever Take My Picture Down" pre-figuring rock & roll (especially Jerry Lee Lewis's brand of it) in tone and beat, if not youthful subject matter. In particular, the sides that Mullican cut with producer Henry Glover at King crossed over easily into R&B, though he was equally comfortable with pop standards, honky tonk, and traditional country. By the end of the '40s, he was a member of the Grand Ole Opry and found a national audience from its radio broadcasts, which helped propel the sales of his biggest hit, "Cherokee Boogie," in 1951.
Mullican was a star in the world of country music, and may have had more influence there than the sales of his records would lead one to believe. For decades, it was an open secret that he'd co-written "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" with his fellow Grand Ole Opry member Hank Williams, collecting a 50 percent share of the royalties on the sly because of his contractual relationship to King Records. By the mid-'50s, he was trying to get out of King Records, however, and onto one of the major labels. It didn't happen for Mullican until the end of the '50s, a point where his star had fallen considerably. Rock & roll had taken a lot of the edge off the sales of country records, effectively stealing the youngest, most active, and most pliable portion of country's audience. Mullican's record sales, ironically, had fallen even as the stars of such stylistic emulators and successors as Jerry Lee Lewis rose. If Bill Haley, who didn't have half of Mullican's singing ability, seemed over the hill as soon as his balding, pudgy post-30-ish image became well-known, then Mullican, with his cowboy hat, Western twang in his singing, and 50-ish appearance was definitely not what the kids were buying.
By the end of the '50s, he'd been released from King but couldn't get another recording deal very easily, as his sales had declined through the middle of the decade. A move to Coral Records led to a toned-down country approach, which managed to intersect with rock & roll, blues, and pop music, but success still eluded him, even when he recut his King Records hits. Mullican entered the '60s as an overlooked figure, apart from country listeners with long memories and those people lucky enough to catch his performances in Texas and around the Southern and border states. A 1962 heart attack on-stage sidelined him into the following year, but he was back performing and recording in 1963, this time locally for the Hall-Way label of Beaumont, TX, where he made his home. He never gave up performing or his love of pleasing an audience. Finally, on New Year's Eve of 1966-1967, he suffered another heart attack, and died early in the morning on January 1, 1967.
Two years later, Kapp Records released The Moon Mullican Showcase LP, which included those last sides of his done in Beaumont more than half-a-decade earlier. In the decades since, Mullican's name has gradually become known to a generation of listeners attuned to the roots of rock & roll and pre-Nashville country music, and labels like Ace and Bear Family have issued compilations of his King, Coral, and Hall-Way sides on CD. - Bruce Eder
John Jacob Niles
Born April 28, 1892 in Louisville, KY, died March 31, 1980 in Lexington, KY. Music played an important part in the early life of John Jacob Niles, and he would spend his life collecting, composing, and performing folk songs. By the age of 15 he had begun collecting songs in the Appalachian Mountains, a habit he would continue while serving as a ferry pilot in the U.S. Air Corps during World War I. Niles remained in France after the war, studying music at the Universite de Lyon and the Schola Cantorum in Paris. He would continue his studies for two more years at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music upon returning to the United States. In 1921, he came to New York where he met the singer Marion Kerby. Kerby shared his love of folk music, so the two decided to work as a team, traveling throughout Europe and the United States.
Niles collected folk songs in the Southwest while working as a guide and chauffeur for photographer Doris Ulmann. During the '20s and '30s, he began publishing collections of folk songs, including Singing Soldiers (1927), Songs My Mother Never Taught Me (1929), and Songs of the Hill-folk (1934). In the '30s he began to perform solo, traveling widely and singing at high schools, churches, and colleges. He dressed in bright-colored shirts, wore corduroys, and sang in a striking, high falsetto. Barry Alfonso, recalling the first time he heard Niles on record, wrote, "Out of my stereo came his startling, other-worldly voice, the sound of someone enraptured - or maybe possessed. He seemed to embody his dire ballad, rather than to merely perform it."
