Music of the people: Country & Western

Mitch Mitchell (‘the Fenland Kid’) is back with another people’s music playlist. This time he’s here with a brief history of Country and Western. Earlier playlists introduced  Doo Wop and The Blues.

Vernon Dalhart
Vernon Dalhart (Library of Congress) via flickr

Country and Western music has an extremely strong claim to the title of ‘Music of the people’. Although sometimes referred to as ‘White Man’s Blues’, and at times associated with the right, it actually had a more complicated history.

Its roots are in the 19th century when immigrants from all over Europe were coming to America and bringing their own traditional folk music with them. There are traces of music from Germany, France, Italy, Ireland and Russia plus yodeling from Austria and Switzerland and clog dancing from Lancashire married to Highland Scottish ballads. All of this fused together to form ‘American music’. 

The invention of the phonograph helped to develop the genre and when wax cylinders were replaced by shellac 78rpm discs to be played on portable, wind-up gramophones, it really took off.

The first ‘star’ of country music was an actor named Vernon Dalhart. In the 1920s, several of his recordings sold over 1 million copies each. Being an actor, he was able to sing in whatever accent he deemed appropriate to what he was singing.

One of Dalhart’s most popular recordings was ‘The Wreck of the Old 97′ which has been covered many times over the years. However, Vernon was beaten to the song by Henry Whitter, who cut a version in 1923.

Another song which Dalhart recorded has become known as a children’s song over the years, thanks largely to a sanitised version by Burl Ives, but originally it was an unromanticised picture of the life of homeless people.

Another early star of the genre was Jimmie Rodgers who was also known as ‘The Singing Brakeman’, because he oftened in a railroad worker’s uniform. His style was based on blues and yodeling and the song I have chosen was covered many times in the future by artists as diverse as Jerry Lee Lewis and Jim Reeves, both changing the title to ‘T for Texas’. He died in 1933 of tuberculosis.

With the advent of radio, and specifically the availability of cheap radio sets, the music took a more commercial turn. In 1925, George Hay started what was titled ‘The Grand Ol’ Opry’, a one-hour radio barn dance. This holds the record for being the longest running radio show.

It became a badge of honour to be invited to join and perform on the show, which was also televised from the 1950s onwards. However, the show became very conservative and many artists were either banned from appearing or dropped and banned.

One person who was banned for arriving too drunk to perform was Hank Williams, probably one of the best known Country artists after World War Two. Williams wrote and recorded many songs which have become standards in the field. He suffered from poor health which was exacerbated by his misuse of drink and drugs and he died aged 29 whilst on his way to a New Year performance. He was frozen to death in the back seat of his chauffeur driven Cadillac on which the heater had packed up. He had a whisky bottle in his hand.

In the 1950s, Country music seemed to become divided between different little boxes. There was the more popular Country of people like Jim Reeves and Don Gibson, Western Swing which was big in the late 1930s and the war years, but still had a following and the more traditional style of people like Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. The popular Country records often crossed over from the country charts to register in the much more lucrative pop chart.

The younger artists moved into what was known as ‘Rockabilly’ which was an offshoot of Rock ‘n’ roll. Originally, the term was intended as an insult coined by people from the cities to denigrate the music by writing off the performers as rock and roll hillbillies. The purveyors of rockabilly were generally rather uneducated white boys from the old Confederate states.

To illustrate the styles of mainstream country, here are three tracks that were each very popular in their own field. First, Don Gibson

Next Bill Monroe with a song that was later revamped by a young Elvis Presley to put on one side of his first commercial release:

The biggest name in the Western Swing camp was Bob Wills with his band the Texas Playboys:

One artist who straddled both rockabilly and country music was Johnny Cash. Possibly one of the most popular and well known of all country singers, he took his act into both Folsom and San Quentin prisons to entertain the inmates. Here he sings one of his old songs live in Folsom:

In the late 1960s, a few artists stood against what had become the headquarters of the music in Nashville. Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and a few others became known as ‘The Outlaws’. Not for them was the saccharine sweetness of the mainstream and they also eschewed appearances on ‘The Grand Ol’ Opry’ which had become a bastion of conservative, right wing America.

Here they are in duet:

Because of the generally macho nature of Country music it was difficult for women to get a look in. One who did was Patsy Cline. Blessed with a beautiful voice, she often offended the hierarchy because of her ‘cussin’’ and she came under attack from conservative Christians on the scene because she refused to be dictated to about who she could sleep with. She died when the light plane she was traveling in with fellow singers Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas crashed and all three were killed. They were returning from a fund raising concert on behalf of the widow of singer Johnny Horton:

If it was hard for a woman to progress, it was even harder for a black artist. One who managed to buck this trend was Charlie Pride who sold many records and played several concerts. It has to be remembered that country music’s popularity was more in the Southern states, many of which still practiced segregation and voted for racists like George Wallace and Lester Maddox. That made it more remarkable that Charlie’s records sold so well. Here is one of his biggest

The downside of this form of music was that many of the artists had right wing tendencies. For instance, Marty Robbins who had huge hits worldwide with songs like ‘El Paso’ and ‘Devil Woman’ hated the hippie, anti-Vietnam war movements of the 1960s. He wrote a song titled ‘Am I Right’ which his record company refused to let him record, so he passed it over to a member of his revue who cut it under the name of ‘Johnny Freedom’.

Some of the vilest records I have ever heard were put out by a guy calling himself Johnny Rebel on the Rebel Records label. Johnny Rebel was actually Cliffie Trahan. He had at one time been a member of Robbins’s revue and had also cut rockabilly tracks under the name ‘Happy Fats’. The record company’s logo was a Confederate flag and the titles and lyrics were disgusting.

What made it worse was technically they were good records with a good studio sound and more than competent backing musicians. There were strong rumours that Robbins had put up the money to fund these releases.

 Another ‘character’ of the country scene was David Alan Coe who sometimes appeared as his alter-ego ‘The Legendary Stardust Cowboy’. Coe was frequently off the scene in prison. In fact, before he began his music career, he was serving a long stretch for armed robbery. He was once interviewed during one of his later incarcerations for fighting by a magazine editor he did not like, so he dedicated a song to him entitled ‘I’d Like to Kick the Shit Out of You’. Sadly, that doesn’t appear on YouTube!

I’m going to finish up with Hank Williams, but this time its Hank’s grandson, Hank Williams III. This Williams used to appear wearing a cut off denim jacket with a cannabis plant embroidered on the back. He also hates modern day, ‘pop country’ and the conservatives who run it and on the track I’ve chosen, he is railing against the Grand Ol’ Opry.

See y’all, pardners!



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