The Western Influence
in Country Music
In the 1920s, largely through radio and recordings, country music had entered the world of popular music – that is, music created and delivered for commercial gain. It still sounded, however, very much like the authentic folk music of its origin. The topics of the songs, the instrument used, the manner of performing, the style and character of the "concerts", and the music itself were all just a cut above the level of non-commercial folk culture.
As country music moved into the 1930s, several substantial changes occurred. Two new traditions took shape – the cowboy and his music, and Western Swing as a special style category – and two old traditions came back strong – the "mountain culture" with its music and concerns, and a self-deprecating, "corn-ball" brand of humor.
THE SINGING COWBOY
During the Great Depression, waves and waves of poor folk traveled across the United States to find employment. John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath (1939) treated this subject with great compassion. As they moved across the nation's Dust Bowl, the poor farmers, share-croppers, and mountaineers from the East and central Mid-West encountered groups of unfortunates with similar social problems – cowboys, ranch hands, oil-rig workers, and other assorted drifters. They, too, had a rich musical heritage, and before long the two musical cultures merged into what journalists and scholars called for twenty years or so "country and Western music". Today, there seems to be a tendency to refer to this whole big mixed body of music as country music, and to designate specific sub-categories when necessary, such as Tex-Mex, old-timey, honky-tonk, cowboy, folk, Appalachian, bluegrass, flatland, etc.
Cowboy ("Western") music first came into the world of professional entertainment (including the vaudeville circuit) with Otto Gray and the Oklahoma Cowboys. Their radio broadcasts and personal tours were well received through the 1930s and 1940s.
The very first cowboy recording may have been made by Carl T. Sprague, "When the Work's All Done This Fall" (1924). Goebel Reeves (the Texas Drifter), Jules Verne Allen, and others became popular "cowboy entertainers" in the 1920s, mostly though the great power of radio and recordings.
America's favorite, and historically most important, singing cowboy – Gene Autry – was created not by recording and radio, however, but by the movies.
Born on a tenant farm in Tioga, Texas, Orvon Grover Autry (1907-1998) learned guitar from his mother, but also played saxophone as a teenager in the Field Brothers' Marvelous Medicine Shows. At age seventeen, he took a job as a telegraph operator for the Frisco Line in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. While working the midnight shift at the telegraph office, Autry had plenty of time to practice.
One night, a man entered the office to send a wire. He saw the guitar, and asked Gene Autry to play and sing a tune. Autry did. The stranger then returned the favor, singing a version of the old folk classic, "Casey Jones". After he left, Autry saw that the wire was signed by "Will Rogers". The famed humorist came in several times thereafter, and encouraged Autry, saying, "Work hard at it, and you may get somewhere" (Shelton 1971, 157).
Shortly thereafter, Autry made several recordings in New York, then took a steady job (1930-34) in Chicago on the WLS Barn Dance as "Oklahoma's Singing Cowboy". The Sears organization took notice of his growing popularity, and promoted his records on the Silvertone (Sears) label, along with a Gene Autry "Round Up" Guitar and assorted songbooks and guitar instruction books in the Sears-Roebuck catalogue.
In 1934, at age 27, Autry went to Hollywood for a screen test. He was good looking with a winning smile, and Republic Studios' president, Herbert Yates, wanted to cash in on the new craze for "musicals". Yates told his chief producer, Nat Levine, to find a "tuneful cowpuncher". Then, too, the National Legion of Decency was cracking down on films with "morally objectionable" content, and all the studios were searching for a new style of clean family entertainment.
Thus came the phenomenal rise of a new American hero, "the singing cowboy". Gene Autry became a household name. He made over one hundred films, wrote alone or with a partner some three hundred songs, and created a huge market for western style clothing, especially hats, boots, and fancy shirts. Autry made an asset out of his limited acting skills. Audiences loved that "shy cowboy" manner in everything he did.
Autry's B-movie "horse operas", as the critics called them, moved the cowboy film musical three large steps toward mainstream middle-class pop art.
