Country Music

Schauermann

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The first time i flipped through a record collection that I thought was big was when took a trip from the country to visit my older sister who had finished studying at Uni where I was wanting to know about how to enrol and lots of other stuff about life in the city and what was good music. She was into Bowie, Zappa, The Stones and lots of stuff I never knew about. Flipping through all her records there was so much strangeness for someone only used to listening to commercial radio. So much stuff that I didn't know even existed that I couldn't take much in - but one that always stuck in my mind was Link Wray because of the title "Beans And Fatback". Link sung on this record and many years later I discovered that he was one of the pioneers of the feedback fuzz guitar sound with his rock and roll intrumental hits such as "Rumble", "Jack The Ripper" and "Ace of Spades". As an example of his influence on rock - somewhere on youtube you'll find a video of the Led Zep guitarist putting his 45rpm of "Rumble" on a turntable and remembering how he felt when he first heard the sound it made.

Link's older brother Vernon was a member of Link's backing group "The Ray Men" (along with other brother Doug on drums).

So this is Link's less famous brother Vernon Wray from 1972 (this time with Link on backing guitar and Doug Wray on drums).

If you like that classic maudlin cry in your beer country it definitely has some songs for you - but even if you don't why wouldn't you at least want to hear it might sound when you get a look at that album cover...and then get Wasted.




Great. Need to get that release.
 

Professor Knowall

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Our next country star recorded his first hit way back in 1952. But, despite many attempts, he had to wait 9 long years until late 1961 for his next hit - but it was a big one that also crossed over and topped the pop charts, not just in the
US but in the UK, Australia and worldwide. Yet he was already by then well known in the US as a TV host through the 1950's and he went on in the 1960's to do lots of TV and some movie appearances - and introducing the first muppet
to the world. And if that wasn't enough, he kept his name in the limelight for decades to come through his national TV
ads for the hugely successful sausage company he founded.

Jimmy Dean was born in 1928, in rural North Texas to working-class parents. Like virtually all of the country heroes I've covered so far in this history, Dean's depression-era upbringing saw him experience abject, dirt poor poverty. His alcoholic father floated in and out of his early life, once slaughtering little Jimmy's pet goat in order to put food on the table. His mother sewed clothes for Dean and his siblings using sugar sacks - thereby bringing Dean heavy ridicule from his peers. Dean later credited this hard-knock upbringing with giving him his entrepreneurial spirit, and burning desire to succeed, saying he would do anything to avoid the pain of cotton picking and drudgery of farm labour which took up much of his childhood.

Dean's only refuge from his difficult life was music. Strict Southern Baptists, Dean's family attended church every week, where Jimmy began singing in the choir. His mother also taught him to play piano at the age of 10, and Dean picked up other instruments along the way, including accordion, guitar and harmonica.

After their father shot through for good, Dean dropped out of high school to help provide for the family. He joined the Merchant Marines at age 16, and 2 years later enlisted in the Air Force. During WW2, Dean was stationed at a base near Washington DC, where he performed at local nightclubs. He first performed publicly with a band called the Tennessee Haymakers and, after his discharge from the military in 1948, remained in the area to form the band the Texas Wildcats. He eventually scored a record deal with Four Star records and in 1953, his first single, the breezy 'Bummin' Around', that caught the mood of a lot of discharged military, became a Top 5 hit at a time when Hank Williams (mostly), Eddy Arnold, Carl Smith and Webb Pierce were dominating the charts.

The laid back lyrics and melody of 'Bummin Around' sounds like the sort of number Dean Martin would sing. Sure enough, Dino eventually released his cover as a single and on an album in 1965, but here is Jimmy Dean's original # 5 hit from 1953 (recorded in 1952) -


Making the most of his fairly modest chart success, his charming, folksy personality and business-savvy helped him
land his own radio show in Arlington, Virginia, where he performed music and interviewed music stars. Dean turned his successful radio hour into a nationally telecast CBS TV show in 1957. Called "The Jimmy Dean Show", Dean helped give exposure to then-unknown country stars including Patsy Cline and Roy Clark. However, despite recording plenty, further chart success eluded him until, finally in 1961, with his record contract just about to be terminated, he wrote and released 'Big Bad John', a song in which he narrates more than sings about a dangerous but ultimately selflessly
brave coal miner who saves his fellow workers during a mine tragedy.