Niles wrote a number of classic folk songs that are often mistaken for traditional material, including, "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair," "Go 'Way From My Window," and "I Wonder as I Wander." He recorded numerous albums, including Early American Ballads (1939) and American Folk Lore (1941). He also composed more formal music, writing the oratorio "Lamentation," which would receive its first performance at the Indiana State Teachers College in 1951. Between 1967 and 1970 he would compose a work based on the poetry of Thomas Merton titled "The Niles-Merton Songs." The Songs of John Jacob Niles was published in 1975 and Niles would continue to perform publicly until two years before his death in 1980. Part Renaissance man, part traveling minstrel, Niles left an invaluable body of recordings, folk song collections, and compositions behind. His work has greatly aided the preservation and continued vitality of American folk culture. - Ronnie Lankford, Jr.
Born Carl Lee Perkins, 9 April 1932, Tiptonville, Tennessee - Died 19 January 1998, Jackson, Tennessee. Carl Perkins is the epitomy of a rockabilly singer, from his singing and guitar playing to his choice of material, all revved up stories of dances, clothes and slitting throats with razors. Born to sharecroppers he spent his early years picking cotton and playing guitar. With his brothers Jay and Clayton he formed the Perkins Brothers Band and played the tough honky tonk bars of Jackson, developing a sound that mixed hillbilly with flashes of rhythm and blues. It was a new style that no-one had heard before so upon hearing Elvis on the local radio one day, Carl knew that there was someone out there who shared his ears and vision, and more importantly, that there was someone who was willing to record and issue the stuff. That someone was Sam Phillips and his label was Sun Records, sixty miles down the road in Memphis.
The brothers drove to Memphis and auditioned for Sam The Man who was impressed with what he heard. He cut their first single, the hillbilly duo, Movie Magg and Turn Around. It wasn't until Elvis had moved to RCA that Sam really let the Perkins boys put their cat clothes on, but when he did, the sparks flew. Blue Suede Shows backed with Honey Don't became the first single to top the pop, country and blues charts and was also the first million seller for Sun. They went to New York to promote the song on the Perry Como show but smashed into the back of a poultry truck on the way. Carl fractured his skull and Jay suffered a broken neck, an injury that he never really recovered from, dying a couple of years later. To add insult to injury, as the brothers lay in their hospital beds, Elvis was singing Blue Suede Shoes on the Dorsey Brothers Show.
When Carl returned from his lengthy lay-off he was unable to repeat the success of Shoes despite some classic rockabilly numbers like Boppin' The Blues, Dixie Fried, Your True Love, Put Your Cat Clothes On and Matchbox which featured young wildcat Jerry Lee Lewis on piano. In 1958 Perkins followed Johnny Cash to Columbia but numbers like Pointed Toe Shoes failed to find an audience. A spell at Decca was just as fruitless, but the spirits were raised with a triumphant tour of Britain in 1964.
He became a member of the Johnny Cash entourage where he stayed for a decade. His song-writing remained constant and Johnny Cash (Daddy Sang Bass), Patsy Cline (I Was So Wrong) and the Judds (Let Me Tell You About Love) all benefited from his craft. He was elected into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He fought a long battle with throat cancer before succumbing to the illness in 1998. Me and Phil visited his house in 2000 and were really pleased to see that he'd spent so many years in such a lovely area of Tennessee. A true Southern gentleman, and the King of Rockabilly - not a bad combination.
The Classic Carl Perkins - Bear Family (5CD)
Back On Top - Bear Family (4CD - late-'60s and early-'70s)
Born To Rock - Liberty
Further reading: http://www.rockabillyhall.com/CarlPerkins.html
Autobiography: Go Cat Go ! The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, the King of Rockabilly. (With David McGee) New York: Hyperion, 1996.
-Shaun Mather, April 2002 - Shaun.Mather@btinternet.com
Born Mar 22, 1892 in Alamance County, NC. Died May 1931 in Eden, NC. Charlie Poole & His North Carolina Ramblers were one of the most popular string bands of the 1920s and had a great influence on the development of bluegrass music. Poole is largely responsible for popularizing the banjo and created a unique playing style involving his thumb and two fingers.