First, the songs were nicely integrated into the narrative. Instead of interrupting the story, the songs pushed the plot forward. Autry's songs could sway a mob like a Marc Anthony speech. In one picture, he sang a message to a pal in prison. In another, he used a ballad to unmask some crooks. He could sing good citizens into fury, and villains into desperation (Shelton 1971, 159).
Second, his instrumentation moved toward mainstream pop. With the introduction of the piano accordion, pedal steel guitar, and occasionally a clarinet or muted trumpet, country music absorbed instrumental colors and textures from the world of Hollywood pop music.
Third, the tunes grew more sophisticated in their melodic contours and chord progressions. Autry's giant hit, "Back in the Saddle Again", is a big step away from the plaintive simple ballads of the 1920s. The same can be said for his most popular recording, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". It is a pop tune, not a country tune, in every regard.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Robert L. May, an office worker for Montgomery Ward and Company, wrote "Rudolph" as a children's story, and persuaded the company to publish the work and offer it for sale in Christmas of 1939. It was a great success. Veteran New York music man, Johnny Marks, wrote the tune ten years later, and asked Gene Autry to record it. Autry's 1949 recording became the second biggest seller in pop music history – up to that time – exceeded only by "White Christmas". Before it began marketing toys, clothing, movies, and became a television production, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" had sold one hundred thirteen million recordings in four hundred different versions in thirty-seven languages.
But Autry's career was already international before "Rudolph". All over the world, he was, as his publicity material declared, "America's Number One Singing Cowboy". During his visit to Dublin, Ireland, in 1939, seventy-five thousand fans crowded into the streets. In 1941, the town of Berwyn, Oklahoma, changed its name to Gene Autry, Oklahoma. In 1953, Autry purchased the Placeritas Ranch, near Newhall, California, where many Westerns had been filmed. He renamed it "Melody Ranch" and used its seventy-two buildings and extensive acreage as headquarters for his radio and movie production facilities.
In several movies, Autry paired up with his friend, Smiley Burnette, a comedian, hillbilly singer, and songwriter. Burnette provided the comic relief from the relentless good-guy image of Autry's movie persona.
Through brilliant investments, Gene Autry built an enormous financial empire in real estate, radio and television stations, film production studios, Western-style clothing stores, sports organizations, and recording and music publishing companies. As often happens in American show business, the "inventor" of a "new thing" – if surrounded by competent business team – becomes not only active and famous, but wealthy beyond measure.
Sons of the Pioneers
Canadian Bob Nolan (1908-1980) formed a guitar-vocal group, The Pioneer Trio, with Tim Spencer (1908-1974) from Missouri and Leonard Slye (1911-1998), from Cincinnati, Ohio. After the addition of brothers Hugh and Karl Farr, the trio became the Sons of the Pioneers, and went on to a big career in the country music industry.
Bob Nolan wrote several of the group's big hits, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and "Cool Water" among them, and shaped the close-harmony style which was their trademark. Their three- and four-part vocal style drew more from mainstream pop music than it did from genuine country music traditions. They were smooth and precise in delivery, careful to blend their matched vowel colors, skillful in their phrases, and more "in tune" than the country folk groups preceding them.
The Sons of the Pioneers set performance standards that later groups would have to meet – the Jordanaires, the Eagles, Alabama, and others.
Leaving the Sons of the Pioneers to strike out on his own, Leonard Slye changed his name to Dick Weston, and appeared in a few minor movie roles. In one of those minor parts, he gets into a film fight with Gene Autry, and Autry forces him to sing at gunpoint. This minor part in The Old Corral boded well for the young and handsome Dick Weston.
When Gene Autry left to work for Columbia, Republic changed Dick Weston's name to Roy Rogers, and launched his career as "King of the Cowboys". He became Gene Autry's only true rival for fame and fortune. After a short period of understandable competition, they became good friends and colleagues. Roy Rogers and his beautiful horse, Trigger, held their own with Gene Autry and his steed, Champion.
