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George Jones. The Possum. Possibly the man whose life and story embody the themes of a country song better than anyone. From rags to riches, back to rags, and eventually onto rehabilitation and redemption, George Jones was a man that faced demons more fierce than any of us can imagine, and eventually came out on top. Was he a badass? You bet, and here’s 10 reasons why.
- 10 Badass Willie Nelson Moments
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- 10 Badass Merle Haggard Moments
- 10 Badass Marty Stuart Moments
1. Flipping the Dinner Table at Tammy Wynette’s House
Before George and Tammy were married, George went over to Tammy’s house one night to have dinner with her and her then husband, songwriter Don Chapel. George knew Tammy through their mutual booking agent. While fixing dinner, Tammy and Don Chapel got in a heated argument, resulting on Don calling Tammy a “son of a bitch” in front of George. George, secretly hiding his admiration with Tammy, lost it.
“I felt rage fly all over me,” Jones said in his autobiography. “I jumped from my chair, put my hands under the dinner table, and flipped it over. Dishes, utensils, and glasses flew in all directions. Don’s and Tammy’s eyes got about as big as the flying dinner plates.”
George professed his love for Tammy right then and there, and the country music couple were soon married.
2. Helping To Found ACE — The Association of Country Entertainers
George Jones was never considered an Outlaw, but he participated in one of the most significant precursors to country music’s Outlaw revolution in the mid 70′s. Some know the story of Charlie Rich burning the envelope announcing John Denver as Entertainer of the Year at the CMA’s in 1975, but it was the year prior when the stink had begun about performers outside of the country genre walking away with the industry’s accolades. Olivia Newton-John’s win in 1974 for Female Vocalist of the Year caused such a stir that traditional and even pop-leaning country performers at the time organized behind the acronym “ACE” that stood for “Association of Country Entertainers”.
Spearheading ACE was George Jones and then wife Tammy Wynette, and the inaugural meeting of ACE was held at their Tennessee residence. Other participants in ACE included Dolly Parton, Bill Anderson, Porter Wagoner, Faron Young, Conway Twitty, Hank Snow, Mel Tillis, Barbara Mandrell and more than a dozen others. ACE demanded more representation of traditional artists on the CMA’s Board of Directors, and more balance on country radio playlists (does any of this sound familiar?).
Just how successful ACE was can be argued, but it was the precursor to future organizations looking to restore balance and better representation from the CMA, and helped usher in country music’s Outlaw movement and the return to a more traditional sound that the mid 70′s saw in country.
3. Riding a Lawnmower to the Liquor Store
The first and most well-documented lawnmower incident was the late 60′s. George Jones was living 8 miles outside of Beaumont, TX with his then wife Shirley Ann Corley. Jones had experienced a few #1 hits by that time, and his success fueled his wayward ways with alcohol. He was drinking so bad, his wife Shirley resorted to hiding all the keys to the vehicles before she would leave the house so George wouldn’t drive to the nearest liquor store in Beaumont.
But that didn’t stop him. After tearing the house apart looking for a set of keys one time, George looked out the window to see a riding lawnmower sitting on the property under the glow of a security light. “There, gleaming in the glow, was that ten-horsepower rotary engine under a seat. A key glistening in the ignition,” George recalled in his autobiography. “I imagine the top speed for that old mower was five miles per hour. It might have taken an hour and a half or more for me to get to the liquor store, but get there I did.”
The second, lesser-known incident of George Jones’s escapades on a riding lawnmower happened when he was married to Tammy Wynette. Taking a cue from George’s previous wife Shirley, Tammy hid all the keys from George, but George had been down that road before. Wynette woke up one night at 1 AM to find George missing. “I got into the car and drove to the nearest bar 10 miles away,” Tammy recounted in 1979. “When I pulled into the parking lot there sat our rider-mower right by the entrance. He’d driven that mower right down a main highway. He looked up and saw me and said, `Well, fellas, here she is now. My little wife, I told you she’d come after me.’”
The George Jones lawnmower incidents later went on to be memorialized in many country videos, including Hank Williams Jr.’s “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight,” Vince Gill’s 1993 hit “One More Last Chance” that includes the line, “She might have took my car keys, but she forgot about my old John Deere,” and John Rich’s “Country Done Come to Town,” and George’s own “Honky Tonk Song.”
4. Recording “He Stopped Loving Her Today”
Yes, it could be easy to highlight George’s signature song and say it was awesome for him to cut it, but the story behind “He Stopped Loving Her Today” goes much deeper. The song not only saved George’s career, it potentially saved his life, and all of this is from a song that at first he didn’t want to record because he thought it was too depressing, too long, and nobody would play it. It eventually became his first #1 in six years, salvaged his career, introduced him to a new generation of fans, and solidified his place as one of country music’s biggest ever superstars. Jones himself says about it, “A four-decade career had been salvaged by a three-minute song.”
Written by Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Braddock (who you can argue would not be a Hall of Famer if it weren’t for the song), along with Curly Putnam, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” went on to spend 18 weeks at #1, won the Grammy for Best Male Country Performance in 1980, both the ACM for Single and Song of the Year, and was the Song of the Year from the CMA’s for 1980 and 1981. After George’s death, the song re-entered the charts at #21. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” deserves to be in that elite class of songs that can be argued are the greatest country music songs of all time.
5. Being The Best Male Duet Partner in the History of Country Music
When you have the best voice in country music, your services as a duet partner are going to be called on early and often. And despite George’s body of solo work being worthy of a Hall of Fame career, his work as a duet partner is unparallelled itself. Country music stars young and old, male and female lined up to take advantage of his voice over many decades, and duets accounted for five of the fourteen #1 hits George had over his storied career. Here’s a rundown of just some of the people George performed duets with over the years:
•Tammy Wynette •Loretta Lynn •Buck Owens •Waylon Jennings •Willie Nelson •Johnny Cash •Dolly Parton •David Allan Coe •Jerry Lee Lewis •Hank Williams Jr. •Patty Loveless •Lynn Anderson •Emmylou Harris •Ricky Skaggs •Garth Brooks •Tracy Lawrence •Charlie Daniels •Marty Stuart •Merle Haggard •Ralph Stanley •Randy Travis •Vince Gill •Alan Jackson •Sammy Kershaw •Shelby Lynn •Mark Chesnutt •Travis Tritt •Barbara Mandrell •Brenda Lee •Shooter Jennings •The Staple Singers •Keith Richards •B.B. King
6. Walking out of the CMA Awards
Ahead of the 1999 CMA Awards, George Jones was enjoying yet another resurgence in his career. Jones was slated to perform the song “Choices” on the CMA’s, but when producers insisted he must sing an abbreviated version, he walked out of the ceremonies and boycotted the show.
In a super act of class and solidarity, Alan Jackson halfway through his performance of “Pop A Top,” stopped down and shifted gears to perform “Choices” in protest. The event has gone on to be considered one of the biggest moments of country protest in the history of the genre.
7. Recording “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?”
Throughout his career, George Jones held fast to the ideals of traditional country music, and wasn’t afraid to fight for them, or speak out about what was happening in the genre. And as one of the few artists who registered hits in multiple decades (according to Billboard, Jones had more “hits” than any other country artist), when George Jones spoke, people listened.
George’s song “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” comes from the 1985 album of the same name, and was written by Troy Seals and Max D. Barnes. It’s a poignant tribute to the history of country music and its previous greats, while calling attention to the abandonment of country’s roots. The song was so potent, the phrase “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?” has become one of the most popular go-to colloquialisms concerning the state of country. The song was also a hit, rising to #3 on the Billboard country chart in 1985.
8. Overcoming His Personal Demons
Some people assume that becoming a rich celebrity solves many of your problems, when for many artists it exposes and fuels their problems. Such was the case for George Jones, who had major issues with alcohol, and later in his career, drugs. At one point in 1979, despite being one of the best-selling artists in the history of country music, he was bankrupt and destitute, living in his car, weighing around 100 pounds and living off of junk food. George spent time in mental institutions tied to his drinking multiple times and had to be straighjacketed on numerous occasions. He became known as “No Show Jones” because he missed so many engagements over his career.
But in many ways George Jone’s bad behavior only helped his reputation. His fans didn’t turn on him, they loved him more because they could relate to him and their own personal struggles, and because he was such a great artist and performer when he would show. Alan Jackson once said about Jones, “…what I like most about George is that when you meet him, he is like some ole guy that works down at the gas station…even though he’s a legend!”
Waylon Jennings and others first helped get George Jones sober in the early 80′s, and the result was a resurgence in his career. However later in life George Jones would fall back into his old habits. George gave up drinking and drugs for good in 1999 after wrecking his car and spending two weeks in the hospital. After the crash he pleaded guilty to drunk driving charges. Jones told Billboard later, “…when I had that wreck I made up my mind, it put the fear of God in me. No more smoking, no more drinking. I didn’t have to have no help, I made up my mind to quit. I don’t crave it.”
9. Wanting to Die Performing
Some artists perform because they want to, others perform because they have to. In March of 2012, George Jones was hospitalized with an upper respiratory infection. The 80-year-old performer was having trouble breathing, and it was thought that he didn’t have much more time before his lungs would fail him. Instead of heading home to recuperate and potentially prolong his life, George set to planning a 60-date farewell tour, culminating in a star-studded event set to transpire at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena in November of 2013 with over 50 special performers.
According to George’s wife, before he even left on the tour, he knew he would not make it to the finale. Doctors said he was in no condition to perform or tour, but he did anyway. On April 18th, 2013 George Jones was hospitalized in Nashville, missing tour dates in Alabama and Salem. He eventually passed away on April 26th, 2013 at the age of 81.
10. Having The Greatest Male Voice in the History of Country Music
- “When people ask me who my favorite country singer is, I say, ‘You mean besides George Jones?’” — Johnny Cash
- “The greatest voice to ever sing country music.” — Garth Brooks
- “The second best singer in America” — Frank Sinatra
- “If we all could sound like we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones,” — Waylon Jennings
- “Anyone who knows or cares anything about real country music will agree that George Jones is the voice of it.” — Dolly Parton
When it comes to the preservation of the history and sound of country music, you can make the case there is nobody who does it better and with more passion and dedication than Marty Stuart. Tireless and true to his convictions, from his music, to his archive of memorabilia, to his presence on television and the Grand Ole Opry stage, and to some of the thankless things he does well out of the public eye, Marty Stuart embodies everything behind the idea of Saving Country Music, and is a badass of the genre if there ever was one.
- 10 Badass Willie Nelson Moments
- 10 Badass Waylon Jennings Moments
- 10 Badass Johnny Cash Moments
- 10 Badass Merle Haggard Moments
1. Paying His Dues with Johnny Cash & Lester Flatt
Unlike many of the country music prima donnas who’ve set up shop in country music recently, Marty Stuart comes from the school that believes you have to pay your dues in country music before it’s your turn in the spotlight. Marty Stuart started playing professionally as a sideman in Lester Flatt’s bluegrass band in the early 70′s at the tender age of 14 under the tutelage of legendary mandolin player Roland White. Marty stayed with the band until 1978 when it split up because of Lester’s failing health.
After spending a couple of years working with Vassar Clements and Doc Watson, Marty joined Johnny Cash’s band in 1980, and stayed there for half a decade as both a sideman and a studio musician. Stuart also married Cash’s daughter Cindy in 1983. The two divorced five years later after Marty left Cash’s band to pursue a solo career.
2. Keeping One of the Biggest Archives of Country Music Memorabilia
Marty’s vast collection of country music memorabilia is one of the biggest in country music. It has been featured at the Tennessee State Museum, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and pieces are regularly loaned to the Country Music Hall of Fame for exhibits.
“I went to the first Hard Rock and I saw The Beatles, The Stones, Otis Redding, The Who, all their stuff on the wall. And in my mind I went, ‘Well that’s just as important if it’s Porter Wagoner, Hank Williams, George Jones, and who on.’ And so when I came back to America, I made it a mission. I mean it became my whole focus at that time. Get a record deal, start a band, make them look cool, and get all of the country music artifacts you possibly can and preserve them, lock them down, because they’re getting away fast.
“Everything was changing in country music. The look of it, the sound of it, and this stuff was just a throwaway…The ultimate mission is not just to preserve this stuff, protect it, promote it, save it, but to get the music into the hands and hearts of young people that are coming through and [saying), “Well I want to do that, but they tell me I have to be like so and so.” But we’ve already got one of those. Be who you are, at any cost.” (read full story)
3. Inviting Cool Artists Onto The Grand Ole Opry
Playing the Grand Ole Opry stage is one of the biggest thrills and highest honors any artist within the country music realm can be bestowed, but it is not an easy one achieve. One way to grace the stage is to be invited up by a standing member to play during their set, and that is how young, up-and-coming stars like Sturgill Simpson, to one of the oldest living country stars still around, the 90-year-old Don Juan Maddox of The Maddox Brothers & Rose both made their first appearances on the hallowed stage of the storied institution. Marty was also the man who officially invited Old Crow Medicine Show recently to become The Opry’s newest members; the first traditional -leaning band to be invited in the last half decade.
4. Hummingbyrd & The Clarence White Guitar
As explained above, Marty Stuart has many pieces of country music memorabilia, but none of them may be as prized as his guitar affectionately called Hummingbyrd. The 1965 Fender Telecaster was originally owned by famous guitarist Clarence White—a studio musician, member of The Kentucky Colonels, and most-famously, the guitarist for The Byrds (hence the “Y” in the name).
Hummingbyrd is no ordinary guitar. It was the original prototype for what is know as a “B-Bender” guitar—a custom job invented by Clarence White and Byrd drummer Gene Parsons, who happened to also be a machinist. The point of the custom job is to be able to mimic the moaning sounds of a steel guitar by bending the B-string up a whole tone through a series of levers activated by pushing on the guitar’s neck, body, or bridge. When Clarence White passed away, his wife sold the legendary guitar to Marty Stuart, who uses it as his primary instrument.
Included on Marty’s 2010 album Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions is a instrumental called “Hummingbyrd” where Marty Stuart puts on a clinic on how to use this unique instrument. The song went onto win the Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance. Hummingbyrd shows both Marty Stuart’s passion for the preservation of country music’s history, and his prowess as a guitar player matched by few in the genre.
5. Standing Up To CBS / Columbia For Dropping Johnny Cash
A running theme in these 10 Badass Moments has been the firing of Johnny Cash from CBS Records in 1985. Merle Haggard mouthed off to CBS Executive Rick Blackburn about the firing, saying, “You’re the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that you’re the dumbest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever met.”
