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Tennessee Ernie Ford
Born Feb 13, 1919 in Bristol, TN. Died Oct 17, 1991 in Los Angeles, CA. Tennessee Ernie Ford was a beloved personality and performer during the '50s and '60s whose best known song was his version of Merle Travis' "Sixteen Tons." During his long career, Ford recorded over 100 albums and earned numerous honors and awards, including the distinguished Medal of Freedom. A native of Bristol, Tennessee, he began his career as deejay on a local radio station. In the late '30s, he left to study classical music and voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. After serving in World War II, he moved his family to San Bernardino, CA, to work on a local radio station. It is there that he first took on the name "Tennessee Ernie."
Ford later moved to a Pasadena station where his potential as a singer was recognized by Cliffie Stone, who hired Ford as a featured act on two of his radio shows. From there, he signed to Capitol Records in 1949. Five singles were released that year, including "Tennessee Border" and "Smokey Mountain Boogie" (both Top Ten) and his first number one single, "Mule Train." Early in 1951, "The Shot Gun Boogie" became his second number one, spending 14 weeks at the top of the country charts. By the beginning of 1953, Ford wasn't having as many hits, but he remained popular not only in America, but also in England; he became the first country singer to star at the London Palladium. He became a television quizmaster in 1954, hosting NBC's College of Musical Knowledge. He also had his own daily show and continued recording.
Ford had two Top Ten country hits in 1955 with "Ballad of Davy Crockett" and his biggest success, "Sixteen Tons," which spent ten weeks at number one on the country charts and eight weeks at number one on the pop charts. Between 1956 and 1961 he helmed his own primetime NBC show, which popularized the catch-phrase "Bless your little pea-pickin' hearts." As a recording artist, he had great success with his first gospel album, Hymns (1956), which became the first religious album to go gold. Ford's second gospel album Great Gospel Songs earned him a Grammy. In 1965, he had his last chart entry with the Top Ten single "Hicktown." Ford joined the ranks of the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990, a year before he died of liver failure. -Sandra Brennan
Born Oct 20, 1937 in Maud, OK. Wanda Jackson was only halfway through high school when, in 1954, country singer Hank Thompson heard her on an Oklahoma City radio show and asked her to record with his band, the Brazos Valley Boys. By the end of the decade, Jackson had become one of America's first major female country and rockabilly singers.
Jackson was born in Oklahoma, but her father Tom - himself a country singer who quit because of the Depression - moved the family to California in 1941. He bought Wanda her first guitar two years later, gave her lessons, and encouraged her to play piano as well. In addition, he took her to see such acts as Tex Williams, Spade Cooley, and Bob Wills, which left a lasting impression on her young mind. Tom moved the family back to Oklahoma City when his daughter was 12 years old. In 1952, she got won a local talent contest and was given a 15-minute daily show on KLPR. The program, soon upped to 30 minutes, lasted throughout Jackson's high school years. It's here that Thompson heard her sing. Jackson recorded several songs with the Brazos Valley Boys, including "You Can't Have My Love," a duet with Thompson's bandleader, Billy Gray. The song, on the Decca label, became a national hit, and Jackson's career was off and running. She had wanted to sign with Capitol, Thompson's label, but was turned down so she signed with Decca instead.
Jackson insisted on finishing high school before hitting the road. When she did, her father came with her. Her mother made and helped design Wanda's stage outfits. "I was the first one to put some glamour in the country music - fringe dresses, high heels, long earrings," Jackson says of these outfits. When Jackson first toured in 1955 and 1956, she was placed on a bill with none other than Elvis Presley. The two hit it off almost immediately. Jackson says it was Presley, along with her father, who encouraged her to sing rockabilly.
In 1956, Jackson finally signed with Capitol, a relationship that lasted until the early '70s. Her recording career bounced back and forth between country and rockabilly; she did this by often putting one song in each style on either side of a single. Jackson cut the rockabilly hit "Fujiyama Mama" in 1958, which became a major success in Japan. Her version of "Let's Have a Party," which Elvis had cut earlier, was a U.S. Top 40 pop hit for her in 1960, after which she began calling her band the Party Timers. A year later, she was back in the country Top Ten with "Right or Wrong" and "In the Middle of a Heartache." In 1965, she topped the German charts with "Santa Domingo," sung in Dutch. In 1966, she hit the U.S. Top 20 with "The Box It Came In" and "Tears Will Be the Chaser for the Wine." Jackson's popularity continued through the end of the decade.
Jackson toured regularly, was twice nominated for a Grammy, and was a big attraction in Las Vegas from the mid-'50s into the '70s. She married IBM programmer Wendell Goodman in 1961, and instead of quitting the business - as many women singers had done at the time - Goodman gave up his job in order to manage his wife's career. He also packaged Jackson's syndicated TV show, Music Village. In 1971, Jackson and her husband discovered Christianity, which she says saved their marriage. She released one gospel album on Capitol in 1972, Praise the Lord, before shifting to the Myrrh label for three more gospel albums. In 1977, she switched again, this time to Word Records, and released another two.
In the early '80s, Jackson was invited to Europe to play rockabilly and country festivals and to record. She's since been back numerous times. More recently, American country artists Pam Tillis, Jann Browne, and Rosie Flores have acknowledged Jackson as a major influence. In 1995, Flores released a rockabilly album, Rockabilly Filly, and invited Jackson, her longtime idol, to sing two duets on it with her. Jackson embarked on a major U.S. tour with Flores later that year. It was her first secular tour in this country since the '70s, not to mention her first time back in a nightclub atmosphere. -Kurt Wolff
AKA Louis Marshall Jones. Born Oct 20, 1913 in Niagra, KY. Died Feb 19, 1998. Louis Marshall "Grandpa" Jones was one person who aged right into his makeup. Like his real appearance, however, his actual background and role in country music were deceptive, and more complex than they seem. Beginning in the 1920's, he began attracting attention with his boisterous performing style, old-time banjo performing and powerful singing, and by the 1940s, with hits like "Rattler" and "Mountain Dew," he began receiving national attention. He joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1946, and remained there throughout his career; in the 1960s, with hits like "T for Texas," he continued making a place for himself on the country charts, and as a regular on Hee Haw since its inception in 1969, he became a television celebrity. But Jones' influence went much further than that chain of successes would indicate-he was almost single-handedly responsible for keeping the banjo alive as a country music instrument during the 1930s and 1940s, and in addition to his own work and songs, he was an important associate and collaborator of Merle Travis.
Jones was born in Niagra, Kentucky, and grew up not in the mountains or the countryside, as one would think from his music, but in industrial Ohio and Kentucky, living in factory towns. His father was a fiddle-player, and his mother was a ballad singer. He listened to a lot of radio growing up, especially the National Barn Dance out of Chicago, and his strongest influences included old time country music and gospel songs, as well as the music of Jimmie Rodgers, which led him to begin yodeling. He'd made it onto the radio himself by 1929 at the age of 18 as "The Young Singer of Old Songs." Later on he moved to Chicago teamed with "Bashful Harmonica Joe," and appeared on the Lum and Abner show. During the mid-'30s, he started working with Bradley Kincaid, the man who gave Jones the "Grandpa" name, a result of his grouchy moods during their early morning radio broadcasts - Jones thought the name worked, and adopted makeup to match. Coupled with his skills as a comedian and raconteur, the image was a natural. It was with Kincaid that Jones' career moved to Boston where their brand of country music proved extremely popular among rural New Englanders.
As a solo act later in the 1930's, Jones had radio shows on numerous stations from West Virginia and Connecticut to Cincinnati, where he sanf folk ballads and more old-time country ballads, as well as gospel songs. He also learned to play the banjo, and made it an integral part of his act at a time when the instrument had all-but-vanished from country music; it was the combination of Jones' old-time repertory and humor that helped to keep the banjo alive as a viable, popular country instrument. Jones later hooked up with Alton and Rabon Delmore and Merle Travis, and played with them throughout World War II as Brown's Ferry Four. He and Travis also became the first artists to record for the newly founded King label, under the name of the Shepherd Brothers. Jones' own earliest solo records were also done for King during this period, among them "It's Raining Here This Morning," "Eight More Miles to Louisville," "Rattler," and "Mountain Dew."
