Country Music

Professor Knowall

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Thank again - and good posts. That GG was one crazy critta, but he at least had good taste in country music, liking Hank Snr (and Hank iii was in turn influenced by GG - for better or for worse). Brings back great memories of some rowdy beer drinkin nights in Texan honkytonks - including singing along to that very number, amongst others, in some dark dinghy honkytonk somewhere in Austin.

My next history posting will be on a Texan giant of American music.
 

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And now for the Carter Family music (and don't worry if you think I'm neglecting the next generation Carter Sisters. Maybelle and her daughters will get there turn in due course). You've probably already heard more Carter family melodies - or re-worked versions of their melodies - than you think, as they embedded themselves into so many country and blues compositions and then on to rock'n'roll and on to the many genres that spawned, including hard rock and heavy metal.

But the task of selecting just a few from the vast Carter music library was tough. I started with a recording of all the very first 1927 songs. The more I listened and 'got into it', the better I liked it, as I was transported back in time from a locked up Melbourne into a different universe of the Appalachian mountains of another era -
Like the Blues and Jazz men and women of that era, the influence of the Carter Family on the music of the 20th century and onwards cannot be understated. Of course, there were many artists that never made it onto tape in the early 20th century - but very few (if any) were recording vocal harmonies as beautiful and intimate as this in 1928:

 

Professor Knowall

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When you cross that ol' Red River hoss,
That just don't mean a thing
Once you're down in Texas, Bob Wills is still the King.

Let's have Mick Jagger and the boys, from Austin in 2007, introduce the King of Texas.

(Actually a double tribute there to Wills and Waylon and a pretty reasonable job of it - including Woodie on the pedal steel). And let me tell you, after my own travels through Texas with its honkytonks - Bob Wills is STILL the King.

So it's 1936, the depression is still lingering, but we've left California and the movie sets and are now hitting the huge dance-halls of Texas and Oklahoma for a big night out of dancing, romancing or fighting - and there's no hotter ticket doing the rounds than Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. No amount of hyperbole can overstate there contribution to the course of American music over the next 15 years - and still is such a big part of the Texan fabric today.

Bob came from a musical Texan family with his father and grandfather both accomplished violin ... I mean ... fiddle players, and Bob followed in their footsteps, being something of a prodigy. He started playing professionally in 1929 and in 1931 joined the 'Crusty Doughboys' dance band. Through radio, the band soon got a Texas wide following, however internal problems led to Wills and vocalist Tommy Duncan leaving the band in 1933 and forming the 'Texas Playboys' in Waco.

Adding an 18-year-old electric steel guitarist called Leon McAuliffe, pianist Al Strickin, drummer, and a horn section to the band's lineup, soon, the Texas Playboys were the most popular band in Oklahoma and Texas. The band made their first record in 1935 (but without Leon and before the drums came). But I can only give too little information to be truly informative, so here's a very good concise biography that, more importantly, outlines Will's innovations and his great signifance to American (and hence world) music -
Actually his Wicki page is also (unusually for Wiki) not to bad.

Wills was amongst the first to introduce electrification to amplify his music over the huge noisy dance halls he played to, and was about the very first with an electric steel guitar anywhere. He's also credited as the first to introduce drums (to balance the horn section) to country music. All of these pointed the way to rock'n'roll and helps explain why Wills was inducted into the Rock and Roll HoF.

So was Wills and the Texas Playboys really 'country'? Well the mainstream national swing bands of that era like the Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey bands kept the fiddles ... oops ... violins, in the rear, generally emphasising the horns. However Wills kept the fiddles and guitars (including the steel guitar) right at the fore, thereby giving its own distinctive swing sound and keeping it country for me and others - just in the new genre of 'Western Swing'. When Bob took the band to California during WW2, it eclipsed all the others to become the most popular in America.

Two more things - the music samples to come will cover the period from 1935 to 1950 and there were enourmous changes to the Playboys music as they took it from the Jimmie Rodgers era up to the dawn of rock and roll. Note the continual evolution of the music.

Secondly - when listening, keep in mind this is dance music. It's best enjoyed when dancing; Bob with his calls and interjections is just what he did to entertain the crowds at the dances. Try and imagine you're in a big Texan or Oklahoman dance hall in the 1930's or '40's, drinking, dancing and romancing a new date, or fighting for the girl. ...
 
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Professor Knowall

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From the original 1935 recordings in Dallas, using a single microphone for the whole band (!) and without Leon with his steel guitar and before drums were added - Let's get the show going ...

It's hotting up ...


It's now 1936 and there's trouble on the dance floor -


The floor is heaving now - "Kick it away, Leon, kick it away ..."


If you're up for 16 minutes of solid swingen with your red hot gal ... "Take it away Tommie ..."
 
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Professor Knowall

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On to 1938 and beyond - and here's 4 versions of the 1938 hit 'Ida Red' (which Chuck Berry later re-worked into his classic early rock hit 'Maybellene') - first a film excerpt from the 1940 Western 'Go West, Young Lady', the second is Merle Haggard in 1985 on 'Austin City Limits', the third another film excerpt from the 1945 Western 'Blazing the Western Trail', and finally the original 1938 recording (which should've come first but anyway, enjoy -

Everyone in Tulsa (and Texas) knows this one, from 1941 -
"Aaah turn it on boy ... turn it on"
 
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Professor Knowall

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Now it's time to take a break from the dance floor and spend a bit of time on Bob Wills greatest hit - the iconic tune and song "The New San Antonio Rose", first recorded 1940. It was previously instrumentally recorded in 1938 as "The San Antonio Rose" which in turn was worked up from the "Spanish Two Step, recorded 1935. The tune shows the South Texas/Mexican influence in the fusion of music varieties used by Bob Wills.

Unlike his other works up to then it was deliberately written with record sales in mind, rather than for the dancehall and was a smash hit. Bing Crosby also covered it and went no 1 with over a million sales.

So here is the great Bob Wills classic, sung by Tommy Duncan "New San Antonio Rose", since covered by so many artists - "Take it away, Leon, take it away ..."
 

Professor Knowall

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With the success of the 'New San Antonio Rose", Bob and Playboys took off to California as America entered WW2. He was a sensation in California, packing out venues all over even during weekdays, and attracting outdoor corowds estimated of over 10,000, becoming the number one band in the nation. They also appeared in several movies.

The Playboys expanded to at one stage having 28 members, changing their sound, as this recording clearly shows -

We're partying on to 1945 and the end of the war, but some dark clouds are gathering - Bob loved to party, and spending lots money on the usual - women and lots of booze, affecting his performance. Still, even a drunk Bob Wills is a great listen -
 

Professor Knowall

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And now with the war behind us, we've returned back to the dance halls of Texas for just a few final numbers -

"... What's the matter boy, getting low on milk?..." Not found


'Ida Red Likes to Boogie' of 1949 - contrast this with the 'Ida Red' of 1938 as we draw near to the 50's -


And finally, with the heyday of Bob Wills and his Texan Playboys drawing to a close, we close the show with a slow romantic tune that was Bob's father's favourite, but not recorded until 1950 -
 

Professor Knowall

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For the added extra, we look at how, especially in Texas, the memory of Bob Wills and his Texan Playboys has been kept alive and Western Swing still so much part of the culture of Texas (so that any visit there is incomplete without having one night out at one of so many Western swing clubs or honkytonks).

In 1961 Ray Price cut the first Bob Wills tribute album. Instead of just recreating the Wills sound, Price covered the songs in his own Ray Price 4/4 shuffle beat instead of the standard 4/2 beat. It sold well and he also had a hit single with the "New San Antonio Rose". Another popular number was "A Maidens Prayer" originally recorded by Wills in 1938 -



You've seen the Rolling Stones version but here's the original live version of Waylon Jennings great 1975 hit tribute song to Bob Wills. Listen to the audience reaction -


Then in 1980, Ray Price teamed up with a former bass guitarist in his band, 'The Cherokee Cowboys', for another Bob Willis tribute album ' The San Antonio Rose'. When aged just 15, in 1948, a few decades before he started his now famous annual 4th July concerts in Austin, Willie Neilson actually managed to organise a Bob Wills concert.

Here's Price singing with Willie backing, the hit single from the album, being, of course, 'The New San Antonio Rose' -
 
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Professor Knowall

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OK - he wasn't an actual Texan, but an honorary Texan due to his devotion to the two great influencers on his music - Bob Wills and Lefty Frizell. No-one did more to preserve the legacy of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys called riding his bike to the Bakersfield Dancehall aged 8 and standing on his bike to peer through the window at a Bob Wills performance. In 1970, a year Haggard had released a Jimmie Rodgers tribute album, Haggard released the album "The Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills') recorded with six of the remaining Texas Playboy members - Bob Wills himself had suffered a major stroke in 1969, leaving him unable to perform. Bob later gifted to Merle his most treasured possession - his fiddle.

The album was completely faithful to the original Bob Wills arrangements and reached #2 on the charts. Merle then went on to do so much more, that essentially led to a permanent revival of Weatern Swing. Here's a good outline, written when he dies in 2016' of what this country music great did to preserve and promote this genre - http://www.batesline.com/archives/2016/04/merle-haggard-western-swing.html
Merle Haggard, RIP: His role in the Western Swing Revival.

Here's an historic clip, introduced by Dolly Parton, multi-talented Merle Haggard leading the Texan Playboys in 1985 -

And Merle killing it with "New San Antonio Rose" - the guys in the control box clearly enjoying it - Followed by a 1960 recording by Bob Wills with Tommy Duncan singing -

The baton was then passed on to George Strait, who had an early #1 hit in 1984 with the Bob Wills 'Right or Wrong, and has since always incorporated Bob Wills numbers and Western Swing in his concerts -

And finally, George Strait with the iconic Texan Bob Wills Tribute band 'Asleep at the Wheel' from the top selling 2017 album "Still the King" -

Whew - reckon I've done enough on Bob Wills and the Western Swing genre - it brought back a lot of really, really happy memories of Texan sojournes. Next will be something different ...
 
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Professor Knowall

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Good posts again. Hank iii is a great place to start in country - in addition to looking and sounding like his grandfather, when it comes to his country music, he's knowledgeable and respectful of its history and did much to revive old school country music, with acoustic guitar, fiddle, banjo, steel guitar and upright bass. I like a lot of his hellbilly stuff as well and only some 10 days ago posted on the "What are you listening to now" thread 2 of his songs 'Stoned & Alone' and 'Ghost to a Ghost' (with a preamble about that song). If you haven't already seen it, you might find this of some interest -

Lots come to country music later after first following other genres (myself included - I actually "discovered" country music while following the delta blues trail from Memphis to New Orleans). I think there's much in the old line from songwriter Harland Howard, describing country music as "three chords and the truth". It's in some ways the most adult of music genres, not really meant for teenagers but best appreciated as one accumulates life experiences and ready for some quieter times. Of course there's also a time for good time group singalong to honkytonks songs - with a beer or whiskey or two or dancing to the country swing.
 
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Professor Knowall

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Our next notable along with his band came to Nashville in 1938 .... but wait, let's pause here and ask - why Nashville?
So far, we've journeyed from Bristol in the Applachian foothills of East Tennessee over to California then swung to Texas. Even Chicago was mentioned, being where Gene Autry went to from Tulsa Oklahoma, make his name on national radio before heading off to Hollywood. I've made no mention at all of Nashville until now.

So why come to Nashville in 1938, instead of bigger cities like the Atlanta, St Louis, Chicago or the recording studios in New York, previously frequented by Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry?

It starts with a Nashville based insurance company which back in 1925 started its own radio station, WSM, to help sell its insurance products. Amongst other content, it featured a Saturday night country music variety show in front of a live audience, which as its popularity grew, was dubbed the 'Grand Ole Opry'. This show, in turn, propelled Radio WSM to become, by the late 1930's, one of the few with a nationwide reach and popularity.