The single hit # 1 and crossed over, spending 5 weeks topping the pop charts, went worldwide, hitting # 2 in the UK,
# 1 in Australia, sold several million, earned Dean a Grammy Award and put the singer firmly into the mainstream music business, and not just a TV host. Famed studio pianist Floyd Cramer, who was hired to play piano on the song, instead came up with the idea to use a hammer and a piece of steel instead, which defines the ballad's sound -
"... Somebody said he came from New Orleans / Where he got in a fight over a Cajun Queen
And a crashin' blow from a huge right hand / Sent a Louisiana fellow to the promised land, big John
..."


The B-side of 'Big Bad John' 'I Won't Go Huntin With You Jake' features an overlooked novelty gem of a type which suited Dean's affable, lighthearted persona (he recorded quite a few of these light uptempo ditties). The slideshow features many of the top female country singers from the 1960's and 1980's -


Deciding to cash in on the success of 'Big Bad John', Dean, sticking to his narrative style that had worked so well for
him, scored a # 16 hit in 1962 with a sequel song, 'The Cajun Queen'. The basically semi-plausible 'Big Bad John' story
of the original is here transformed into the fantastical and mythical. The harmonica, lyrics and delivery style evoke the world of Louisiana swamps, voodoo and even zombies (Big John?) in a somewhat creepy, weird, but very cool (or rubbishy, depending on your taste) way -


Still in 1962, the era when epic ballads such as Johnny Horton's 'Battle of New Orleans' and 'The Bismarck', and Marty Robbin's 'El Paso', 'Big Iron' and 'The Battle of the Alamo' were all big hits, Dean yet again using his now well hone narrative style, reached # 3 (and # 8 on the pop chart) with a homage to the popular young President JFK, recalling
his heroism in WW2 when the the boat he commanded, PT 109, was sliced in half by a Japanese destroye. Note the reference to the Australian Coastwatcher witness in the song -


So enough for today - the Jimmy Dean story and his music will conclude tomorrow.
 
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Professor Knowall

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Back to Jimmy Dean, still riding high after the success of his big crossover hits, 'Big Bad John' and PT-109'. Like 'PT-109', the 1963 song 'Steel Men' commemorates an actual event - the collapse of a steel bridge span while under construction in Vancouver in 1958, killing 18 workers. It was a bigger hit in Canada than the U.S., reaching # 12 -


Dean followed up with a little gem, set to a rollicking train beat, but it's nothing to do with trains, instead offering sage advice of what to do if your woman has plans that don't include you - namely have a black book of ready alternatives to call upon. Simple really (and a black book is still much more secure than a mobile phone which women just love to check out at the first opportunity they get). A # 10 hit in 1963 -


In 1963, after the cancelation of his CBS show, Dean struck a deal with ABC to launch a new variety show — also called "The Jimmy Dean Show". During its three years on the air, The Jimmy Dean Show launched the career of musician Roger Miller, and was also credited with introducing Jim Henson's Muppets to mainstream audiences. In particular, Dean loved the character of Rowlf, a piano-playing canine that often accompanied Dean. During this time, Dean had the opportunity to buy a large stake in what would become a multimillion-dollar Muppets fortune, but the star turned it down for moral reasons, saying that he hadn't "earned it."

In 1965, Dean scored his second (and last) # 1 hit with 'The First Thing Ev'ry Morning'. Now don't get confused when listening to this - it really is Jimmy Dean, not Dean Martin, despite the smooth sound with the backing of the The Chuck Cassey Singers. Jimmy decided it was time to progress to a new sound and was obviously influenced by the relaxed laid back crooning style of Dino - or was it the other way round?; because Martin (I'm avoiding the name "Dean" just here to avoid any confusion) wasted no time in covering this song on his third country music influenced album, "Houston" (at the same time also covering Jimmy's very first 1953 hit 'Bummin Around' as the B-side of the single 'Houston'). This heralds the start of the laidback crooning Jimmy Dean, appealing to an older adult generation than what the Beatles and the Stones were by now competing for -


After Dean's second variety show ended in 1966, Dean became a co-star in several film and TV vehicles, including a
role as Daniel Boone's friend in the popular Daniel Boone series (1967–70), and a leading role as a reclusive Las Vegas billionaire Willard Whyte, inspired by Howard Hughes, in the James Bond movie "Diamonds are Forever" (1971), starring Sean Connery. But Dean also continued his music career. In 1966, He signed with RCA Victor and immediately had a top 10 hit with the Chet Atkin's produced 'Stand Beside Me" - a rather stock standard Nashville Sound number. His other major hits during this time included 'Sweet Misery' in 1967, where, instead of Dean Martin, he seems to imitate Frank Sinatra, and then a return to his more natural country Sound in 'A Thing Called Love' in 1968.

