It’s not too often that 90-year-old entertainers experience a resurgence in their careers, but that is exactly what Don Maddox of Maddox Brothers & Rose finds himself in the midst of. After 50 years of being hidden away in the town of Ashland, OR where he was known only as a cattle rancher, Don has the spotlight shining down on him once again, receiving standing ovations at The Grand Ole Opry, headlining festivals, and having the history of his legendary family band on display as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Bakersfield Sound exhibit.
“If you don’t get Don Maddox back here for this exhibit, you might as well not have it at all,” is the quote from Merle Haggard that everyone was talking about at the Bakersfield Exhibit opening, and the standing ovation Don Maddox received when Marty Stuart took him to the Grand Ole Opry is what Don couldn’t stop talking about when he invited me out to his ranch just outside of Ashland, OR; the epicenter of all things Maddox after the band’s breakup in the mid 50’s.
The Maddox family moved to California from Boaz, Alabama during the early stages of the Depression. Tired of working as itinerant farmers, they decided to become entertainers and The Maddox Brothers were born. At the beginning, Don was too young for the band, but when he came of age he joined his brothers and sister as the fiddle player and “comedian” of the band with the nickname “Don Juan”. 70 years later, Don’s wit has not dried up or slowed one bit, despite being off the stage since the late 50’s. He is the last surviving member of the band.
One can make the case that Maddox Brothers and Rose are one of the most influential bands of all time in American music, and this isn’t just a platitude meant to flatter. When the Maddox Brothers began, they didn’t even call it country music yet, it was called “hillbilly music”, yet the Maddox Brothers didn’t play hillbilly music exclusively. They mixed it with boogie woogie, which would later become rock & roll. Where the Maddox Brothers influence is undeniable is in the combination of hillbilly and boogie woogie that came to be known as rockabilly.
Rose Maddox has been called anywhere from the queen, to the mother, to the grandmother of rockabilly, and brother Fred Maddox who played upright bass is given credit for developing the slap bass approach to the instrument. “Well the reason he did a slap bass was because he didn’t know how to play the bass.” Don Maddox explains. “All he was doing was playing rhythm anyhow. He didn’t know the notes so he’d just slap the bass for the rhythm part. Everybody thought he put on a great show and thought he was the best bass player there was.”
The Maddox Brothers & Rose, also known as “The World’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band” for their bright embroidered Western suits, may have also had some influence on Elvis who they shared the stage with, sonically and in the style of dress.
“We were playing a show with Elvis in Beaumont, TX at the auditorium.” Don recalls. “A package show. And we had on our fancy outfits, the ones with the bell bottoms on them and all the flowers and all of that stuff. Elvis, he was just coming on the scene at that time. And they came in with their street clothes. That’s all they had at that time. It was pretty hot down in Beaumont so we took off our fancy jackets and hung them in the dressing room backstage. And when we came off stage and went back there to get our jackets, Elvis had on one of our fancy jackets and was parading backstage and he said, ‘One of these days I’m going to get a fancy outfit like this.’ So eventually Elvis got himself a fancy outfit, not like ours but even more fancier. But it had bell bottoms on it, so the story is he got the idea from seeing bell bottoms on our outfits at that time.”
In the mid 50’s, Maddox Brothers and Rose officially disbanded. They determined their style of music had peaked. “The money was going out faster than it was going in,” says Don. So Rose, along with brother Cal who played guitar, and mother Maddox who was the family’s manager, left for Nashville to hopefully make it big in country music. They thought Rose was the real star, and could make more money without all of the other brothers. Don Maddox was 37-years-old at the time and was living in Hollywood. He’d never graduated high school, he had no direction, and didn’t think he was good enough to play fiddle in any other bands.
So Don enrolled in a college of agriculture that taught the cattle business, and after graduating, drove his ’57 pink Cadillac north from Hollywood in search of a ranch to buy. He wanted to purchase in the Napa Valley just north of San Francisco, but eventually settled in Ashland, OR, just over the California border, where he found a beautiful 300-acre plot just east of town. They wouldn’t take his pink Cadillac in trade, but he stole the place for $27,500; a lot of money at that time, but nothing compared to the $150,000 prices Ashland, OR acres fetch today.
With the ranch secured, Don Maddox headed to Las Vegas to buy a bull, and he settled on a champion angus named “Ben Bond Revolution #73” that he paid $10,000 for in a fierce bidding war with another rancher. “I latched on to that ‘revolution’ and I was going to revolutionize the cattle industry with that bull. And I named my ranch ‘Maddox Revolution Angus Ranch’. I kept that bull for two years and he gave me some good calves. And then he went sterile on me! And I had to sell him for hamburger prices at 25 cents a pound and he brought about $500. So I didn’t revolutionize the cattle industry because nobody would join my revolution.” Don says laughing.
“So when my new bride came along and she wanted me to make CDs, and the guy that was making the CD for me said, ‘You’ve got your revolution ranch, why don’t you make it Revolution Records?’ So that’s where the Revolution Records came from.”
Don has kept the Revolution Ranch running all the way up to today, where he still lives in the original house and still helps keep the ranch going. The barn that reads “Maddox Revolution Angus” that overlooks Ashland, OR on a bluff is a landmark, but the vast majority of Ashland residents are clueless to Don’s or the Maddox’s musical past.
The irony in Don’s story is that even though he was one of the Maddox Brothers members who wasn’t seen as good enough to keep going when Rose tried to make it big in Nashville, he was the one able to take the wealth the family enjoyed from the 40’s and 50’s and make it stretch. So when Rose’s career came to a halt in Nashville, she, along with brother Cal and mother Maddox moved to Ashland, where Don sectioned off a 5-acre plot of the ranch and sold it to them to live on. Mom, Rose, and Cal lived there for the rest of their lives. When they couldn’t afford to pay for it, Don bought it back, and then leased it to them so they could continue to live there.
Throughout their lives in Ashland, The Maddox Brothers and Rose’s musical past mostly remained a secret except for some diehard country and rockabilly fans who knew the Maddox name for the legendary and influential force in American music they were.
2 years ago, Don married Barbara who he refers to as his “child bride”, and Barbara began helping Don get back into the music business. In August of 2011, The Muddy Roots Festival in Cookeville, TN flew Don out to play, and Don was able to meet Marty Stuart during the trip, who owns all of the Maddox Brother’s colorful Western suits that (potentially) inspired Elvis, and who loaned the collection to the Country Music Hall of Fame for their Bakersfield exhibit. Since then Don has played The Grand Ole Opry (and received a standing ovation, don’t forget) and even appeared on The Marty Stuart Show as a special guest.
Once again in 2012, Don Maddox will be playing The Muddy Roots Festival in Cookeville, TN, and who knows what will happen from there. “This is my golden years.” Don beams. “I heard of the golden years when I was a young man and I thought, ‘Yeah right.’ But in my golden years I’ve been on The Grand Ole Opry, I’ve been in the Country Music Hall of Fame. This is the golden years for me.”
Don shows no signs of slowing down whatsoever, is still funny and as sharp as a tack, and still gets standing ovations for his renditions of songs like “Step It Up & Go” and “Orange Blossom Special”. Don Maddox is a living piece of history that harkens back to a time when American music was known by completely different names and was just beginning to form into the major genres we identify with today. Rock & roll and rockabilly owe just as much to Don and the Maddox Brothers as country does, and they owe him a lot.
Don Maddox is a national treasure, and still one amazing entertainer.
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(Saving Country Music’s full interview with Don Maddox will be posted soon)
Don Maddox @ The Muddy Roots Festival:
Don Maddox on the Marty Stuart Show: