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Country Music: A History of Americana

By Edited Jun 3, 2015 1 2

Country Music—A History of Americana

country

By: J. Marlando

Introduction:

When I was a young boy growing up we had three sources of music in my grandmother’s house where I was mostly raised. The radio, a record player and my Aunt Doris (called Aunt Dodo) who had one of the most memorable and beautiful country singing voices I ever heard. Neighbors were always dropping by just to listen in our neighborhood on South Wasatch Street in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (When I was a kid the entire town was only around 40,000 plus people and incidentally we could see Pikes Peak right out our kitchen window).

Anyway, being raised on country music I have never lost my enthusiasm or love for it. With the exception of Jazz, it is the only music in the world that is purely Americana; mostly downhome Americana in its modern origins but all-American nevertheless,

I believe that I was fortunate being born during the hay day of radio and before television. My family was very poor back then and so bringing home a record or two was a real treat and everyone would gather around the record player to listen to singing stars like Roy Acuff

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Earnest Tubb
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and Gene Autry
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Female country stars did not really emerge commercially until the very early 1950s but women country singers were plentiful across the country and entertained at home just as my Aunt Dodo did when I was a kid. Sometimes in winter we’d all gather around the old coal stove in the living room and sing together although mostly we just listened to Aunt Dodo because, as said, she was the one with the voice. I will never forget those family gatherings though as there was such a connectedness to the family ties we had. And, yes, there’d nearly always be a hymn sung too. I can still hear my aunt singing, “In the Garden” which would be rekindled by Merle Haggard
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in modern times. The lyrics are simple and heartwarming:

I come to the garden alone
while the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The son of God discloses.

And he walks with me and he talks with me
And he tells me I am his own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.

Country music was part of our lives back then and while we would also listen to pop tunes every now and then, it was country music that stayed at the top of our menu of entertainment.

My intent for this two part series is to first unfold the major highlights of the history of country and secondly to give the reader some of the best memories from Country in the song titles and lyrics that have touched so many hearts.

The Earliest History

America has always been called the “melding pot” of the world and sure enough it has always attracted peoples from many places and nations to the land. A difficulty way back in the earliest days was that there was a language barrier between people—most people from England and Greater Britain like the Irish and Scottish folk could not understand those from Sweden, Germany or other places such as Poland or Greece of Italy. As a result when riding along the old trials, travelers would meet along the way and do their best to show friendliness through sign. Quite often for company and safely such men would camp together

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and while they couldn’t carry on a conversation the language of music became a major communication between them. That is they would sing and many could play an instrument and so they would sit together and share songs from their own heritages.

In many instances they would learn each other’s tunes and write their own lyrics to them. This was how American country music was rooted. This very same thing would happen between the travelers of the earliest wagon trains.

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As long as weather permitted the families traveling west would share their music and although they might speak a number of languages, the language of music created great friendships and offered a lot of good times during the harsh conditions of frontier travel.

When people began reaching the far west Mexican music began having a great influence on American music—it was, after all, both romantic and adventurous the very nature of the earliest frontiering people. There is probably not a better example of this that the song “El Rancho Grande” recorded by Gene Autry in 1940.

Allá en el rancho grande,
allá donde vivía,
había una rancherita,
que alegre me decía;
que alegre me decía:
Te voy a hacer tus,
Como los que usa el ranchero,
te los comienzo de lana,
te los acabo de cuero.

I'd love to roam out yonder,
Out where the buffalo wander...
(Ay Ay Ay Ay)
Free as the eagle flyin’,
I'm ropin' and a-tyin',
I'm ropin' and a tyin'...
Yippee my ranch and my cattle,
Far from the great city's rattle,
You'll be a big herd to battle,
For I just love herdin' cattle.

Once the feeling of Mexican music permeated “old trail songs” the birth of America’s unique music began to slowly unfold to what would eventually be named, Country Western; a style that somehow held the soul or heartbeat of black gospel, Irish folk and Mexican romance. It cannot be described really as anything other than pure Americana but it would also  adopt back hill music also known as Mountain Music and later, Bluegrass, in forming its unique style and sounds. Here’s a photo of Wade Mainer

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one of the best known players of “Mountain” there is. As for Blue Grass, typically played with guitar, banjo, mandolin and upright base would soon enough incorporate the fiddle as a necessary ingredient of Country Western’s contribution to the back hill music beloved by so many people. Here’s a photo of the Bluegrass Boys of the 1940s.

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Speaking of blue grass and old mountain music, when we would sit around listening to my aunt Dodo sing my Uncle Ray would often play the saw. If you don’t know what that is, here an interesting ad (from the 40s or 50s perhaps?) offering to teach you how to play. My uncle could really make the saw we had around the house sing and sometimes, when he would play, my Aunt would pick up her mouth harp

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and we’d have a regular grand old opry right in the center of my grandma’s living room.

Country music actually had its adolescence in living rooms, front porches and back yard get-togethers. What mostly commercialized country western was radio so we’ll talk about that next.

Country and Radio

Country western as genre was actually new when radio was in its infancy as a national entertainment media. Commercial radio as we know it today began in 1920, the birth of electronic media.

Country music first began to be popularized from a Chicago radio station WLS. WLS stood for World’s Largest Store and was owned by Sears Roebuck. The show was called National Barn Dance but in 1925 the Grand Ole Opry began broadcasting from Memphis which would soon enough become known as America’s “country music capital.” The stations call letters were WSM and was broadcast from the fifth floor of the National Life & Accident Insurance Company who wanted to advertise insurance policies. WSM stood for “We Shield the World.”

By the time the 1930s began unfolding the station boasted 50,000 watts and began presenting the “opry” every Saturday night to 30 states becoming national in 1939 (the year of my birth) on NBC Radio. One of the biggest, most beloved singing starts of the ‘40s was Earnest tubb. In 1940 he had recorded, “I’ll Get Along Somehow” which, as with many of his songs, was a good old tear-in-your-beer number:

Many months have come and gone since you called me on the phone
To tell me that we were through
You thought it'd break my heart but I fooled you from the start
Cause I never did trust you

Well you thought you were mighty wise to run around with other guys
And still saying you were mine
While you had one or two, I had a dozen more than you, so you got the fooling that time

Oh let it rain and let it snow, I don't care oh no no no, I'll never worry now
You're the one that wasn't fair, wasn't in you to play square, I'll get along somehow

So you keep going your way, I'll keep traveling mine
But at the end you'll need a friend, you'll be the one to sit and pine


So let it rain and let it snow, I don't care oh no no no, I'll get along somehow

Ernest Tubb’s gigantic hit in the 40s was, “I’m Walkin’ the Floor Over You.”

You left me and you went away
You said that you'd be back and just that day
You've broken your promise and you left me here alone
I don't know why you did dear, but I do know that you're gone

I'm walking the floor over you
I can't sleep a wink that is true
I'm hoping and I'm praying as my heart breaks right in two
Walking the floor over you…

As a great number of Americans loved country music there was, at the same time, a great many who rejected it as (ignorant) hillbilly music. And, the truth  is that the greatest appeal to the music was that it spoke directly to common, working folk—the perfect metaphor is to call it, “down to earth music” as Country was far more about heart than mind; about experience more than thought.

Indeed the popular style of Earnest Tubb and so many others was plain old Honkey Tonk and so that will be our next subject.

Honkey Tonk

No one knows the origin of the term “honky tonk” but what is known is that the name probably evolved out of the old west going back to the time of the Oklahoma and Texas Territories offering dancing girls, booze and gambling; bawdy places catering mostly to men off the trails or nearby ranches ready for a fight or fun and sometimes both.

After the frontiers closed there was little distinction between honky tonks and saloons in the old cow towns

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of places like Nebraska, Kansas and Montana. Working class bars were also referred to as honky tonks from the Deep South to the Southwest which generally offered a piano player or small band, a dance floor and ladies of the night.

It is difficult to say when or even how honky tonk music evolved but I believe it is safe to say that it belonged mostly to the poor and hard-working class who would sing of their troubles and hardships in a nasal/twang as performed by great country stars like Tubb

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Hank Williams
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Faron Young and Hank Thompson
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The term Honky Tonk, regardless of its history came to mean any working person’s bar with even a small dance floor, a small band or just a juke box. I remember being in Wyoming mining camps when I was a kid and having neighbors coming over, banging on the front door hollering out to my parents: Hey, it’s Saturday night, let’s go Honky Tonkin’. So off the adults would go to the local bars (honky tonks) in Rock Springs to get drunk, dance and often fight. (Those coal miners and their families were, in a term, the salt of the earth—hard working, hard playing family people).

