Rose Maddox – Grandmother of Rockabilly & More

Rose MaddoxIf you’re anything like me, if I want to hear some new music, you sure aren’t going to find me sniffing around CMT or burying your nose in the latest Rolling Stone. No, I’m likely going to be looking to the past, not the future. And man, what a thrill it is when you find a vein of music you’ve never heard before that unlocks months of new music for you to explore.

That’s what happened when someone mentioned the name Rose Maddox to me at an Izzy and the Kesstronics show a few months back. Before then I’d never heard of Rose, though I’d heard of Maddox.

The little town I was living in at the time, Ashland, OR, people liked to rave about “Maddox Beef.” There was a farm just east of town that everyone knew as the Maddox farm. Little did I know that a woman that you can trace back some of the very foundations of country music to, someone who was making country before it was even called that, was buried in that town. And that this woman had a huge impact on rock n’ roll as well. And that this woman and her brothers were also the first to blend the two sounds into what today we call rockabilly, and that they were the first band to use the term “Outlaw” to refer to their music.

Rose Maddox has been called the Grandmother of Rockabilly, The Queen of West Coast Country, Miss Boogie, the Original Hillbilly Filly, and many more I’m sure, and her impact on modern music cannot be understated.

Rose and her brothers moved from Boaz, Alabama during the Depression era to California in search for work. The story goes that one day Rose’s brother Fred while working in a cotton field sat down on his sack, tired and frustrated, and proclaimed to the rest of the family, “We’re going into the music business.” The family called his bluff, and the band became known as the “Alabama Outlaws,” with Fred on bass, Cal on rhythm guitar, and 11-year-old Rose singing. They played weekday mornings from 6:30 to 7:00 on KTRB in Modesto, CA, sponsored by Rice’s Furniture Store.

Later in 1939 they would win a sponsorship by Anacin Pain Reliever at the Sacramento Fair and sign a contract with the McClatchy Broadcast Network that broadcast their music all over the West Coast.

“We were called hillbilly singers – not country – then.” Rose recalls. “No, none of this country music then. People just called us hillbilly. It took people in our field years and years just to get to the point where we were called country singers.”

During WWII Fred and Cal joined the armed services, and when they got back in 1947, younger brothers Don and Henry joined the band, Rose started playing some fiddle, and they began to go under the name “The Maddox Brother’s and Rose.” The group dropped their small label, called Four Star Records, and signed to Columbia. About this time is when Rockabilly was born, as the group mixed elements of their “hillbilly” or country music, with “boogie woogie,” later known as rock n’ roll.

Their up tempo, slap bass rhythm, and electric guitar blended with traditional hillbilly sounds was something that had never been heard before. It is where Rockabilly, or “country boogie” came from, but elements of it would also go into making what we now know as traditional country and rock n’ roll.

“People tell me that I was one of the first women to sing what I sang – country boogie.” Rose says. “I guess I was. There was no rock ‘n’ roll in those early days, before 1955. Only country boogie.”

By the mid 50’s The Maddox Bros. & Rose were touring coast to coast, and rockabilly music was an all out craze. The band played on the Louisiana Hayride, and toured with Elvis. Elvis’s bass player, Bill Black, looked up to Rose’s brother Cal as a mentor, and they played similar styles. As rock n’ roll was being formed, The Maddox Bros. & Rose were right there. They also played the Grand Ole Opry, the Las Vegas Strip, toured with Marty Robbins, and even Hank Williams.

In 1957 the band broke up, but Rose Maddox stayed on Columbia Records, making albums and releasing singles. She became known as “Miss Boogie,” and Rose was who every aspiring rockabilly or rock n’ roll female singer learned the craft from. You can hear the same rockabilly singing style that people like Wanda Jackson perfected in Rose’s early solo stuff:

“Kitty Wells would stand up there and not even move,” says Johnny Whitesides, who wrote a biography on Rose. “Rose would get on stage and high-kick and shimmy-shake. That drove people crazy.”

One of Rose’s more rockin’ tunes was called Wild Wild Young Men.

Emmylou Harris has stated that Rose and her brother’s combination of repertoire, stage presence and rural heritage helped make many more people aware of country music, and that Rose never received the recognition she deserved because of “a reluctance in American society to celebrate the value of white country and roots music.”

Rose Maddox had an indelible mark on country music, AND rock n’ roll, and virtually invented rockabilly. That is why it is a shame that the Country Music Hall of Fame has yet to recognize her, and it lends credence to the idea that there is a bias against country performers from the West Coast.