Up to about 1937, the 'National Barndance' broadcast from Radio WLS Chicago and which had featured Gene Autry, was the most popular country music show, as it was the first with a national reach. However, Chicago was not a natural centre for country music, being much more jazz and increasingly blues oriented with hundreds of thousands of African Americans migrating in from the impoverished rural south, bringing their delta blues, soon to be electrified into the Chicago Blues, by the likes of Muddy Waters. in comparison, Nashville was in country music heartland.

The Insurance Company reps used to trawl around town and city streets during the Saturday night broadcast, identifying who was tuning in. These were then targeted for a weekday visit by a rep bringing a gift pack of Grand Ole Opry items - pictures and badges etc, as a hook. Thus WSM also came to unofficially stand for 'We Sell Millions' in addition to the official 'We Shield Millions'.

Anyway, here's a WSM Radio promo documentary giving a fuller account of how Nashville was transformed into the 'go to' place for country music -

This shorter doc also has some early as well as later history, this time from the perspective of the 'Grand Ole Opry' itself, rather than the radio station -
 

Professor Knowall

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The name, Roy Acuff is forever tied to the Grand Ole Opry.

He was the son of a preacher man, growing up near Knoxville in eastern Tennessee, his singing limited to church choirs. After leaving school, he pursued a baseball career with the minor league Knoxville baseball team but gave up,in 1930 after a bout of severe sunstroke (and not enough talent?) and decided on music instead - an excellent choice as it turned out - learning to fiddle and becaming an apprentice of to a local medicine show man.

While traveling with the medicine show, Acuff learned how to be a performer - he learned how to sing, how to imitate, how to entertain, how to put on a show. In 1934 he joined the 'Tennessee Crackerjacks', with a regular slot on Knoxville radio and in 1936 had his 'breakthrough' song 'The Great Speckled Bird', an old gospel tune, re-set to melody of the The Carter Family song 'I'm thinking tonight of my Blue Eyes'Quickly, he became popular throughout the eastern part of Tennessee and was asked to record the song by ARC. Acuff headed to Chicago for the 20 song recording session. In addition to 'The Great Speckled Bird' he recorded 'The Wabash Cannonball', another Tennessee standard that featured the singer imitating the sound of a train whistle; he also made a handful of risqué numbers during these sessions, which were released under the name the Bang Boys.

So in 1938, Acuff set off to Nashville to audition for the Grand Ole Opry. During the show, he sang "The Great Speckled Bird" and became an instant hit, prompting the Opry to hire him full-time. Before he was given his regular slot, the Opry insisted that he change the name of his band to the Smoky Mountain Boys. Acuff went on to become a country superstar during the 1940's, scoring a long string of hit records. He stayed at the 'Opry for 39 years and even moved in next to the new premises at Opryland in the 1980's so he could greet fans and performers.

Throughout his career, Acuff championed traditional country values, as a performer, a music publisher, and as the Grand Master of the Grand Ole Opry. He was the first country music superstar after the death of Jimmie Rodgers, pioneering an influential vocal style, complementing the spare, simple songs he was performing. Artist such as Hank Williams and George Jones were influenced by Acuff, and countless others have paid respect to him. At the time of his death in 1992, he was still actively involved in the Grand Ole Opry, and was as popular as ever.
 

Professor Knowall

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Now the songs, starting with the traditional folk standard 'Wabash Cannonball', a hit for Acuff about a mythical train that comes to carry away the souls of departed railway hobos (which were frequent at that time). This is a shortened version of the song but I like the video because it has trains and I like trains - especially steam engines -


The son of a Baptist minister, raised in the American bible-belt, it's no surprise Acuff did his share of gospel songs (an important sub-genre of Country Music in itself). As mentioned last post, the melody for this gospel favourite, and Acuff's biggest hit, was lifted from The Carter Family 'I'm Thinking Again of My Blue Eyes'. The melody has been traced back to 16th century England and who knows how much older it is (and we'll hear it again later re-worked by another artist to another very popular song, later made a hit by a boogie rock band that still performs it). -


The House of the Rising Sun, recorded 1938 -


His title track and number 1 hit from 1943 film in a film starring Acuff. It’s a white-hot fiddle tune and showcases one of early country music’s best backing bands, with lyrics about trains, hoedowns and shouts of “Hallelujah!”
 