Those singles brought Grandpa Jones to national attention, and he was poised for the next step in his career, a move to Nashville. Before that, however, he married Ramona Riggins, who became not only his wife but his accompanist on fiddle and mandolin. In 1946, he began playing on the Grand Ole Opry and touring with acts such as Lonzo and Oscar and Cowboy Copas. He didn't stay in Nashville too long at first, moving to Lorton, Virginia and a radio show in Arlington, and later on the Old Dominion Barn Dance in Richmond. Finally, he returned to Nashville as a regular member of the Opry. Jones recorded with King Records from 1945 until 1952, when he moved to RCA-Victor, where he remained for four years, recording both traditional-sounding country and topical songs ("I'm No Communist").
In 1956, he began a six year stint on Decca Records, recording a total of 16 songs including the talking blues country hit "The All-American Boy" in 1959. Jones moved to Fred Foster's Monument Records in 1962, and had a top-five country hit the following year with "T for Texas." His career during the 1960's continued uninterrupted, and in 1969 he joined the cast of the new country music/comedy showcase Hee Haw, which gave him unprecedented national exposure for the next two decades. By 1978, he'd been elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, and, by that time, was taking on the real-life role of elder statesman within the community. He continued recording into the 1980's, although his music is somewhat under-represented today on compact disc, apart from the Monument and Decca sides.
Born Oct 20, 1908 in Kellyville, TX. Died Mar 8, 1989. The name alone evokes a big, beefy hard-livin' type and that's exactly what Stuart Hamblen was. Popular for singing hits like "My Mary" and "Texas Plains" during the '40s, Hamblen was also cast as the ranch "tough" in many cowboy flicks of the era, as his reputation with the bottle served him well for the role. Hamblen, however, eventually found God and left country music altogether, opting to host an L.A.-based radio show, named with Hamblen's trademark flare, The Cowboy Church of the Air. -Steve Kurutz
Born Nov 29, 1917 in Rosewood, KY. Died Oct 20, 1983 in Tahlequah, OK. Merle Travis was virtually without peer as a guitarist and songwriter. A unique stylist, he was respected and prominent enough to have an instrumental style ("Travis picking") named after him, and only Chet Atkins even comes close to the influence that Travis had on the way the guitar is understood and played in country music. (Indeed, Atkins was initially signed to RCA to be that label's Merle Travis). As a songwriter, he wasn't far behind, with originals such as "Sixteen Tons" crossing over as popular standards in the hands of other artists. He even played two different vital and indirect roles in the development of rock 'n roll, and was no slouch as a recording artist, with his own share of chart hits and novelty songs.
Merle Robert Travis was born on Nov. 29, 1917, in Rosewood, Kentucky.
His father was a coal miner, and the family lived on the bare edge of poverty; eventually this experience, coupled with a phrase that Travis' father used to describe their lives, became the basis for the song "Sixteen Tons." His very first instrument was a five-string banjo, but when he was 12 year old his older brother gave him a homemade guitar. Travis was lucky enough to have as neighbors Ike Everly, later the father of Don and Phil, and Mose Rager, who played in a unique 3-finger guitar style that had developed in that area of Kentucky. Travis learned this approach as a teenager, and grew astonishingly proficient in a repertory that included blues, ragtime, and popular tunes. It wasn't enough to earn a living, and he survived by working in the Civilian Conservation Corps as a teenager.
His first break came during a visit to his brother's home in Evansville, Indiana, in 1935, where his chance to entertain at a local dance resulted in membership in a couple of local bands and a chance to appear on a local radio station. By 1937, he was a member of Clayton McMichen's Georgia Wildcats, and a year later he'd moved on to the Drifting Pioneers, who found a permanent broadcasting gig at Cincinnati's WLW. The Boone Country Jamboree radio show kept the group busy until World War II came along and forced it to disband. While a member of the Drifting Pioneers, Travis acquired a national following, and also began playing with Grandpa Jones and the Delmore Brothers in a gospel quartet called the Brown's Ferry Four. He later teamed up with Jones as "The Shepherd Brothers" as the first artists to record for the newly-founded King Records label in 1943. He and Jones even exchanged songs, and found the sources for a few songs together - it was while out with Jones one day at a black church in Cincinnati that Travis heard the sermon that became the song "That's All."
Travis spent a short stint in the Marines, but was quickly discharged and returned to Cincinnati. During the late winter of 1944, he headed for Los Angeles, where he began making appearances in Charles Starrett's western movies and playing with Ray Whitley's Western Swing band. With guidance from Tex Ritter and bassist Cliffie Stone, in 1946 he released the topical song "No Vacancy" - dealing with the displacement of returning veterans - along with "Cincinnati Lou," and earned a double-sided hit. His next major project was a concept album, Folk Songs of the Hills, which was intended to compete with Burl Ives' successful folk recordings. The record, released as a set of four 78-rpm discs, was a failure at the time it was released in 1947 (it wasn't even transferred to long-playing disc until nearly ten years later). However, it yielded several classics, among them the Travis originals "Sixteen Tons," "Dark as a Dungeon," and "Over by Number Nine," as well as introducing such standards as "Nine Pound Hammer; " it also became a unique document, depicting a beautiful all-acoustic solo guitar performance by this master virtuoso.
The initial failure of the folk album aside, 1947 began a boom period in Travis' career. In addition to writing the million selling hit "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!" for his friend Tex Williams, he had a half dozen Top 10 records himself, including "Divorce Me C.O.D.," "So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed," and "Three Times Seven." Travis also devised the first solid body electric guitar, coming up with a model which, when perfected by Leo Fender, would become a key element in early rock & roll. The string of hits didn't last, but Travis' career continued uninterrupted, with performances on stage, television and on record. Beginning in 1953, he landed a fairly visible movie role in one of the biggest films of the year, From Here to Eternity, where he performed "Re-Enlistment Blues," and it was around that same time that he began playing on all of his friend Hank Thompson's records. In 1955, Tennessee Ernie Ford had his crossover hit with "Sixteen Tons," and it was around that same time that Travis acolytes such as Chet Atkins were making a major impact on music themselves. Scotty Moore, who'd first been influenced by Travis from his radio performances, had become Elvis Presley's lead guitarist, and a year after Elvis hit nationally, the Everly Brothers (themselves Chet Atkins disciples) started topping the charts.
Travis was one of those musical figures who was referred to constantly, either musically or literally, by dozens of major figures, but he was never able to ascend the charts himself again. Much of the problem lay in his personal life. Along with a reputation as one of country music's top axemen, Travis also became known as a wildman, especially when he drank. He was arrested more than once for public intoxication and drunk driving - on his motorcycle - and in 1956 there was a highly publicized report of police surrounding his home after he assaulted his wife. Then, during the early '60s, he was hospitalized briefly after being arrested while driving under the influence of narcotics. He managed to pull his professional life together in the mid-'60s to do one new folk-style album, Songs of the Coal Mines, which, like its predecessor Folk Songs of the Hills, failed to sell on its original release. His other albums - mostly instrumental, such as Walkin' the Strings - proved much more significant and influential at the time as standard acquisitions for aspiring guitarists. He still played occasionally, and became something of a star on the college folk circuit, teaming with Chet Atkins for the Grammy-winning Atkins-Travis Traveling Show in 1974. Travis finally seemed to settle down after he married his fourth wife, Dorothy - the former wife of his longtime friend Hank Thompson - and focused once again on music. He recorded tribute albums to the Georgia Wildcats, and began working again with old associates like Grandpa Jones, and it looked like Travis was to enjoy a resrgence of musical and public acclaim. At age 65, however, he suffered a massive heart attack and died the following morning. -Bruce Eder
Born Oct 21, 1915 in Westmoreland, TX. Died Jan 7, 1998. As one of the architects of the Nashville Sound, Owen Bradley was one of the most influential country music producers of the '50s and '60s. Along with his contemporary Chet Atkins, Bradley helped country music move away from its rootsy origins to a more accessible, radio-radio format by blending pop production and songwriting techniques with country. Bradley's country-pop productions relied on non-traditional country instruments like light, easy-listening piano, backup vocals and strings, using steel guitars and fiddles as flourishes instead of a foundation. This smooth production style helped make Patsy Cline and Brenda Lee into stars during the '50s, and its success often overshadowed Bradley's other musical contributions. Owen wasn't just capable of the lush, detailed Nashville Sound - he could also produce bluegrass by Bill Monroe, or hardcore honky tonk by Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn. In addition to producing, Bradley was the Vice President of Decca Records' Nashville Division, and in that position he was able to produce a huge variety of artists, including Conway Twitty, Kitty Wells, and Webb Pierce. With his work in country-pop, honky tonk and bluegrass, Bradley left behind a large legacy that proved vastly influential on contemporary country music.