He was born in Randolph County, North Carolina, and spent much of his adult life working in textile mills. He learned banjo as a youth and also played baseball. (It is believed that his playing style stemmed from a baseball accident involving his thumb.) When not working in mills, he would travel from town to town across the country to play banjo and work. He ended up settling in Spry, North Carolina in 1918 and married two years later. His brother-in-law, fiddler Posey Rorer, would often play together with other local musicians and these became the North Carolina Ramblers.
Poole and Rorer teamed up with guitarist Norm Woodlief in 1925 and began recording careers in New York for Columbia Records. There they cut four songs; all were successful, including the bluesy "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," a country standard and Poole's signature song. The Ramblers were suddenly a popular stringband. Though the personnel changed frequently over the years, the band's unusual sound remained consistent. As vocalist, Poole sang with a plain, uninflected style that complemented his complex banjo picking. The songs they sang were a mixture of minstrel songs, Victorian ballads, and humorous burlesques all delivered with Poole's straight-faced dry wit. Through the rest of the decade, the Ramblers released close to 60 singles for Columbia. Like many country performers to follow, Poole lived a fast life; he was a hard drinking man, rowdy and reckless.
When the Depression hit in 1930, Poole's career had peaked and his popularity began waning - as did his self-confidence. As a result, he began drinking even more heavily. Scheduled to appear in a film in 1931, he unfortunately went on a bender and died of heart failure before he could get to Hollywood. After his death, Rorer (who had left the band in 1929) and guitarist Roy Harvey (who'd replaced Woodlief around the same time), began leading the North Carolina Ramblers. (The group continued to record and perform for a quite a few years afterward.) Poole's music enjoyed renewed popularity during the folk revival of the '60s and in 1993, a CD of his best songs was released. Also, Kenny Rorer wrote and published a biography of the great banjo player. - Sandra Brennan
Born Apr 06, 1913 in Evansville, IN. Wade Ray was a popular fiddler who performed in concert and on radio and television for over three decades; unfortunately, despite his long career, he only cut a few singles in the 1950s and two old-time revival albums during the '60s. He was born in 1913 in Evansville, Indiana, but raised in Boynton, Arkansas. At age four, his parents gave him a homemade violin made out of a cigar box; the following year he was playing a real one on stage, billed as "the Youngest Violin Player in the World." Ray soon gained quite a following, and also learned to play the tenor banjo before joining the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit and touring Indiana until 1931, when he turned 18. He next joined Pappy Cheshire's National Champion Hillbillies on a St. Louis radio station, and remained there as a musician and musical director until he was inducted into the Army in 1943. He then joined the Prairie Ramblers on the WLS Chicago National Barn Dance, where he recorded and performed with Patsy Montana. In 1949, he left the show to record with the Ozark Mountain Boys. Ray next appeared on the Rex Allen Show on CBS-TV in Los Angeles, and also made his feature film debut in Hollywood. During the '50s and '60s, he also made guest appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and the Ernest Tubb Show. Between 1951 and 1957, Ray released 23 singles for RCA, but none of them appeared on the charts. In 1966 he cut the album A Ray of Country Sun; his second album, Down Yonder - The Country Fiddlers, featured a number of former country stars. In 1979, he moved to join the KSD-AM St. Louis roadshow, but poor health forced him to leave. Eventually Ray moved to Florida to retire. -Sandra Brennan
Born Aug 4, 1890 in Oswego, Labette County, Kansas - Died Mar 24, 1957 in Pleasant Valley, NY. Carson Robison, known in some circles as "the granddaddy of the hillbillies," has mysteriously missed the recognition that has come the way of such contemporaries as Vernon Dalhart, not to mention successors such as Gene Autry and Merle Travis. A singer, guitarist, whistler and actor, the sheer diversity of his talent, coupled with the relatively early beginning of his recording career, may have harmed him in terms of posterity. Robison's father was a champion fiddler while his mother was a singer and pianist, and by the time he was 14 years old, he was already playing guitar professionally. A year later he was playing in bands and singing, and by his 20's was proficient on a range of instruments, as well as an accomplished whistler. It was in the latter capacity that Robison first came into the recording studio, as part of backing groups behind Vernon Dalhart and Wendell Hall. Ultimately he teamed with Dalhart, and the two recorded and toured together from 1924 until 1928. Robison also worked with the Crowe Brothers, and co-wrote songs with Frank Luther Crowe ("My Blue Ridge Mountain Home," "Barnacle Bill The Sailor"). Other artists with whom Robison performed and recorded include singers Gene Austin and Frank Crumit and guitarist Roy Smeck.