When Marty Stuart left Johnny Cash’s band, he signed to Columbia (previously CBS), and in 1988 recorded his second album for the label called Let There Be Country. However Columbia refused to release it. Though some have surmised it was because Marty’s first self-titled Columbia album didn’t sell well, in James L. Dickerson’s 2005 book Mojo Triangle, he explains Columbia didn’t release the album because Marty Stuart had a heated exchange with a Columbia record executive about the Johnny Cash firing. Columbia shelved the album in retribution, and Marty eventually left the label without recording another album for them. Marty then signed to MCA where he had his greatest commercial success, and amidst this success, Columbia decided to finally release Let There Be Country in August of 1992.
6. Hosting The Marty Stuart Show
Patterning itself around the classic country music variety shows of the past like The Porter Wagoner Show, Flatt & Scruggs, and Hee Haw, The Marty Stuart Show is one of the last bastions for true, classic country music on television. Carried by RFD-TV, this weekly show features Marty and his Fabulous Superlatives, his wife Connie Smith, and just about the coolest variety of country music artists you can see on TV—artists from the new generation like Justin Townes Earle, Brandy Clark, Sturgill Simpson, Hank3, and The Quebe Sisters, to older artists like Don Maddox, Del McCoury, and Stonewall Jackson, and to artists in between like Jim Lauderdale, and Corb Lund. If they’re good, they appear on The Marty Stuart Show, and after five seasons, it has become its own country music institution, and an important distinction for the artists invited to play the show.
7. Playing with Lester Flatt on the Porter Wagoner Show at 14
Are you kidding me? That’s Marty Stuart folks, playing mandolin and singing!
8. Releasing Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota
Similar to his mentor and hero Johnny Cash who released what was arguably the first country music concept album with his tribute to the American Indian called Bitter Tears in 1964, Marty Stuart released a concept album also in tribute to the American Indian called Badlands: Ballads of the Laokota in 2005. Recorded with his backing band The Fabulous Superlatives, it focused on the struggle of Native Americans, and was entirely written by Stuart except for one song, “Big Foot,” written by Johnny Cash. It was also recorded at the Cash Cabin in Hendersonville, TN, with John Carter Cash as co-producer.
But this album wasn’t just Marty patterning himself after Johnny Cash. Stuart has spent much time in the Dakotas learning about the Lakota Sioux, including studying at the Oglala Lakota College. For Marty, the poor treatment of Native Americans is a very real issue.
9. Marrying Connie Smith
Why would a handsome young Marty Stuart marry a woman 16 years his senior? Well first off, have you seen Connie Smith? Aside from how good time and country music has been to her, she is bona-fide country music royalty and one of the most familiar faces of the Grand Ole Opry. But this isn’t some celebrity sham marriage, the matrimony speaks to Marty’s undying appeal for all things country music and the love between the two country stars is deep. Together, they’re a classic country dynamic duo that is hard to stop (and I have my suspicion at night they dress up as superheroes and do battle with Music Row’s most evil villains).
10. This Quote:
“Today the most outlaw thing you can possibly do in Nashville, Tennessee, is play country music.” –Marty Stuart
The Winter Olympic games in Sochi, Russia have been much maligned for being unprepared, behind schedule, and a potential security risk to athletes and patrons alike as the host country worked feverishly to finish important infrastructure before the beginning of the games. The hilarity of double-bowled toilet stalls, and the not-so-funny matter of stray dogs being killed in droves was capped during the Opening Ceremony Friday night when the five Olympic rings were relegated to four and a misappropriated snowflake showed up during an important segment of the presentation. Though the rest of the evening went off without a hitch, the missing link has come to symbolize Russia’s mishandling of their Olympic duties.
Interesting enough, an old photo of Willie Nelson on a golf course has surfaced, with the country legend wearing a T-shirt with a corresponding missing link, and the caption, “Let the Russians play with themselves,” leaving some wondering if along with all of Willie’s other esoteric powers, divination is a gift he possesses.
More than likely though, it is simply an artifact of its time. The photo was taken in 1984 during the height of the Cold War when the year’s Summer Olympics came to symbolize the global struggle between the two super powers of the United States and the USSR. In 1980, the United States led a boycott of the Summer Olympics held in Moscow, and in 1984, the USSR returned the favor by boycotting the Olympics in Los Angeles. Willie was just showing off his patriotic spirit in 1984 in a T-shirt commemorating the boycott, while enjoying one of his favorite pastimes.
Nonetheless, it’s a cool little piece of Outlaw country music history.
Merle. The Hag. Of all the country music greats, Merle’s story might be the most symbolic of the American experience: from growing up in California as the son of Okie parents during The Depression, to spending time in prison, to becoming a rags to riches story. His legacy is sometimes overshadowed by his peers like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, whose influence has spread much farther than country’s borders. But when it comes to influencing country music itself, few this side of Hank Williams can say they’ve left a bigger footprint.
Here’s 10 moments that make Merle Haggard one of country music’s most preeminent badasses.
1. Being Born In A Boxcar
Now if that ain’t country….
James Francis and Flossie Mae Haggard moved from Oklahoma during The Depression after their barn burned down in 1934, and settled in an apartment in Bakersfield with Merle’s two older siblings Lowell and Lillian. Merle’s father got a job working for the Santa Fe Railroad as a carpenter, and soon went to work converting a boxcar parked on a piece of land in Oildale, CA, just outside of Bakersfield that eventually became the family’s homestead. Merle Haggard was born in that boxcar on April 6, 1937. The Haggard’s eventually purchased the land around the boxcar, and expanded it to include two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a breakfast nook.
2. Telling Off A CBS Records Executive for Firing Johnny Cash
In 1985 Merle released the song “Kern River” and it reached #10 on the country charts. But if it was up to CBS Records executive Rick Blackburn, the song would have never been recorded at all. Blackburn hated the song, and apparently went out of his way to tell Merle as much at every opportunity he had. Then at some point, Merle had enough. Blackburn mouthed off to Merle about it, and Merle lost it.
“That’s about the third time you’ve told me that.” Haggard said, “It’s more like five times. Well, I’m about five times short of telling you to go to hell.”
Then Haggard continued:
“Who do you think you are? You’re the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that you’re the dumbest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever met.”
3. Watching Johnny Cash Play at San Quentin Prison
Johnny Cash’s most famous prison appearances were in 1968 and 1969 at the Folsom State Prison and San Quentin Prison, but these concerts weren’t the first time Johnny Cash played at a correctional institution. His first ever was New Years Day 1958 at San Quentin in California, and a 20-year-old Merle Haggard was in the audience. After a few other run-ins with the law, being arrested for the first time at age 11, and after having participated in multiple of jailbreaks (see below), Merle Haggard got sentenced to 15 years for burglary in 1957 to the notorious California lockup. He was just 18.
Merle ended up only serving two years of his sentence though, in part because the Johnny Cash concert changed his life. At the time, Haggard was conspiring with his cell mate “Rabbit” on an escape plan, but Merle’s fellow cell mates convinced him he had a brighter future in country music. Rabbit eventually did escape, killed a cop, and ending back at San Quentin on Death Row.
“He had the right attitude,” Merle recalls of Johnny Cash;s appearance. “He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards—he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan.”
4. Escaping From Jail 17 Times
That’s right. As impossible as that sounds, this is what Merle Haggard claims. His criminal record over the years has been a source of much debate about just how hardened the young Merle was. More than likely most of his crimes were quite petty hooliganism stuff, and were bred out of growing up and not having a father to keep him in line, and not having any money and resorting to stealing for his daily bread. But apparently he became pretty adept at giving the local jailers the slip, and that’s why he eventually ended up at San Quentin.
“I was scared to death,” Merle recalls. “I was just 19 at the time, and I’d already been in a lot of jails. San Quentin is the last place you go. I wasn’t really that bad a guy. They just couldn’t hold me anywhere else. I escaped 17 different times, so they sent me there because I was an escape risk. When I walked out on the grounds of San Quentin, I was scared. I was there two years and nine months.”
5. Recording Tribute Albums to Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills
It’s one thing to record a tribute album to one of the greats of country music’s past. It’s another to do it at the height of your professional career when your talent and attention could be more financially lucrative elsewhere.
After landing his first #1 hits “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” and “Branded Man,” and before releasing his big 1969 hits “Workin’ Man Blues” and “Okie From Muskogee,” Merle Haggard released the 1969 LP Same Train, A Different Time: A Tribute to Jimmie Rodgers — a massive, two-record tome of 25 Jimmie Rodgers songs recorded to critical acclaim. The project took a total of 6 months to complete and is given credit for a revitalization of interest in the Singing Brakeman’s career.
Same could be said for Bob Wills, when Merle made time to record and release A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World the very next year. Even more cool, Merle rustled up the last 6 remaining members of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys—Johnny Gimble, Alex Brashear, Johnnie Lee Wills, Eldon Shamblin, Tiny Moore, and Joe Holley—to participate in the record along with Haggard’s backing band The Strangers.
6. Kicking Cancer’s Ass
Merle Haggard was diagnosed with lung Cancer in May of 2008. Not wanting to make a big deal or publicity stunt out of the matter, he kept it hush hush. On November 3rd, 2008, Haggard had surgery to remove part of the upper lobe of his right lung that had a lemon-sized tumor growing on it. Five days later, he finally spilled the beans to the public about his diagnosis and treatment. Merle had been a smoker early in his life, and had quit cigarettes in 1991, and marijuana in 1995. But doctors said smoking had nothing to do with Merle’s condition.
How did Haggard pull through? Less than two months later he was playing shows at The Crystal Palace in Bakersfield. “I feel like I’ve extended my life,” Merle said at the time. “I’m in better shape than when I went in.”
7. The “Me and Crippled Soldiers Give a Damn” Protest Song
Merle Haggard has written and recorded many politically-charged songs over his career spanning both sides of the isle. From his conservative-leaning anthems like “Fighting Side of Me” and “Okie From Muskogee” (though he’s said this song was written to be a somewhat humorous portrait), to the more recent anti-war song “America First.” But “Me and Crippled Soldiers Give a Damn” might be his crowning, politically-charged moment.
Incensed by the Supreme Court’s decision to allow flag burning under the First Amendment, Merle penned this controversial tune in 1989 and tried to release it, but his label CBS Records refused. So Merle, determined to have the song see the light of day, bought himself out of the stipulations of his CBS contract simply so he could release the song. And just so nobody was confused of where Merle’s heart was in the matter, he gave all the proceeds from the song to the Disabled Veterans of America.
8. Recording Pancho & Lefty with Willie Nelson
Merle Haggard isn’t known especially for being a legendary duet partner, but when he paired up with Willie Nelson in 1983 to record Pancho & Lefty whose title track is the famous Townes Van Zandt song, a strange magic ensued. The song “Pancho & Lefty” went straight to #1, and so did the album. It also launched another Top 10 hit, “Reasons to Quit,” written by Haggard. Willie & Merle went on to be named the Vocal Duo of the Year by the CMA in 1983.
9. Helping to Define The Bakersfield Sound
As the bean counters on Music Row out in Nashville decided that for country music to survive, strings and choirs needed to be added, and that they needed to “refine” the sound of this rural art form to appeal to older audiences, the country music rebels out in California said “screw that” and we’re slinging their telecasters around, playing way too loud, and pushing boundaries. Right beside Buck Owens at the forefront of this movement was Merle Haggard with his hard-driving, hard-edged sound, embellished by Ralph Mooney’s blaring steel guitar.
Not only did The Bakersfield Sound keep Nashville’s “Countrypolitan” in check, it also showed many of Bakersfield’s rock and roll neighbors in places like LA and San Francisco that country music could be cool, and next thing you know you have bands like The Byrds and The Grateful Dead cutting country records.
10. Recording 38 #1 Hits… 38 OF THEM!!!
- “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” (1966)
- “Branded Man” (1967)
- “Sing Me Back Home” (1968)
- “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” (1968)
- “Mama Tried” (1968)
- “Hungry Eyes” (1969)
- “Workin’ Man Blues” (1969)
- “Okie from Muskogee” (1969)
- “The Fightin’ Side of Me” (1970)
- “Daddy Frank” (1971)
- “Carolyn” (1971)
- “Grandma Harp” (1972)
- “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)” (1972)
- “I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me” (1972)
- “Everybody’s Had the Blues” (1973)
- “If We Make It Through December” (1973)
- “Things Aren’t Funny Anymore” (1974)
- “Old Man from the Mountain” (1974)
- “Kentucky Gambler” (1974)
- “Always Wanting You” (1975)
- “Movin’ On” (1975)
- “It’s All in the Movies” (1975)
- “The Roots of My Raising” (1975)
- “Cherokee Maiden” (1976)
- “Bar Room Buddies” (with Clint Eastwood) (1980)
- “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” (1980)
- “My Favorite Memory” (1981)
- “Big City” (1981)
- “Yesterday’s Wine” (with George Jones) (1982)
- “Going Where the Lonely Go” (1982)
- “You Take Me for Granted” (1982)
- “Pancho and Lefty” (with Willie Nelson) (1983)
- “That’s the Way Love Goes” (1983)
- “Someday When Things Are Good” (1984)
- “Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room” (1984)
- “A Place to Fall Apart” (with Janie Frickie) (1984)
- “Natural High” (1985)
- “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star” (1987)
Okay, Red Sovine only pondered killing Waylon and Willie in hyperbole and sarcasm. In fact by all accounts this succulent little lost country classic was written and recorded as a tribute to the success of the two Outlaw country music greats. And as one of the very last recordings trucker song overlord Red Sovine ever made, and one that was released in a much more straight-laced time in country music when its genius may have been lost on most, it only seems fair to resurrect it now and shine a spotlight on it for our listening enjoyment.
The song is called “The Waylon & Willie Machine,” and its wise-ass take on the two Texan’s success speaks to just how big Waylon & Willie were back in the mid to late 70′s. The song was originally written and recorded by country and rockabilly artist Marvin Rainwater with co-writer Max D. Barnes (George Jones’ “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” and Waylon’s “Drinkin’ and Dreamin’” just to name a few). Marvin Rainwater recorded the song with Jesse Fletcher on the very small “Okie” imprint at some point in the late 70′s (listen below), but very few 7″ copies were made.
Then Red Sovine got a hold of it in 1979 and released it on a 45 himself through Gusto Records, with Colorado Cool Aid on the flip side. Sovine’s would become the definitive version … if there was one. The song never made it on an album (Sovine passed away on April 4th, 1980 of a heart attack), and it was never released properly as a single, probably because it would be misunderstood by DJ’s and listeners alike. But listening to it now some 35 years later, the entertainment value hasn’t waned, but grown better with age.
