The Cowboy 1964
What is Classic Country Western Music? I imagine you could get a different answer from anyone you’d ask, depending on their age and what part of the country they’re from. I grew up in small towns in Iowa as a child in the 1960s. As a teenager, in the 1970s, I lived in Arizona. Country Music was a large part of the culture of both places in those days and music was a huge part of my life.
My family loved music. My Mom grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio with my Grandfather on a Saturday night. Grandma would listen to the popular songs on the radio and write the lyrics on the wallpaper in the kitchen while she worked so she could learn them. Mom played violin in the high school orchestra and was a Country Music fanatic. She knew all the songs and artists of the 1950s through to the time of her passing in 1996.
My Dad loved Big Bands, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. He had a such a good voice that people said he should audition for some of the bands when they passed through north Iowa and played the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, but he never did.
When the Beatles arrived in America in 1964, my brother bought a guitar and started playing in bands. During the 1970s and 1980s he played in bar bands across the Midwest and Arizona and even did live radio in Apache Junction, Arizona in the mid-seventies. He’s written over 300 songs, many of which I’ve produced and put up on YouTube. Today, he’s retired and teaches guitar.
Sometime around 1963, we bought a General Electric stereo that was encased in a hardwood cabinet. It looked like some elegant piece of furniture your great-grandmother might have brought over from the Old World on a steamship. The sound was amazing and I was allowed to use it, as long as I was careful.
Turn Your Radio On
Like any kid of the era, I usually had a transistor radio glued to my ear. My Grandma, the same one who wrote the lyrics on the kitchen wall, gave me my first radio in the spring of 1968. I remember listening to Rock, Country and Dixie Land Jazz on it. At night, you could pick up the ultra-cool Little Rock, Arkansas Bleeker Street Alternative-Hippie Rock AM station as they broadcast Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to the hinterlands of the Midwest where life had not yet moved much beyond the 1950s. I graduated to FM when we moved to Arizona in 1971 and can tell you, not only the song and artist from that era upon hearing a snippet of a tune, but the month and year it was a hit as well.
I picked up on KDKB FM, the hippest, Progressive Rock station in the valley by the time I was in high school at Apache Junction. Much of their programming was the nascent Country-Rock movement of the era, which included artists like David Bromberg, Jerry Riopelle, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Jerry Jeff Walker and a host of others who would inform the Outlaw Country movement later in the decade. I remember them interviewing Charlie Daniels in their studio after he’d performed at a local concert. They also had a Bluegrass program on Sunday mornings.
The first record I owned, or at least claimed as my own, was a copy of Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits. It was the early sixties and I was completely absorbed in Western movies and TV shows, so Johnny’s History/Story songs appealed to me to no end. My Mom was indulgent and let me play it on the family stereo. The first record I ever bought was the Beatles Come Together because I thought the lyrics were weird. I copied them out, meticulously playing the record over and over again until I had it right, then shared them with my friends at school, which got me in trouble with my fifth grade teacher who thought I was some kind of subversive as I also had flower power stickers on my notebook, which she ordered me to remove. Though he was no fan of Rock and Roll, my Dad, a believer in freedom of expression, told me I didn’t have to. About the same time, I also bought the politically incorrect Indian Giver by the 1910 Fruitgum Company. At eleven years of age, there’s not a lot of difference between the Beatles and Bubblegum Music.
Playin’ In The Band
Despite all of this, I had no interest to make music myself until I heard Jim Croce in 1973. His untimely death led to a flood of his music on the radio, but it was two TV specials that gave me an insight into his unique songwriting. The first was a tribute show that I believe aired on Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert and the second was a half hour concert on PBS. After viewing both, I was hooked. It wasn’t until recently that I perceived the direct lineage between Johnny Horton and Jim Croce. Both were as much storytellers as singers, their songs portraying unique slices of American life. This inspiration led to my taking up the guitar in 1974.
Eventually I joined my brother’s bands, first as a rhythm guitarist, the most useless creature on Earth, unless you’re also one helluva singer, which I’m not, and then on bass guitar, the instrument I realized I had an affinity for. We had an agent and made a living at it for a few years. In that era, every bar in every city and small town seemed to have a Country, or Rock band playing on a Saturday night and often throughout the week. We played Rock and Roll in the late 70s and early 80s, drifting toward Country-Rock by the mid-80s as the bar band scene died a slow, sad death due to the many changes live music underwent during those years. MTV, Cable TV, Home Video and other factors, led to a cultural shift moving much of personal entertainment away from the bars and into the home.
With that, came an expectation on the part of the audience for a level of performance that bar bands were not able to meet. It’s kind of hard to dance like Michael Jackson and sing like Garth Brook, swing from ropes and reproduce a song that was recorded on a 64 track mixing board with multi-tracked voices enhanced by equalizers capable of making tone deaf beauty queens and Chippendale dancers in cowboy hats sound like operatic tenors, with a four piece band playing through beat up amps on a plywood stage in a smoky barroom.
I offer this as an observation, not a lament. Everything changes. Publishers of Sheet Music complained at the turn of the century that records would bankrupt them and a few years later, the record companies went to war with radio in the 1930 and 1940s,, thinking it would destroy them. After all, who would want to buy records when you could hear the songs free on the radio? Sound familiar? Cassette tape and the ability to copy an album scared the hell out of the record companies in the 1970s and now Internet has opened up access to every kind of music and entertainment to every corner of the planet. Riding a horse beat walking and driving a car beat the horse and buggy. What can you do?