Roy Rogers teamed up with, and soon married, a former big-band vocalist, Dale Evans (1912-2001), who appeared in many of the one hundred or more movies which eventually materialized. One of his most endurable recordings was Johnny Mercer's western standard, "I'm an Old Cow Hand". Roy Rogers and Dale Evans backed out of show business gently, and began to devote more and more time to their investments, to their "Roy Rogers" restaurant chain, and to humanitarian concerns.
Born in Texas, Woodward Maurice "Tex" Ritter (1905-1974) aspired to a career in law at Northwestern University, but abandoned it for the Broadway stage, eventually appearing in five productions in the early 1930s. He made frequent radio appearances, and was largely responsible for the "vogue for cowboy songs that seized New York in the early 1930s" (Ewen 1977, 392). He went on to sixty films and a full-time passion for promoting the music he so dearly loved. An articulate and highly intelligent man, Ritter ran for the U.S. Senate in 1970, but lost and returned to the world of entertainment. His most famous recordings were "You Two-Timed Me One Time Too Often", "There's a New Moon Over My Shoulder", "Hillbilly Heaven", and "The Ballad of High Noon" (also known as "Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin'").
The singing cowboys brought country music to America's mainstream musical preferences. The melodic contours of the songs, the harmonies, the rhythms, and the whole "feel" of the musical experience had moved from Appalachian bibbed overalls to Hollywood and New York.
A classic "theoretical model" cowboy band took shape in movies to weave the musical fabric of the new style. Give or take an instrument, the model consisted of guitar, piano accordion, string bass, fiddle, Dobro or steel guitar, and perhaps a clarinet or muted trumpet. How the delicate mechanical parts of the piano accordion and clarinet could still function after three weeks of dust, cattle stampedes, fights, and barroom brawls was never explained in the plots of the movies. Nor was the fact that the cowboys just happened to have a bulky string bass with them up in there in the mountains of Montana. That's Hollywood.
The second big development in country music during the 1930s was a strange mixture of cowboy music with big band swing. Move the singing cowboy away from the campfire, put him on stage in the main ballroom of a huge hotel in Dallas, mix in several ingredients from mainstream 1930s big bands, and the result is "western swing".
By all accounts, one of the best western swing bands was that of James Robert Wills (1905-1976) from Limestone County, Texas. With guitarist Herman Arnspiger, the 24-year-old Bob Wills began to play for dances in the Fort Worth area. Adding vocalist Milton Brown, the team changed into the Light Crust Doughboys when they were hired to promote Light Crust Flour on station KFJZ.
After several moves and modifications fraught with legal battles with former advertising sponsors, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys settled into a long career based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They recorded with Brunswick, broadcast often over station KVOO, and played regularly for throngs of ballroom dancers at Carn's Academy.
Known as the "Father of Western Swing", Bob Wills had thirteen musicians in the 1930s and eighteen musicians in the 1940s. It was a true mixture of country and big band musical characteristics – country ballads, blues and riff-based dance-band jazz, saxophones and fiddles, trumpets and trombones, piano, bass, drums, guitar, steel guitar, boy singer, girl singer, vocal group, and all fronted by the talkative and personable leader.
Of Scotch-Irish and Cherokee heritage, Donnell C. Cooley (1910-1969), from Oklahoma, acquired the name "Spade" from an exceptional run of spades he once held during a poker game. At his peak, he was Bob Wills' chief rival for popularity and influence.
Billing himself often as the "King of Western Swing", Spade Cooley became a Hollywood extra, a business man with his own gigantic ballroom headquarters in Santa Monica, a radio star, and a successful band leader. His music was a mixture of good jazz, country, and commercial dance-band arrangements. He came up in the late 1930s and remained very popular through the 1940s.
A man of strong emotions, Spade Cooley killed his second wife in a quarrel. The story is still cloudy and controversial, but there were some reports at the time that his wife had a secret lover. In any event, Cooley went to prison for eight years, and, three months before he was to be released on parole, he died of a heart attack while on a 72-hour furlough to play a benefit concert in Oakland, California.