Born outside of Westmoreland, Tennessee and raised in Nashville, Owen Bradley began playing piano professionally when he was a teenager, playing in local juke joints, clubs and roadhouses. When he turned 20, he began working at WSM radio, and within five years he had established himself as an integral part of the station. In 1940, he was hired full-time by WSM, working as an arranger and instrumentalist. Two years later, he was made the station's Musical Director, and started playing regularly on the programs Noontime Neighbors and Sunday Down South. During this time, Bradley was also leading his own dance band, which played parties throughout Nashville's high society. The group stayed together until 1964.
Bradley began working for Decca Records in 1947 as an assistant to producer Paul Cohen. By working at Cohen's side, Bradley learned to produce, and assisted in making records by Ernest Tubb and Red Foley, among many others. Eventually, Owen began producing records by himself, whenever his mentor couldn't travel to Nashville from New York.
Owen and his brother Harold opened a film studio in 1951, moving its location to Hillsboro Village within a year. It stayed there for two years, before it was moved again, this time to a house on 16th Avenue South with a Quonset hut attached to the main building. The Quonset Hut was converted into a studio in 1955 - it was the first studio on the street that would become known as Music Row. Two years later, RCA built a studio a block away from the Bradley hut; in 1962, the brothers sold the studio to Columbia Records.
Cohen left Decca in 1958, and the label offered Bradley a position as Vice President of the label's Nashville Division. At Decca, he began pioneering the Nashville Sound, incorporating orchestration and pop production techniques into country music. Patsy Cline was Bradley's most successful country-pop production. He had worked with her when she was with Four Star, but when she signed with Decca, Cline's music shifted toward country-pop and she began a string of Top 10 hits. Following her success, other artists that he produced in that style, most notably Brenda Lee, became successful as well. During this time, Bradley also produced harder-edged hits during this time by Webb Pierce and Kitty Wells. In addition to his record production, Owen released a handful of records by his instrumental quintet, including the minor 1958 hit "Big Guitar." With his brother Harold, Bradley produced a half-hour television series, Country Style U.S.A, during the late '50s.
Bradley bought a farm outside of Nashville in 1961, converting a barn into a demo studio. Within a few years, the barn was upgraded to a first-class recording studio called Bradley's Barn and over the next two decades, it became one of the most popular and legendary studios in country music. In 1980, it burned down, yet it was rebuilt with a few years in the exact same same spot.
Throughout the '60s and '70s, Bradley worked with many of Decca's most famous artists, including Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. In 1974, Bradley was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In the early '80s, he retired from full-time producing, yet he continued to work on the occasional special project. His last major work was k.d. lang's 1988 album, Shadowland. Bradley died January 7, 1998. -Stephen Thomas Erlewine
AKA Vincent Eugene Craddock. Born Feb 11, 1935 in Norfolk, VA.
Died Oct 12, 1971 in Los Angeles, CA. Gene Vincent only had one really big hit, "Be Bop A Lula," which epitomized rockabilly at its prime in 1956 with its sharp guitar breaks, spare snare drums, fluttering echo, and Vincent's breathless, sexy vocals. Yet his place as one of the great early rock and roll singers is secure, backed up by a wealth of fine smaller hits and non-hits that rate among the best rockabilly of all time. The leather-clad, limping, greasy-haired singer was also one of rock's original bad boys, lionized by romanticists of past and present generations attracted to his primitive, sometimes savage style and indomitable spirit.
Vincent was bucking the odds by entering professional music in the first place. As a 20-year-old in the Navy, he suffered a severe motorcycle accident that almost resulted in the amputation of his leg, and left him with a permanent limp and considerable chronic pain for the rest of his life. After the accident he began to concentrate on building a musical career, playing with country bands around the Norfolk, Virginia area. Demos cut at a local radio station, fronting a band assembled around Gene by his management, landed Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps a contract at Capitol, which hoped they'd found competition for Elvis Presley.
Indeed it had, as by this time Vincent had plunged into all-out rockabilly, capable of both fast-paced exuberance and whispery, almost sensitive ballads. The Blue Caps were one of the greatest rock bands of the '50s, anchored at first by the stunning silvery, faster-than-light guitar leads of Cliff Gallup. The slap-back echo of "Be-Bop-A-Lula," combined with Gene's swooping vocals, led many to mistake the singer for Elvis when the record first hit the airwaves in mid-1956, on its way to the Top Ten. The Elvis comparison wasn't entirely fair - Vincent had a gentler, less melodramatic style, capable of both whipping up a storm or winding down to a hush.
Brilliant follow-ups like "Race with the Devil," "Bluejean Bop," and "B-I-Bickey, Bi, Bo-Bo-Go" failed to click in nearly as big a way, although these too are emblematic of rockabilly at its most exuberant and powerful. By the end of 1956, the Blue Caps were beginning to undergo the first of constant personnel changes that would continue throughout the '50s, the most crucial loss being the departure of Gallup. The 35 or so tracks he cut with the band - many of which showed up only on albums or B-sides - were unquestionably Vincent's greatest work, as his subsequent recordings would never again capture their pristine clarity and uninhibited spontaneity.
Vincent had his second and final Top Twenty hit in 1957 with "Lotta Lovin'," which reflected his increasingly tamer approach to production and vocals, the wildness and live atmosphere toned down in favor of poppier material, more subdued guitars, and conventional-sounding backup singers. He recorded often for Capitol throughout the rest of the '50s, and it's unfair to dismiss those sides out of hand; they were respectable, occasionally exciting rockabilly, only a marked disappointment in comparison with his earliest work. His act was captured for posterity in one of the best scenes of one of the first Hollywood films to feature rock and roll stars, The Girl Can't Help It.
Live Vincent continued to rock the house with reckless intensity and showmanship, and he became particularly popular overseas. A 1960 tour of Britain, though, brought tragedy when his friend Eddie Cochran, who shared the bill on Gene's U.K. shows, died in a car accident that Gene was also involved in, though Vincent survived. By the early '60s, his recordings had become much more sporadic and lower in quality, and his chief audience was in Europe, particularly in England (where he lived for a while) and France.
His Capitol contract expired in 1963, and he spent the rest of his life recording for several other labels, none of which got him close to that comeback hit. Vincent never stopped trying to resurrect his career, appearing at a 1969 Toronto rock festival on the same bill as John Lennon, though his medical, drinking, and marital problems were making his life a mess, and diminishing his stage presence as well. He died at the age of 36 from a ruptured stomach ulcer, one of rock's first mythic figures. Offical website: http://rockabillyhall.com/GeneVincent.html -Richie Unterberger
Born Oct 21, 1933 in Grundy, WV. Died Oct 21, 1978 in Hendersonville, TN. Singer/songwriter Mel Street had one of the great voices in contemporary country music; unfortunately, he was unable to withstand the pressures of fame, and his career ended in tragedy. He was born King Malachi Street near Grundy, Virginia, and got his start at age 16 on Cecil Surratt's radio show on stations WELC and WBRW out of Welch, West Virginia. Afterward, Street married and spent the next decade raising a family and living in various towns in Ohio, where he worked on radio transmission towers as an electrician. By 1960 the Streets had moved to Niagara Falls, where he began playing in nightclubs. It was there that he left began learning the auto body trade and three years later moved to Bluefield, West Virginia to open his own body shop. He also began performing on the Country Jamboree on WHIS-TV, where he made his debut singing the Johnny Cash hit "Ring of Fire." From 1968-1972, Street had his own half-hour Saturday night show on the station.
He got his first shot at stardom when cable television company owners Jim and Jean Prater saw him perform and suggested he make a record. In 1970, he released his first single, "Borrowed Angel," which peaked on the Top 70 of the country charts. The song attracted the notice of Royal American Records, who licensed the master, reissued it and helped it become a Top Ten hit. Street's follow up, "Lovin' on Back Streets" became his biggest hit, making the Top Five. In 1973, Street had two Top 15 hits and the following year signed to GRT Records, where he had two Top 20 hits including "Forbidden Angel."