What made Johnny Cash the ultimate badass was his ability to bridge people together regardless of taste in music, cultural differences, or political ideology. Johnny Cash could tackle some of the most difficult issues facing a tumultuous American society as it saw the emergence of rock and roll and the counterculture because they man had such an air of respect about him. When he spoke, everyone quieted, and listened. Great music and musicians dominate genres. Legends transcend genres. It’s is quite the daunting challenge to find someone who doesn’t have something nice to say about Johnny Cash regardless of sex, race, creed, status, or cultural background.
1. Intercepting the News of the Death of Joseph Stalin
That’s right, the first American to hear about the death of the ruthless Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and report it to the United States government was none other than the Man in Black. Johnny Cash spent 4 years in the Air Force, rising to Staff Sargent, and working in Landsberg, West Germany for the Air Force Security Service. The name of Cash’s first band was “The Landsberg Barbarians,” an homage to the German town he called home.
While stationed in Landsburg, Cash was working as a Morse Code Intercept Operator, monitoring transmissions from the Soviet Army. Around March 5th, 1953, he was translating Morse signals when can came upon the important information. At the height of hostilities during the Cold War, this intelligence was considered crucial.
Cash was honorably discharged from the Air Force in July of 1954 to pursue his career in music.
2. Recording “Sunday Morning Coming Down”
It was the song that made Kris Kristofferson a household name, but it wasn’t Ray Stevens’ version of it in 1969 that stalled at #55 on the charts, or Kristofferson’s own version which didn’t chart at all that made it such an iconic part of the American songbook. It was Johnny Cash’s take on “Sunday Morning Coming Down” that took it all the way to #1 in 1970, and eventually to being named Song of the Year by the Country Music Association.
It’s because only Johnny Cash had the credibility and undying loyalty of the country music community to sing what was a controversial song at the time, and have people listen through the controversy to the heart of the story that Kristoffersoon had so eloquently captured.
Johnny Cash wasn’t a country music Outlaw in the traditional sense, but he was an honorary Outlaw in every sense, and when he sang “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” he took Kristofferson from a barely-known songwriter to a national celebrity.
3. Concerts and Albums From Folsom and San Quentin Prisons
Probably the most obvious of Johnny Cash’s badass moments, but ones that cannot be understated in their significance both musically and culturally, Johnny Cash performed at The Folsom State Prison and the San Quentin Prison—two notorious lockups in California—in 1968 and 1969 respectively, with the live recordings taken from the concerts becoming significant and commercially successful live albums that are given credit for being some of the best ever in country music.
Johnny Cash played two shows at Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968, resulting in 15 live tracks for the At Folsom Prison Album. At San Quentin was recorded on February 24, 1969 and was more of a linear recording of the event, though the original LP took out some songs because of space restrictions. The two albums are given credit for resurrecting Cash’s career, while raising awareness about the issues facing individuals in incarceration, and bridging cultural differences between music fans during a tumultuous time in America. If people were not aware before, Johnny Cash’s prison albums announced to the world inside and outside of country music that he truly was a badass.
4. Having A Smoke With A.P. Carter
Depending on who to talk to, the father of country music is either the singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers, or the patriarch of the Carter Family, A.P. Cater. Seeing how Johnny Cash married into the Carter Family, he would probably say the answer is the latter.
Producer, songwriter, and cosmic music man “Cowboy” Jack Clement was famous for shooting home movies when hanging around his musical friends and cohorts, and he was fortunate enough to have captured the moment Johnny Cash decided to drive out to the grave site of A.P. Carter at the Mount Vernon Methodist Church Cemetery in Virginia to have a smoke with the man responsible for the first ever commercial country music group. The clip below comes from the movie Shakespeare Was A Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement’s Home Movies.
Johnny Cash’s efforts to help the less fortunate throughout his life have been well-documented, and on June 10th 1978 at the annual United Nations Citation Dinner in New York City, he was presented with the United Nations Humanitarian Award.
6. Hosting the Million Dollar Songwriter Circle
You’ve all heard about the “Million Dollar Quartet”—the recording session at legendary Sun Studios in Memphis on December 4th, 1956 that compiled the talent of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. Well if there was an equivalent to the Million Dollar Quartet in the songwriting world, it would be the one night in January of 1969 when Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, and Shel Silverstein all spent an evening at Johnny Cash’s home in Hendersonville, TN on the banks of Old Hickory Lake, swapping songs and stories from their respective spheres of the music world.
The music that was showcased for the first time ever at the intimate songwriter circle became the soundtrack for a generation, and the gathering would go down in history as one of the most potent assemblages of songs showcased for the first time in one place. “That night in my house [was] the first time these songs were heard…” Johnny Cash explains. “Joni Mitchell sang ‘Both Sides Now,’ Graham Nash sang ‘Marrakesh Express,’ Shel Silverstein sang ‘A Boy Named Sue,’ Bob Dylan sang ‘Lay Lady Lay,’ and Kristofferson sang ‘Me & Bobby McGee.’ That was the first time any of those songs were heard.” (read more on the Million Dollar Songwriter Circle)
7. Sharing an Apartment with Waylon Jennings
Before Johnny Cash married June Carter, and before Waylon Jennings married Jessi Colter, and the two men were picking up the pieces from recent divorces, they shared a pad at the Fontaine Royal Apartments in Madison, Tennessee, just north of Nashville. At that time in the mid-60′s, Johnny Cash was a star, but Waylon was still a newcomer. By all accounts, the two men would barely see each other, and would be in and out at all manner of the day and night, leave on tour, come back, be out the next morning for a studio session, usually while taking trucker pills and sleeping very little.
Stories abound about some of the happenings at Fontaine Royal, with some considering it to be the equivalent of a country music “stabbin’ cabin.” One story says as the two men would walk by the swimming pool on their way in or out, throwing money into it for the neighborhood kids to dive in and retrieve. Oh, to be a fly on that wall….
8. Releasing Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian
Many artists and people talk and good talk about supporting the so often wronged American Indian, but Johnny Cash stepped up to the plate and did so in a big way when he released this concept album paying tribute to the stories and struggles of the American Indian. Johnny Cash had Cherokee blood in his family, and claims this was one of the inspirations for the album.
Aside from the music, this album is significant in so many other ways. Though Willie Nelson’s conceptualized albums Phases and Stages and Red Headed Stranger are often given credit for being the first conceptualized albums in country music, Bitter Tears came out in 1964; a decade before those Willie records. Furthermore the album was released ahead of the popularization of Native American issues that happened in the late 60′s as part of the counterculture movement. Way more than a trendy work looking to exploit a pet issue of guilt-riddled baby boomers, Bitter Tears was a groundbreaking approach to the album concept in country music that carried a sincere concern and reverence for the American Indian, illustrating Cash’s dedication as a humanitarian throughout his career.
9. Inviting Bob Dylan on the Johnny Cash Show
The Johnny Cash show was badass enough in its own right in how Johnny reached out to every corner of the American music world to create magical, legendary moments on a weekly basis from the Ryman Auditorium. The Johnny Cash Show Ran from ran from June of 1969 to March of 1971 on ABC, featuring a total of 58 episodes and not a bad one in the bunch.
But if one episode stood out, it was Bob Dylan’s appearance in 1969 around his recording of his Nashville Skyline record. It symbolized the confluence of two music worlds, and two titans of them and the results were magic. From the original Rolling Stone article covering the event:
The Dylan appearance was no secret in Nashville, fortunately. It goes without saying that Cash fans are as baffled by Dylan’s emergence here as Dylan freaks were startled at the news of this new axis. But they all lined up outside the Opry: businessmen and their wives, country boys, bald heads, acid heads, bee-hive bouffant blondes, drawling teenyboppers and other assorted traveling wonderers. There is no doubt that a good part of the audience was there just to see Cash and didn’t know what all the fuss was about. But the seats and aisles of the Opry were full, and Dylan did not lack a fine representation of people familiar with his work.
10. Recording “Hurt” From NIN’s Trent Reznor
There were many songs, especially from Johnny Cash’s American Recordings era that The Man In Black took from great to legendary, but none resonated so deeply with a generation like this one. “Hurt” off of the Nine Inch Nails’ album The Downward Spiral from 1994 was nominated for a Grammy in 1996, but wasn’t an especially well-known song outside of the industrial music mindset. It certainly wasn’t on the radar of country fans when Cash cut it in 2002, but it became arguably his last big hit, and the doorway for an entire new generation of fans to find love for Johnny Cash, helped along by an iconic video.
11. (Bonus) Flipping The Warden The Bird
Johnny Cash’s famous middle finger photo was shot at the Cash concert in 1969 at California’s San Quentin prison by photographer Jim Marshall. The pose was the result of Cash’s response to the request: “John, let’s do a shot for the warden.” Marshall has since said it was “probably the most ripped off photograph in the history of the world.”
But the picture remained relatively obscure until 1998 when Johnny was working with legendary producer Rick Rubin on his American Recordings albums. The second American album Unchained won the 1998 Grammy for Best Country Album. But could you hear Johnny Cash’s music on the country radio? Not so much. Rubin called country radio a “trendy scene,” and decided to fire a shot right at Music Row. Rubin dug deep and pulled out $20,000 to take a full page ad out in Billboard Magazine. The ad featured the famous Cash bird flipping, and the caption: “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.” (read more on the middle finger photo)
Willie Nelson is in many ways a microcosm of the American experience. He grew up during The Depression, had a rough and tumble youth, battled through familial and financial problems for years, struck it rich, and reformed himself from his violent past to become one of the world’s most well-known and greatest pacifists and advocates for the poor and social justice. Lots of wisdom can be gleaned about life from simply studying the life of Willie Nelson . And ultimately, he is undoubtedly one hell of a badass.
1. Surviving a Plane Crash
As told by Willie Nelson’s friend, professional golfer Larry Trader:
“Willie was flying in to the landing strip near Happy Shahan’s Western town that they used for the Alamo movie set. Happy is watching the plane coming in, knowing Willie is on it. The plane hits a big chughole in the strip and flips over on its side and crashes. Happy likes news and publicity, you know, so first thing he does is pick up the phone and call the radio stations, the TV, the newspapers. Happy says, ‘Willie Nelson’s plane just crashed. Y’all better hurry.’
“He jumped in a Jeep and drove out to the crash to pick up the remains. And here comes Willie and his pilot, limping up the road. The media people were arriving by then. They started firing questions at Willie. How did he survive? Was he dying? Was he even hurt? Willie smiles and says, ‘Why, this was a perfect landing. I walked away from it, didn’t I?’”
2. Recording Red Headed Stranger for $4,000
That’s right. Arguably the greatest, most influential album in the history of country music was recorded on a shoestring budget at the renegade and recently-opened Autumn Sound Studios in the Dallas suburb of Garland in January 1975. Autumn Sound engineer Phil York was trying to promote the new studio, knew Willie through harmonica player Mickey Raphael, and offered Willie a free day of recording. With complete creative control over the album as part of his new contract with Columbia Records, Willie set out to record a stripped-down conceptualized record that was like nothing the overproducing bean counters on Music Row had ever heard. Willie’s version of “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” became Willie’s first #1, and the album remains many critic’s pick for the best country record ever. Eat that Music Row.
3. Gun Battle at the Birmingham Coliseum
After playing a concert in Birmingham, Alabama in the late 70′s, Willie and the band found themselves in the middle of a gun battle in a six-story parking garage as they were unloading gear from the stage. Though the story involves Willie getting involved in the fracas with his own weaponry, it also illustrates Willie’s unique disposition as a peacemaker.
“All of a sudden we hear ‘Kaboom! Kaboom!’” Willie’s long-time stage manager “Poodie” Locke recalls. “It’s the sound of a .357 magnum going off in the parking garage. The echoes sound like howitzer shells exploding. It’s kind of semi-dark, and this guy comes blowing through this parking deck…now here comes this bitch with a fucking pistol. ‘Kaboom!’ She’s chasing this motherfucker. It sounds like a fucking war.”
At the time, Willie Nelson and most of his band and road crew carried pistols as a matter of habit. The scene became chaotic as the shooting happened right as the crowd from the show was filing out into the parking garage.
“People are piling out of the show and they start scattering,” Poodie continues. “Here come the cops from every direction. They’re flying out of their cars, hitting the parking deck, spread-eagling the whole crowd–’On the deck, motherfuckers!’–because the cops don’t know who is shooting at who…All these cops are squatting down in the doorjambs, turning people over, frisking them, aiming guns at everybody, just waiting for the next shot to be fired.”
“And here comes Willie. He walks off the bus wearing cutoffs and tennis shoes, and he’s got two huge Colt .45 revolvers stuck in his waist. The barrels are so long they stick out the bottom of his cutoffs. Two shining motherfucking pistols in plain sight of a bunch of cops nervous as shit. Willie just walks over and says, ‘What’s the trouble?’ Well he’s got some kind of aura to him that just cools everything out. The cops put up their guns, the people climb off the concrete, and pretty soon Willie is signing autographs.”
Along with Neil Young and John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson founded the annual benefit concert in 1985 to help raise money for struggling farmers that has since become an American institution. Before a crowd of 80,000, 52 performers at the original Farm Aid raised $9 million for American farmers. Then Willie went to Capitol Hill with a group of struggling farmers to petition the government for aid. The end result was the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 that helped many American farmers avoid foreclosure.
5. Bailing Dennis Hopper Out Of Jail in Taos, NM
Dennis was a part-time resident of the small northern New Mexico town of Taos. Back in the mid 70′s it was a hangout for country music types and Hollywood misfits like Hopper. It was also the scene of one of the most crazy country music stories involving Willie, Hopper, and of all people, golf pro Larry Trader.
“In Taos I had gotten real drunk and proceeded to win a lot of acid in a poker game, so I swallowed the acid and saw weird dangerous shit going on, and I pulled my pistol out of my boot and shot up the plaza. I was ranting and raving in the jail, people were out to get me, man, and here came the sheriff saying Willie Nelson had come and paid my bill and was waiting outside. I was free to go with him.
“I freaked fucking out. Willie Nelson? Come on, man, who do you think you’re kidding? You’re gonna lure me out and yell jailbreak and blow my ass away! But I thought, hey, be cool, you are after all hallucinating all this. So I walked out of jail and got into Willie’s Mercedes with him and his wife Connie and his golf pro Larry Trader. We drove across the desert towards Las Vegas. Willie and Trader and I nearly drove Connie crazy with our laughing and shouting.”
