Is Willie America’s Last Country Singer?
A View of Country Music Past and Present
By: J. Marlando
America can only claim two types of music to call its own and they are on opposite sides of the musical pendulum: Jazz and Country!
I appreciate them both but mostly I’m a country fan because like so many other country fans, country was the music I grew up with. Nevertheless, I will start this article on the negative side because I personally don’t give much of a “hoot” for today’s so-called Country music or its presentation. Sorry country fans but you don’t have to agree with me. As for me, with few exceptions, I see crossover as the major event of today’s country singers and the urbanization of their performances; a kind of cross between hip hop and Lady Gaga doing rockabilly in cowboy boots which is most often called “country pop.” Admittedly this genre of modern country is enough to send me over to Jazz and keep me there…at least most of the time. And so, with all this in mind, we’ll begin our jaunt down a few old country roads.
A Quick Glance at Country Music’s Origins
Actually America’s country music has international roots in that when the great western migrations began from the East Coast and headed west not everyone spoke English since there were a lot of Germans, Italians, Hungarians and so forth either wagon-training across the plains or following the trails on foot or horseback. There were also Irish, Scotts and English and their language could be understood by the trained American ear.
To break the monotony and hardships of wagon train travel, it was not unusual for wagon masters to permit dancing and a little celebrating along the route and so those who could play and sing did. Mostly those songs were folk music of one’s own culture and so a lot of lyrics and music were exchanged by people. This also happened between some lone riders who happened to meet along the trial—if they couldn’t understand each other’s language, they could exchange their music and many did. Also when the great western cattle herds began to spread across the West cowboys also exchanged their traditional folk songs with one another especially during the longer drives across the plains. Eddie Arnold captured this with his immortal and haunting “cattle call.”
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…
In any case, the earliest form of America’s country was a combination of shared music and lyrics. And, when lyrics could not be understood it was not unusual for a traveler to make up his own lyrics to some stranger’s folk tune.
Also, the black slaves of our history contributed to what one day would become country music. Once the African born person was indoctrinated with Christianity, he and she became extremely faithful to Christian concepts of Jesus and God. As a result rural slaves would usually stay after the regular worship service (back then conducted by white ministers) or in what was then called “plantation houses” for singing and dancing. Some ministers did not approve of such joy in Christianity and so banned black music from the “houses of worship.” As a result black folks back then would meet in secret or what were called “camp meeting” where they would sing their spirituals for hours.
The very spirit and love of the black spirituals would find their ways into American country but this would be an irony that a great many historians would miss. Yet, it is widely known that black music is at the very roots of original rock ‘n roll and all black music can be traced back to those wonderful old spirituals. But also black gospel was all about sharing one’s joys, sadness, pains and pleasures which is also the essence of “soul” but also traditional country.
There was also the music of America’s back hills people. Traditional bluegrass certainly played a significant role in creating country. This music combined folk ballad, a unique blues and gospel which was named “hillbilly music” but some of that “hillbilly” music became the backbone of country itself. However, even bluegrass, in many ways the roots of American country music also was influenced by black gospel. And speaking of Bluegrass, when I was growing up my Aunt, who truly had a beautiful voice would sing a lot of it. One song that I remember has the title, “Listen to the Mocking Bird.” It was written in the middle of the 1800s by Alice Hawthorne.
I’m dreaming now of Hally, sweet Hally, sweet Haley:
I’m dreaming now of Hally,
For the thought of her is one that never dies:
She’s sleeping in the valley, the valley, the valley;
She’s sleeping in the Valley
And the mocking bird singing where she lies
Listen to the mocking bird, listen to the mocking bird
The mocking bird still singing o’er her grave;
Listen to the mocking bird, listen to the mocking bird,
Still signing where the weeping willows wave…
This kind of song belongs to the old Appalachian heart and when one can imagine the banjo, fiddle and mandolin accompanying the lyrics, the very spirit of (real) country comes alive.
The other major contribution to American country music was of course Cajun which, incidentally, also has influenced our country’s pop music as well. And so, actually Cajun swing and dancehall Cajun are mostly ingrained into our country music and actually didn’t evolve until the 1940s when country music was having its heyday.
Lastly, Mexican music greatly influenced American Country…especially mariachi I believe!
I can think of no music in the world other than Mexican music that captures romance and adventure in the way that Mexican music does. However American classical Honey Tonk is a very close second with lyrics like those from The Wild Side of Life.