Over the next two years, Street continued to make chart appearances and also began an intense touring schedule. In 1976, he had another Top Ten hit with "I Met a Friend of Yours Today." Afterward, he signed to a major label, Polydor, and scored a Top 20 hit with "Barbara Don't Let Me Be the Last to Know." In 1978, he had a Top Ten hit with "If I Had a Cheating Heart." He had one more Top 20 hit, and, after Polydor closed its Nashville division, moved to Mercury. However, the pressures of constant touring and recording, coupled with personal problems, began taking their toll; he began drinking heavily, and lapsed into a deep depression. On October 21, 1978 - his 45th birthday - Mel Street committed suicide. -Sandra Brennan
Born Oct 29, 1942 in Russelville, AL. Lee Clayton was one of the original "outlaw" country singer/songwriters and the author of the anthem "Ladies Love Outlaws." He spent his youth in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and was raised on the songs of Jimmie Rodgers and Red Foley. When Lee turned nine, he received a Hawaiian guitar, and 18 months later debuted on a local radio station playing "Steel Guitar Rag." Soon after his release from the Air Force in 1969, he headed for Nashville. His first success as a songwriter came in 1972 when Waylon Jennings recorded "Ladies Love Outlaws." Clayton recorded his debut album in 1973; it was not successful and the following year, he moved to Joshua Springs, California and continued to write songs. The songs were in high demand and were performed by the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker, Hoyt Axton, and Willie Nelson.
Inspired by his success, Clayton returned to Nashville and in 1977 signed with Capitol. The following year he released Border Affair and in 1979 recorded Naked Child. In 1980, he embarked upon a world tour and then returned home to record the relatively unsuccessful The Dream Goes On. Clayton was slated to make a video and release the first single for the album when he suddenly stopped recording, although he did write two autobiographical books and a stage play, Little Boy Blue. In 1990, he came back to music and recorded Another Night, a live concert in Oslo, Norway. The same year, the Highwaymen recorded his song "Silver Stallion." -Sandra Brennan
Born in Wilmington, NC. A talented and showy fiddler, Charlie Daniels and his band fuse hardcore country with a hard-edged southern rock boogie and blues. The group - which has had a rotating cast of musicians over the years - has always been known for their instrumental dexterity, but they were also notorious for their down-home, good-old boy attitude; in the early '80s they became a virtual symbol of conservative country values. Daniels and his band experienced the height of their popularity at the end of the '70s and early '80s, but they remained a popular concert attraction well into the '90s.
Charlie Daniels was born and raised in North Carolina, playing fiddle and guitar in several bands during his teenage years. At the age of 21, he decided become a professional musican, assembling an instrumental rock & roll combo called the Jaguars. The group landed a recording session for Epic Records in 1959 with Bob Johnson, who would later become Columbia Records' leading folk and country producer. The record didn't receive much attention, but the band continued to play and Daniels continued to write songs. One of his originals, "It Hurts Me," was recorded by Elvis Presley in 1963. By the late '60s, it had become clear that the Jaguars weren't going to hit the big time, so Johnson recommended to Daniels that he move to Nashville to become a session musician. Daniels followed the advice and he became one of the most popular fiddlers in Nashville. He played on several Bob Dylan albums - Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, New Morning, and Dylan as well as Ringo Starr's 1970 record Beaucoups of Blues. He also became part of Leonard Cohen's touring band in the late '60s and produced the Youngbloods' Elephant Memory album around the same time.
Daniels cut an album for Capitol Records in the early '70s which was ignored. In 1972, he formed the Charlie Daniels Band, using the southern rock of the Allman Brothers as a blueprint. The band comprised Daniels (lead guitar, vocals, fiddle), lead guitarist Don Murray, bassist Charlie Hayward, drummer James W. Marshal, and keyboardist Joe DiGregorio. The formula worked and in 1973 they had a minor hit with "Uneasy Rider," which was released on Kama Sutra Records. In 1974, they released Fire on the Mountain, which became a gold record within months of its release, thanks to the Top 40 country hit "Texas; " the album would eventually go platinum Saddle Tramp, released in 1976, was nearly as successful, going gold.
Throughout the mid-'70s, the Charlie Daniels Band pursued a southern rock direction. They were moderately successful, but they never had a breakthrough hit either on the pop or country charts. By the late '70s, Daniels sensed that the audience for southern rock was evaporating, so he refashioned the band as a more straightforward country band. The change paid off in 1979 when the single "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" became a number one hit, crossing over into the pop charts, where it hit number three. The song was named the Country Music Association's Single of the Year and helped its accompanying album, Million Mile Reflections, become a multi-platinum success. Daniels wasn't able to follow "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" with another blockbuster single on the country charts, ironically, but he had several rock crossover successes in the years following the success of Million Mile Reflections - Full Moon (1980) went platinum and 1982's Windows went gold.
Although he continued to sell respectably throughout the '80s, he didn't have a big hit until 1989's Simple Man, which went gold. In the '90s, his records failed to chart well, although he remained a popular concert draw. -Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Born Oct 28, 1934 in Two Harbors, MN. A lover of the Old West and its mythos from childhood, Johnny Western was one of the finest and most impassioned exponents of cowboy songs, a successor to both Gene Autry and Marty Robbins whose career paved the way for the work of Michael Martin Murphey, Ian Tyson and the Riders In the Sky, all of whom owed him a debt for carrying cowboy music into and beyond the 1960s. He was born in Twin Harbors, Minnesota on October 28, 1934 and raised at various Civilian Conservation Corps camps (where his father was an officer and instructor) and Indian reservations along the Canadian border. The turning point in his life came on his fifth birthday, when his parents took him to see a 1936 western called Guns and Guitars starring Gene Autry; Johnny knew then and there that he wanted to be exactly like the man on the horse, strumming a guitar and singing a song.
For his twelfth birthday, Western was given a guitar; hardly a year had gone by when he was invited to turn professional. He'd been recorded at the local 4-H Club singing Gene Autry's "Riding Down The Canyon" and other songs, which resulted in an invitation to join a collegiate singing trio. He mostly played rhythm guitar, but also got to sing, and when the group recorded an audition tape for KDHL in Faribault, Minnesota, Johnny was asked to sing one solo number. He chose "(Ghost) Riders In the Sky," and ended up getting a weekly radio spot, which then became three days a week, and finally six days each week. In addition to singing, he acted as a deejay and host, introducing live and recorded country and western music. He also earned a mention in Billboard magazine as the youngest deejay and singer on American radio. By the age of 16, he was playing on bills with his one-time idols the Sons of the Pioneers.
Soon after graduation, he made the jump from radio to television, becoming a singing cowboy on KMMT-TV, and landed a recording contract with a small Minnesota-based record label called JOCO. He and his fellow guitarist John Fields cut a handful of singles, including "The Violet & The Rose" and "Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way," which received good airplay locally and in Iowa, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas. Johnny Western's television show, which allowed him to sing to his young audience before introducing the day's western movie, lasted for two years. During this period, he got to play concerts with western stars such as Rex Allen and Tex Ritter, and had them as guests on his show. In 1954, however, he gave up the progam, heading for Hollywood to pursue his real goal to be a movie cowboy.
This was the hardest jump of all, because they weren't making many westerns in Hollywood anymore, or looking for singing cowboys. It was years before he got to work in front of a movie camera; in the meantime, he earned a place in Gene Autry's band, replacing Johnny Bond as a guitarist and singer. After Autry retired from performing, Western did a pilot for a series called Pony Express which, in turn, led to appearances in more than 30 other television shows (including Gunsmoke) and several feature films, including The Dalton Girls, Fort Bowie, and Gunfight At Dodge City. In 1957, a new series called Have Gun-Will Travel went into production; Johnny was cast in a small role in one episode, and while working on the show he composed a song about the series' hero, Paladin. "The Ballad of Paladin" was adopted as the show's closing theme, and Johnny Western was signed to the CBS network's record division, Columbia Records.
He was soon either acting in or singing on the music tracks of several series, including Pony Express, Boots and Saddles, Tales of Wells Fargo, and Bat Masterson, and his performing and singing careers were suddenly revived. Under Columbia Records producer Don Law (who also produced Johnny Cash), he recorded dozens of sides, including the singles "Only The Lonely" (1959), "Della's Gone" (1960), "Darling Corey" (1961), "Gunfighter" (1962), and "Kathy Come Home," along with an album, Have Gun Will Travel (1962). He was also asked by Johnny Cash to join his band as a singer-guitarist. He remained a member of Cash's band for six years, playing rhythm guitar on recordings such as "Johnny Yuma-The Rebel," "The Little Drummer Boy," and "Lorena," among many others. During his years at Columbia, Johnny was also befriended by Marty Robbins, who later participated in Western's recordings of "(Ghost) Riders In the Sky" and the redone "Ballad of Paladin." When he wasn't on tour with Cash, Johnny was playing shows on his own and working with ex-members of Ernest Tubb's and Porter Wagoner's bands.