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Professor Knowall

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Now for an extra special extra - Roy Acuff had something of a career revival after recording a track with the 'Nitty Gritty Dirt Band' in August 1971 for the "Will the Circle be Unbroken" album, released in 1972. It was the great gospel song (many say the best gospel song of all), written by non other than Hank Williams in 1951.

Acuff was hesitant about doing the recording with a bunch of long haired hippie types (so he thought) from California, but being contractually obliged, he turned up at the last possible minute, gruffly ordered the band to make sure sure they kept up the timing - and then he the band created magic, as Roy really let it all out singing his long gone old friend's song, while the band 'kept up the timing' beautifully. One take and it was done - the result was brilliant-

Roy Acuff continued to perform at the Grand Ole Opry well into the 1980's, when he was in his eighties. Here he is performing a 40th anniversary of his 1938 recording of the 'Wabash Cannonball' at the Grand Ole Opry in 1978, aged 75. His voice may have lessened just a little, but he still knew how to deliver a song while showing off each of the traditional country band members -
 
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Professor Knowall

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It's 1940, and we've finally left the '30's and the Great depression now well past and we're now down in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Jimmie Davis was the son of a poor cotton share cropper in the 19th century and to live on to see in the 21st century, after commercially performing over 8 decades (!). But, back in 1940, after a decade of recording and having 2 top 20 hits in the previous 5 years, he records a song that becomes not only a smash hit for him (despite not being the first to record it), but then went on to become pretty much the most covered song of all time and spreading across all the major popular music genres. Hence it's why Jimmie Davis makes our list and at this point in time.

His first professional work was on Shreveport radio in 1927-1928, then recorded with Victor in 1929, specializing in raunchy blues Jimmie Rodgers style numbers, often accompanied by black musicians. After 64 releases for Victor, he signed with Decca Records in 1934 and from his very first Decca session produced the smash hit “Nobody’s Darling but Mine,” a song Davis purchased from Shreveport musician Bill Nettles. That set his pattern of buying composer credit and publishing rights on songs he wanted to record - a practice not at all uncommon or unethical, done at one time or another by practically all recording artists of the day. “You Are My Sunshine” almost six years later would come to Davis that way, as would his biggest hit in the interim, “It Makes No Difference Now,” which he bought from young Floyd Tillman in 1938. Largely unable to tour and challenged to travel to sometimes distant recording sessions because of Shreveport work commitments, it is remarkable Jimmie Davis reached the heights of his field alongside Gene Autry via recordings alone, while Autry enjoyed the greater exposure of movies, touring and a network radio show, “Melody Ranch".

One of the classic country songs of all time, Jimmie Davis’ “You Are My Sunshine” burst the then-narrow bounds of that genre at a time (1940) when such crossover hits were virtually unprecedented, paving the way over the next few years for songs like “New San Antonio Rose,” “Pistol Packing Mama,” and “There’s A Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere.” But “You Are My Sunshine” has enjoyed a longevity, a perennial popularity, being eventually recorded by hundreds of artists across multiple generations and most all music genres. The song remains forever most closely associated with the version, the name and career of Jimmie Davis. The 1940 version by Davis was added to the National Recording Registry in the US Library of Congress in 2013, for long-term preservation.

Iconic artists across the musical spectrum who later recorded the song include Gene Autry, Bing Cosby, Nat King Cole, Bob Dylan, Mississippi John Hurt, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, among so many artists, numbering more. The success of “You Are My Sunshine” propelled the personable Jimmie Davis into appearing in three Western movies from 1942-1944 and in 1947 starred in the autobiographical movie 'Louisiana'. He was elected governor of Louisiana in 1944, he continued to record and scored five Top Five singles during his first term. He then turned to gospel music after cutting the classic “Supper Time” in 1953.

Davis was again re-elected to the Louisiana governorship and again. He again reached the Top 20 in 1962 with "Where the Old Red River Flows." By 1964, he was back to gospel music, and he recorded heavily throughout the late '60s and early '70s, but Davis continued to perform and record even into the 1990s, passing away in 2000 aged 101.
 
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