Most are more familiar with the 1971 Johnny Cash cover of 'A Thing Called Love', which reached # 2 in the US and was
his biggest selling single ever in Europe, but Jerry Reed wrote the song and Jimmy Dean had a # 21 hit in 1968 - with none other than Jerry Reed on guitar. Johnny Cash managed to outsell Dean's original in 1972 with a lavish production featuring the Carter Sisters as back-up singers, Carl Perkins on guitar and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra(!), but here is Dean's 1968 original with Jerry Reed on guitar -


In 1976, Dean achieved another hit with his single 'I.O.U', a tribute to his mother. The song - well actually, it ain't a song, just a straight out narration was released a few weeks before Mother's Day and quickly reached the Top 10. But before you go to the video, heed this warning - I've posted a few songs in this history series that I've described as being "sickly-sweet". Well this one is just straight out sickly, and I was going to skip it altogether until I found this vintage Australian video of it with a familiar (albeit far younger) face, and if you can't stomach the narrated dirge, you can just fast forward to the end for the audience reaction - obviously they were hoping for Sherbet, Skyhooks or similar, anything but this. Funny stuff -


But Dean, a heavy critic of his own performances, believed he was a terrible actor and musician (you may recall here that the obsessive perfectionist Jim Reeves and the insecure, shy reclusive Don Gibson both despised their own great singing abilities) and began pursuing other ventures. In the late 1960s, Dean started a pig butchering company with his brother, Don, in his hometown of Plainview. The brothers ground the meat, while their mother seasoned it. Within 6 months, The Jimmy Dean Meat Co. was already profitable business and by the late '80s, helped by his popular ads, the Deans were making more than $75 million in profits. Dean sold his company to Sara Lee Foods in 1984, but remained its spokesperson, spearheading its iconic ads until 2003.

Thus a whole new American generation grew up knowing of Jimmy Dean the sausage maker on TV, often not knowing
of his previous life as a TV host and musician. In 2004, while living in semi-retirement, Dean released his autobiography, "30 Years of Sausage, 50 Years of Ham". In February 2010, he was finally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, just 4 months before his death.

Dean resided in Virginia, with his wife, singer/songwriter Donna Meade Dean, until their house was destroyed in a
fire. Many of Dean's legendary artifacts, including pieces of Elvis and Henson memorabilia, were burned incinerated.
The couple rebuilt their house on their 200-acre estate just shortly before Dean's death in June 2010, at the age of 81. Having suffered health problems in the last few years of his life, he died (ironically given his TV career) while watching TV.

I'll be hitting the road again for another week or a bit, but I'll be back with the history sometime next week (I think), ready to plunge back into the early 1960's.
 

Professor Knowall

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Yep - I'm back from my latest travels, continuing the history. As we last saw, Jimmy Dean, apart from his signature song, 'Big Bad John', really made his name as a TV country music show host - but even his exposure paled in comparison to our next artist. While other major stars from Red Foley, Carl Smith and Faron Young to Johnny Cash and George Jones also enjoyed some TV hosting success, none was so long lived, flamboyant (before there was glam rock, he pioneered OTT out-there attire) and succeeded in bringing country music to a mass TV audience, introducing some major new artists along the way. Yet for all his flamboyant appearance, his own music was (with just one strange exception) uncompromisingly traditional country - not country pop, not Nashville Sound and not rock, just straight out "classic country" - occasionally schmaltzy but his best songs were his hard core honky tonk numbers.

Porter Wagoner (a perfect country music name) was born in 1927 on a small farm in the Ozark mountains of Missouri - an area known as "Little Dixie" due to the southern influence of this region, settled as it was by Appalachians. Yet another in our seemingly endless list of poor, depression raised singers (like just about all I've covered to date), he trapped and sold rabbit pelts to scrape together the $8 he needed to buy his first guitar. He spent hours pretending that the stump of a felled oak tree was the Opry stage and that he was introducing country stars. He quit school at age 12 to work the farm due to his father's ill health.