At the end of 1963, he left Columbia Records and moved to Philips, where he had a very brief, unsuccessful stay. Johnny was a popular draw in Las Vegas, however, and also began making the rounds of western shows. He continued to record for various labels, including Hep ("The Violet & The Rose," 1967), and he made the acquaintance of Waylon Jennings, then a songwriter and aspiring country star. He recorded "The Streets of Dodge City" for the 1970 film Dodge City, Kansas, and also wrote the music for a documentary film, Rodeo-A Matter of Style, released in 1976 as part of the country's Bicentennial celebration. Western also record numerous sides for Johnny Cash's House of Cash label, which became the basis for a restrospective album. During most of this period, he played 200 shows a year. In 1986, he resumed his radio career with a series in Wichita, Kansas. In 1993, Western began work on a new album, a sort of cowboy super-session, with the Sons of the Pioneers, Rex Allen, Rex Allen Jr., Red Steagall, and Michael Martin Murphey, entitled Johnny Western and the Sons of the Pioneers and Friends. Health problems intervened, however, when Western was incapacitated by a bypass operation, and the album went unreleased. -Bruce Eder
Born Apr 27, 1909 in Berea, KY. Died Oct 28, 1979 in Hendersonville, KY. By all accounts a fringe character in the pantheon of country music, Jimmie Skinner held many hats during his lifetime, including DJ, songwriter, performer, label owner, and record salesman. As a DJ in the early '40s, Skinner began fooling around with songwriting and had some early success with a composition called "Doin My Time" in 1941. By 1950, Skinner had moved to Knoxville, TN, and gained a reputation as a pretty good songwriter for bluegrass pickers and performers who favored traditional country styles. Jimmy Martin, for example, had a hit with Skinner's "You Don't Know My Mind." In 1957, Skinner was signed to Mercury Records where he quickly scored two hits, "I Found My Girl in the U.S.A." and "Dark Hollow." Chalk it up to beginner's luck, however, because a decade more of performing and recording for a half dozen labels Skinner never scored another major hit. The dry spell led him to move to Ohio where he formed his own Vetco label, as well as Jimmy Skinner music, a mail order record store that he operated until his death in 1979. -Steve Kurutz
Born Oct 27, 1942 in Los Angeles, CA. Born with a good voice and a wide range, Lee Greenwood turned it into a unique voice accidentally, by over-working it in a less-than-healthy setting. Hailing from Sacramento, he used his musical training on the casino circuit, working in the green-felt jungles of Reno and Las Vegas, where he dealt cards by day and sang in dark lounges by night. The physical toll of two jobs, the vocal strain of performing six nights a week, and the damaging endeavor to sing in smoky nightclubs before the advent of smoking ordinances brought Greenwood a permanent hoarseness. He's used it to his advantage, becoming one of country music's premier balladeers. Discovered by Mel Tillis' road manager, Larry McFaden, Lee paid for his own ticket to fly to Nashville and cut a few demos, and it took more than a year for that effort to payoff. When it finally did, Greenwood broke through in late 1981 with "It Turns Me Inside Out," in which his exaggerated vibrato brought frequent comparisons to Kenny Rogers. In short order, Greenwood disposed of the "Kenny clone" image, but he continued to mine romantic material for the bulk of his hits. Occasional exceptions include "Touch and Go Crazy" and "Mornin' Ride," but the biggest exception is also his signature song, the self-written "God Bless the U.S.A.," which earned Song of the Year honors from the Country Music Association.
Growing up on a Sacramento farm, Lee Greenwood was musical at a very early age, teaching himself how to play saxophone when he was nine years old. In his preadolescence, he played in a western dance band called My Moondreams.
At the age of 13, he moved with his recently remarried mother to Anaheim, California, but three years later he returned to Sacramento to live with his grandparents. Between the two moves, he played in a variety of country and Dixieland bands. Upon his return to Sacramento, Greenwood joined Chester Smith's band, which raised his profile within California. Soon, Del Reeves hired Lee to play saxophone, and while he was with the singer, Greenwood learned how to become a showman. In 1962, he formed his own band, a pop combo named Apollo, and the group moved to Las Vegas. Within five years, the group was renamed the Lee Greenwood Affair, and relocated to Los Angeles, where they made a handful of records for Paramount. Once the record label went out of business, Greenwood was asked to join the fledgling Rascals by Felix Cavaliere and Dino Danelli, but he declined. Instead, he moved back to Las Vegas, where he worked as an arranger, backup vocalist, and a lounge pianist, as well accompanying strippers by playing organ. By 1973, he became the lead singer and bassist in the Bare Touch of Vegas revue, while he continued to work as a blackjack dealer at the Tropicana. He held down both jobs for much of the mid-'70s.
By the end of the '70s, he was singing in lounges in Reno, which is where he met Larry McFaden, who was then leading Mel Tillis' touring band. Greenwood was initially reluctant to record, but he eventually travelled to Nashville, where he recorded a set of demos. Shortly afterward, McFaden became his manager and helped the singer sign a deal with MCA Records in June of 1981. Four months later, his first single, "It Turns Me Inside Out," climbed into the country Top 20. Greenwood's initial success was helped enormously by the similarity between his husky voice - toughened up by years of working in smokey casinos - and that of Kenny Rogers. In March of 1982, his second single "Ring on Her Finger, Time on Her Hands" climbed into the Top Ten, beginning a streak of 19 Top Ten singles that ran virtually uninterrupted for the next six years. During that time, he racked up no less than seven number one hits: "Somebody's Gonna Love You" (1983), "Going, Going, Gone" (1984), "Dixie Road" (1985), "I Don't Mind the Thorns (If You're the Rose)" (1985), "Don't Underestimate My Love for You" (1986), "Hearts Aren't Made to Break (They're Made to Love) (1986), and "Mornin' Ride" (1986). In addition to his solo hits, Lee had a number of hit duets with Barbara Mandrell, including the number three hit "To Me" (1984). None of Greenwood's music was close to pure country - it was adult contemporary country-pop, in the vein of Kenny Rogers. Unlike Rogers, however, Greenwood rarely crossed over into the pop charts and when he did, it was only in 1983, when slickly produced country-pop could make inroads on adult-contemporary radio. His popularity was at its peak during the mid-'80s, when his conservative music and neo-conservative lyrics managed to capture the imagination of the nation; though "God Bless the USA" only peaked at number seven on the country charts in 1984, it became a recurring theme song for several Republican political campaigns during the Reagan and Bush administrations. Furthermore, Greenwood won many popularity polls and awards from various country music magazines and associations.
Greenwood switched labels in 1990, signing to Capitol Records. His initial singles for the label, "Holdin' a Good Hand" and "We've Got It Made," were successful, but his audience steadily declined during the first half of the decade. Though he tried to retain his audience through patriotic work during the 1991 Gulf War - even earning the Congressional Medal of Honor Society's Patriot Award and a Points of Light Foundation Award - he couldn't successfully battle the onslaught of harder-edged, contemporary country artists that overtook country radio in the early '90s. By the middle of the decade, he was no longer charting singles, and he had begun re-recording his biggest hits for a variety of labels; he also continued to tour and give concerts. In 2000 he attempted a comeback with his new album, Same River ... Different Bridge. -Tom Roland
Born Oct 27, 1939 in Spiro, OK. One of country's most enduring songwriters, Dallas Frazier was born on October 27, 1939 in Spiro, Oklahoma. Raised in Bakersfield, California, he was skilled on a number of musical instruments by the age of 12; while still in his teens, he became a featured member of Ferlin Husky's band, cutting his first solo single, "Space Command," in 1954. Soon after, he was named a regular on the Hometown Jamboree program, where he was often paired with fellow teen star Molly Bee.
In 1957, Frazier scored a hit with a cover of the Hollywood Argyles' Alley Oop." When Hometown Jamboree was cancelled at the end of the decade, he moved to Nashville to work as a songwriter, composing Husky's 1964 hit "Timber I'm Falling." Two years later, his career caught fire; in addition to releasing his own debut album, Elvira, he penned three huge hits - Jack Greene's "There Goes My Everything," Connie Smith's "Ain't Had No Lovin'," and George Jones' "I'm a People." In 1967, Frazier released Tell It Like It Is, although his biggest success came on the pop charts, via Engelbert Humperdinck's rendition of "There Goes My Everything."
As the decade drew to a close, Frazier's songs remained popular fodder for other artists; in addition to supplying more hits for Jones, Greene and Smith, his compositions were recorded by the likes of Willie Nelson, Brenda Lee, Charley Pride and Merle Haggard, who included three Frazier songs on his 1968 LP The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde. His success only increased in the 1970s; in addition to generating a pair of solo records-1970's Singing My Songs and the following year's My Baby Packed Up My Mind and Left Me-Frazier became one of Nashville's most sought-after writers, composing hits for Elvis Presley, Moe Bandy, Roy Head, Rodney Crowell and Ronnie Hawkins as well as frequent collaborators like Husky, Pride and Greene. In 1972, he joined Connie Smith for three cuts on her LP If It Ain't Love (& Other Great Dallas Frazier Songs).