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 Honey Tonk Angels
I might have known you’d never make a wife
You gave up the only one who ever loved you
And went back to the wild side of life…
This song was recorded by Hank Thomson in 1952 launching a career that would eventually sell 60 million records.
The great stars of American country would not even start evolving into the mainstream until 1922 but even by then most Americans remained unaware that a new sound and feeling was unfolding in American music. And so it is probably safe to say that country music as we know it today did not emerge until around 1923 when a radio station in Fort Worth, Texas began to broadcast a “barn dance” show. In the following year a Chicago station began broadcasting a barn dance that could be heard throughout most of the Midwest. From that time on the popularity of country was to expand countrywide becoming the most beloved by the most devoted fans in America and, for that matter, other parts of the world. The Cajun based lyrics written by Hank Williams (and a co-writer) in 1952 began with:
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
Jambalaya a-crawfish pie and a-file gumbo
Cause tonight I’m gonna see me machez mio
Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-o
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the Bayou
(I remember being in Chang Mai, Thailand near the Burma border in a small nightclub that had a local band performing. Being a little home sick, I ask if by any chance they knew the song Jambalaya. They did and they performed it well enough to put a tear in my eyes).
In any case, that is a brief history of America’s country music; a birth from the aspects of many other countries like the folk songs of Scotland and the Irish jigs; from the old square dances which were poor people’s versions of French formal dances; of black gospel and Mexican music. In this view, I suppose the question is was there anything original in American country music and the answer is yes…the lyrics. The lyrics were about life—its pains and pleasure, it’s falling into and out of love; about hard labor in such jobs as logging and coal mining. American country music was about the joys and sorrows of daily life, about lonesomeness and missing those we love but also about babies and family life and togetherness. And starting way back in the 20s the Carter family emerged into the country music business. Maybelle and her three daughters formed a quartet and one of her daughters, June, would pen ring of fire.
Love is a burning thing
And it makes a fiery ring
Bound by wild desire
I fell into a ring of fire
I fell into a burning ring of fire
I went down, down, down
And the flames went higher
And it burns, burns, burns
The ring of fire
The ring of fire
The song (rewritten a little by Johnny Cash and another lyricist) became a classic hit in 1962 but this was well after country music had become cemented in the American culture. Still, the recording by Johnny and June became a phenomenal hit:
The Heyday of Real Country Music
Actually it was Gene Autry who launched the Honkey Tonk style of country in the very early 1930s. He also recorded Mother Jones in memory of that great lady. But one of his giant hits was Mexicali Rose:
Mexicali Rose, stop crying
I’ll come back to you some sunny day
Every night you know that I’ll be pineing
Every hour of year, while you’re away
Dry those big brown eyes and smile dear
Banish all those tears and please don’t cry
Kiss me once again and hold me
Mexicali Rose goodbye.
Soon after this hit, yet another “singing cowboy,” Roy Rogers entered with a group named “The Sons of the Pioneers” with a song that would become an icon of country music—Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds.
Certainly country music supported the war years with songs like “There’s a gold star in her Window” by Tex Ritter, “Mother’s prayer” by Eddie Arnold and “Did you see my daddy over there,” Ernest Tubb. But it was after the war years that country finally spread its wings into America’s heart and mind.
Pee Wee King’s song, “Tennessee Waltz” was a big hit by 1950 but no wonder. The romantic lyrics told this story:
I was dancin’ with my darlin’
To the Tennessee waltz
When an old friend I happen to see
I introduced him to my loved one
And while they were dancin’
My friend stole my sweetheart from me…
There were just so many hits country music created from the mid-1930s but it wasn’t really until the postwar years 1945-1955 that western music began to blossom as America’s most beloved music. And, even though youth was turning to Rock ‘N Roll by the mid-50s, “downhome” country music and country singers remained, so to speak, in the soul of especially the “common, working folks” who make up most of the nation.
It was, in fact, 1955 that the Grand Old Opry made its television debut on ABC. The show was shot live with guests such as Kitty Wells, June Carter and Earnest Tubb performing their hits. The show didn’t last long then but its amazing future was, as no one was guessing back then, waiting in the wings.
The STARS of Country
It would take a very large book to name and explain all the country artists of our past. (In fact, there is a masterpiece of a book with title, Definitive Country, written by Barry McCloud and others. The book played an enormous role in my research for this article and I highly recommend it for any country fan who wants to know more about country performers).