Hank Williams was a “honky tonker” himself was and remains one of country music’s most beloved legends—Hank lived hard and died young and left  a lot of beautiful memories. Here’s a sampling of his songs:

Jambalaya

Goodbye Joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh
Me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou
My yvonne, the sweetest one, me oh my oh
Son of a gun, we’ll have good fun on the bayou

Chorus:
jambalaya, a-crawfish pie and-a file gumbo
Cause tonight I’m gonna see my machez amio
Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-oh
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou…

Cold, Cold Heart

I tried so hard my dear to show that you’re my every dream.
Yet you’re afraid each thing I do is just some evil scheme
A memory from your lonesome past keeps us so far apart
Why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart

Another love before my time made your heart sad and blue
And so my heart is paying now for things I didn’t do
In anger unkind words are said that make the teardrops start
Why can’t I free your doubtful mind, and melt your cold, cold heart…

And, Your Cheatin’ Heart

Your cheatin' heart will make you weep
You'll cry and cry and try to sleep
But sleep won't come the whole night through
Your cheatin' heart will tell on you

When tears come down like falling rain
You'll toss around and call my name
You're gonna walk that floor the way that I do
Your cheatin' heart will tell on you

These three gigantic hits were country western classics—hot, hot sellers of records, played constantly on juke boxes and absolute radio hits; the honky tonk sound of Hank Williams and Hank himself symbolizes the heart and soul of country. He died before he was 31 years old but became known as the most important country performer of all time; a honky tonk singer who reached out and touched the world.

Great Country the ‘40s

Space does not permit covering all the great country songs of the ‘40s but here is a great sampling of the most popular:

EL PASO Marty Robbins

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Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl
Night time would find me in Rosa's cantina
Music would play and Feleena would whirl

Blacker than night where the eyes of Feleena
Wicked and evil while casting a spell
My love was deep for this Mexican maiden
I was in love, but in vain I could tell

One night a wild young cowboy came in
Wild as the West Texas wind
Dashing and daring, a drink he was sharing
With wicked Feleena, the girl that I loved

So in anger
I challenged his right for the love of this maiden
Down went his hand for the gun that he wore
My challenge was answered in less than a heartbeat
The handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor

Just for a moment
I stood there in silence
Shocked by the foul evil deed I had done
Many thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there
I had but one chance and that was to run

Out through the back door of Rosa's I ran
Out where the horses were tied
I caught a good one
It looked like it could run
Up on its back and away I did ride

I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry—Hank Williams

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Hear the lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry

I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind a cloud
To hide its face and cry

Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die
That means he's lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry…

San Antonio Rose—Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys

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Deep within my heart lies a melody
A song of old San Antone
Where in dreams I live with a memory
Beneath the stars all alone

It was there I found beside the Alamo
Enchantment strange as the blue up above
A moonlit path that only she would know
Still hears my broken song of love

Moon in all your splendor knows only my heart
Call back my Rose, Rose of San Antone
Lips so sweet and tender like petals fallin' apart
Speak once again of my love, my own

Broken song, empty words I know
Still live in my heart all alone
And that moonlit pass beside the Alamo
And Rose, my Rose of San Antone

Tennessee Waltz—Pee Wee King

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I was dancin' with my darlin'
To the Tennessee Waltz
When an old friend I happened to see
I introduced him to my loved one,
And while they were dancing,
My friend stole my sweetheart from me

I remember the night,
And the Tennessee Waltz
Only you know how much I have lost
Yes, I lost my little darlin'
The night they were playing
The beautiful Tennessee Waltz

I was dancin' with my darlin'
To the Tennessee Waltz
When an old friend I happened to see
I introduced him to my loved one,
And while they were dancing,
My friend stole my sweetheart from me…

The Cattle Call—Eddie Arnold

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The cattle are prowlin',
The coyotes are howlin'
Way out where the doggies roam
Where spurs are a jinglin'
And the cowboy is singing
His lonesome cattle call
(yodeling)

He rides in the sun
'Tll his days’ work is done
And he rounds up the cattle each fall
(yodeling)
Singing his cattle call

The early 1950s maintained country traditional sounds—an extremely popular number by Hank Thompson spent 15 weeks as Number 1 on the Billboard country charts.