6. Taking the Rap for Pot Bust in Texas
When Willie Nelson’s Honeysuckle Rose III was searched at the border patrol checkpoint in Sierra Blanca, Texas in November of 2010 and agents found 6 ounces of marijuana, anyone could have copped to the stash, or Willie could have pulled a “Do you know who I am ?!?” moment. But instead he offered his wrists to authorities, knowing that his arrest would prove the futility of the criminalization of marijuana that he’d been advocating against for many years.
Willie was booked into custody, a mug shot was taken, and he was later released on $2,500 bond. Eventually a plea deal was reached with prosecutors, and Willie paid a fine and spent 30 days on probation.
7. Dripping Springs Reunion and the 4th of July Picnics
Even though the events have many times been an annual financial bloodbath, Willie’s commitment to them has been steadfast, and they have become a Texas and American institution. It started with the Dripping Springs reunion in 1973, with the idea of putting on a “hillbilly Woodstock.” The Dripping Springs reunion featured Bill Monroe, Buck Owens, Charlie Rich, Dottie West, Roger Miller, Loretta Lynn, right beside Willie, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. Over the years the picnics have gone on to feature artists forgotten by Nashville and up-and-comers right beside big name talent. And because more times than not they have been losing propositions financially, it’s been Willie’s commitment that has kept them going.
8. Getting Lost in Baton Rouge
As told by Willie’s manager Mark Rothbaum
“Willie and I were at a hotel in Baton Rouge on the evening of a concert. We were on the twenty-third floor, and we could see the coliseum in a straight line from our windows. Looked like it was just right over there. So we decided we would run to the concert. Willie and I took off running through Baton Rouge after dark. We ran and kept on running through the neighborhoods, and we still weren’t arriving at the concert. After we had run ten miles, we decided we were totally lost. The gig was starting, and we had no idea where we were.
“Willie said, ‘I’ll just go up to that house and knock on the door and ask for help.’ I said, ‘You can’t knock on some stranger’s door.’
“He said, ‘I ain’t a stranger. I’m Willie Nelson.’”
9. “Shotgun Willie” & The Great Ridgetop Shootout
It was in the aftermath of an incident that would later be remembered as the “Great Ridgetop Shootout” that Willie Nelson got the nickname “Shotgun Willie.” Ridgetop was the house Willie lived in just outside of Nashville in the late 60′s. When it burned down in 1970, it stimulated Willie’s move back to Texas. In 1969, Willie and his first wife Martha separated, and his second wife Shirley moved into Ridgetop. Willie and Martha had three children, and right before Christmas in 1969, Willie’s youngest daughter Susie told Willie that his oldest daughter Lana was being physically assaulted by her husband Steve Warren.
“I ran for my truck and drove to the place where Steve and Lana lived and slapped Steve around,” Willie recalls. “He really pissed me off. I told him if he ever laid a hand on Lana again, I would come back and drown his ass. No sooner did I get back to Ridgetop than here came Steve in his car, shooting at the house with a .22 rifle. I was standing in the door of the barn and a bullet tore up the wood two feet from my head. I grabbed an M-1 rifle and shot at Steve’s car. Steve made one pass and took off.”
But this wasn’t where the incident ended. Willie drove back to Steve and Lana’s to confront Steve again, but he was gone and had kidnapped their young son Nelson Ray. Lana also told Willie that Steve was looking to “get rid of him (Willie) as his top priority.” So what did Willie do? He drove back to Ridgetop and waited for him.
“Thinking Steve would come to Ridgetop to pick me off about dusk, I hid in the truck so he couldn’t tell if I was home. We laid a trap for him. I had my M-1 and a shotgun. He drove by the house, and I ran out the garage door. Steve saw me and took off. That’s when I shot his car and shot out his tire. Steve called the cops on me. Instead of explaining the whole damn mess, the beatings and the semi-kidnapping and shooting and all, I told the officers he must have run over the bullet. The police didn’t want to get involved in hillbilly family fights. They wrote down what I told them on their report and took off.”
10. Building His Own Town
It’s called Luck, TX, and it was originally constructed as part of the set of the movie The Red Headed Stranger released in 1986 as a companion to Willie’s album of the same name. The town was originally called Willieville, and was constructed to be a replica of Driscoll, Montana. It sits across the street from Willie’s golf course about 30 miles outside of Austin. The remarkable thing about Luck is it’s not just a Hollywood facade, but a collection of real buildings that despite their purposefully rustic condition, are generally solid structures that could constitute a real old-time town, with a church, opera house, and various other buildings. And the town is still used upon occasion for movies, video shoots, and special events including an annual music showcase around South by Southwest.
And then of course, there was that time he smoked pot on top of The White House…but that’s another story.
Quotes taken from the autobiography Willie, by Willie Nelson with Bud Shrake.
Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers was part of one of the most commercially-successful and creatively-inspirational acts in the history of American popular music. As country and rock & roll were beginning to take root as institutions of American culture, The Everly Brothers were only outpaced in popularity by artists like Elvis Presley when it came to sales and radio play. Between 1957 and 1962, The Everly Brothers reportedly earned $35 million in record sales. Their song “Cathy’s Clown” sold 8 million copies itself. Numbers like that when adjusted for inflation are unparallelled in music today.
But unlike Elvis, The Beatles, and other such acts that withstood the test of time to become commercial success stories in multiple decades, The Everly Brothers seemed to hit a wall in the early 60′s, and never really rekindled their popular magic later in life. Why did this happen? How could an act that was so popular, and seemed to resonate so deeply with the American public get lost in the shuffle?
Though The Everly Brothers are considered more a product of the rock & roll world, their publishing and management resided on a multi-block stretch of road in Nashville known as Music Row, and they arguably became one the first, and one the biggest casualties of that campus in the history of music.
The well-known guitar player, producer, and music executive Chet Atkins was a close friend of the Everly family dating back to before the brothers were a duo and were known more as a family band with their father Ike. Chet brokered the brothers’ first record deal with Columbia in early 1956. But when their first single “Keep A’ Lovin’ Me” failed, Columbia promptly dropped the duo.
So then Chet Atkins introduced the brothers to Wesley Rose, son of Fred Rose, the well-known songwriter and founder of Music Row publishing house Acuff-Rose with Roy Acuff. When Fred Rose passed away in 1954, Wesley took his spot as President of Acuff-Rose, and also signed on to manage The Everly Brothers after the introduction from Chet Atkins. Wesley promised the brothers a record deal if they would sign on with Acuff-Rose as their publishing house, and the duo obliged. This led to the The Everly Brothers’ deal with Cadence Records where they finally found success. Then after 3 successful years on Cadence, The Everly Brothers signed a massive 10-year multi-million dollar contract with Warner Brothers, and became one of the biggest names in all of American music.
However in 1961, the brothers had a falling out with Wesley Rose. At the behest of Wesley Rose, the brothers only used Acuff-Rose writers for their material, especially husband and wife songwriting partners Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. But as time went on, The Everly Brothers wanted to record songs that didn’t fall under Acuff-Rose publishing. Wesley Rose adamantly refused, so The Everly Brothers dropped him as their manager. At the time, Acuff-Rose had a virtual monopoly on all the best songs and songwriters in the music business, especially for the type of music The Everly Brothers played. The duo’s access to the Acuff-Rose catalog is one of the reasons they were so commercially successful, and the falling out with Wesley Rose meant they no longer had access to ‘A’ list song material.
But both Don and Phil Everly were songwriters as well, and wrote many of their own songs. However in a strange twist of fate only fit for Music Row, because the brothers were still signed to Acuff-Rose as songwriters, the falling out with Wesley Rose meant that the brothers lost access to their own material as well, and any material they may write in the future. Though The Everly Brothers as performers were free to do what they wanted, Don and Phil Everly as songwriters were still under the thumb of Acuff-Rose. A publishing house that had been set up to protect songwriters, like many of Music Row’s institutions, had become corrupted from money and music business politics.
So The Everly Brothers tried to implement a work around. They began recording cover songs, and started writing under a collective pseudonym of “Jimmy Howard.” However when Acuff-Rose sniffed out what was happening, the publishing house brought legal action against the brothers and obtained the rights to those songs as well. Between 1961 and 1964, one of American music’s most brilliant and popular bands was resigned to singing cover material, and their popularity plummeted. The brothers tried to set up their own record label, Calliope Records, to record solo projects under. Once again Don set up under a pseudonym, ”Adrian Kimberly,” while Phil started a group called the Keestone Family Singers with powerhouses Glen Campbell and Carole King. But both projects were unsuccessful, and Calliope Records was shuttered by the end of 1962.
Ultimately, the falling out between Wesley Rose and The Everly Brothers cost the duo their popular careers. Though the brothers would go on many more years in the music business both as solo performers and with each other, they never came even close to their late 50′s, early 60′s prominence. Even worse, the legal and financial issues created a strain between the two brothers that in many ways would last the rest of their lives, all the way up to the death of Phil Everly.
The tragic demise of The Everly Brothers spurned by the blacklisting from Acuff-Rose is a narrative that has played out many more times since the 1960′s, and speaks to similar practices that still transpire on Music Row today. Acuff-Rose is now known as Sony ATV.
On hearing of the death of his brother Phil, Don Everly told The Associated Press, “I was listening to one of my favorite songs that Phil wrote and had an extreme emotional moment just before I got the news of his passing. I took that as a special spiritual message from Phil saying goodbye. Our love was and will always be deeper than any earthly differences we might have had.”
Country music star Alan Jackson has been known for being a staunch traditionalist, and a man who has stood on principle and for protecting the roots and legends of the music throughout his career. One of the most famous moments in country music lore involves Alan Jackson at the CMA awards show in 1999 when producers told George Jones he would have to perform an abridged version of his song “Choices.” George refused, and boycotted the awards altogether. Then in protest, during Alan Jackson’s performance of his song “Pop A Top,” he reversed course and started into George’s “Choices” in solidarity with the country legend.
But this wasn’t Alan Jackson’s only moment of protest during a prime time awards show apparently. Years earlier, at the 1994 ACM Awards, Alan Jackson pulled at stunt that has gone unfairly under-recognized in that annals of country’s finest moments of rebellion and protest.
The 1994 ACM Awards were in many ways Alan Jackson’s oyster. Held at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles on May 3rd, Alan walked away that night with the Top Male Vocalist award, and co-hosted the event with Reba McEntire. But when it came to performing what would be his upcoming #1 single and one of the signature songs of the era “Gone Country,” Alan Jackson couldn’t sit right with the charade most country award shows pull on their audience.
Alan Jackson walked out for his performance wearing a Hank Williams sleeveless shirt, which in itself was quite irreverent and newswrothy in 1994, when country award shows were still predominantly black tie affairs. Executive producer Dick Clark in a backstage interview during the show asked Alan, “I should ask you a significant question. Here you are on television in front of millions of people. Why do you have a Hank Williams T-shirt on?” Jackson’s response was, “Well, I love Hank, and a fan…I get a lot of gifts on the road playing, and a fan gave me this shirt, and I just saw it in the closet before I came out here this weekend and I grabbed it and said, ‘I’m gonna wear it for my song,’ you know, ‘Gone Country.’ Hank’s country.”
But it wasn’t just Alan’s Jackson’s shirt that caught people’s eye and no doubt drew the worst ire of the ACM producers. Before the show, producers had told Alan that he had to play to a pre-recorded track, which Jackson clearly felt was tantamount to lying to both his fans and the audience. So instead of playing along with the charade, Jackson tipped off the audience to the subterfuge by telling his drummer Bruce Rutherford to play without sticks. So as the performance transpires and everything sounds perfect, there is Alan Jackson’s drummer, swinging his arms like he’s playing the drums, but with no sticks in his hand.
The performance certainly must have raised a stink at the time, but information and news stories about the incident are virtually non-existent. Dick Clark and the other ACM producers may have hoped only a few people noticed, and decided rather to ignore it than to shine a spotlight on the practice of pre-recording performances.
Before there were reality show contests and overnight sensations in country music, artists were expected to pay dues in music before they could hit the big time. They had to prove their muster as performers, musicians, or songwriters before making it to the spotlight, and one of those proving grounds was behind an established musician, holding down a spot in their band. When it came to the band of the recently deceased Ray Price called the Cherokee Cowboys, that proving ground has a pretty remarkable list of alumni that made their way up the country music ranks with the help of Ray.
Much can be written about the influence and impact Ray Price had on country music. But there may be no better evidence then the list of performers who felt honored to play behind Ray during their rise. Here’s some of the most notable Cherokee Cowboys that went on to bigger fame.
In 1961, just as Willie Nelson was beginning to make it big as a songwriter with Faron Young cutting “Hello Walls” and Ray Price Recording “Night Life,” Willie heard that Ray’s bass player was leaving and applied for the gig. “Ray didn’t ask if I knew how to play bass, which I didn’t,” Willie recalls. Willie’s stint in the Cherokee Cowboys was not very long, but it was legendary. Willie would take his $25 wage and songwriting royalties and upgrade his hotel rooms to suites to throw big parties, and pay for commercial airfare instead of riding the band bus. Willie bought Ray Price’s 1959 Cadillac and gave it to his then wife Martha. But as Willie became a hot songwriting commodity, he moved on from Ray’s band. The man Willie replaced on bass was known as Donny Young, whose real name was Donald Lytle, later to be known as Johnny Paycheck.
Johnny Paycheck was known simply as Donny Young during his Cherokee Cowboy days, and he had a lasting impact on the band and Ray Price before being replaced by Willie Nelson. Just like Paycheck did when he played in George Jones’s band, he was not only a capable bass player that also could also sit in on steel guitar, Paycheck brought a tenor harmony to the table that made him an invaluable and influential resource to any band he played in. Paycheck’s tenor is given credit for heavily influencing George Jones’s singing style, and Paycheck’s harmonies can be heard on early 60′s recordings by Ray Price, Faron Young, and fellow Cherokee Cowboy Roger Miller.
Roger Miller’s career path was quirky to say the least, but just like Willie and Paycheck, it ran through Ray Price. After starting as a songwriter and collaborating early on with George Jones during his Starday Records era, Miller moved to Amarillo to become a firefighter. Of course Miller was a horrible firefighter, and made his way back into the music business and out to Nashville by becoming a Cherokee Cowboy in 1958. Miller wrote the Ray Price hit “Invitation to the Blues,” and sings harmony on the recording. Ray Price returned the favor in 1982, singing harmonies on Roger Miller’s final hit, “Old Friends,” which was the title track of a collaborative album between Roger and former Cherokee Cowboy Willie Nelson.