In 1931, Robison formed his own group, the Pioneers, later rechristened the Buckaroos, which included John and Bill Mitchell, Frank Novak, and Pearl Pickens. The first country & western group to tour England, they had a considerable recording and broadcast career abroad as well as America before World War II. Robison had a hit in 1942 with the old standard "Turkey in the Straw," and wrote songs on behalf of the war effort, including "We're Gonna Have to Slap That Dirty Little Jap." As late as 1948, he had a chart entry with "Life Gits Tee-Jus, Don't It?" and the year before his death, he recorded the novelty rock & roll number "Rockin' and Rollin' with Grandmaw."
A fine technician as well as a good judge of songs, Carson Robison was perhaps too sophisticated to be grouped with hillbilly singers, cowboy singers, or country music in general. His music had a veneer of pop sophistication that, in some ways, made it at times closer in spirit to Bing Crosby, or even Eddie Cantor (check out "Everybody's Goin' But Me") than to Gene Autry, while also lacking the honest directness (as well as the extraordinary harmonies) of the Sons of the Pioneers. Under other circumstances, he might've made a name in movies providing musical backgrounds, but media exposure beyond the radio eluded him. - Bruce Eder
Billy Joe Royal
Best-known for his pop/rock hit "Down in the Boondocks," Billy Joe Royal had a long career that saw him shifting his attentions toward country music in the '80s. Although he never had another hit as large as "Down in the Boondocks," he racked up a number of successful country singles over the course of the 1980s.
Royal was born (1945) into a family of musical entertainers in Valdosta, Georgia, and debuted on his uncle's radio show at the age of 11. The following year, he learned to play steel guitar and joined the Atlanta Jubilee at age 14, performing with Joe South, Jerry Reed, and Ray Stevens, among several other artists. Royal had his own rock band during high school and was regularly singing around Atlanta by the age of 16. In 1962, he recorded an independent single which went unnoticed. Three years later South contacted him with a song he wanted Royal to sing as a demo, in the hope that Gene Pitney would record it. Royal flew to Atlanta and recorded "Down in the Boondocks" inside the studio's septic tank, which had been converted into an echo chamber.
The demo ended up at Columbia, and they signed Royal to a six-year deal. The song became his breakthrough single, reaching number nine on the pop charts and making the vocalist into a teen idol. Following its success, Royal had a string of lesser hits, including the Top 40 pop singles "I Knew You When," "I've Got to Be Somebody" and "Cherry Hill Park." By the end of the decade, Royal's star waned, and he became a regular performer in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. He also did a bit of acting on television, in feature films, and commercials. In 1978, he recorded a cover of "Under the Boardwalk" and scored a minor hit.
During the early 1980s, Royal worked on establishing himself as a country artist, but had trouble finding a label. In 1984, he finally got a break when he recorded Gary Burr's "Burned Like a Rocket; " it was picked up by Atlantic Records, who signed Royal to the label. The single became a hit and reached the country Top Ten in early 1986. For the next two years, he had a string of Top 40 hits, breaking into the Top 10 in late 1987 with "I'll Pin a Note on Your Pillow." In 1989, he released the album Tell It Like Is; the title cut became his biggest hit, peaking at number two, while the album itself stayed in the Top 15 for over a year. By 1990, Royal's style of pop-inflected country had been replaced by neo-traditional honky-tonk at the top of the charts, and his popularlity declined. He continued to have minor hits into 1992, and toured throughout the decade. -Sandra Brennan
AKA Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith. Born April 1, 1921 in Clinton, SC, died 1973. A link between the Western swing of the 1940s and the rockabilly of the 1950s, Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith was one of country music's seminal figures. In addition to inspiring several generations of country musicians via his region television program, The Arthur Smith Show, which aired from 1951 to 1982 and was the first syndicated country music show, Smith wrote and recorded some of country music's most influential tunes. His fiery instrumental "Guitar Boogie," recorded with the Tennessee Ramblers, has been often cited as the first rock & roll song. Released on October 23, 1948, the single sold nearly three million copies and reached number 25 on the Billboard pop charts. It was subsequently transformed into a Top Five hit, "Guitar Boogie Shuffle," by Frank Virtue and His Virtuoso Trio in 1959.