Wild Side of Life—Hank Thompson

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You wouldn't read my letter if I wrote you

You asked me not to call you on the phone

But there's something I'm wanting to tell you

So I wrote it in the words of this song
I didn't know God made honky tonk angels

I might have known you'd never make a wife

You gave up the only one that ever loved you

And went back to the wild side of life

The above song inspired a big hit in answer:

It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels—Kitty Wells

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As I sit here tonight, the jukebox playing'
The tune about the wild side of life
As I listen to the words you are saying'
It brings memories when I was a trustin' wife

It wasn't God who made honky tonk angels
As you said in the words of your song
Too many times married men think they're still single
That has caused many a good girl to go wrong


It's a shame that all the blame is on us women
It's not true that only you men feel the same
From the start most every heart that's ever broken
Was because there always was a man to blame…

Country continued forward during the modernizing ‘50s and has continued into the new millennium. Here’s a sampling of Country Western’s greatest hits and stars that touched our hearts and minds over the decades:

Coal Miner’s Daughter—Loretta Lynn

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Well I was born a coal miner's daughter in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler
We were poor but we had love that's the one thing that daddy made sure of
He'd shovel coal to make a poor man's dollar
My daddy worked all night in the Van leer coal mine all day long in the field hoein' corn
Mommy rocked the baby at night and read the Bible by the coal oil light
And everything would start all over come break of morn
Daddy loved and raised eight kids on a miner's pay
Mommy scrubbed our clothes on a washboard everyday
Why I've seen her fingers bleed to complain there was no need
She smiled in mommy’s understanding way
In the summertime we didn't have shoes to wear
But in the wintertime we'd all get a brand new pair
From a mail order catalog money made from selling a hog
Daddy always managed to get the money somewhere
Yeah I'm proud to be a coal miner's daughter
I remember well the well where I drew water
The work we done was hard at night we'd sleep cause we were tired
I never thought of leavin Butcher Holler
But lots of things have changed since the way back then
And it's so good to be back home again
Not much left but the floor nothing lives there anymore
Just the memories of a coal miner's daughter

A Boy Named Sue—Johnny Cash

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Well my daddy left home when I was three
And he didn't leave much to ma and me
Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze.
Now, I don't blame him cause he run and hid
But the meanest thing that he ever did
Was before he left, he went and named me "Sue."

Well, he must o' thought that is quite a joke
And it got a lot of laughs from a' lots of folk,
It seems I had to fight my whole life through.
Some gal would giggle and I'd get red
And some guy'd laugh and I'd bust his head,
I tell ya, life ain't easy for a boy named "Sue."

Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean,
My fist got hard and my wits got keen,
I'd roam from town to town to hide my shame.
But I made a vow to the moon and stars
That I'd search the honky-tonks and bars
And kill that man who gave me that awful name.

Well, it was Gatlinburg in mid-July
And I just hit town and my throat was dry,
I thought I'd stop and have myself a brew.
At an old saloon on a street of mud,
There at a table, dealing stud,
Sat the dirty, mangy dog that named me "Sue…"

Crazy—Patsy Cline

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Crazy, I'm crazy for feeling so lonely
I'm crazy, crazy for feeling so blue
I knew you'd love me as long as you wanted
And then someday you'd leave me for somebody new
Worry, why do I let myself worry?
Wondering what in the world did I do?
Crazy for thinking that my love could hold you
I'm crazy for trying and crazy for crying
And I'm crazy for loving you
Crazy for thinking that my love could hold you
I'm crazy for trying and crazy for crying
And I'm crazy for loving you.

Where Do I put Her Memory—Charlie Pride

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I've taken down all of her pictures
I've cleaned out all of her drawers
I've painted over the scratches
From all of our little wars

I've put away every gift
That she ever gave to me
Now everything is in its place
Except for her memory

And where do I put her memory
When it haunts me night and day
I can't hide it in the closet
And Lord, I can't throw it away

And where do I put her memory
When it's always in my mind
I can't chase it, erase it, I just have to face it
It's gonna be there a long, long time…

From a Mansion to a Honky Tonk—Tom T. Hall

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How could anyone who said they'd help me want to hurt me the way you did
It was just like Superwoman slapping some poor crying kid
It's just one slip and a stumble Lord it's sure not very far
From a big three-story mansion to a nine by twelve foot bar
From a mansion to a honky-tonk Lord it's closer than I thought
From a mansion to a honky-tonk thanks for trying hey thanks a lot

I hate to say it hmm but I don't miss it Castle's cold and money's chill
Our love died of pure starvation it's not something that you kill
I just wonder does the world know what a short trip it really is
From a bedroom to a barroom and an honest way to live
From a mansion to a honky-tonk...