Picture of Ray Price and Roger Miller on the Grand Ole Opry. rogermiller.com
Talk to anybody familiar with the history of the pedal steel guitar in country music, and they’ll tell you Buddy Emmons is one of the gods of the instrument, if not the best to ever play. He was the founder of Sho-Bud, and the innovator of the “split-pedal” setup of the steel guitar in 1956 which revolutionized the instrument and is still in practice with most steel guitar players today. After doing stints in the bands of Little Jimmy Dickens and Ernest Tubb, Buddy joined the Cherokee Cowboys in 1962, recording and touring with Ray Price until about 1967. He plays the famous steel guitar break on “Night Life,” and became Price’s bandleader during his tenure in the Cherokee Cowboys, contributing many of the arrangements to Ray’s most famous songs from that era. Lloyd Green once said of Buddy Emmons, “He is probably the most intelligent and talented musician who’s ever played the instrument. He’s like Picasso or Michelangelo.” And when he joined Ray’s band, he replaced another steel guitar virtuoso, Jimmy Day. Emmons left the Cherokee Cowboys to move to California and work for fellow Cherokee Cowboy Roger Miller.
Honky tonk country singer and performer Darrell McCall grew up in Ohio with Donald Lytle, aka Donny Young, aka Johnny Paycheck, and the two moved to Nashville as a duo. When the duo thing didn’t work out, McCall, just like Paycheck, ended up in Price’s Cherokee Cowboys, both in the session recorder and touring band member capacity as a backup vocalist in 1958. A year later, McCall was contracted to be part of the band The Little Dippers, and a year after that, he was signed to Capitol Records as a solo artist, becoming a performer in the honky tonk style of country, and later in the Outlaw country realm.
The legendary Texas performer and songwriter whose most famous for penning Willie Nelson’s signature song “Whiskey River” joined Ray’s Cherokee Cowboys in 1963. Like so many artists before him, the opportunity Ray Price bestowed to Bush led to greater success, and made lifelong friends of fellow Cherokee Cowboy artists. Johnny Bush also spent some time in one of Willie Nelson’s first bands, The Record Men, and Willie was a financial backer for Bush’s first record in 1967, The Sound of a Heartache. Bush was signed to RCA in 1972, but vocal problems kept Bush from being the huge star his talent afforded. To this day, Johnny Bush is a big star in his native Texas.
Other Notable Members of the Cherokee Cowboys:
- Jimmy Day
- Pete Wade
- Steve Bess
- Jan Curtis
- Shorty Lavender
- Buddy Spicher
Some of the new “Outlaws” in country music will have you believe that getting some mud on their tires or drinking a little too much is tantamount to years of paying dues and sewing your true Outlaw oats like the original Outlaws did. So here’s ten reasons why today’s “Outlaws” will never live up to the legacy of one of the biggest country music Outlaws, Waylon Waymore Watashin By God Hoss Tecumseh Jennings.
1. Walking Off The Tom Snyder Show
In September of 1998, Waylon was scheduled to appear on the Late Late Show hosted by Tom Snyder. Going into the taping, Waylon was already a little bit sideways with the situation because he thought he deserved a full hour slot, but instead the show’s producers had him share the show with Dr. Laura. When Dr. Laura’s segment began to eat into Waylon’s time even more, he walked off the set, leaving Tom Snyder hanging.
2. Walking Out On Chet Atkins – The $25,000 Piss.
It was early 1972, and Waylon Jennings wanted control of his music. He hired a New York lawyer named Neil Reshen—the same lawyer that helped Willie Nelson get out of his RCA contract—to renegotiate his with the Music Row giant.
“It was down to a $25,000 sum, and they we’re not going to give it to me. We were sitting there, not a word spoken, and the silence got unbearable. After a while, I couldn’t take it anymore. ‘Chet,’ I said, reaching over to a bowl on his desk, ‘where’d you get these peanuts?’ Neil glared at me. ‘Shut up, Waylon.’
You could hear a clock tick in the room. It got even quieter. Minutes passed. I rose up, never said a word, walked out. I went to the bathroom to take a leak. When I came back, Neil greeted me in the hall. ‘You’re a fuckin’ genius,’ he said.
‘Walking out like that. That sewed it up. That was a $25,000 piss,’ said Neil. ‘They asked me where you went and I told them I didn’t know. ‘Waylon’s mad, I’m sure. He’s crazy. He’s liable to do anything.’ ‘Will he be back?’ they wanted to know, and I shrugged. ‘I guess he’s gone, so we may as well call this to a close.’ And that when they gave us the money.”
3. Walking Out of the 1970 CMA Awards
“It was Kris Kristofferson’s night; he was a shoo-in for several categories. I had been scheduled to perform ‘Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line.’ They said they were strapped for time, and they wanted me to cut the song to one verse and chorus. I said, ‘Why don’t I just dance across the stage and grin? Maybe do one line. That’ll give you a lot of time.’ They told me to not get smart. Either I did it or I got out. They said, ‘We don’t need you.’ I decided that was true, and I left.”
4. The 1975 CMA Awards
“Now they needed me again, because I was up for Best Male Vocalist, Song of the Year (‘I’m A Ramblin’ Man’), Album of the Year, and Entertainer of the Year. As I walked in with Jessi [Colter], scratching at my tuxedo, her telling me I should have hit them, Neil [Reshen] came over to me. ‘You won Male Vocalist,’ he whispered. ‘Jessi didn’t win anything.’ So much for secrecy. If nobody’s supposed to know the awards before they opened the envelope, how did word get around? My heart went out to Jessi, and though my first instinct was to get the hell gone, I thought that maybe by staying I could raise some of the larger problems that faced country music, such as its closed-mindedness and suspicion of change.
“I tried to be nice in my acceptance speech, thanking everybody for their support, though I knew that block voting and mass trading between the big companies—we’ll give you two hundred votes for your artist if you give your four hundred votes to our writer—probably had more to do with it than anything else.”
Waylon’s 1975 Male Vocalist Certificate (note Waylon’s embellishment):
5. Singing with Big Bird on Sesame Street
Because real Outlaws have the balls to show their gentler side.
6. Playing “Ironhead Haynes” on Married With Children
7. Corrupting Clint Black
“Joe Galante from RCA once called me and said, ‘Clint Black really likes you. Can we go to lunch and you can tell him some old Waylon and Willie stories?’ We met up with his manager, Bill Ham, and I started recounting. I told him of all the phones I used to destroy, dialing a number, putting it to my ear, and walking off. He listened to tales of Hillbilly Central and Dripping Springs, and Joe would keep encouraging me, saying, ‘Tell this story, Waylon, tell that one.’”
“After I got through talking, Clint pushed back from the table. ‘I can let you know one thing I’ve gotta do,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to get rid of this goody-two-shoes reputation I’ve got.’ Both Bill and Joe looked at him in horror. ‘No, no! We just wanted you to hear the stories!’”
8. Starting Up A Motorcycle in a Hotel Room At Midnight
For Waylon’s birthday in 1979, former Buddy Holly Cricket Joe B. Mauldin tracked down a vintage 1958 Ariel Cyclone motorcycle that used to belong to Buddy Holly, and put it inside of Waylon’s hotel room as a surprise.
“I walked into my hotel room after the show and saw it sitting there. What else could I do? I swung my leg over it, stomped on the kickstarter, and it burst into roaring life. First kick. It was midnight, and it sounded twice as loud bouncing off the walls of that hotel room. I knew Buddy wouldn’t mind.”
9. Meeting Billy Ray Cyrus
“You never do know where the stones you throw will land. One time, I was at an awards show, and I heard a voice behind me saying, ‘Mr. Jennings, you’re like a god to me.’ I turned around and it was Billy Ray Cyrus, offering his hand for me to shake. All I could think of was, if I’m your god, what does your devil look like?”
10. Writing and Recording “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”
All quotes from Waylon – An Autobiography.
Kellie Pickler resides in sort of a country music no man’s land to a certain degree at the moment. Recently her music has taken a very decidedly traditional, independent direction, specifically with her last album 100 Proof that was named country Album of the Year by Saving Country Music, Rolling Stone, and others. But her past is very heavily steeped in the mainstream music industry, being an American Idol alumni who was initially signed to Sony, who subsequently competed on Dancing With the Stars (and won last season), and who started off in the entertainment world participating in beauty pageants.
This type of resume is what makes mainstream fans salivate, while it makes traditional and independent fans look at Kellie Pickler spuriously. Authenticity is such a key factor in classic country music; in selling the pain behind your voice and words to discerning fans. As sad as it was that the mainstream country industry seemed to abandon Kellie Pickler in her moment of creative breakout and unbridled expression, it may be just as sad that the classic, independent country world couldn’t connect with her as authentic.
The stereotype for artists that come from the reality TV world is that they didn’t have to work for what they got. It was all handed to them. How are they supposed to sing with soul when they haven’t experienced the pain of real life? But few spend the time to actually dig into the past of these artists to see just how their personal narratives may play out in their music, and with Kellie Pickler, she’s experienced more real world pain than most.
To say that Kellie Pickler’s personal life growing up was tumultuous would be a remark that resides somewhere between a gross understatement and a dramatic oversimplification. Kellie Pickler hasn’t seen her mother in over 15 years, since Kellie was roughly 11-years-old. Her father at last report was a fugitive wanted by the State of Florida. And that’s just where the story begins.
Before Kellie was even 2-years-old, her mother was arrested for writing hot checks and passing a fake prescription for Valium to the pharmacy of the Wal-Mart she worked at in Albermarle, North Carolina, just east of Charlotte. Kellie’s parents split up the day after her 2nd birthday, and in July of 1989, Kellie’s mother vanished completely.
This left Kellie in the custody of her father, Clyde, who was constantly in and out of incarceration for numerous charges including drunk driving, assault, and armed robbery. “He’d get out of prison, get on drugs really bad, get tied up with the wrong people,” Kellie explained to The Charlotte Observer in 2006.
When both of Kellie’s parents were gone or incarcerated, she would stay with her grandparents, who Kellie cites as one of her biggest influences. In stark contrast to her traditional home, her grandparents’ house was a stable environment, and with her father incarcerated, it became Kellie’s permanent home until Kellie was in the fourth grade. That is when Kellie’s mother returned to Albermarle after living in California, and Kellie became stuck in the middle of a nasty custody battle.
“My grandparents and I were eating out and my mother was in there with some of her friends,” Kellie recalls. “I don’t know how I knew it was her, but we made eye contact. She went to court trying to fight for custody of me.” Kellie’s mother won, and Kellie was placed back into a chaotic environment. “During that time, she was physically and mentally abusive of me,” Kellie says. For two years, Kellie’s grandparents fought in the courts to get her back, and in 1997 they finally won. Kellie Pickler has not seen her mother since.
Meanwhile Kellie’s father was in and out of the correctional system. Kellie grew older and got a job as a car hop at Sonic, started competing in beauty pageants, and eventually tried out for American Idol. While Kellie was advancing in the competition, her father Clyde sat in a Florida State Prison for stabbing a man in New Port Richey, FL, running from police, and ramming a police cruiser. Pickler would write letters to him, filling him in on her progress on the show.
Kellie eventually was eliminated from American Idol, finishing 6th. A week later on May 6th, 2006, her father was released from prison.
Kellie Pickler made strong and public attempts to make amends with her father and support his rehabilitation, but as her post-Idol career took off, Clyde Pickler couldn’t stay out of trouble. In May of 2007, Clyde was arrested in Albermarle on three counts of felony larceny for stealing old, abandoned vehicles and selling them to scrap yards. On February 7th, 2009, Clyde Pickler was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon when he attacked a female companion with a steak knife.
Just as the criminal record of her father was a theme when Kellie was competing on American Idol, it became another story line shortly after she competed and won Dancing With The Stars. A week after her win in May of 2013, her father was listed as a fugitive by the State of Florida for leaving the state in violation of his probation.
But none of this personal history makes Kellie Pickler a good country singer or songwriter, just like the lack of a tragic personal narrative doesn’t necessarily make a performer unqualified for writing or performing country music. Where Kellie’s story goes from tragic to inspiring is how she has used her real life struggles as inspiration in her music, very directly and very personally, not trying to hide her unfortunate past, but presenting it front and center in her music.
Kellie’s first exploration of her personal story through music came with the song “I Wonder” from her first album from 2007, Small Town Girl. The song, and the truth behind it delivered one of the most memorable moments in recent memory on the CMA Awards where Kellie broke down during her performance and received a standing ovation.
Kellie’s last album 100 Proof delved even deeper. From the video of the song “Tough” that depicts a very young Kellie witnessing her father getting arrested in the family home, to the very personal songs “Mothers Day” and ” The Letter (To Daddy)” written for her mom and dad respectively, Kellie Pickler has proven that her creativity and honesty of expression can match her country cred, and that her life is truly a country song in every sense.
Kellie Pickler releases a new album “The Woman I Am” November 11th.
The last few weeks might go down in history as one of country music’s most feud-laden moments. From Gary Allan going off about country music and indirectly accusing Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood of not being country, to Zac Brown calling out Luke Bryan’s song “That’s My Kind of Night,” and Jason Aldean calling out Zac Brown in Luke’s defense.
Though country music feuding may be on a sharp rise here recently, it is not an uncommon or recent occurrence in country music by any stretch. Many artists have had a beef with the Grand Ole Opry over the years, including Johnny Cash and Stonewall Jackson. Curb Records has been in the middle of many feuds, most notably with Leann Rimes, Hank Williams III, and a big one with Tim McGraw that pitted cross-town heavyweights Mike Curb and Scott Borchetta against each other. But nothing gets folks talking like a good old artist on artist donnybrook. Here are some of the most infamous over the years.
Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner were one of country music’s most legendary pairings, but when Dolly wanted to leave the Porter Wagoner camp in 1974, things turned heated. Parton did the best she could to leave Porter’s side in an amicable way, even penning and performing her legendary song “I Will Always Love You” for her long-time singing partner. But Porter turned around and sued her for $3 million in a breach of contract suit in 1979.
However, the two made up eventually, and Porter performed with Dolly on her TV variety show in 1988. Dolly Parton was also by Porter Wagoner’s side when he passed away in 2007.