Smith composed more than 500 songs, including many other hits. "Feudin' Banjos," co-written in 1955 with bluegrass banjo player Don Reno was renamed "Deulin' Banjos" and featured in the film Deliverance without permission. Suing for rights infringement, he won the case. Additional songs by Smith were covered by such country artists as Johnny Cash and Randy Travis. Willie Nelson featured Smith's song "Red Headed Stranger" as the title track of one of his most successful albums.
Smith first surfaced in the mid-'40s as the leader of a Dixieland-influenced group the Crackerjacks and a gospel group, the Crossroads Quartet. He supplemented his income as a musician by hosting a show on 100,000-watt radio station, WBT. The owner of a recording studio in Charlotte, NC, Smith oversaw recordings by such artists as James Brown and Johnny Cash. - Craig Harris
AKA Calvin Grant Shofner, born April 07, 1932 in Gans, OK. Singer Cal Smith was a former member of Ernest Tubb's band who enjoyed popularity between the late '60s and mid '70s. He was born in Oklahoma, but raised in Oakland, California. A guitar player since childhood, he got his start in various talent contests, and began playing professionally in his early teens in local clubs in San Jose. During the 1950s, he continued playing music and supplementing his income by doing various odd jobs ranging from truck driver to bronco buster. He was briefly married, but when his wife made him choose between music and her, Smith chose the former.
He began appearing on California Hayride in 1954. Two years later he joined the military and following his discharge worked as a deejay and also began playing in a group in San Jose. Tubb heard him play and following an audition hired him as a Texas Troubador in 1961. Five years later, Tubb helped Smith land his first solo recording contract with Kapp Records, where he released his first single, "I'll Just Go Home." He made his first chart entry with his second effort, "The Only Thing I Want," which made it to the Top 60. During his long association with Kapp he had eight more mid-range to minor hits, including "Drinking Champagne" (1968) and "Heaven Is Just a Touch Away."
In late 1970, he signed with Decca and in 1972 made it to the Top Five with "I've Found Someone of My Own." A few months later he scored his first number one hit, "The Lord Knows I'm Drinking," which also crossed over to become a minor pop hit. His next few singles did not do as well, but in 1974, his luck began to change and he scored his second number one hit with "Country Bumpkin," a Don Wayne-penned tune that became Smith's signature song. Later that year he had his third number one, "It's Time to Pay the Fiddler." He continued appearing on the charts through 1979. -Sandra Brennan
Born Apr 9, 1942 in Dayton, OH. The multi-talented Margo Smith started out as a kindergarten teacher who sang folk and country songs to her students; she frequently wrote the songs herself. Smith moved to singing at PTA meetings and later on radio broadcasts. She developed a following, cut a demo and signed to 20th Century Fox Records in 1975, where she had a major hit with her own "There I Said It." Her second single, "Paper Lovin'," made the Top 30, and she recorded an album. Unfortunately, the label soon folded its Nashville division and she was cut free. She signed with Warner Brothers the following year and had three Top Ten singles through 1977, including "Take My Breath Away" and her first number one, "Don't Break the Heart That Loves You." The following year, she had another chart-topper with "It Only Hurts for a Little While," and the follow-up "Little Things Mean a Lot" was another major hit. She and producer Norro Wilson duetted as Margo & Norro for "So Close Again," which reached the middle of the charts. Through the end of the decade, Smith toured heavily with her band Night Flight, opening for such artists as Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette, Kenny Rogers and Charley Pride. In 1979, Smith had two major hits and decided to affect a sexier image, appearing in only a satin robe on the cover of her album Just Margo. She had three more hits that year, including "Cup of Tea," a duet with Rex Allen, Jr.