A WORD ABOUT STYLE CHANGES
Looking back with hindsight at the whole history of country music, the style changes now in seem tame. Back then, however, these were matters of fierce conflict. The old time country musicians hated the fancy cowboy singers with their rhinestone shirts, ridiculous ten-gallon hats, and "cheap" manufactured "popular" tunes. They were sure that America was losing its moral fiber, and the new "music" – if it could be called "music" – was just another example of how some people would sell their soul to the devil just to make a dollar. The cowboy singers and western swing musicians dismissed the traditionalists as a bunch of old fogies who were getting in the way of real progress.
When Bob Wills came to play on the Grand Ole Opry, he appeared with a set of drums among the instruments. The Opry officials were outraged, and would not let him perform with those "wicked" drums. He said he could not play without drums as they were central to his whole style of music, western swing. Finally, they compromised. Wills could perform as scheduled, but the drummer and his flashy gear would be placed behind a curtain. Wills would be able to hear the drums, but the audience would be spared the indignity of looking at those evil things.
Being an expression of profound subconscious values and attitudes, music generates strong opinions, and, generation after generation, the "new thing" is considered an insult to the "establishment". And the establishment leaps quickly from "insulting" to "evil". Things haven't changed much since Plato and Aristotle spoke about the dangers of undesirable music.
MOUNTAIN MUSIC RETURNS
The third big development in country music during the 1930s was an unexpected return to the original stuff. As if to grasp and celebrate the past, several talented personalities rejected the modern trends. It was probably not a specific, conscious effort; it was just natural for them to do what they did best.
A Baptist preacher's son, Roy Claxton Acuff (1903-1992) was born in Maynardsville, Tennessee, and spent his early years on a tenant farm in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains. Moving to Knoxville, he won thirteen athletic letters at Central High School, and was invited by the New York Yankees to their training camp in Florida. A serious sunstroke and its lingering complications ended his athletic career, so he began to develop his latent fiddle and vocal skills. Before long, he was good enough to join Doc Hower's medicine show for an extended tour of Tennessee. He then settled in the Knoxville area and landed a job on radio station WROL and later WNOX with his own band, called the Crazy Tennesseans.
To avoid any thought of being derogatory to his native state, Acuff changed the name of his string band to The Smokey Mountain Boys. Although he played fiddle quite well, Acuff put the spotlight on the other instruments – string bass, rhythm guitar, five string banjo (played in the old-fashioned frailing style), and the Dobro guitar – while he entertained his audiences with vocals, gentle comments about the music and the life style it symbolizes, and a variety of stage delights (tricks with his yo-yo, balancing the fiddle bow on his chin, etc.).
Beecher Ray "Pete" Kirby (1911-2002), known on stage as "Bashful Brother Oswald", played an unamplified Hawaiian-style Dobro guitar. Invented by the Dopera brothers in 1925, the Dobro has a metal vibrating disk which resonates acoustically to magnify the sound without any electrical amplification. The Dobro is played flat like a pedal steel guitar. It is, in fact, the historical ancestor of the modern pedal steel guitar. Kirby's masterful Dobro work was the main factor in the unique sound of the Smokey Mountain Boys for forty years or more.
In 1936, Acuff recorded the first of his most famous works, "The Great Speckled Bird". Set to the melody of "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blues", with an initial text by a little known preacher named Gant, "Speckled Bird" pictures the church as a group of persecuted individuals who will gain eternal salvation as a reward for their earthly travail. It is drawn from the ninth verse of the twelfth chapter of Jeremiah: "Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her."
"The Great Speckled Bird" became a favorite in some of the Pentecostal Holiness churches. Folklorist Vance Randolph heard it sung in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, as an Assembly of God hymn, and historian W. J. Cash claimed that it was an official hymn in the Church of God (Malone 1968,203).
Acuff's second hit, "The Wabash Cannon Ball", recorded at the same 1936 session, dips into hobo lore to describe a mythical train that will carry the hobo to the land of fantasy. During this tune, Acuff used to imitate a train whistle, but some dental work put an end to his train whistle in the 1960s. He sang "The Wabash Cannon Ball" every time he appeared on the Grand Ole Opry for at least forty years.