In the midst of Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” success, Travis Tritt was asked what he though about it, and always willing to be a lightning rod, Travis Tritt responded, “I haven’t seen his show so I can’t say anything about that. I haven’t seen the man personally, so I can’t say anything about him personally. I haven’t listened to his albums, so I can’t make a statement about that. But I have seen the video and I have heard “Achy Breaky Heart”, and I don’t care for either one of them. It just seems kind of frivolous. The video doesn’t appeal to me because it shows him stepping out of a limousine in front of thousands and thousands of fans, and nobody’s even heard of this guy.. Garth Brooks didn’t even do that. It doesn’t seem very realistic to me.”
Travis Tritt recalled in his autobiography Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof, “I apologized to Billy Ray, told him I hoped he sold ten million copies of the record. Went home. I sent Billy Ray a peace lily and a get well card because I heard he’d been feeling bad enough to cancel his Fan Fair appearance. Headline in the local paper the next day. ‘Travis Tritt Trashes Billy Ray Cyrus.’ The more I said about it, trying to rectify the situation, the worse it got.”
Waylon Jennings really didn’t like Garth Brooks, and wasn’t very good at hiding it. Though in the portions about Garth in Waylon’s autobiography he was careful not to use Garth’s name, during interviews in the 90′s Waylon would regularly let his anti-Garth anger slip. For example in an interview with The Inquirer form September, 1994, Waylon said about Garth, “I think he’s the luckiest s.o.b in the world. He’s gotten more out of nothing than anybody I can think of. I’ve always accused him of sounding like Mr. Haney on Green Acres.”
There’s another Waylon quote about Garth that goes something along the lines of “Garth Brooks did for country music what panty hose did for finger fucking.” But there has yet to be a verifiable attribution of the quote.
Still to this day, not much is known about the exact details of the feud between these two men, but in the mid-70′s you couldn’t find two artists more tied to the hip than Waylon and Tompall. Tompall was the proprietor of Hillbilly Central in Nashville—a renegade studio where Waylon mixed and mastered his album Honky Tonk Heroes, and recorded his album This Time. Waylon and Tompall appear together on Wanted: The Outlaws—country music’s first million-selling album. The two became close friends and were kindred spirits from their hated of Music Row’s business practices. They would spin long hours battling each other on pinball machines or picking out tunes or playing pranks on each other. But when the friendship went south in the late 70′s, it went south hard, and the two men never resolved their differences before their respective deaths, despite both men still insisting on their deep love and appreciation for each other.
The crux of the beef between two of country music’s most famous sons is that Hank3 felt Shooter Jennings stole his persona. Hank3 had a song called “Dick In Dixie” that included the line, “I’m here to put the Dick in Dixie, and the cunt back in country.” Shooter, who previously had been in a rock band called Stargunn, came out with his first country record entitled Put The ‘O’ Back In Country in 2005, and Hank3 perceived the title was a little too close for comfort.
If you wanna go down that road and rip us off, mutherfucker, I’ll see you in ten years and five thousand shows down the road.” Hank3 said. We’ll see where the fuck you’re at. You know, I called him out and just flat out said, “fuck you if you’re gonna rip us off like that on your first release.”
Shooter for his part seemed unwilling to reciprocate the feud, saying “You know what, I don’t even comment on these things, really. I don’t even know him. I met him once, I think, for a second. And somehow all this stuff started about how he hates me. I don’t know. It’s, like, stupid.”
In fairness to Shooter, Carlene Carter had used the line “If that doesn’t put the cunt back in country, I don’t know what will” at a show in New York in 1979 when her mother June Carter and father-in-law Johnny Cash were in attendance. Eventually Shooter and Hank3 reportedly buried the hatchet.
Hank3 is the legitimate son of Hank Williams Jr., but Hank Jr. was not Hank3′s everyday father. Hank3 was raised by his mother, and usually only saw Hank Jr. once a year when growing up. In 2001, Hank Jr. began collaborating with Kid Rock in songs like “The ‘F’ Word” and others, and Hank Jr. often referred to Kid Rock as his “rebel son.” This stimulated a rumor that Kid Rock was in fact Hank Jr.’s biological offspring. Though both men denied it, the urban myth grew legs, and Hank Williams III began to be asked by people if Kid Rock was his brother, which didn’t sit too well.
Then the situation escalated when Kid Rock accosted Hank3 at a show in Detroit, trying to patch up the strained relationship between Hank3 and his father. “He kept trying to come on the bus, you know, him and Pam Anderson, and all that shit,” Hank3 recalls. “And I said, ‘Tell that motherfucker I got nothing to say to him,’ and then he finally get his way back in there and tells me how I need to be treating my father, and I’m like, ‘All right, you crossed the line motherfucker.’ And I don’t know how many times I have to say it: No, he’s not my fucking brother . . .”
The altercation eventually led to the line in Hank3′s song “Not Everybody Likes Us,” “Just so you know, so it’s set in stone, Kid Rock don’t come from where I come from. Yeah it’s true he’s a Yank, he ain’t no son of Hank, and if you though so god damn you’re fucking dumb.”
It is considered one of country music’s most legendary moments—when Charlie Rich took out his lighter at the 1975 CMA Awards and burned the envelope announcing John Denver as Entertainer of the Year while Denver watched via satellite. Rich had clearly been drinking, and his antics were taken as an act of defiance against the intrusion of pop influences into country music, and have since become a rallying cry for country music purists.
Recently when video surfaced of the incident, people began to question what Charlie Rich’s true intentions were because Rich didn’t appear to look as malicious as the moment had been materialized in many people’s minds without the aid of the archived footage. Though historians and the Country Music Hall of Fame clearly spell it out as being considered a conflict at the time, Charlie’s son Charlie Rich Jr. says that his father was simply trying to be funny. So maybe there was a Charlie Rich vs. John Denver, or maybe there wasn’t, but the moment still makes for great country music lore.
Probably not much more than the names of these two needs to be said to to infer that they wouldn’t get along. Maines started the scuffle in response to Toby Keith’s song “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue” saying, “I hate it. It’s ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant. It targets an entire culture—and not just the bad people who did bad things. You’ve got to have some tact. Anybody can write, ‘We’ll put a boot in your ass’ … ”
Toby Keith’s response? “I’ll bury her. She has never written anything that has been a hit…” Maines kept up the heat, wearing a shirt with the letters F.U.T.K. on the 2003 ACM Awards. And of course, all of this was exacerbated when Maines criticized President George Bush at a concert in London a month before.
Keith was the one to publicly bury the hatchet, saying in August of 2003, “You know, a best friend of mine lost a two-year-old daughter to cancer. I saw a picture of me and Natalie and it said, ‘Fight to the Death’ or something. It seemed so insignificant. I said, ‘Enough is enough’ People try to make everything black and white. I didn’t start this battle. They started it with me; they came out and just tore me up. One thing I’ve never, ever done, out of jealousy or anything else, is to bash another artist and their artistic license.”
Toby Keith vs. Kris Kristofferson
It sure made for a juicy story at the time, but according to both of the named belligerents, it was a feud that never was. In April of 2009, actor Ethan Hawke published a story in Rolling Stone that without naming his name, accused Toby Keith of saying to Kris Kristofferson at Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday in 2003, ““None of that lefty shit out there tonight, Kris.” According to Hawke, a rolling argument ensued that ended with Kris Kristofferson saying, ““They’re doin’ to country music what pantyhose did to finger-fuckin’” (see Waylon Jennings vs. Garth Brooks above.)
However, according to both Toby Keith and Kris Kristofferson, the incident never happened. Even more damming to Ethan Hawke and Rolling Stone, though Toby Keith became famous from his flag-waving songs, he’s a registered Democrat, making the likelihood Kieth saying to Kristofferson “lefty shit” very unlikely. Ethan Hawke and Rolling Stone stood by their story, but the press who perpetuated it got an earful from Toby about it at the 2009 ACM Awards.
Feuds that involve accusations of songs getting ripped off can get especially nasty, and this was the case when Jason Isbell took to Twitter to accuse Dierks Bentley of ripping off his song “In A Razor Town.” “‘Dierks’ has officially ripped off my song ‘In A Razor Town.’” Isbell fired off. “Dierks is a douchebag. The song of Dierks is called ‘Home.’” Isbell continued to pummel Dierks through Twitter, even getting political because of the flag waving nature of “Home.” Dierks in his defense referred to an interview one of the song’s co-writers Dan Wilson did with ASCAP that explained how the song came together.
The result? Though Isbell went silent after he said he was told to do so by his lawyer, if there was ever litigation over the song, the results were never made public. Isbell has since in interviews blamed his heavy drinking at the time for his Twitter tone. Though the two songs do sound similar, whether it was truly a ripoff or not seems to remain inconclusive.
Robert Earl Keen put Toby Keith in his crosshairs when he believed Keith lifted the melody from his song “The Road Goes On Forever” for his 2010 song “Bullets In The Gun.” Keen recalls, “I got all these calls from my friends. They were saying, ‘This is ridiculous. What are you gonna do? I felt like this individual had been picking on me for a long time, and I was sick of it. So instead of getting really ugly about things—I don’t really believe in lawsuits or threats—I took the Alexander Pope road and answered this guy in song.”
Keen recorded “The Road Goes On And On” as a shot at Toby Keith (though he never mentions his name), with lines that included:
You’re a regular jack in the box
In your clown suit and your goldilocks
The original liar’s paradox
Your horse is drunk and your friends got tired
Your aim grew weak and uninspired . . .
Toby Keith has never formally responded to the accusations.
This battle of heavyweights ensued when Eric Church was quoted in Rolling Stone in late April of 2012 saying, “Honestly, if Blake Shelton and Cee Lo Green turn around in a red chair, you got a deal? That’s crazy. I don’t know what would make an artist do that. You’re not an artist. Once your career becomes about something other than the music, then that’s what it is. I’ll never make that mistake. I don’t care if I starve.”
Miranda Lambert, who is married to Blake Shelton and also has a reality show past, came out swinging, saying through Twitter, “I wish I misunderstood this . . .Thanks Eric Church for saying I’m not a real artist. You’re welcome for the tour in 2010,” referencing Church’s opening spot on one of her tours.
Eventually Eric Church apologized, saying, “The comment I made to Rolling Stone was part of a larger commentary on these types of reality television shows and the perception they create, not the artists involved with the shows themselves. The shows make it appear that artists can shortcut their way to success… I have a problem with those perceived shortcuts, not just in the music industry…I have a lot of respect for what artists like Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, and my friend Miranda Lambert have gone on to accomplish. This piece was never intended to tear down any individual and I apologize to anybody I offended in trying to shed light on this issue.”
As some have pointed out since, Eric Church apologized to Miranda, but never apologized to Blake.
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Eric Church also created a firestorm with Rascal Flatts in 2006. While playing in an opening slot, he purposely played too loud and for too long after numerous requests to respect the tour’s wishes, resulting in him being kicked off the tour. It also resulted in a young starlet named Taylor Swift getting a chance to open on the big tour, which many experts give credit for helping Taylor’s meteoric rise.
Blake Shelton vs. Ray Price
When Blake Shelton’s comments about how he considered country music’s traditional fans “Old Farts and Jackasses” came out, Country Music Hall of Famer Ray Price shot back, saying, “Every now and then some young artist will record a rock and roll type song , have a hit first time out with kids only. This is why you see stars come with a few hits only and then just fade away believing they are God’s answer to the world. This guy sounds like in his own mind that his head is so large no hat ever made will fit him. Stupidity Reigns Supreme!!!!!!! Ray Price (CHIEF “OLD FART” & JACKASS”) ” P.S. YOU SHOULD BE SO LUCKY AS US OLD-TIMERS. CHECK BACK IN 63 YEARS (THE YEAR 2075) AND LET US KNOW HOW YOUR NAME AND YOUR MUSIC WILL BE REMEMBERED.”
Blake Shelton later apologized, saying, “Whoa!!! I heard I offended one of my all time favorite artists Ray Price by my statement “Nobody wants to listen to their grandpas music”..And probably some other things from that same interview on GAC Backstory.. I hate that I upset him.. The truth is my statement was and STILL Is about how we as the new generation of country artists have to keep re-inventing country music to keep it popular. Just EXACTLY… The way Mr. Price did along hid journey as a main stream country artist.. Pushing the boundaries with his records. “For The Goodtimes” Perfect example with the introduction of a bigger orchestrated sound in country music.. It was new and awesome!!! I absolutely have no doubt I could have worded it better(as always ha!) and I apologize to Mr. Price and any other heroes of mine that it may offended.”
Ray also later apologized to Blake Shelton for being so harsh, and along with wife Miranda Lambert, they attended a Ray Price show in Oklahoma to patch things up in person.
In 2013, there is only one music artist who can say they’re officially banned for life from country music’s most storied institution: the Grand Ole Opry. No, it’s not David Allan Coe, Hank Williams III, or some other hothead, firebrand artist quick to call out the Opry and other mainstream country music institutions at any perceived slight. No, the offending party is none other than alt-country luminary Neko Case.
This may not be completely surprising seeing how Neko got her start in music as the drummer for a punk band, and has regularly collaborated with artists and bands outside of the country fold like The New Pornographers. But like many of the artists making up the alt-country movement in the mid 90′s, it can be argued that Neko had more respect for the roots of country music, and for country music institutions like the Grand Ole Opry, than many of country music’s artists did at the time, and certainly do today.
In October of 1998 when Neko’s first album The Virginian was blowing up in the alt-country realm, the Las Vegas Sun interviewed the young songstress, where she professed her philosophy behind country music, and her love for the Grand Ole Opry, in an article appropriately titled “Neko Case’s Quest for the Grand Ole Opry.”
I don’t play “alternative country” music; I just play country music. I want to have the same outlets, the same goals that all my heroes in country/western music have had. I want to play the Grand Old Opry in my grandmother’s lifetime, you know what I mean? I want to be played on mainstream radio. I’m not willing to change my music to get there faster, but I’ll fight for it anyway. I don’t think anyone gives a shit about country radio. It’s bullshit. It just makes me mad that (country radio) is using the term “country music,” when it doesn’t belong to them.
I think now is the time for change in country music; hopefully it’ll change for the better. It really burns that all the bands that inspired me were part of a national country music culture that was really admirable and fairly diverse at one time. I want to have the same avenues open to me. It’s like having this beautiful old building in your neighborhood and coming back to find that they’ve torn it down and built a Wal-Mart in its place.
Neko Case would get close to having her Grand Ole Opry wish granted when she was invited to perform at the Grand Ole Opry Plaza Party just outside the Grand Ole Opry House in the summer of 2001. Playing the Plaza Party was seen as a precursor to being able to play the Opry proper, and is the place where many Opry mainstays like Old Crow Medicine Show and Dale Watson got their Opry starts. With the respect Neko Case had for the Opry, she was excited for the opportunity.