In the early '80s, Smith reverted to her previous wholesome image. She moved to the AMI label in 1982, but had no chart singles. She continued label-hopping through 1985 with only one minor hit, "Everyday People," a duet with Tom Grant. That year, she recorded The Best of the Tennessee Yodeler, a tribute to yodeler Bonnie Lou, and sold it on television. Smith then recorded for Cammeron Records, a label created by her manager, but had no chart hits until 1988 with another minor entry, "Echo Me." During the '80s, she acted on TNN's I-40 Paradise. She and her daughter formed a gospel duo; as Margo Smith & Holly, they recorded for Homeland Records and found success on contemporary Christian radio. -Sandra Brennan
Born Jul 17, 1918 in Charleston, WV, died Apr 4, 1980 in Nashville, TN. Though he had a long, distinguished career in country music, singer/songwriter and guitarist Red Sovine is best remembered for his earnest, funny and, at times, highly sentimental odes to the life of the American trucker. Born to an impoverished family in Charleston, West Virginia, he was inspired as a child by WCHS radio musicians Buddy Starcher and Frank Welling. Sovine and his childhood friend Johnnie Bailes joined Jim Pike's Carolina Tar Heels and performed as "the Singing Sailors." It was not a particularly successful venture and Sovine later became a factory worker. He also continued to put on a local radio show while his friend Johnnie went on to form the Bailes Brothers.
Bailes continued to encourage Sovine to return to music, and in the late '40s, he finally began pursuing a radio career again. He landed a job at KWKH, Shreveport, but they gave him an early morning spot and his performances went unnoticed. Frustrated, he was ready to quit the business when Hank Williams helped him get a better position at WFSA in Montgomery, Alabama, where he soon developed a large following. With Williams' help, Sovine landed a contract with MGM Records in 1949, and over the next four years he recorded 28 singles, mostly honky tonk, that didn't make much of a dent on the charts but did establish him as a solid performer. When not recording, Sovine starred on Shreveport's Louisiana Hayride.
In the early '50s, Webb Pierce, one of his fellow Hayride performers, began a string of Top Ten country hits. Pierce convinced Sovine to lead his Wondering Boys band and also helped Red sign to Decca in 1954. He continued recording but had no hits until cutting a duet with Goldie Hill, "Are You Mine?," which peaked in the Top 15 in 1955. The following year, he had his first number one when he duetted with Webb Pierce on George Jones' "Why Baby Why." Also in 1956, Sovine had two other Top Five singles and started a brief stint on the Grand Ole Opry. After producing close to 50 sides with Decca by 1959, Sovine signed to Starday and began touring the club circuit as a solo act. It took him five years to produce a hit for the label with "Dream House for Sale," which reached number 22 in 1964, nearly eight years after his last hit.
In 1966, Sovine at last found his niche when he recorded "Giddy-up Go," his very first spoken-word truck driver song. The single spent six weeks atop the country charts and even crossed over to become a minor pop hit. Subsequent truck-driving hits included the ghost story "Phantom 309" and the tearjerking tale of a crippled child's CB-radio relationship with caring truckers, "Teddy Bear." The latter was his biggest hit since "Giddyup Go," spending three weeks at the top of the country charts in 1976 and reaching number 40 on the pop charts. He followed "Teddy Bear" with "Little Joe," the tale of a blinded trucker and his devoted canine friend, which became his last big hit. Sovine died in 1980 as the result of suffering a heart attack while driving his van. -Sandra Brennan
Born May 29, 1916 in Lenoir, NC, died Mar 31, 1995. Fiddler Carl Story was a key figure in the development of gospel bluegrass music throughout his decades-long career. He was born to musically-inclined parents, from whom he learned much about playing guitar and fiddle; though his parents played traditional and square dance music, young Story was most interested in the more modern sound of such groups as the Carolina Ramblers. In the early '30s, he moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, and began hosting a radio show. In 1935, he returned home, where he played with several musicians; eventually he and teen-age banjoist Johnnie Whisnant moved to Spartanburg to play in the Lonesome Mountaineers. From there the two founded the Rambling Mountaineers, playing at various radio stations and making the occasional record until Story left to become a fiddler for Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. In 1943, he left Monroe to join the Navy.