Given the title "King of Country Music" by Dizzy Dean, the famous baseball pitcher, Acuff kept his focus on sacred and mountain-style music. He believed so deeply in the songs and their meaning that he sometimes wept openly during performance. In 1942, he formed, with pianist-composer Fred Rose, the first publishing house to specialize in country music, Acuff-Rose Publications, Inc. The company was an enormous success and made both founders millionaires many times over.
Like Gene Autry, Roy Acuff became an international star. During World War II, he garnered more votes than Frank Sinatra in a popularity contest among the American troops in Europe. His open declaration of traditional American verities – home, motherhood, God, patriotism, truth, and justice – made him famous, indeed. Attacking an American military position on the remote island of Okinawa during World War II, the Japanese banzai charge shouted a battle cry meant to be the ultimate insult: "To hell with Roosevelt, to hell with Babe Ruth, to hell with Roy Acuff!" (Malone 1968, 206).
Even though Hollywood was creating its own western-pop form of the art, Roy Acuff was among hundreds of singers and instrumentalists who remained faithful to the mountain-culture roots of country music during the 1930s and 1940s.
All over the Mid-West, country music prospered on radio programs in its mountain-culture form and in its western-pop form. Often the two styles were mixed without any tension at all during the same performances. Each individual group had its own special personality, of course.
John Lair started his Renfro Valley Barn Dance in Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio, November 4, 1937, then moved it to Renfro Valley, Kentucky, in 1939. His basic group, the Cumberland Ridge Runners, and a wide variety of guests were broadcast over WLW in Cincinnati for many, many years.
Performing on WLW was, at the time, a big deal. From 1934 to 1942, WLW was known as "The Nation's Station", as it was the only station in the U.S. to broadcast at 500,000 watts, meaning WLW programming could be heard across most of North America, and, depending on atmospheric conditions, even as far away as Europe. (To give a bit of perspective, current stations can only broadcast at 50,000 watts, per Federal Communication Commission regulations put in place because WLW's signals were so powerful they effectively "blocked" other stations trying to transmit on the same wavelength.)
The WLW Boone County Jamboree broke records in 1941 playing to one hundred sixty-nine thousand persons on sixty-three programs in seven states during the summer fair season from July to October. Later known as the Midwestern Hayride, the organization featured the Willis Brothers, Bonnie Lou, Zeke Turner, the Geer Sisters, Kenny Price, and others in a its forty years of stage, radio, and television performances.
The same kind of record holds for the WWVA Jamboree from Wheeling, West Virginia, first heard in 1933 over its sponsoring radio station WWVA. Marshall Lewis "Grandpa" Jones was a big star in Wheeling for many years.
The Louisiana Hayride, broadcast first in 1948 over station KWKH, from Shreveport, served as training ground for Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Jim Reeves, Floyd Cramer, Elvis Presley and several other big league entertainers.
The Iowa Barn Dance in 1939 had the four Williams Brothers. One of them, Andy, went on to a fine career in popular music. Kansas City had the Bush Creek Follies. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, radio station WOWO aired its Hoosier Hop for many years.
Known occasionally as "The Dixie Dewdrop", "The King of the Hillbillies", and "The King of the Banjo Players", David Harrison Macon (1870-1952) remained an amateur entertainer until, at age 48, he tried to get out of a request appearance by asking the outrageous price, at that time, of fifteen dollars. To his surprise, the fee was paid. He promptly abandoned his mule-and-wagon transport company, and entered show business full time.
"Uncle Dave" became a celebrity with his own radio show, recording contracts, and personal tours. He was known for his slightly off-color stories, for his powerhouse banjo playing, for stomping his feet and cackling while he played, for drinking much whiskey, and for the many gold fillings in his broad and infectious smile.
Ernest "Pop" V. Stoneman (1893-1968), his wife, Hattie, and their thirteen children were an industry unto themselves. From 1924 to 1929, Pop recorded over 200 songs for Okeh, Victor, and other record labels.
The Great Depression, however, cut that part of his musical career short, as the family lost their home and most of their possessions. In 1947, though, the Stoneman Family won a talent contest at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., which gave them local exposure. In 1956, the Blue Grass Champs, a group consisting mainly of Stoneman children, won another talent contest, this time on the CBS television network. That win lead to tours and a recording contract from 1962-1970.