End Of An Era
By the end of the 80s, I’d quit the performing end of the music business and gone back to college. Giving up playing live was damned hard. It’s not something you just walk away from. The transition was a combination of not only changing your profession, but losing the addictive adrenaline rush and personal satisfaction of stepping in front of a live audience and keeping them entertained for four hours. During those years I learned how to juggle a song list, to read an audience’s mood, to keep them on the dance floor, alternating fast boogie with slow dancers, bringing the night to a hard Rockin’, or Country stompin’ peak before slowing it down to let the management begin clearing the place out by closing time. I harbored dreams of going back to it for a decade after I walked, or more accurately, was pushed out the door, which is the fate of most musicians at some point in their lives.
Still, music was in my blood. I had started seriously writing toward the end of the band days. In 1989 I sent a demo to Shelby Singleton, whose name I’d gotten out of the Songwriter’s Market book. At the time, I didn’t really know who he was, just a name in a book this being in the days before Internet. Shelby was kind enough to write a personal letter back, encouraging me to keep writing. He thought one of the songs had potential, but it needed a professional demo, which was true. I recently discovered that Shelby was big time in Nashville. He had produced Jeannie C. Riley’s hit Harper Valley P.T.A., among many other hits. I’ve never had a song produced, but it was a grand compliment that he took an interest in my music.
Just Folks Like You n’ Me
Shelby’s decency was representative of an era gone by. When I was a kid, Country Music was small time, with a local feel to it. I remember seeing Red Sovine perform at the high school gym in Charles City, Iowa in 1967 when he had a hit on the radio with Phantom 309. Little Jimmy Dickens and many other Country singers played the Gem Movie Theater in Charles City, Iowa during the 1950s. Freddy Fender invited my cousin and her husband onto his tour bus after a show in the 1980s and entertained them as if they were royalty. Marvin Rainwater played the same bars we were playing, albeit at the end of his career, in the 1980s.
My parents watched Marty Robbins filming his last Cowboy Movie, Guns Of A Stranger, at Apacheland Movie Studio in Apache Junction in 1972. He talked to them between takes and gave autographs. Another cousin used to watch Buddy Alan, Buck Owens’ son, perform in Phoenix in the 1960s. When Buck was in town, he would sit with her at the table and regale her with tales of the road. After a show in 1959 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, my Mom met Jeannie Shepherd, who told her she made one penny per record she sold.
I’m not saying these people were saints, they weren’t, but they were real, honest to God human beings, not manufactured make-believe muscle bound cowboys and plastic beauty queens who sing with phony Southern accents and invent down to Earth histories for themselves. I’m not naming names, but you can look at the list of Country hit makers over the last 25 years and know who I’m talking about. Worst of all is, they sound like homogenized Pop-Rockers from the 80s. The only way you know they’re Country is by the phony accents they sing with.
A Country hit sold ten to a hundred thousand copies in the old days, one tenth that of a Pop hit. It was a living, not Hollywood stardom for the most part. It was a profession one you had to love, as it entailed touring 300 plus days a year, playing county fairs, movie houses and high school gymnasiums. A few hit it big, like Johnny Cash, but only a few.
A Rose By Any Other Name
Getting back to the question I posed at the beginning of this page, I define Classic Country Western Music as anything from its inception in the 1920s when Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family brought African American Country Blues and Appalachian Folk Songs to a wide audience, through its coalescence in the 1940s and 1950s, to its defining period of syndicated TV shows, Nudie Suits and Big Hair in the 1960s and the Outlaw Movement and Country-Rock Sound of the 1970s. By the late 1980s, Country was moving toward becoming just another arm of the corporate, coast to coast, music business, which swallowed it whole in the 1990s.
Your definition of Classic Country may differ, but mine is a big tent, that allows in a lot of Pop artists and other, perhaps tenuously, related singers, songwriters, movies and memories. I want also to highlight obscure artists who sound more topical today then they did 50 years ago, but not to the exclusion of the hit makers and trendsetters. A lot of Classic Country was blatantly corny and shamelessly aimed at what was considered a hillbilly market in its era, but that’s part of its charm and I will not shy away from it.
This blog would be impossible without YouTube. I extend my gratitude to the many posters who have rescued the classic clips from oblivion you’ll see on this blog and urge you to explore YouTube for Classic Country Music, as it there is a goldmine of it available, hidden alongside the cats flushing toilets videos.
I’ve used the Northern Writer Blog for a number of things over the years, but as I near sixty, I feel an overwhelming need to reconnect with my musical roots. Maybe it’s just missing my Mom, who was such a huge Country fan. She didn’t like what it was becoming before she passed away and I know she would be devastated at what it’s become, so Mom, this is dedicated to you.
Mom, Dad & Me 1960
You’ll also find cobwebbed corners on NorthernWriter.com that celebrate the fun and lunacy of Classic Comic Books from the 1940s to the 1970s, Pop Music, pure nostalgia and whatever comes to mind. Stop back often for updates and feel free to offer your own thoughts, memories, requests and suggestions.
I hope you enjoy.