What I will do, however, is talk about a few icons of country music:
I’ll start with Earnest Tubb because he is a major personal favorite of mine. He was nicknamed The Texas Troubadour and was extremely intrinsic I popularizing honky tonk. “I’m Walking the Floor Over you,” was his biggest hit.
Hank Snow is a giant in country music who was actually born and raised in Nova Scotia. As a youngster he ended up with a cruel stepfather and so he ran away from home at age 12 and became a cabin boy on a merchant marine ship. Snow signed a recording contract with RCA Victor (Montreal’s branch) and recorded two songs—they both became hits and his long career was launched. Then after a 45 year relationship with RCA the company simply dropped him in 1981. He was ageing and didn’t like where country music was going and made no bones about voicing his opinion. This might have been one of the reasons for the RCA decision?
Roy Acuff became a superstar of the 1940s. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1962.
Perhaps the reader will notice that I have failed to dwell on many female country singers so far. Well, country music was 99% male populated until 1952 when Kitty Wells became the first lady of country. She recorded, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” and it became such a big hit that she broke the barriers that the industry obviously had against female performers. Kitty Wells, however, was the real thing, as they say, as her country roots were deep and she was no stranger to hard times.
Another female icon is Dottie West beloved by country music fans. Dottie’s story is also one of toil and challenge. She was born the tenth child to her parents and raised picking cotton to help support the family. After her father deserted the family, her mother managed to open a restaurant and Dottie, working there, managed to earn a degree in music.
The fabulous Hank Williams. spoken of earlier, also came from a rural background. His parents were strawberry farmers. Hank, however, was already building his singing career by the middle of the 1930s and was destined to become admired by a world of fans but also by other performers in country music. The problem was that he lived hard and died young but in the doing, remains even to this day, a standard maker of true country.
Bob Wills is another superstar of traditional country. He was the major innovator of country swing and grew a tremendous career between the 1930s and 1950s. He is among the earliest to mix country with more of a pop feeling in its mood. Nevertheless, he too became an American legend of country music.
For me, however, there is none greater thanLoretta Lynn—well, for one thing she was born and raised by a coal mining family just as I was so, I suppose, I feel a particular empathy and love for her. Anyway, Loretta’s heydays in music didn’t arrive until the 1960s but then, the little girl from Butcher Holler would become America’s new (and lasting) queen of country. Her first recording, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” made it to number 15 on the charts and…well, the rest is history.
It would of course be somewhat of a sacrilege not to mention Patsy Cline when talking about country music’s icons. Once again her tale is filled with childhood pain. Her father sexually abused her when she was a child, and after he “flew the marital coop,” Patsy quit school at age 15 to help support her family. No one suspected that the young, Virginian was destined to become the most popular country singer in history…still holding the title! And, her song “Crazy” became the number one jukebox hit of all time. “Crazy” by the way was written by Willie Nelson.
There are just too many great country singers and musicians to mention within the limited space of an article but they include, Woody Guthrie, Minnie Pearl, Little Jimmy Dickens, Red Foley, Tex Ritter, Kenny Rogers, the Oak Ridge Boys, Emmylou Harris, Alabama, Johnny Cash, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Charlie Pride, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings and many more not nearly as well known like, Johnny Bush, Claude Casey, Carolina Cotton, Roy Harvey, Doug Kershaw, Donna Fargo and the list goes on.
As said, county peaked especially between 1945 and through much of the 1950s. While it has never lost popularity because the absolute devotion of country music fans, it did fail to keep producing the kind of music that erupted from the hearts of the performers. In many ways, has become an intellectual response to the mind of big business music producers. Then the 1980s had resurgence of heartfelt country and country was, if you will, “on the road again.” That was short lived, however, and only a handful of actual country-loving, calloused hand, heartfelt performers persist today and Willie Nelson is in the lead of them all.
Is Willy America’s Last Country Singer?
“This is your old cotton pickin’, snuff dippin’, tobacco chewin’, coffee pot dodgin’, dumplin’ eatin’, frog giggin’, hillbilly from Hill Country.” And this was the way Willy introduced himself as a disc jockey on Fort Worth’s KCNC back in1954. It wasn’t until the end of the 1950s that Willie decided to “go for it” as a country singer.