After bad times forced the family to auction off their farm, they moved to West Plains, where a local butcher hired Wagoner. When the butcher heard him play the guitar, he put him on the radio to sing advertisements. He formed a
band, "The Blue Ridge Boys", playing the mountain music (or bluegrass) style then popular around the Ozarks. On a
trip to Nashville, Wagoner witnessed Hank Williams's historic 1949 debut appearance at the Grand Ole Opry and was
so impressed by both Williams's swaggering honky-tonk music and the 7 encores it generated, he reinvented himself in Williams's image.

Wagoner was hired to appear on popular Springfield radio station in Springfield in 1951, and this led to him being signed by RCA Victor in 1952. His early records sold poorly, but constant touring and radio performances honed him into a slick entertainer. In 1953 Wagoner spent $350 to buy his first Nudie suit, as the extravagant rhinestone-studded creations by Nudie Cohn were called. Wagoner ultimately owned 50 of them, paying $8,000 to $12,000 each, and epitomized the style country fans call “hillbilly deluxe.” He enjoyed his first country music hit in 1954 with 'Company's Comin'. What I like about this song is that it betrays Wagoner's rural Ozark roots, with it's "mountain beat", fiddle solo and simple, yet authentic, theme about the excitement of spying visitors coming to their isolated Ozark farm - and what song today
would have lyrics like this?! - "... We'll run out to the henhouse and wring a neck or two ..." -


Wagoner topped the country charts in 1955 with 'A Satisfied Mind'. His first # 1 hit, with its dose of truth, helped introduce a future standard to not just country music but also pop and the folk revival. It later became a title track
of a Glen Campbell album and cover material for the likes of Joan Baez, the Byrds, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. This
live video shows both the song and one of his customary Nudie suits -
"... Money can't buy back / Your youth when you're old
Or a friend when you're lonely / Or a love that's grown cold
..."


Wagoners glittering and twinkling outfits, and blonde pompadour hairstyle, once led someone to remark it was the first time they were aware a Christmas tree could sing (he and Hank Snow were two of the few artists to retain this type of dress, when most others were adopting more conservative styles - although Snow had more dress sense). When RCA suggested that he record some rock ‘n’ roll tracks to keep abreast of the current trend, he refused, stating, "It just didn’t suit my personality. I couldn’t sing the songs". Following further Top 10 country hits in 1957 he became a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry.

In 1960, Wagoner was given a TV series sponsored by the Chattanooga Medicine Company. Whatever their reason for choosing the lanky Wagoner (he had become known as the "Thin Man From West Plains") to host the show evades me, as there were bigger names at the time, but it was certainly an inspired choice. Initially carried by 18 stations, it became so popular that by the end of the 60s, it was networked to 86 and, soon afterwards, to over 100 stations. The show, which featured Wagoner and his band the Wagonmasters, also acted as a shop window for new and established stars.

Written by Jerry Reed, Misery Loves Company # 1 in 1961 Wagoner’s second chart-topper came from the pen of future Nashville (and later still, movie star) Jerry Reed. While prior picks crossed pop barriers, this song about drinking to forget heartbreak was destined to remain a classic sad country song -
"... So break out the bottle bring on the crowd / Tell funny stories turn the jukebox up loud /
Come on sit at my table where the drinks are on me / Just gather round me 'cause misery loves company
..." -


Wagoner and songwriter Bill Anderson made a great team. In this instance, Wagoner brings almost a crooner-like vocal quality to this Anderson-penned blend of a love song and a smart-aleck retort, with the immortal line: "... There's so much more between us than this table..." A # 7 hit in 1962 -


This unlikely pick 'Sorrow On The Rocks' was the B-side to the equally great 'The Life of the Party', but charted to # 5 in 1964. This upbeat drinking song was penned by Tony Moon, the longtime music director for Brenda Lee and the writer of the Beatles deep cut 'Soldier of Love' -
"... The music on the jukebox don't mean a thing / 'Cause I'm too far gone for a song /
I sure feel bad cause my baby ain't here and / I'm sorry that I done her wrong
..."


'The Life Of The Party', another heartbreaker from 1964 strangely wasn't a hit but don't tell me this straight out honky tonk number ain't classic country -
"... I fill up their glasses make them all feel at home / I’m the life of the party till the last one is gone /
That’s the time that I’m dreading when they’ve all said goodbye / Then the life of the party will break down and cry
..."


Stay tuned for more on Porter Wagoner tomorrow.
 

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