“People who have gone to the Opry or are on their way to the Opry come by and check you out while they’re coming and going,” Neko explained to the Denver Westword that summer. “You get to go backstage at the Opry, which is the really cool part.”
Everything seemed to be going well for Neko and her Opry dream until one afternoon performance in July at the Plaza Party that was especially sweltering. The stage the Opry had set up for their Plaza performers was black, and right beside it was a barbecue pit that was pouring heat out onto the performers. With dreams of making it onto the Opry’s main stage, Neko Case persevered through the heat during her show, but it began to get unbearable and she started to wilt.
Neko Case started making requests for water from surrounding staff, but they went unfulfilled and she began to get dizzy. As Case began suffering from the effects odf heat stroke, she asked the staff if she could take a short break, and was told no. The situation became desperate for Neko, who was on the verge of passing out or suffering from some serious, long-term damage if she couldn’t resolve her rising body temperature. So in a panic, Neko removed her shirt to help cool off. As you can imagine, the family-friendly Opry did not look favorably upon this.
Exacerbating the shirt removal was the weight of Neko Case’s past in music and her statements about country, seeming to imply to the Opry and others that this wasn’t just an instance of heat exhaustion, but that Neko was making some symbolic statement by bearing her womanhood in public (though she still had a bra on beneath). As the stories swirled about Neko’s shirtless set, it was taken by some as an obscene gesture to cause a sensational outcry, or to stand against the direction of country music, or some other counterculture statement.
But that wasn’t the case. I wasn’t trying to be sexy or rebellious — I was just getting heatstroke up there,” Neko later explained to Rolling Stone. “I didn’t do anything obscene. I wouldn’t want to see me with my shirt off, either.” But the explanation didn’t do much good, and the incident resulted in a lifetime ban from the Grand Ole Opry—the institution Neko cherished so.
Neko has since come to peace with her fate. “I was pretty depressed for a couple of months after that happened, but I got over it,” Neko told The Guardian. Neko later memorialized the incident by naming her 2002 album Blacklisted.
She still hopes to return to the Opry some day and fulfill her dream. “They’ll forgive me one day,” she told Fairfax Digital. “I still love them.”
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Neko Case just released a new album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.
A big battle ground in country music right now is the presence of so many songs about trucks. Everywhere you turn, there is a song being released by a big country music personality that drones on and on about tailgates, Chevy’s, lift kits, mud flaps, etc. etc. Though this recent popularity trend seems especially sinister in its simplistic, incessant nature, it is not necessarily unprecedented in country. From the early 60′s into the mid 70′s, songs about semi-trucks and truck drivers were all the rage, with big names like Merle Haggard, Del Reeves, and Buck Owens getting in on the action, and professional country songwriters writing songs to specifically to capitalize off the trend similar to what is happening in country music today.
The difference of course was many of these classic trucker songs were considered very well-written, with many of them delving into deep issues like death, loneliness, loss of family, etc. Country music’s new crop of truck songs and their respective songwriters and performers could learn a thing or two about storytelling and soul from these traditional country truck driving songwriters and performers.
Maybe the best known of the country trucking crooners, with the most-recognized, most-covered trucking song in “Six Days On The Road,” Dave Dudley is an overlord of the country music truck driving music subset. Holding an honorary solid gold membership card to the Teamsters Union, he broke out with “Six Days On The Road” in 1963 and never looked back. Other great country trucker classics like “Truck Drivin’ Son-Of-A-Gun,” “Trucker’s Prayer,” and “Keep On Truckin’” are also attributed to Dudley, but like many of the old truck singers, he had his standard country hits too. Dave Dudley was actually the first to cut Kris Kristofferson’s song “Viet Nam Blues” that first put Kristofferson on the songwriting map, and Dudley’s only #1 song was the Tom T. Hall-written number “The Pool Shark.” Dudley had hits for over a decade, with his last big single “Me and Ole C.B” peaking at #12 on the charts in 1975.
Red Sovine was known for his trucking songs, but his particular twist was how he would talk in prose instead of singing his songs in rhyming verses. Sovine’s speaking style would have significant influence on the rest of country outside the trucking sub genre, while his trucking songs set the bar for emotional impact and storytelling. Sovine’s #1 “Teddy Bear” is right up there with Dave Dudley’s “Six Days On The Road” as one of the most well-recognized country trucking songs, and Sovine also charted another #1 with “Giddyup Go.” His song “Phantom 309″ wasn’t a huge hit, but it found a new audience when Tom Waits included a live version of it on his album Nighthawks At The Diner. Sovine also had a non-trucking #1 hit in a duet with Webb Pierce in 1955 with the song “Why Baby Why.”
With a patch over his right eye, Dick Curless was considered a throwback even in his own time. He was one of the pioneers of country trucking music, with his first big hit “A Tombstone Every Mile” making an appearance as a top five country hit in 1965. Songs like “Traveling Man,” “Highway Man,” and “Big Wheel Cannonball” established Dick’s persona as a man constantly on the move, and won him a spot on the nationwide Buck Owens All American tour. Like many of country’s trucker song stars, Curless spent a lot of time in California and was signed to Capitol Records, though he was known to frequently go back to his home in Maine to recover from a grueling schedule of touring and performances.
While Red Simpson may have not had the huge hits of his trucker song counterparts, he was also the one most dedicated to the specialized version of country. With only a few exceptions, virtually all of Red Simpson’s songs are about trucking or the highway patrol. He was the trucker songwriter other trucker songwriters listened to, and wrote many trucker hits for other artists. Based out of Bakersfield, he co-wrote songs with Buck Owens, and became a hot commodity when trucker songs became popular. The trucking song “Sam’s Place” that went on to become a #1 for Buck Owens was written by Red, and in 1975, Red landed his own big hit with “I’m A Truck.” At 79, Red is the last of the original country trucker song stars still around. In 1995, he recorded two duets with Junior Brown, “Semi Crazy” and “Nitro Express.” He is still recording, recently doing a duet with underground country artist Bob Wayne, and rumored to have an album called The Bard of Bakersfield in the works.
C.W. McCall got a late start in the trucking genre, joining the second wave of the movement in the mid-70′s. But his contribution was significant, especially with his #1 hit, the trucking song standard and generally epic “Convoy.” The song inspired a movie of the same name that starred Kris Kristofferson in 1978, and McCall was regarded in some circles as the “Outlaw” of the country trucker song performers. “Convoy” became so big, some consider McCall a one hit wonder, but he had numerous successful songs, inside and outside the trucking realm. His first charting single was “Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep On-a-Truckin’ Cafe,” and he also had a #2 single with “Roses For Mama.” C.W. McCall’s popular career was pretty short, ranging from roughly 1974-1978, but his impact, especially with “Convoy” cannot be understated.
Though Del Reeves is known for contributing much more to the country music genre than just trucking songs, his two significant cuts, the #1 hit “Girl On The Billboard” from 1965, and the top 5 hit “Looking at the World Through a Windshield” from 1968 make Del Reeves and honorary trucking song god if there ever was one, and an important performer in the development of the sub genre. Reeves also put out an album called Trucker’s Paradise in 1973.
…and to an extent their sister band Asleep At The Wheel deserve honorary mention for being inspired and a part of the 70′s-era trucker song revolution, though it is widely considered they were somewhat on the outside looking in. Nonethess, Commander Cody’s second album that consisted mostly of covers called Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers Favorites from 1972 might be one of the most prized albums of the sub genre.
Not really known exclusively as singer of truck driver songs, but his albums The Truckin’ Sessions (1998) and The Truckin’ Session, Vol. 2 certainly deserve mention, with the first one considered by many to be the album that launched Dale’s career. Dale has also been known to drive trucks and his own bus upon occasion.
Another artist not primarily known for trucker songs, but Junior Brown has them scattered throughout his discography, including the title track off of his 1996 album, Semi Crazy. Junior’s signature song “Highway Patrol” rekindles the symbiotic relationship between trucker songs and highway patrol songs first started by Red Simpson, who he recorded two duets with in 1995.
Aaron Tippin may be best known for his more patriotic songs, but he’s peppered trucker songs here and there throughout his career. In 2009, Tippin released an album called In Overdrive that included many truck driving cover songs and closed out with two originals. His truck driving cred is helped by the fact that he was a real-life truck driver before launching his career in country music.
A lesser-known underground country artist, but one who includes trucker songs (usually of a pretty seedy nature) on every one of his albums, including his 2nd album 13 Truckin’ Songs. Bob Wayne recently performed and recorded a duet with Red Simpson after re-discovering him in a Bakersfield trailer park.
Merle Haggard & Buck Owens as part of the Bakersfield Sound both had quite a few big trucker anthems. One of Jerry Reed’s signature songs is “East Bound & Down” from the Smokey & The Bandit movies where he played a trucker. Tom T. Hall wrote and recorded a few trucking songs. And there’s many other artists who’ve recorded more than one trucker song. Who are some of your favorites?
During Johnny Cash’s legendary concert at San Quentin Prison in 1969, photographer Jim Marshall said to Johnny backstage, “John, let’s do a shot for the warden.” The result was the photograph above that mostly remained under wraps until 1998. That is when producer Rick Rubin decided to use the iconic photo in an ad in Billboard magazine decrying country radio’s lack of love for Johnny’s second album on Rubin’s American label called Unchained. Despite no industry support, Unchained went on to win the 1998 Grammy for “Best Country Album.”
Since then the image of the angry face and the raised middle finger has become an iconic symbol of defiance against the direction of country music. As indecent as a raised middle finger happens to be in the first place (and the propensity for some seedy country fans and artists to over-saturate its use in every single photo of them), it has come to mean much more than its vulgar connotation in the fight to save country music.
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Willie Nelson’s middle finger photo was shot by a photographer named Sean Moorman on Willie Nelson’s tour bus on July 26, 2002. The title of image is “Willie Nelson Sending Jim Marshall Regards.” Both the Jim Marshall photo of Johnny Cash and the Sean Moorman photo of Willie stimulated litigation when Urban Outfitters printed up Johnny Cash middle finger T-shirts without permission, and Spencer Gifts did the same with Willie.
Dale Watson doing his best Johnny Cash impression:
Hank Williams III and David Allan Coe in younger days:
Jonny (Corndawg) Fritz telling a fan they’re #1 (Kayley Luftig – Photographer):
Bob Wayne, adding the stink eye for extra emphasis:
Jeff Austin of the Yonder Mountain String Band doing the double bird (Chad Smith Photography):
Keith Richards’ middle finger is insured for $1.6 million. Yes, that one he’s point at you. And no, I’m not kidding.
The wet cigarette of country music, Kid Rock. And Saving Country Music friend “Pointer” from a downtown Nashville excursion in 2011 getting his picture with Kid Rock on the front of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.
Townes Van Zandt, from the back cover of his 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.
Kellie Pickler telling Kanye West “Fuck You!” for not liking country music (see video).
Lenny Kravitz giving the crowd at the 2013 CMA Fan Fest the double bird because they “couldn’t get with love” during his elongated set that left the crowd underwhelmed.
A sign hanging up in the Johnny Cash themed bar and music venue in Austin, TX called the Mean Eyed Cat.
The ad Rick Rubin placed in Billboard Magazine after Johnny Cash won the 1998 Grammy for Best Country Album:
You’ve all heard about the “Million Dollar Quartet”—the recording session at Memphis’s legendary Sun Studios on December 4th, 1956 that compiled the talent of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. Well if there was an equivalent to the Million Dollar Quartet in the songwriting world, it would be the one night in January of 1969 when Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, and Shel Silverstein all spent an evening at Johnny Cash’s home in Hendersonville, TN on the banks of Old Hickory Lake, swapping songs and stories from their respective spheres of the music world. The music that was showcased for the first time ever at the intimate songwriter circle became the soundtrack for a generation, and the gathering would go down in history as one of the most potent assemblages of songs showcased for the first time in one place.
The Who and Why
Johnny Cash was in the midst of recording his famous The Johnny Cash Show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and Bob Dylan was in the studio in Nashville recording his landmark country album Nashville Skyline (that Johnny Cash appears on). Bob was staying at Johnny’s Hendersonville house at the time. Meanwhile Joni Mitchell was in town recording an appearance on The Johnny Cash Show (she appears on the 1st & 6th episodes of the 1st season in 1969) and was currently dating Graham Nash who tagged along for the adventure. Kris Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein were in the habit of showing up anywhere where their songs might be heard by big name performers, and together they all formed one star studded songwriting circle.
Johnny Cash was the glue of the whole thing, bridging the differences between the dispirit music realms the 6 participants came from with The Johnny Cash Show being the catalyst. Performers on the show regulary stayed at Johnny’s Hendersonville home. “Music is for everybody,” Johnny Cash explained when telling the story of the legendary night to David Letterman in 1985. “And although I’m known as a country artist, [The Johnny Cash Show] was a network show, and I wanted to see some people on it that I knew the people wanted to see.”
“That night in my house [was] the first time these songs were heard…” Johnny Cash went on. “Joni Mitchell sang ‘Both Sides Now,’ Graham Nash sang ‘Marrakesh Express,’ Shel Silverstein sang ‘A Boy Named Sue,’ Bob Dylan sang ‘Lay Lady Lay,’ and Kristofferson sang ‘Me & Bobby McGee.’ That was the first time any of those songs were heard.”
David Letterman’s poignant reaction to Cash’s run down of talent and songs was, “Did you have snacks?”
All five songs became very successful charting singles. “Me & Bobby McGee” went on to become a #1 hit for Janis Joplin (awarded posthumously), and “A Boy Named Sue” a #1 hit for Johnny Cash. “Both Sides, Now” has now been recorded by over 70 artists, including Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Bing Crosby, and Jimmie Rodgers. Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” is considered a country standard, and has been recorded by artists as varied as The Byrds, to Duran Duran, to Ministry.
There is one minor correction to Johnny Cash’s recollection. Even though Joni Mitchell most likely sang “Both Sides, Now” that night, the song was first recorded by Judy Collins in 1967, meaning the first time it was heard would not be that night at Johnny’s house in Hendersonville. And though “Marrakesh Express” wasn’t released until May of 1969, some reports have the song being recorded in 1968 for Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s self-titled album.
Nonetheless, the music showcased that night all in one place by the original songwriters is something to behold, and certainly was one of the most diverse, most star-packed, and most hit-packed songwriter circles in the history of popular music.
It was later memorialized by The Highwaymen in “Songs That Make A Difference” from their 1990 album Highwaymen II.
