Me: I heard something you did over 30 years ago, a record with Tex Williams at the Mint in Las Vegas . . . you let rip with a real hot solo.
Glen: “My Window Faces the South!” That was the early sixties. What was Roger Miller’s line? “I don’t think I’m half as good as I really am.”
I interviewed Glen Campbell just once, in 1995, for Country Music Magazine's "20 Questions With" feature, not unlike Trish Sheridan's old "Breakfast With" PG feature. I thought back to an old record I had, recorded nearly a decade before Glen became a star, in the days he was an obscure LA sideman. I wasn't sure he'd remember it, but I thought, what the hell? And I got my answer--spot on. The rest of the interview was terrific as he talked about the changing country music industry, which he didn't care for. He couldn't contain his pride over his days as part of the loose group of elite LA session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, which included Leon Russell, Hal Blaine, Tommy Tedesco and Carol Kaye.who worked with everyone from the Byrds to Sinatra. His memory then was impregnable.
2017’s Country Music Hall of Fame inductees constitute three artists whose elections were neither controversial nor open for debate. One has been a top-echelon star since 1989, and remains active today. The veteran, deceased for nearly a decade was an innovative guitarist, gifted songwriter and engaging, boisterous vocalist. The third category, which honors someone within the industry, be it producer, publisher or songwriter, also honors one of Nashville’s great writers of the past four decades.
This week New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica investigated country music's increased connections with hip-hop. He notes "country has been on a collision course with hip-hop for the last few years," citing Blake Shelton's 2013 hit recording of "Boys 'Round Here" as proof even traditionalist singers are embracing the form. He views that, and the work of country rappers including Colt Ford and Big Smo, as part of a "generational shift" altering the music. He dutifully notes earlier, less successful forays into country rap by Big & Rich and Nashville's Musikmafia (remember Cowboy Troy?).
In his exhaustive reporting in print and online discussions on the Times Popcast, Caramanica seems convinced he's discovered a drastic change in the context of today's country. He may be correct. Alas, he's clearly unaware the concept of "rap" existed in country and roots music to varying degrees for nearly four generations, a few such tunes highly popular with the great-grandparents of today's Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean fans. This update of a 2011 post explains it all.
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.
If you enjoy the current country rappers, fine. But don't think for a second as the Times did, that it's something revolutionary. It's actually a tradition, hiding in plain sight.
This is Chet Atkins and his fingerstyle guitar friend and protege Jerry Reed, performing a song Chet he first heard performed by his primary guitar role mentor and close friend, the late Merle Travis, also a hero of Reed's. The song is "Cannonball Rag." You hear Chet in the left speaker, Jerry in the right.
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.