Much Too Young—Garth Brooks

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This old highway's getting longer
Seems there ain't no end in sight
To sleep would be best, but I just can't afford to rest
I've got to ride in Denver tomorrow night

I called the house but no one answered
For the last two weeks no one's been home
I guess she's through with me, to tell the truth I just can't see
What's kept the woman holding on this long

And the white line's getting longer and the saddle's getting cold
I'm much too young to feel this damn old
All my cards are on the table with no ace left in the hole
I'm much too young to feel this damn old

Love’s Gonna Make It Alright—George Strait

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Girl you've had one of those days
Seems like they've been goin' around
You're a long way from bein' where you wanna be

When the world isn't goin' your way
Whatever bad luck is gettin' you down
Honey, I'll be right here for you
With open arms, you can run to me

[Chorus:]
Baby, love's gonna make it
Love's gonna make it alright (alright, alright)
Baby, love's gonna make it
Love's gonna make it alright
Tonight, tonight, tonight

Those Appalachian Memories—Dolly Parton

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You ought to go north somebody told us cause the air is filled with gold dust
And fortune falls like snowflakes in your hands
Now I don`t recall you said it but we`d lived so long on credit
And so we headed out to find our promised land

Just poor Appalachian farm folks with nothing more than high hopes
We hitched our station wagon to a star
But our dreams all fell in on us cause there was no land of promise
And it`s a struggle keepin` sight of who you are

Oh and these northern nights are dreary and my southern heart is weary
I wonder how the old folks are back home
But I`ll keep leanin` on sweet Jesus I know he`ll love and guide and lead us
Appalachian memories keep me strong

You know I`ve been thinking a whole lot lately about what`s been and what awaits me
It takes all I`ve got to give what life demands
You go insane if you give into it life`s a mill and I`ve been through it…

I’m just thankful I’m creative with my hands…

On The Road Again—Willie Nelson

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On the road again -
Just can't wait to get on the road again.
The life I love is making music with my friends

And I can't wait to get on the road again.
On the road again

Goin' places that I've never been.
Seein' things that I may never see again

And I can't wait to get on the road again.
On the road again -
Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway
We're the best of friends.
Insisting that the world keep turning our way

And our way
is on the road again.
Just can't wait to get on the road again.
The life I love is makin' music with my friends

And I can't wait to get on the road again.
On the road again…

There are just far too many great voices and songs to cover in any one article but if you’re a country fan as I am, you’ll have your own list and memories. My memories begin in a poor little house across from the rail road tracks—my grandmother’s where the family would often spend evenings listening to my aunt sing or listening to records or the radio. That was a long time ago but I carried those old songs with me all along my way. And I know you’ve taken a whole lot of old songs along your path too!

                                                         SUMMARY

When it comes to country western music I am pretty much a purest—in a term, I do not fancy crossover or some of the music performed today in the guises of country. I am fully aware that not everyone agrees with me on the issue but there are those who do. I suppose when it comes down to it, I’m a (devoted) honky tonk fan but that was my world growing up.

What do I believe country western should be—I think it should take you down dirt roads and across vast fields; it ought to remind us of what life “feels like.” I think it should tell the story of calloused hands and hard winters; of kitchen laughter and holiday cheer. I believe it should talk about cheating hearts and broken dreams; of lost jobs and Saturday night drunks but also about lasting love and family life. I think country western ought to be about the wounds in life we all endure from time to time and, at the same time, getting passed the obstacles that so often get in our way. I think it should remind us of being with nature; of pine covered slopes, snow covered peaks; of rivers, stream and tumbleweeds:

SEE THEM TUMBLING DOWN
PLEDGING THEIR LOVE TO THE GROUND
LONELY BUT FREE AS THEY'RE FOUND
DRIFTING ALONG WITH THE TUMBLING TUMBLEWEEDS

CARES OF THE PAST ARE BEHIND
NO WHERE TO GO BUT I'LL FIND
JUST WHERE THE TRAIL WILL WIND
DRIFTING ALONG WITH THE TUMBLING TUMBLEWEEDS

I KNOW WHEN NIGHT HAS GONE
THAT A KNEW WORLD BEGINS AT DAWN

I'LL KEEP ROLLING ALONG
DEEP IN MY HEART IS A SONG
HERE ON THE RANGE I BELONG
DRIFTING ALONG WITH THE TUMBLING TUMBLEWEEDS.        

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more about Willie Nelson

click here: http://www.infobarrel.com/Is_Willie_Americas_Last_Country_Singer

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Comments

Nov 23, 2012 9:57pm
askformore
Thank you for a great article about the history of American country music. Thumbs up!
Jul 12, 2013 4:19pm
DRowe
Definitely a thorough article that was well written and informative.
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