Country Rap Tunes: A Forgotten Tradition

Thursday, 25 August 2011 06:44 AM Written by 


In this week's  "Believe Your Ears" music podcast, PG Pop critic Scott Mervis interviews hot country star Jason Aldean.  The interview's interesting, though my eyebrows raised when I heard him talk about his # 1 single "Dirt Road Anthem," title track of his current hit album.  Written by Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert, it qualifies as a "country rap tune." Well and good, but it seems young Mr. Aldean considers the idea of country rap something new and groundbreaking--his generation's mark on country. There's just one problem: it ain't so.


Here's what he told Scott, who did a great job with the interview, on the August 24 "Believe Your Ears" music podcast.

"People like good music. They like good songs, and--you know-- if it's got a little rap, a little rap section in it, so what?  I mean—it's like if you look at a lot of what country music is right now, a lot of it's stuff we used to consider rock. And you know, It's just the process of music, man, and the way it changes and country music is now is different than it was in the 90s, in the 90's it was different than it was in the 80's…"

So what, indeed.  The first country rap recording appeared precisely 51 years before Aldean was born in Macon, Georgia in 1977. And songs that qualify as "rap" have been a hit country music formula since 1947, when one gave a major label its first million-seller.  Aldean's misconception is not surprising.  Aldean's lack of awareness is understandable. Few younger country singers (though there are always exceptions) have a frame of reference beyond the past 10-15 years or so.  But to set the record straight, we have...

Chris Bouchillon: "Talking Blues" 1926

This is where it all started. South Carolina musician Bouchillon recorded it in November 1926. Legend has it he didn't sing all that well, so he just decided to "talk" the song instead.   The idea would spread.

Woody Guthrie: "Talking Dust Bowl Blues" 1937

Woody Guthrie was not a mainstream country singer (though he actually got his start singing country and cowboy fare on Los Angeles radio early in his career), but he clearly heard Bouchillon somewhere along the line, hence "Talking Dust Bowl Blues." Wonder what inspired Bob Dylan's early "Talkin'" songs?  That's right.

Phil Harris:  "The Darktown Poker Club" 1946

This wasn't a country hit but it led to several of them, a good example of one genre influencing another. Jovial, hard-partying singer-bandleader Phil Harris was a regular on Jack Benny's radio programs and had a solo career going with talking tunes like "That's What I Like About the South."  In 1946 Harris had a major pop hit with this tune, written years earlier by African-American singer-songwriter-bandleader Bert Williams.

Tex Williams: "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette) 1947

Tex Williams was front man and leader of a California Western Swing outfit called the Western Caravan who in 1947 were about to be dropped by their label, Capitol Records. Anxious to save the contract, Williams visited his pal, singer-songwriter-guitarist Merle Travis (who'd recently written "16 Tons") asking if he could create a song. Travis saw seen Tex perform Harris's "Darktown Poker Club" onstage to great audience response and wrote a talker in that vein. "Smoke!" became Capitol's first million-seller.  Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen made it part of their repertoire a quarter-century later.

Hank Williams, Sr. "Fly Trouble" 1947

It's pretty clear Hank, like many other singers of this time, was influenced by the Tex Williams hit.  So was his musical mentor producer Fred Rose, a veteran songwriter who added his touch to this song, a tune he got from the Grand Ole Opry comedy duo of Jamup and Honey.  Hank recorded it in Nashville on August 4, 1947.  Never a hit, it remains a hot performance, perfect for jukeboxes of that day. The band was not his famed Drifting Cowboys but a group of freelancers. Alabama musician L.C. Crysel plays blazing swing fiddle; Herman Herron handles the steel and future Drifting Cowboy Sammy Pruett lays in the intense electric guitar. These solos were pure Bob Wills, an indicator of how Wills's instrumental sound was insinuating itself into Nashville records.

Red Foley: "Never Trust A Woman" 1948

Grand Ole Opry star Red Foley might wax mysoginistic on this number, but ironically, it was penned by Jenny Lou Carson, one of the first great female country songwriters.  It too was inspired by "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke's" success.