Frazier's songs continued to hit the charts well into the 1980s; his "Elvira" was a tremendous crossover smash for the Oak Ridge Boys, while Emmylou Harris topped the charts with "Beneath Still Waters." Even younger artists like George Strait, Randy Travis and Patty Loveless found success with his compositions. In 1988, however, Frazier retired from songwriting, leaving Nashville to pursue a career in the ministry. -Jason Ankeny
AKA born: Bonnie Lou Kath. Born Oct 27, 1924 in Talawanda, IL. During the mid-'50s, yodeling cowgirl Bonnie Lou was one of the most popular female country singers in the U.S. She was born Mary Kath in central Illinois and learned yodeling from her Swiss grandmother; as a child she played violin, but switched to guitar at age 11. While a teen, she won a talent contest and decided she wanted a career in radio, getting a job at WMBD in Peoria. Soon after graduating high school, she became a regular on the Brush Creek Follies in Kansas City, singing solo and with the Rhythm Rangers under the name "Sally Carson." In 1945, she was hired at the powerful WLW station in Cincinnati.
She soon became a staple on both the radio and television versions of Midwestern Hayride under the name Bonnie Lou, suggested by station owner Bill McCluskey, and appeared on Louisiana Hayride, an NBC summer replacement televison show. She began recording in 1953 on the King label with her first single, "Seven Lonely Nights," making it to the Top Ten on country charts. Her next song, "Tennessee Wig Walk," also released in 1953, was an even bigger hit. Although she went on to record 22 more songs for King, none were as popular as the first two. She remained on the Hayride shows, where she continued to appear throughout the mid-'60s. She has also appeared on several other television shows, most notably the Paul Dixon Show, where she remained until 1974. -Sandra Brennan
Born Oct 27, 1933 in Samti, LA. Died Dec 31, 1997. A distinctive pianist whose unique, slip-note playing style came to typify the pop-oriented Nashville sound of the late '50s and early '60s, session and solo musician Floyd Cramer was born October 27, 1933, in Louisiana. After a childhood spent largely in Arkansas, he returned to his home state in 1951 and began appearing on the radio program The Louisiana Hayride, where he performed with the likes of Jim Reeves, Faron Young, Webb Pierce, and, in his debut, Elvis Presley.
While Cramer cut a few solo sides in 1953, his most important work in the early '50s was as a session musician, where he first met Chet Atkins, who encouraged the pianist to move to Nashville. He did in 1955, rejoining Atkins as the house pianist at RCA Records to begin developing what would ultimately be recognized as the Nashville sound, a style shorn of the elements associated with traditional country and honky tonk instead favoring a more polished, progressive sheen. With Atkins behind the production boards, Cramer began to perfect his unique style of playing, a method not dissimilar to guitar-picking in that he would hit one key and then slide his finger onto the next, creating a blue, lonesome sound. Under Atkins' guidance, Cramer played on hundreds of sessions, including many for Presley, among them "Heartbreak Hotel."
In 1957, Cramer released his own solo debut, That Honky-Tonk Piano, and in the next year scored a minor pop hit with the single "Flip, Flop and Bop." As his solo career was largely secondary in relation to his session work, he recorded his own music sporadically, but in 1960 notched a significant country and pop hit with the self-penned instrumental "Last Date." The follow-up, a cover of Bob Wills' "San Antonio Rose," reached the Top Ten of both charts. He also released an LP a year between 1960 and 1962, starting with Hello Blues and followed by Last Date and I Remember Hank Williams.
From 1965 to 1974, Cramer annually released a Class Of... album, a collection of the year's top hits done in his own inimitable style. In 1971, he also teamed with Atkins and saxophonist Boots Randolph for the album Chet, Floyd and Boots. By 1977, Cramer was exploring modern technology, and on the LP Keyboard Kick Band, he played a number of instruments, including a synthesizer. In 1980, he released his last significant hit, a recording of the theme from the hit TV drama Dallas. Though largely quiet for most of the decade, in 1988 Cramer released three separate albums - Country Gold, Just Me and My Piano!, and Special Songs of Love. He died December 31, 1997. -Jason Ankeny
AKA Ruby Blevins. Born Oct 30, 1914 in Hot Springs, AR. Died 1996. One of the true pioneers of country music was Patsy Montana, the original yodeling cowgirl. She was the first woman in country music to have a million-selling single - 1935's "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" - and was a mainstay on WLS Chicago's National Barn Dance for over 25 years. In the '30s and '40s she was the sweetheart of many a movie cowpoke, appearing in numerous Western films, and her success encouraged the traditionally male-oriented country music business to welcome and respect the scores of female performers that followed her.
Patsy Montana was born Ruby Blevins in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the eleventh child and first daughter of a farmer. She was influenced early on by the music of Jimmie Rodgers, and as a child learned to yodel and play organ, guitar, and violin. In 1930, she moved to California with her older brother and his wife. Montana won a talent contest there and began appearing on a local radio station as "Ruby Blevins, the Yodeling Cowgirl from San Antone." She continued in radio with country-western star Stuart Hamblen as part of the Montana Cowgirls. Two years later, she returned to Arkansas for a visit and wound up in a recording session at Victor with Jimmie Davis. She recorded four of her own songs under the name "Patsy Montana" - Hamblen called her Patsy because he liked Irish names and her signature song was "Montana Plains."
In 1933, she began singing with the Prairie Ramblers, who became her backup band, at WLS Chicago and then became a regular on the National Barn Dance. She also cut many records; 1935's "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" became her signature song, but it was not her only hit; others included "Rodeo Sweetheart," "I Wanna Be a Western Cowgirl," "Back on the Montana Plains," and "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Dream." In 1939, she made her full-length feature film debut with Gene Autry in Colorado Sunset.
Montana moved to Decca in 1941 and released only 12 songs over the next four years. Following World War II, audience tastes shifted towards honky-tonk, so Montana's yodeling cowgirl style was not as popular as it was in the '30s. In 1948 she returned to Arkansas to live on a farm with her husband and two children, appearing on the radio daily in Hot Springs and on many Saturdays on the Louisiana Hayride. Later she and her husband moved back to California. Over the years, Montana remained active in the music industry, appearing on many country music shows. In 1964, she cut a live album at the Matador room in Safford, Arizona; among her bandmates was a young guitarist named Waylon Jennings. In the '80s and '90s, she recorded albums for a number of independent labels before her death on May 3, 1996. -Sandra Brennan
Born 1914 in Hardin County, KY. Died Oct 31, 1993. Bob Atcher was one of the most popular country music entertainers of the post-World War II era, enjoying a 21 year career at OKeh and Columbia Records, as well as major radio stardom on WLS's National Barn Dance out of Chicago. His range of material ran from traditional country and comic novelty songs to folk. James Robert Owen Atcher was born and raised in Hardin County, Kentucky, on property that was later appropriated for Fort Knox. The family, led by his father, a champion fiddle-player, was musical, and he learned both the violin and the guitar. By the early 1930's, he'd made his debut on radio on WHAS out of Louisville, and over the next few years appeared on several small stations across the south and midwest. In 1939, Atcher got his first big break and when he got a regular spot on WGBM in Chicago, a daily program that was picked up nationally by the CBS radio network. He quickly built a major national following with his mix of country and novelty songs.
He joined the American Record Company that same year, just in time for the label to be purchased by CBS (which rechristened it Columbia Records), and passed through the label's OKeh imprint before going onto Columbia. During the years 1939-42, many of Atcher's singles were credited to duets with "Bonnie Blue Eyes" (aka Loretta Applegate)-their records together included the comical "Answer to You Are My Sunshine" and "Pins and Needles (In My Heart)." Atcher was also joined in the studio on occasion by his younger brother Randy Atcher-their singles together included "Papa's Going Crazy, Mama's Going Mad." Atcher served in the army during the later part of World War II and resumed his career in 1946. He charted around that time with "Why Don't You Haul Off And Love Me" and "I Must Have Been Wrong." Atcher made his biggest career move in 1948 when he joined the Chicago National Barn Dance on WLS. At that time, the National Barn Dance was still one of the two biggest showcases for country music, and he became one of the show's most popular stars over the next 10 years.