He sold the song he had written, “Family Bible,” for fifty dollars (a song that later made the top 10 by the way) and headed to Nashville with his family in his old 1941 Buick.
In Nashville his “office” became the Tootsie’s Lounge where he drank and pitched his songs.
Most of the songs that Willie wrote came up from his childhood past where he was raised in the small farming town of Abbott, Texas. He and his sister Bobbie were mostly raised by his grandmother after his parents split up. Anyway, back to the bar—Willie began making friends and soon enough his lyrics were being seriously looked at. Faron Young took Willie’s “Hello Walls” to the top and this followed “Crazy.” The Willie Nelson lyrics that Patsy Cline would eventually take to # 2 on the charts but Willie recorded the song earlier and it was this recording that perked Faron’s interest in his song writing talents.
As a quick aside Faron Young was also a country music phenomenon having one of the most successful country music careers with songs like, “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young” and “Country Gild.” Part of Willie’s success was as a lyricist and composer but he felt the drive toward a singing career. And so, a little later, singing for RCA he had some hits but none, at that juncture, had turned him into an important country star; he need a big single to push him over the top and it kept failing to arrive.
In the meantime, he was on his second marriage and that was failing so, if you will, life was not a song for Willie, at least not a happy one. One day he became so depressed he lay down in the middle of the road hoping a car or truck would run over him; the truth was, I believe, he simply wanted to escape himself because he felt as if he didn’t have a fighting chance in a world that he didn’t quite like or understand.
After this time of depression Willie decided to do something else so he tried pig farming. That wasn’t such a bad life but then his property burned down. As a result, he returned to performing but this time with an image that went against the grain of the clean cut image that country singers had. He clad himself in a T-shirt, ragged jeans and wrapped a bandana around his head. Growing his hair long, he became the image of a country-soaked hippy; a flower child with a lot of hard times behind him. This was, I believe, Willie wearing his inside self, at long last, on the outside. At last he knew who he was and that was a powerful and wonderful feeling. I suspect at that juncture of his life he simply didn’t give a hoot what anyone thought and that attitude would become far more positive for his career than probably even he imagined. For one thing, it took some time for the industry to adjust to the new Willie Nelson. But no matter what Willie looked like on the outside, he had become a sincere seeker studying subjects like positive thinking, karma and other Eastern and spiritual beliefs. In regard to this, I doubt if the public will ever know what Willie learned or discovered from all that studying but Willie knows, and for Willie that’s what matters.
As the world continued to rotate further into the 1970s,Wille Nelson became more and more popular with songs such as Georgia on my Mind, Whiskey River, My heroes have always been Cowboys and Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be Cowboys with Waylon Jennings and of course, “On the Road Again.” Then when life was just starting to feel great for the superstar the IRS hit him with a bill for millions and began stripping him of all he owned including homes and ranches, not excluding a private jet—Yes, Willie had gone from rags to that kind of riches and in spite of his IRS problems he was nevertheless elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame and proclaimed a “living Texas legend” by the governor. Today, he remains a living legend in the hearts and minds of countless fans and to a great many of those fans, including myself, he simply is, country music!
Can it really be so that Willie Nelson is America’s last (real) country singer? I think so and I’ll attempt to tell you, the reader, why: There are lots of truly great country singers these days just as there were in the past but the voice of “country” is not just a great tone, a great range or even a great voice. Country music is the calloused hands and sore backs of working people; it’s the sadness of lost love and, at the same time, the joy of family ties. Country music is tears on your pillow and good beer-drinking laughter but of course it’s also Saturday night celebration and Monday morning blues; it’s getting up after you’ve been knocked down and giving someone else a helping hand when they’re in need. Country music is neighborly; it knows what it’s like to worry about the bills, drive on bald tires and, at the same time, to raise up babies so they can grow up to have more than their folks did. Country music is about failing too; it’s about that twist in the pit of your stomach that says, “You could have done things differently…”
Country music is about home cooking and yes, mom and apple pie; it’s also about broken homes and broken hearts; it’s sometimes about being locked up and at other times about being free; it’s about the ups and downs and turnarounds of life itself! These are the elements, the very realities that I hear in the songs of Willie Nelson…there was a time when all country music was all about the root level of our humanism—it was all in the sounds that stretched between honky tonk and Cajun, of the old ballads and gospel. Willie has it all but I seldom even hear an echo of it in modern country but, of course, most of those old country roads are paved over now.