Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys
My entry into country was largely through the artists that had most obviously incorporated the influence of African American music, so the western swing sound of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and others in the late 1930s-40s was an early favorite. The Playboys and other western swing artists from Texas and Oklahoma not only absorbed jazz and swing, they also incorporated blues, boogie, Mexican, mainstream pop and polka influences. In western swing I found the infectiously danceable rhythms, hot instrumental solos and sense of humor that I did not find in most of the country music I heard on the radio during the 1960s-70s. By the way, is the singer actually rapping on "Stay a Little Longer?"
Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys: "Stay a Little Longer" on YouTube (click here if the embedded video does not play)
Hank Williams (late 1940s-early 50s) was the other country music giant that drew me into the genre early on with the quality of his writing and the haunting emotional honesty of his voice. If only every country ballad could ring as heartfelt and deep as his "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and other classics. As heard with "Move it on Over," Hank could also be humorous, danceable and had a fine band of players.
Hank Williams "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" on YouTube (click here if the embedded video does not play)
Hank Williams "Move it on Over" on YouTube (click here if the embedded video does not play)
The Maddox Brothers & Rose
The Maddox Brothers & Rose (late 1930s-early 50s) were known as "America's most colorful hillbilly band" and deserved the title. They dressed flashy before it was commonplace and played a variety of western swing, honky tonk, boogie and other country styles with great enthusiasm, skill and irreverent humor. Upright bassist Fred Maddox is credited as one of the first (1937) to use the "slap bass" technique which was later associated with rockabilly in the 1950s.
The Maddox Brothers & Rose "Milk Cow Boogie" on YouTube (click here if the embedded video does not play)
Moon Mullican (late 1940s-60s) can be considered the missing link connecting western swing with rockabilly. His easy-going smooth voice and highly rhythmic piano playing incorporated a lot of blues and boogie and he is credited as a major influence on Jerry Lee Lewis. The influence is easy to hear, but Moon comes off content and relaxed compared to the manic and edgy Jerry Lee. The song Cherokee Boogie was credited to Mullican and Chief William Redbird.
Moon Mullican "Cherokee Boogie (Eh-Oh-Aleena)" on YouTube (click here if the embedded video does not play)
Hank Thompson (most popular 1950s-1970s, performed until 2007) is often credited for keeping the western swing sound alive in the 1950s and 60s. Hank's distinctively smooth but versatile voice, strong writing and a band that often included Merle Travis on guitar did some great recordings.
Hank Thompson & His Brazos Valley Boys "How Cold Hearted Can You Get" on YouTube (click here if the embedded video does not play)
Hank Thompson "Drivin' Nails In My Coffin" on YouTube (click here if the embedded video does not play)
Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant
Being introduced to the music of the instrumental duo of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant (1950s) was a revelation. The steel guitar/guitar duo seemed totally unimpaired by limitations of skill or genre, they could play anything as well or better than anybody else. They wrote brilliantly eclectic tunes full of surprises and humor and displayed amazing speed, nuance and musicality. Their personalities really came out in their playing. Speedy could imitate birds, trains and many other novelty sounds into his often sly and exciting solos, but could also bring the moanful sadness when necessary. Jimmy was fast as hell and brought more of the jazz influence with his cool tones and swingingly melodic solos. Besides recording several brilliant instrumental albums they also kept busy performing and recording with many other artists, most notably with Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Jimmy Bryant & Speedy West "Stratosphere Boogie" YouTube (click here if the embedded video does not play)
Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant "Caffeine Patrol" on YouTube (click here if the embedded video does not play)
Tennessee Ernie Ford
Tennessee Ernie Ford (most popular late 1940s-1970s, performed into the 1980s) could be pretty sappy and corny at times, especially with some of his more religious material, but he also had a great sense of humor and recorded some fun country boogie during the 1950s with Speedy and Jimmy providing the hot solos. The boogie style usually involves lyrics with double entendres, but Ernie manages to keep his lyrics as clean as imaginable.
Tennessee Ernie Ford "Shotgun Boogie" on YouTube (click here if the embedded video does not play)
This song should be considered one of the great American standards. The first release of this song was by Savannah Churchill with The Red Norvo Quintet in 1949. Dinah Washington recorded it in 1950, the same year as this version. Several other versions also hit the pop. country and rhythm and blues charts that year. Note the way that the lyrics of this song by Bennie Benjamin and George Weiss are natural and conversational, without any obviously forced rhymes. That same quality is also found in Don't Let Me be Misunderstood (Nina Simone, The Animals), also co-written by Bennie Benjamin.
Kay Starr and Tennessee Ernie Ford "I'll Never Be Free" on YouTube (click here if the embedded video does not play)
More Hot Guitarists
Some of my favorite country is from the several hot guitarists that emerged in the 1950s. Players like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins proved themselves capable of playing anything during their long recording careers, but they favored polyphonic fingerpicking styles primarily influenced by Appalachian and southern traditional music. I prefer the more jazz and boogie influenced players such as Jimmy Bryant who were most influenced by jazz guitarist Charlie Christian and jazz-country-pop innovator Les Paul.
Joe Maphis was one of those jazzy players and he also wasn't afraid of playing rock and roll in public. This great clip from the Town Hall Party TV show (shot in Compton, CA) shows Maphis playing with Larry Collins, a very young rockabilly player (in the Collins Kids with his sister) that he mentored, and Merle Travis jumps in also. (Fun fact: Larry Collins later wrote the 1970s hit song Delta Dawn which was recorded by both Helen Reddy and Tanya Tucker.) Both Joe and Merle were in the house band. There are a lot of excellent videos out there on DVD and YouTube featuring great country and rockabilly performers playing live on the Townhall Party TV show. The song "Wildwood Flower" dates back to 1860 and was recorded by the original Carter Family in 1928.
Joe Maphis, Larry Collins & Merle Travis on guitars "Wildwood Flower" on YouTube (click here if the embedded video does not play)
Another great country player with strong jazz tendencies is Hank Garland. His later albums were straight jazz with little country influence audible.
Hank Garland and His Sugar Footers "Hank's Dream" on YouTube (click here if the embedded video does not play)
Hank Garland "Sugarfoot Rag" on YouTube (click here if the embedded video does not play)
Truck Driver Music
By the 1960s, country music styles changed considerably with much of the jazz, blues and boogie influence removed from the music, the acoustic stand-up bass replaced by the electric bass guitar, and the guitar tones now twangier and less jazzy. The Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard kept a bit more of country's rhythmic strength, but for a strong, driving rhythmic sound Truck Driver music was the most reliable subgenre. Here are two classic examples:
Dave Dudley "Six Days On The Road" on YouTube (click here if the embedded video does not play)
Red Simpson "The Highway Patrol" on YouTube (click here if the embedded video does not play)
To be continued.
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