He also scored big on the charts again with "I'm Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes"), which became a classic piece of country comedy. His recording career proceeded apace, with some notable achievements. In 1948, Atcher cut two of the earliest LPs ever released by Columbia, a pair of 10-inch discs devoted to cowboy songs and folk music (Early American Folksongs, which contained one of the earliest extant commercial recordings of "Devilish Mary," a nineteenth century folk song that would become part of the repertory of the members of the Grateful Dead). Atcher left Columbia in 1950 for Capitol Records, and later recorded for Kapp Records. He remained a star on the National Barn Dance into the 1960's, and later rejoined Columbia Records. In the interim, the label had reissued the two early LPs of folk music and cowboy songs on its budget-priced Harmony line, and during his second stint at Columbia, Atcher re-recorded his classic songs in stereo. Like Gene Autry before him, Bob Atcher invested his earnings far outside the recording industry, and by the 1960's, he owned various businesses and had a hand in the banking industry as well, as a board member of the Schaumberg State Bank in Schaumberg, Illinois. He also served 20 years as the mayor of Schaumberg, from 1959 until 1979. -Bruce Eder
AKA Francis Smith. Born Oct 31, 1912 in Uvalde, TX. Died Feb 7, 2001 in Apple Valley, CA. Crowned "Queen of the Cowgirls," Dale Evans stands out as the most powerful female presence in cowboy culture throughout the 20th century. Evans was born Frances Octavia Smith, October 31, 1912, in Uvalde, Texas. At age 14, she eloped with her high school sweetheart. A year later, she found herself in Memphis, TN, a widow and single parent, pursuing a career in a music.
The station manager at radio station WHAS (where the aspiring star was working as a staff singer) encouraged her to change first her name to Dale. The surname Evans came about as Joe Eaton felt it was "euphonious" and would roll easily from the lips of announcers. As Dale Evans, she traveled to Chicago, became a vocalist with a number of different big bands, and was eventually hired as staff singer for radio station WBBM, the local CBS affiliate. Talent scouts from Paramount Studios discovered her and arranged a screen test in Hollywood for the movie Holiday Inn, starring Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby. She didnšt get the part, but the screen test found its way to 20th Century Fox studios where she received a one-year contract.
Herbert Yates, head of Republic Studios, was inspired by the successful stage play Oklahoma, and decided to expand the female lead in westerns and adopt this format for one of his biggest stars, Roy Rogers. Since Evans was from Texas, Yates figured she could surely rope 'n' ride, and subsequently offered her a starring role in The Cowboy and the Seņorita - the first of 28 films Roy Rogers and Dale Evans would make together. This on-screen team became a real life romance, and they were married in 1947.
In 1950, Evans wrote the song most closely associated with the cowboy fascination of the '50s. "Happy Trails to You" was written while preparing for a radio show; scribbling on an envelope, Dale wrote the famous lyrics and taught the medley to Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers forty minutes before show time. The song eventually served as the closing song for their half-hour television series, The Roy Rogers Show, which ran until 1957.
Evans remained active throughout the rest of her life, co-writing more than 400 songs, including the immortal western classic "Hazy Mountains," and the Sunday School standard "The Bible Tells Me So." She also authored several books, co-founded The Happy Trails Childrenšs Foundation for severely abused and neglected children, is a member of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, and has an impressive three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Roy Rogers died in 1998 from congestive heart failure at the age of 86, and after a series of medical problems, Dale Evans followed him into the sunset three years later. Her memory stands not only as a fiery whip-smart cowgirl, but as a gifted songwriter and a warm humanitarian who shone with an earthy spirituality and a twinkle in her eye for the entire length of the long and dusty trail. -Zac Johnson
AKA born: Carl Robert Belew. Born Apr 21, 1931 in Salina, OK. Died Oct 31, 1990. Despite recording eight albums between 1960 and 1972, Carl Belew is best remembered as a songwriter whose work was covered by an eclectic group of artists ranging from Patsy Cline to Gene Vincent to Andy Williams. Born in Oklahoma in 1931, Belew first entered the studio in 1955; by the following year, he gained his first widespread exposure thanks to appearances on a pair of California-based radio programs, Town Hall Party and The Cliffie Stone Show. In 1957, he performed on the Louisiana Hayride.
Belew's composition "Stop the World (And Let Me Off)" hit the Top Ten in 1958 in a rendition by Johnnie and Jack; the following year, Andy Williams hit the Top Five with "Lonely Street," a song which would become Belew's trademark tune thanks to subsequent covers by Cline, Vincent, and Rex Allen Jr. Later in 1959, the breakup of his marriage inspired Belew to write "Am I That Easy to Forget," a Top 40 pop hit for actress Debbie Reynolds which was later recorded by Engelbert Humperdinck, Skeeter Davis, Don Gibson, Jim Reeves, and Leon Russell. Belew's own rendition hit the Top Ten in 1959.
In 1960, Belew released his self-titled debut LP; in the same year, he notched a Top 20 hit with the single "Too Much to Lose." Two years later, a label change prompted another eponymous effort; the single "Hello Out There" earned him another Top Ten hit, his last. Between 1964 and 1968, Belew released an album a year, beginning with Hello Out There and continuing with Am I That Easy to Forget, Country Songs, Lonely Street, and finally Twelve Shades of Belew. His last studio album, When My Baby Sings His Song, a record of duets with Betty Jean Robinson, was issued in 1972, while one final single, "Welcome Back to My World," appeared in 1974.
Throughout his career, Belew's songs continued to be popular with (and popularized by) other singers; Eddy Arnold hit number one in 1965 with "What's He Doing in My World," while Jim Reeves scored a posthumous success in 1968 with "That's When I See the Blues (In Your Pretty Brown Eyes)." "Stop the World (And Let Me Off)" also reached the Top 20 twice more thanks to a 1965 cover by Waylon Jennings and a 1974 version by Susan Raye. Carl Belew died of cancer on Halloween in 1990 at the age of 59. -Jason Ankeny
Born Nov 2, 1926 in Collins County, TX. Country singer Charlie Walker had a sporadic career with one major highlight, his 1958 classic hit release of Harlan Howard's "Pick Me up on Your Way Down." Texas-born Walker began in the early '40s as a vocalist in the Cowboy Ramblers. After several years singing with the Bill Boyd-led group, Walker briefly retired from the performing side of the business to work as a DJ. A recording contract with Columbia brought him back to performing, though, and it was then that he scored with Howard's classic composition. Minor hits followed, including a trilogy of honky tonk-inspired tunes, "Close All the Honky Tonks," "Honky Tonk Season," and even a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women." After the hits dried up, Walker moved to the land of mediocre performers, Las Vegas, and sang there for several years before attempting an unsuccessful comeback with MCA in 1986. -Steve Kurutz
Group Members: Rick Henderson, Terry "Caz" Casburn, Jerry Dengler and Frank Gilligan.
Mason Dixon was a popular 1980s country band which took its name from its mixed lineup of Southerners and Yankees. The group had its beginnings in a duo made up of New Yorker Frank Gilligan and Texas native Rick Henderson, who attended college together during the mid-'70s. They performed throughout southern Texas until 1979, when they were joined by Jerry Dengler, a solo performer from Odessa, Texas. The trio hired a drummer and decided to tour; they hired three more musicians but retained only one, as they were unable to generate enough bookings.
Their first single, "Armadillo Country," was recorded on their own label. Manager, promoter and producer Don Schafer heard the song and invited Mason Dixon to perform on his yearly Texas Music and Talent Showcase; he also signed them to his Texas Records. They scored a minor hit with a cover of the Police's "Every Breath You Take" in late 1983. The following year, Mason Dixon scored two modest hits with "I Never Had a Chance with You" and "Gettin' Over You." In 1985, the band released their debut album, The Spirit of Texas, in celebration of their state's sesquicentennial, donating proceeds to the Salesmanship Club's Youth Camps.
Mason Dixon switched to a new independent label, Premier Once Records, in 1986. With new producer Dan Mitchell, the band achieved greater chart success and through 1987 scored three mid-range hits, including "3935 West End Avenue." They signed with Capitol in early 1988 and released Exception to the Rule, which produced two more medium hits, "Dangerous Road" and "When Karen Comes Around." They scored two more hits the following year, when Henderson left and was replaced by Terry Casburn. In 1990, the group performed to benefit the Cowboy Crisis Relief Fund Drive and released their second Capitol album Reach for It. -Sandra Brennan
AKA Whispering Bill. Born Nov 1, 1937 in Columbia, SC. Singer Bill Anderson was one of the most enduring and talented songwriters in country music. Born in South Carolina and raised in Georgia he began writing songs professionally while working as a disc jockey in Commerce, GA. He wrote "City Lights" in 1958, and it became a major hit for Ray Price. Later that year he had his own success with his debut single, "That's What It's Like to Be Lonesome."