Charlie Ryan: "Hot Rod Lincoln" 1955

While many know "Hot Rod Lincoln" through later versions by Johnny Bond and the 1972 hit version by Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen, this was its beginning. Ryan, a minor-league singer from Washington State, wrote it in 1950, as an anwer to Arkie Shibley's hit 1950 recording of "Hot Rod Race," also a talking number. Ryan's became a country hit in 1960 and remains the better known of the two.  Cody and his current band still perform it onstage, as does ex-Lost Planet Airmen guitarist Bill Kirchen, with his group Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods.  This is Ryan's original.

Leroy Van Dyke: "Auctioneer" 1957

Leroy Van Dyke would later score ad a successful career, and is best known today for his 1962 "Walk On By," which spent 19 weeks at Number One.  But this, for Van Dyke, was the true beginning, and he delivered the auctioneer patter with total authenticity, inspired by his cousin, nationally famous auctioneer Ray Sims,   It's not a rap tune per se, but has the same flavor, and is one reason Van Dyke is particularly popular at livestock shows around the country.

Jimmy Dean: "Big Bad John" 1961

Jimmy Dean was acting in summer stock theater when he met a tall actor named John Mentoe, who Dean nicknamed "Big John." The idea of a song built around that name stuck in Dean's mind. He let his imagination run wild. In just an hour and a half, came up with this.  It was another of the "Nashville Sound" recordings that scored with country and pop audiences.  But this YouTube version has one twist.  It's the version with Dean's original lyrics.  Columbia Records made him change it to "big, big man" fearing a puritanical outcry over the use of the world "hell."  (we're talking 51 years ago!). In any case, it gave Jimmy Dean (who died in 2010) stardom beyond the country audience and helped get him into the Country Music Hall of Fame last year.

Hank Snow: "I've Been Everywhere" 1962

Canadian-born Hank Snow was one of the Grand Ole Opry's top stars when he recorded Australian Geoff Mack's number "I've Been Everywhere," originally a hit for Down Under singer Lucky Starr.  Adapted to US place names, it gave Snow a # 1 hit in November of '62.

You may have heard a later version by  Johnny Cash that Choice Hotels has used in their advertising.

Johnny Cash, "A Boy Named Sue" 1969

Of course, Cash himself put Shel Silverstein's "A Boy Named Sue" at the top of both the country and pop charts in the summer of 1969 with the version he recorded in concert at California's San Quentin Prison. This is Cash performing it on a 1970 "Tom Jones Show."

Dolly Parton,  "Joshua" 1970

Dolly Parton was the breakout star of Opry star Porter Wagoner's traveling show in 1970, not yet known beyond the country music audience.  Her original composition  "Joshua" was her first # 1 single.  This version comes from Porter's syndicated TV show.  Interestingly, her current music, after her decades of country-pop, is closer to this, her original sound.

Jerry Reed, "When You're Hot, You're Hot"  1971

Jerry Reed had been a successful studio guitarist, a songwriter known for such Elvis favorites like "Guitar Man" and "U.S. Male." But he never really hit big as a recording artist until he began writing and recording his own country rap tunes (produced by his buddy Chet Atkins). The first was "Amos Moses" in 1970. A  year later came this one, the biggest hit of his career. This rare 1983 version comes from a Toledo concert and begins with Reed clowning and explaining just how the song came to be.

C.W. McCall, "Convoy" 1975

CB radios are still in use today, but in an age of iPhones and satellite communication, they seem almost antiquarian.  In the mid-1970's, however, all things pertaining to trucking, including the CB, became cool, and everyone had their own "handle" (on-air nickname, not unlike online screen names or pseudonyms). It inspired an award-winning ad agency creative guy (think a 1970's Don Draper) named Bill Fries to write a mini-drama protesting regulations many truckers considered oppressive, taking jabs at "Smokeys," a trucker term for highway patrol or state troopers.  Fries put the song together, recorded it and it topped both the country and pop charts in 1975.

There are a few more I could put up, but I think I've made my point. If you enjoy Jason Aldean's "Dirt Road Anthem," great.  But don't think for a second country music didn't have its rap hits. It had plenty. It's really a tradition that's basically been hiding in plain sight.


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