Shel Silverstein – “A Boy Named Sue”
Joni Mitchell – “Both Sides, Now”
Kris Kristofferson – “Me & Bobby McGee”
Bob Dylan – “Lay Lady Lay”
Graham Nash – “Marrakesh Express”
Authenticity and dysfunction are regularly celebrated in country music, and what better way to celebrate that than to look back in time a some of the most notable mugshots and arrests of country music’s most notable stars.
Cash was arrested twice. The first was after a trip to Mexico when he tried to hide 1,163 Dexedrine and Equanil tablets in his guitar case while crossing the border near El Paso, TX in 1965. Since the drugs were prescription instead of illegal narcotics, Cash received a suspended sentence. He was arrested again in 1966 in Starkville, Miss. for … get this … picking flowers late at night. The property owner pressed trespassing charges, and Johnny spent time in the Starkville County Jail, resulting in the song of the same name.
Though Cash was famous for his concerts at Folsom Prison and San Quentin, he never served time in anything bigger than a city jail (the bottom mug was just for show).
The trouble started for Willie Nelson way back in 1960 when he was arrested for speeding in Pasadena, TX (near Houston). And then came the pot busts:
- 1974 – For possession in Dallas, TX.
- 1994 – For possession in Hewitt (near Waco) when Willie pulled his Mercedes off the side of the highway for a siesta and an officer found a joint in the ashtray and eventually a bag of marijuana. The judge ruled the evidence inadmissible and the charges were dropped.
- 2006 – For possession in St. Martin Parish, Louisiana for one-and-a-half pounds of marijuana and 3 oz. of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Willie, his sister Bobbi, and Willie’s manager were all arrested, eventually receiving 6 months probation.
- 2010 – For possession of 6 ounces of marijuana at the Sierra Blanca, Texas border checkpoint. Willie eventually only had to pay a fine.
Jerry Lee Lewis
In the dead of night in November of 1976, a drunken and armed Jerry Lee Lewis showed up to the gates of Graceland demanding to see his fellow Sun Studios alum Elvis right then and there. The guard rang Elvis who refused “The Killer’s” request, and then rang Memphis police when Lewis began waving a gun around.
Hank Williams Jr.
You may think because Hank Jr. was the last of his rowdy friends to settle down that at some point he would wind up in the pokey, but it turns out his mugshot was for a bunk charge from a 19-year-old in March of 2006 that said Jr. put her in a choke hold after she refused to kiss him. Jr. turned himself in, and after finding out the girl was looking to cash in big on the accusation and that there was no real evidence of the altercation, the charges were dropped.
In November of 2003, Glen Campbell was arrested at his home near Phoenix, AZ after hitting and running while drunk in his BMW. Then while Campbell was being processed, he kneed an officer in the leg, which added an aggravated assault of a police officer charge. Campbell pleaded down some of the counts, and eventually spent 10 days in jail.
Domestic abuse charges landed Rodney Atkins in front of the police camera in February of 2012, but the news about the charges didn’t come out until his wife filed for divorce a few weeks later. The news also came on the heels of Rodney re-signing with Curb Records. The charges were later dropped as part of the divorce settlement.
An indelible image of country music’s first superstar in this midst of his downfall in 1952, leaving the jailhouse in Alexander City, Alabama.
Billy Joe Shaver
Notable country music songwriter Billy Joe Shaver sits on the witness stand stemming from an altercation behind Papa Joe’s bar near Waco, TX in 2007 when Shaver shot a man non lethally in the face with a .22 pistol. The incident became a piece of country music lore when Dale Watson wrote a song titled “Where Do You Want It?” allegedly for the question Shaver asked his victim before he pulled the trigger. The high-profile trial incuded Willie Nelson showing up as a Shaver character witness, and eventually all charges were dropped against when it was ruled Shaver was acting in self defense.
In 2003, daughter Judd was pulled over for speeding and subsequently blew a .175, lading her in jail before she posted a $500 bail. It all happened right down the street from Music Row, so maybe it’s true what they say about the country music industry driving artists to drink.
Just like the “Wet Cigarette of Country Music” to get arrested at a Waffle House. In October of 2007, Kid Rock and his crew stopped into the DeKalb County, Georgia eatery where they proceeded to brawl with gawking patrons. Other members of Kid Rocks posse were also arrested. Rock was found guilty of simple battery. It was his 4th chance to strike the perp pose over the years for various charges.
David Allan Coe
You better believe DAC would be here, but unfortunately this is the biggest photo we can drum up of David from his time in the Ohio State Penal System.
Coe was also arrested in 2008 after an altercation in a casino when a misunderstanding about a jackpot resulted in security officers and police wrestling Coe to the ground. Coe countersued in 2010 for false arrest and assault. The entire altercation was caught on tape.
Yes, we know that some of the younger generation of country performers don’t want to pander to the “old farts and jackasses,” but maybe Billy Currington took it a little too far when he threatened a 70-year-old boat captain for coming too close to his waterfront property in Tybee Island, Ga. Currington was cited in April of 2013 for making “terroristic threats” and “abuse of an elder.” Case is still pending.
Johnny Paycheck spent 4 years battling an aggravated assault charge after shooting a man in a Hillsboro, OH bar during a brawl. Though multiple appeals kept Paycheck out of prison for a while, he was finally sentenced to the Chillicothe Correctional Institute in 1989 where he served two years before being paroled.
In May of 2008, Louisiana country star Chris Cagle got in a tussle with his girlfriend Jennifer Tant at the Player’s Bar in Nashville before the couple took the bout home. Cagle wielded Jennifer’s purse. Jennifer weilded an umbrella, and they both ended up in the big house. Police said they were both too drunk and disorderly to press any serious charges.
When the underground country band from Austin, TX went to release their first album, they chose their mutual mugshots from the same Williamson County roundup to make up the CD art.
No mugshots of George Jones’s numerous run ins with the law during his drinking days have ever surfaced, but video did a few years ago from a George Jones documentary.
Get well Randy! …. but we couldn’t make this list without you. Travis was forced to pose for police camera twice in 2012; once after a drunken fight at a church, and the other after driving drunk….and naked.
When looking at the historical timeline of country music, many times it is big events that set the wheels of change in motion, for the good and the bad. Whether it is intrusion of pop or rap into country, or the ill-treatment of country music greats, here are some of the most embarrassing moments in country music history.
Shuttering of the Country Music Mother Church
The Grand Ole Opry needed a bigger home and the move was inevitable, but the result was the complete shuttering Ryman Auditorium, also known as the Country Music Mother Church, for 20 years. Aside from being opened by special permission to shoot videos for folks like Jason & The Scorchers, John Hartford, and for parts of the Coal Miner’s Daughter movie, the venue was abandoned between 1974 and 1994, also allowing the surrounding lower Broadway area to be overrun with strip clubs and dirty bookstores. It wasn’t until Emmylou Harris recorded a live album at the Ryman that a renewed interest in the historic venue was sparked, eventually leading to its restoration and re-opening.
Garth Brooks Goes Flying Over Texas Stadium
In 1993 at the old Texas Stadium in Irving, TX, Garth Brooks does a video shoot and decides to pull a Sandy Duncan and go flying over the crowd suspended with wires. Though it was a one-off demonstration, it illustrated Garth’s influence of turning country into more of a commercial, arena-rock presentation.
Jessica Simpson plays the Grand Ole Opry
You already forgot that reality star Jessica Simpson had a stint trying to be a country performer, didn’t you? Her career lasted weeks, but that was long enough for the Opry to decide to give her an opportunity to be on the sainted Opry stage on September 6th, 2008, while many other more worthy performers still wait indefinitely in the wings for the distinguished Opry opportunity.
Unfinished Hank Williams Songs Turned Into Lost Notebooks Album
Publisher Sony ATV cashed in on a collection of lyric sheets left behind by Hank Williams—some unfinished, and all without music—by doling them out surreptitiously to Bob Dylan, and a bevy of undeserving artists including Jakob Dylan and Sheryl Crow, to finish and record. The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams raised the ire of many, including Hank’s daughter and Williams estate executor Jett Williams who said about the project, “It was like ‘here are some lyrics’ instead of trying to think, “If Hank Williams was sitting here with me and it’s got his musical footprints all over it.” You would think that when you heard the song being sung by the artist, that it would have some kind of (Hank) feel to it, which I’m not feeling it myself.”
DeFord Bailey Fired from the Grand Ole Opry
Harmonica player and Country Music Hall of Famer DeFord Bailey was one of the early stars of the Grand Ole Opry, and was an official member from 1927 to 1941 when a dispute with BMI-ASCAP wouldn’t allow him to perform his most famous songs on the radio. Instead of standing behind one of their founding performers, the Opry fired DeFord. This ended his performance career and DeFord shined shoes for the rest of his life to make a living. DeFord did not play the Opry again until 1974 when he appeared on an “Old Timers’ Show.”
Jason Aldean Performs “Dirt Road Anthem” with Ludacris on CMT Awards
“History has been made baby!” Ludacris declared from the stage in June of 2011 when country music saw its first rap performance on an awards show, and the first live mainstream collaboration with a rap artist. This event and “Dirt Road Anthem” hitting #1 would open the country rap flood gates.
Olivia Newton-John and John Denver Winning CMA Awards
Olivia Newton-John’s CMA for “Female Vocalist of the Year” in 1974, and John Denver’s CMA for “Entertainer of the Year” in 1975 symbolized the historic intrusion of pop into the country format in the mid-70′s. The trend was staved off the next year when Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings ushered in the Outlaw movement in country.
Taylor Swift Wins First CMA for Entertainer of the Year
The date 11/11 was not good luck for country music in 2009, when Taylor Swift took home her first Country Music Association “Entertainer of the Year” award along with three other trophies on the night. Teen pop had now taken center stage in country music.
Induction of Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, & Darius Rucker Into The Grand Ole Opry
The Grand Ole Opry had already been wanting to appeal to a younger, more youthful crowd, but in recent years they have ratcheted it up another notch, completely ignoring older country stars worthy of induction for pop country’s latest trends.
“Struggle” Turns Waylon Songs Into Rap
It was bad enough when rap infiltrated country music. Now it has gone back in time to overwrite the songs of country greats that have passed on. Waylon Jennings’ grandson-in-law nicknamed “Struggle” (his real name is Will Harness, and his real grandfather is Duane Eddy) took 7 Waylon Jennings songs, and rehashed them into rap songs in an album entitled I Am Struggle released in May of 2013. It was an unprecedented intrusion of rap into country music’s past, perpetrated by one of the few people who could get the blessing of the Waylon estate to do so. (read more)
Stonewall Jackson Stonewalled by the Grand Ole Opry
After having his performances on the Grand Ole Opry cut back so much that he lost his health benefits, Stonewall Jackson sued the Opry claiming age discrimination against Opry General Manager Pete Fisher. Stonewall claimed the Opry breached a long-standing code that if stars performed a set number of dates each year, even when they could make more money playing tour dates, they would always have a place to play at the Opry even in their older age. The lawsuit was eventually settled in court, and though the specific details of it were never revealed, Stonewall was happy with the outcome, and his performance schedule increased afterward.
Garth Brooks Becomes Chris Gains
In 1999, a bored Garth Brooks created a fictional dark pop character from Australia called Chris Gaines and released an album called The Life of Chris Gains. It gained Garth one Top 5 hit, “Lost In You,” but Brooks’ Chris Gaines idea met with very heavy criticism and confusion from fans, and after only a few weeks, Chris Gains rode off into the sunset and Garth Brooks re-appeared before a planned movie The Lamb could go into production.
The Grand Ole Opry’s Refusal to Reinstate Hank Williams
Even though there is a Hank Williams impersonator to greet Opry attendees at the door, the institution has refused to reinstate one of country music’s most legendary icons, and one that made the Opry an internationally-known institution, even in a symbolic gesture. Hank was dismissed from the Opry in 1952 for missing performances and rehearsals due to alcoholism, and was told he could return once he sobered up. Hank never got that opportunity, dying on New Years Eve of that year. A movement called Reinstate Hank looks to reinstate the country star back into the institution.
George Jones “Choices” & Other CMA Performances Cut Short
At the 1999 CMA Awards, George Jones was asked to perform an abbreviated version of his song “Choices.” George refused and boycotted the show, and in response Alan Jackson, while preforming his song “Pop A Top,” cut his own song short, and launched into George’s “Choices.” (read more)
This was actually the second time an artist boycotted the CMA’s. In a much less publicized event, Waylon Jennings refused to perform an abbreviated version of “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line.” Waylon recalls, “They told me not to get smart. Either I did it or I got out. They said, ‘We don’t need you.’ I decided that was true and left.”
The wide palette of influences that came together to form country music’s unique sound is something that can be a marvel to explore. From the Gaelic and Celtic influences carried by northern European immigrants to the United States, to blues modes from the deep South, to the cowboy themes from California and folk’s influence of telling the story of the common man, these and many more influences all coagulated into this unique American art form that appeals so deeply to the hearts and heritage of country fans.
Yodeling is also one of these influences—an ancient art form that originated in the central European alps as a way for herders and villagers to easily communicate over the sloping terrain. Just like the old-time fiddle tunes that went into the formation of bluegrass, yodeling was carried over to America by German immigrants that settled in Appalachia and the deep South, eventually intertwining with folk and blues until both Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams were employing the singing style as a way to communicate the pain inherent in the themes of country.
Yodeling became deprecated in popular country music by the late 1950′s, but not before Slim Whitman who passed away on June 19th mastered the craft and made the world a timeless catalog of it in the country music context. Slim may not be given as much credit of the formation and popularization of country music as Hank Williams or Jimmie Rodgers, but he sold a surprising 120 million records worldwide, primarily by appealing to Europeans just as much, if not more than the American audience.
Though Whitman never scored a domestic #1 (he did have a couple of #2′s), his song “Rose Marie” held the record for the longest UK #1 for 36 years, spending 11 weeks at the #1 spot. Whitman was right-handed, but was a left-handed guitarist, stringing the guitar upside down; a practice later adopted by Paul McCartney after seeing Whitman playing guitar on a poster. Whitman’s influence far outlasted his popular music popularity, and so do his songs that illustrate an astounding, enchanting control of the human vocal range.
Oh, and let’s not forget that moment in 1996 when Slim Whitman’s music single-handedly saved the world from invading Martians when a Kansas teenager discovered through his grandmother that Slim Whitman’s yodel would melt the brains of the invaders, eventually leading to the military broadcasting Slim around the globe, destroying the Martians.
And people still say old-school country has no use. Ha!
RIP Slim. Yodeling champion, and savior of planet Earth.
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