Anderson came into his own during the 1960s when he had 24 hit songs on the national charts; among them was "Tips of My Fingers" (1960) and "Po Folks" (1961). He joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1961. He had his first number one country hit in 1962 with "Mama Sang a Song,." The next year he had a cross-over hit with "Still," which reached number one on the country charts and made it to the Top Ten on the pop charts. During the '60s, Anderson also hosted a syndicated music show.
During the 1970s, Anderson continued to find success with such hits as "Love Is a Sometimes Thing" (1970) and the number one "World of Make Believe" (1973). He also cut a series of popular duets that included the smash "For Loving You" with Jan Howard in 1967. He also became a successful television producer and hosted ABC's game show The Better Sex; he later appeared regularly on that network's soap opera One Life to Live. Throughout his long career, Anderson won scores of awards including 50 songwriting awards from BMI. In a Billboard magazine poll he was named one of the "Three Greatest Country Music Songwriters" and in 1975 was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. In addition to releasing new material throughout the 90's, Anderson continued to appear regularly on the Grand Ole Opry and tour with his band Po Folks. -Sandra Brennan
Born Nov 1, 1901 in Opp, AL. Died Dec 3, 1961. One of the holdovers from the early days of vaudeville shows and one-man bands, Lew Childre managed a successful career during the 1930s and '40s playing radio broadcasts and doing his own advertising transcriptions. Born in Opp, AL, in 1901, he played trombone, trumpet and drums in high school before being persuaded to attend the University of Alabama by his parents. Childre finished school, but in 1923 joined a tent show as a singer/performer. He then formed a jazz band called the Alabama Cotton Pickers - which also included Lawrence Welk - and recorded several sides before becoming fascinated with country music, then in its commercial infancy. Childre learned to play guitar and then returned to the tent shows until joining broadcast radio in Texas in 1930. After recording several sides for Gannett Records during September 1930, he toured the state with Wiley Walker (later of Wiley & Gene fame) as the Alabama Boys.
Lew Childre moved to New Orleans in 1934, broadcasting over WWL and recording for ARC. He spent the late '30s working the Texas border station XERA with the Carter Family, but moved to West Virginia's Wheeling Jamboree by the early '40s. Childre's talent for ad-libbing comedy and songs made him a natural for advertising, and after he joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1945, he began producing transcriptions for General Foods and Pepsi, among other companies. He recorded an LP for Starday in the mid-'50s, but retired from music in 1959 and died two years later. -John Bush
Born Jul 1, 1894 in Livingston, KY. Died Nov 1, 1985. This Kentucky native has had a perfectly respectable career as a songwriter and harmonica player. In fact, his credits would raise a few eyebrows to be sure. There are supposedly more than 500 songs written by this man. One of them, "Freight Train Blues," was recorded by a list of talent that includes none other than Bob Dylan, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, and the Weavers. And although the role of harmonica is much underplayed in country music compared to the blues, Lair performed regularly on the instrument for something like 60 years, starting with classic '30s tracks with the Cumberland Ridge Runners. But his real mark on country music has been as a manager, organizer, and promoter, and in this capacity made a massive impact on the Ohio and Kentucky music scene by founding the Renfro Valley Barn Dance in 1937 in Ohio, moving back to his home state a few years later.
This enterprise became an institution that outlived its creator, who had returned home to Kentucky after World War I with an intense desire to do something to both create enterprise in his home territory but also to preserve and nurture the traditional culture. For many years the Barn Dance was home to acts such as Homer & Jethro and Old Joe Clark as well as groups and artists managed by Lair himself. When he first opened the show up in Kentucky, local skeptics said that within a month the converted barn facility would be back in its original role as a spot for drying tobacco. But thousands of area residents wound up flocking to the tiny valley to hear the concerts there. Lair made a reputation as an inventive promoter. One of his famous moves was to purchase the Great Saltpetre Cave from a financially-troubled fellow named Charles Anderson Mullins or "Biggie." Lair promptly set up a series of barn dances to be held in the damp depths of the cave. The success of Lair's promotions spread to the television wave.
In the mid-'50s he was host of the CBS show John Lair's Renfro Valley Folks, and in the '60s a film was produced that was entitled John Lair's Renfro Valley Barndance, which is shown regularly at the Barndance itself. In 2000, there were more than 2000 radio stations broadcasting the Renfro Valley Getherin' produced by Lair's empire in the valley. He was also a manager of many famous old-time bands. He not only played jug and harmonica in the Ridge Runners group, he was the force that put the entire band together by coming up with the idea of combining the country duo of Karl Davis and Hartford Taylor, also known as the Renfro Valley Boys and Karl and Harty with the talented cowboy songwriter, singer, and banjo player Hugh Cross and the extroverted, nutty bassist, and comedian Slim Miller.
Later, Lair would discover country artist Red Foley and add him to this band as a comic foil for Miller until Foley launched his own hitmaking country career. Lair also managed female banjo picker Lily May Ledford, and was the man responsible for naming her classic old-time band Coon Creek Girls. This act showed the crass, commercially-driven side of the man, as Ledford was apparently irate that her band was going to named after a creek that was nowhere near her home. "The audience out in radio land won't know the difference," Lair apparently shrugged. Of course he was right, but the career of Lair was just as often about not so subtle misrepresentions of old-time music culture as it was about promoting the artists or preserving the historical traditions of the music.
He was able to launch the Ridge Runners as the first nationally broadcast hillbilly band by pushing the hillbilly image drastically through publicity photographs and cornball comic sketches. He kept the talented female banjo player and singer Linda Parker dressed up in a frilly gingham dress in her onstage role as the "sunbonnet girl," and also created the character of the man-hungry hillbilly girl LuluBelle for singer Myrtle Cooper, thus paving the way for the antics of L'il Abner, The Beverly Hillbillies, and so on. None of which can be said to have had a very positive effect on the perception of Appalachia. Lair tried to revive the success of Coon Creek Girls in the '80s with New Coon Creek Girls. He spent a good deal of his time as a historian, writer, and collector, and following his death much of the archival material he had accumulated was absorbed into the new John Lair Collection in the Southern Appalachian archives at the Hutchins Library at Berea College.
He also wrote four books on Kentucky life and history and the well-received volume Songs Lincoln Loved. There are books about Lair and his career as well. It All Happened in Renfro Valley was written by Pete Stampfer, and On the Air With John Lair by Ann Henderson also includes sheet music to many of his songs. -Eugene Chadbourne
James Alan Shelton
James Alan Shelton has worked since 1994 as bluegrass master Ralph Stanley's lead guitarist in the highly respected Clinch Mountain Boys, and the multi-instrumentalist also released a handful of solo albums, beginning with Blue in the Blue Ridge in 1996. Shelton got the job with the Clinch Mountain Boys three years after he introduced himself to Stanley at a concert and declared that he'd like to work for the bluegrass banjo legend. Stanley invited him to sit in on a few songs, and Shelton was on his way. Although a permanent job didn't open up until 1994, when Clinch Mountain Boys Ernie Thacker and Junior Blankenship were contemplating leaving, Shelton did get to play with the band for a short time in 1992 as a temporary replacement for a vacationing Blankenship.
Shelton, a Virginia native, took up the guitar at the age of 12, with his maternal grandfather as his teacher. At the time, he didn't have a guitar of his own, but he did have a harmonica. Shelton's father helped him earn his first Fender. His dad paid 89.95 dollars for the three-quarter sized model, and Shelton paid back every cent by working on the family's tobacco crop. Before catching a live show in 1973 that featured Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys and Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys, Shelton's exposure to music came from television programs, where he caught the acts of such artists as the Wilburn Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, and Porter Wagoner. At about the age of 13, Shelton took up the banjo, and two years later he became the banjo player for a band called the Bluegrass Travelers. He remained with the band for about 18 months and appeared on one of its albums. A two-year stint as a banjo player for the Larkin Brothers followed.
Shelton went on to devote four years as a dobro and guitar player to an outfit named Flint Hill. After his time with Flint Hill, he took a little detour away from bluegrass and ventured into country music by becoming an electric guitarist for another band. The detour ended in 1985, when he played banjo and mandolin for another bluegrass band, Blue Ridge. After three years with the group, Shelton spent some time in an assortment of non-music jobs, including painting houses and factory work, before he approached Stanley and said he would like to work for him. -Linda Seida
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