The Stonemans were known for authentic mountain-culture music on sometimes home-made instruments, with great attention to the story-telling character of all that they did. Theirs was pure string music with occasional judicious amplification.
The fourth big development in country music in the 1930s was the emergence of humorists as a central part of the country music entertainment industry.
All through the history of country music, there has been a fondness for self-parody, gentle insults, and puns. The earliest pioneers laced everything with incidental remarks before, during, and after the songs. Even their names revealed an inclination for the absurd: Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, The Gully Jumpers, Uncle Eck and His Hillbillies, Cousin Emmy and Her Kinfolks, The Fruit Jar Drinkers, etc.
It seems almost as though the country folk realized how "corny" their life-style and its music must have been to middle-class America. They had two choices: try to pretend it didn't exist, or go along with it and use it for a gain in entertainment appeal. They chose the latter, and several gifted singers and musicians drew away from their musical stills to devote themselves to comedy full time.
Born in Centerville, Tennessee, Sarah Ophelia Colley (1912-1996) began her career as a dancer fresh out Nashville's prestigious Ward-Belmont College, a liberal arts school for wealthy Southerners. Shortly before her marriage to businessman Henry R. Cannon, she took an appointment as a drama coach in Atlanta, Georgia. To entertain her friends, she would sometimes pretend to be a little country girl, Minnie Pearl. Her witty remarks caught everyone's interest, and she was recommended to the Grand Ole Opry officials for a brief appearance.
She was an instant success, and immediately became one of America's favorite comics. From the make-believe small town of "Grinders Switch", she offered wry suggestions to the ladies in the audience on how to "ketch fellers". Her wide-brimmed hat with the sales tag still affixed and her old-fashioned mountain-wife dress became as familiar to Americans as Charlie Chaplin's tramp suit (Shestack 1974, 198).
Known as "The Duke of Paducah", Benjamin Francis "Whitey" Ford (1901-1986) toured as a banjo player with a Dixieland group in the 1920s before hosting NBC's Plantation Party on WLW in the 1930s. Always ready with one-line zingers and clever remarks, Ford usually closed his act with a rousing banjo solo followed by his tagline, "I'm going back to the wagon, folks, these shoes are killing me." The jokes leading up to that line were standard, good, clean vaudeville fare.
Lulu Belle and Scotty
Husband-wife teams are favorites in country music, and one of the earliest and most successful was that of Myrtle Eleanor Cooper (1913-1999) and Scott Greene Wiseman (1908-1981). They became National Barn Dance regulars before moving to Cincinnati for a stint (1938-1941) on the Boone County Jamboree. Scotty wrote "Mountain Dew" (based on an earlier version of the song by Bascom L. Lunsford), "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?" (not to be confused with "Have I Told You Lately" written by Van Morrison), and several others. While in Chicago, their big hit was "Does the Spearmint Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?", written by Billy Rose, Ernest Breuer, and Marty Bloom.
In the 1940s they returned to Chicago, and continued working into the late 1950s. After their retirement, Scotty got a master's degree in education and fulfilled a lifelong ambition by becoming a college professor. Lulu Belle served a couple of terms in the North Carolina legislature.
Homer and Jethro
Guitarist Henry "Homer" D. Haynes (1920-1971) and virtuoso mandolin player Kenneth "Jethro" C. Burns (1920-1989) discovered that their parodies gained more recognition that their straight music, so they made a career out of spoofing major hits from the world of popular music. "Baby It's Cold Outside", "That Hound Dog in the Window", "Hernando's Hideaway", "The Battle of Kookamonga", and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" grossed millions for the duo and RCA Records.
The country music comics of the early years poked fun at themselves and the culture they represented, and they launched an industry still profitable and productive today in the radio and television industry. Hee Haw, which ran from 1969 to 1992, is probably the most famous (and durable) example, but Jeff Foxworthy, with his redneck jokes, and Larry the Cable Guy are more recent cases.