Following his discharge, Story reassembled the Rambling Mountaineers with Jack and Curley Shelton, Hoke Jenkins and Claude Boone. As they moved from station to station, the membership changed and many of the members, such as Tater Tate and the Brewster Brothers, went on to become important bluegrass figures. Story and his group began recording secular and gospel songs for Mercury in 1947, and remained with the label until 1952. He moved to Columbia the following year and recorded over a dozen singles. Although his music was close to bluegrass, Story and his band did not become full-fledged bluegrass players complete with banjo, mandolin and dobro until 1957. Between the late '50s and the early '70s, they became fixtures on the bluegrass festival circuit. Story began recording less frequently during the '70s, but still continued touring. On occasion, he also worked as a deejay at WSEC Greenville, South Carolina - Sandra Brennan
Born Mar 24, 1947 in Butcher's Hollow, KY. Like her two illustrious sisters Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle, singer/songwriter Peggy Sue was a coal miner's daughter from Butchers Hollow, Kentucky. She spent most of the '60s and '70s performing with her parents and brothers in the Webb Family; when she was 12, her father's ailing health forced him to retire and the large family moved to Indiana, where Peggy Sue attended high school and sang with her two sisters as the Loretta Lynn Sisters. Much later, she became a featured act in Loretta's show and the two wrote songs together, including "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)." Peggy Sue made her solo recording debut in 1969 with "I'm Dynamite," a song written for her by Loretta. The song hit the Top 30, as did the single "I'm Gettin' Tired of Babyin' You" the following year. After her most successful single, "All-American Husband," she didn't appear on the charts again until 1980, with a string of mid-range hits for her second husband Sonny Wright's independent Door Knob label such as "I Want to See Me in Your Eyes." By 1983, the hits dried up. Peggy Sue later sang backup for her sister Crystal Gayle and designed stage costumes. - Sandra Brennan
Born Apr 2, 1941, Sonny Throckmorton started out as a performer, but instead he became one of the most successful songwriters in country music, with over 1, 000 of his songs recorded by such artists as Tanya Tucker, Dave & Sugar, Merle Haggard, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Oak Ridge Boys, Doug Stone and even comedian George Burns.
He was born James Fron Sonny Throckmorton in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and spent much of his childhood traveling the Southwest before his family finally settled in Wichita Falls, Texas. After college, Throckmorton moved to San Francisco and played rock & roll in area clubs. At the urging of guitarist and publisher Pete Drake, he switched to country music and moved to Nashville in 1964, working as a bass player for Carl and Pearl Butler for two years. He then wrote for and managed Drake's publishing company. In 1965, Bobby Lewis had a Top Five hit with Throckmorton's "How Long Has It Been." He remained in Nashville for a few more years as a song promoter and staff writer for different companies before landing a job as a staff writer for the prestigious Tree Publishing. Unfortunately, none of the young writer's songs became hits, and he was fired.
In 1975, Throckmorton moved to Texas because he had promised himself that he would quit music if he didn't succeed by age 35. His fellow songwriters continued trying to sell Throckmorton's songs, however, and six months later he returned and was rehired by Tree. In nine months, over 150 of his songs were recorded, including "Thinking of a Rendezvous," Johnny Duncan's first number one hit. Another of his songs, "Knee Deep in Love with You," became a country standard. Between 1976 and 1980, a Throckmorton song appeared on the charts almost every week. His 1978 hit for Jerry Lee Lewis, "Middle Age Crazy," even became the basis of a major movie, and he was named Songwriter of the Year by the Nashville Songwriters Association three years in a row starting between 1978 and 1980.
In 1976, Throckmorton tried recording his own songs, first for Starcrest and then for Mercury, but the biggest hit he had, "Last Cheater's Waltz," only reached the Top 50. Fortunately, his stature as a major songwriter flourished and in 1980, he was named BMI Songwriter of the Year. Seven years later, with innumerable hits under his belt, Throckmorton was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He recorded Southern Train for Warner in 1988 and then retired to his Texas farm to be with his family. - Sandra Brennan
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