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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”
For many up-and-coming country artists, simply getting to meet their country heroes is thrill enough. Getting the honor of portraying them in a big theatrical production? That is the thrill of a lifetime.
Adam Lee of Kansas City’s Adam Lee & The Dead Horse Sound Company is getting that very chance by apprising the role of Johnny Cash in the Chicago-based production of the critically-acclaimed and Tony-nominated Million Dollar Quartet—a musical based around the legendary Sun Studios recording session that transpired on December 4th, 1956 and included the star power of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash.
Adam Lee, who has one of the most pure and natural country bass voices you will find—as low as Cash’s legendary pipes—joined the stage show live last Wednesday (7-3-13) after weeks of preparations and rehearsal.
“It kind of came out of the blue,” Adam Lee explains. “Back in Spring I was on tour—me and my buddy Matt Woods were out at South by Southwest—and I got an email from the people at the show. I knew one of the fellas from the show, a guy named Lance Lipensky who plays Jerry Lee Lewis. We met during another tour I was on up in Chicago. They said they were looking for somebody to maybe take over Johnny Cash, and asked if I wanted to audition. It’s certainly a different kind of thing. It’s something I never expected. But I figured what the hell, I’ll come up and see about it.”
The Million Dollar Quartet musical has been running now for 5 years. It was co-written by renown American music biographer and historian Colin Escott, and the musical arrangements were handled by Chuck Mead of BR549 fame.
“I thought if anything I go up there and get a chance to meet these guys and sing in front of them. So I came up the first week of April and did an audition. They seemed happy with it. I’d never acted or anything, and they told me that day they weren’t going to have anybody act, they were just looking for people to sing. So I went into the audition and Colin, Chuck, and some of the producers were there, and I sang. Then they asked me, ‘Well can you act?’ So I read some lines and I left. I didn’t really hear much back. And then they called me 3 months later and asked me if I wanted to come up here [to Chicago]. This past Wednesday was my first show. I’ve got 8 shows under my belt now, and I’m feeling pretty good. 5 days a week, 8 shows a week. It’s a lot of fun.”
Adam Lee has been a touring musician on and off since 2008 when he released his first album with the Dead Horse Sound Company called Ghostly Fires. That album and 2010′s When The Spirits Move Me are favorites amongst traditional country fans familiar with Adam Lee. Playing the role of Johnny Cash, especially since Lee had never acted before was intimidating. But as Adam explains, they weren’t looking for an impersonator.
“It’s obviously quite an undertaking. One thing I really like about their attitude with their show is that it’s not like a legends show. It’s not a tribute artist act where they want you to impersonate this person and fake it. It’s more about trying to take the person’s attitude and persona, and filter it through yourself. You’re definitely encouraged to be yourself, and bring yourself to the table.”
And Adam says his training as a musician helped, especially because the focus of the Million Dollar Quartet is not just the stage show, but the music, and his knowledge and appreciation for Johnny Cash came in handy.
“All the music in the show is live. All the actors play all the instruments and sing. It’s an interesting mix of a live rock show, and theater. It’s a very different show in that regard. Normally you have musicians, and then you have actors. But for this show they have to find people who can do both. Chuck Mead’s arrangements are fantastic. I had to learn some of the breaks, and some things that they do that were not necessarily the way I had learned the songs. But it was a lot of fun. I definitely felt like I was getting to exercise some muscles I don’t usually use. We do a couple gospel songs. There’s four and five part harmony gospel singing, so I get to do some bass harmony singing, which is a lot of fun. I’m definitely learning a lot. The whole acting thing is new to me, but I’m having fun with it.”
The Million Dollar Quartet runs shows at Chicago’s Apollo Theater Tuesday through Sunday, with two shows on Saturday and Sunday. There is another production of the play currently running in Las Vegas, and another that tours the country.
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.
2012 was a high profile year for Halls of Fame. From the kilted screecher Axl Rose pulling like a Sex Pistol and telling the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to kiss off, to the Baseball Hall of Fame not inducting a single member as the steroid era falls like a shadow on the eligibility timeline. Similarly to baseball’s Hall of Fame, and in polar opposite of its rock & roll counterpart, the Country Music Hall of Fame has kept its legitimacy and honor over the years by being an exclusive get.
The Country Music Hall of Fame inductees are selected through a committee process appointed by the CMA. Since 2010, the selection process has been split up into three categories. 1) Modern Era (eligible for induction 20 years after they first achieve “national prominence”). 2) Veterans Era (eligible for induction 45 years after they first achieve “national prominence”). 3) Non-Performer, Songwriter, and Recording and/or Touring Musician active prior to 1980 (rotates every 3 years). With a musician, Hargus “Pig” Robbins selected in 2012, and songwriter Bobby Braddock selected in 2011, it will be a non performer (ie producer, record executive, journalist, etc.) that will be eligible for induction in 2013.
Since 2001 when there was a whopping 12 inductees, anywhere from 2 to 4 names have been added to country music’s most prestigious list each year. Usually one name from the above mentioned categories makes it per year, but if no name gets enough of a majority vote, a category may not be represented in a given year. Or, if two names get enough votes for a single category, then both may come from that category.
Modern Era Possibilities
Modern era inductees are usually big, high-profile names in the first few years of their eligibility. In 2012 it was Garth Brooks. In 2011 it was Reba McEntire. These are performers who would have risen to prominence between 1968 and 1993.
Alan Jackson – This is the big name this year that could be inducted in his first year of eligibility like Reba and Garth. Jackson would be a solid pick as a pretty strict traditionalist who experienced lots of commercial success and still remains relevant in country today.
Ricky Skaggs – Along with Kenny Rogers, Ricky Skaggs was one of the names that felt right on the bubble of being inducted last year. Skaggs has bookened his career as a mandolin maestro, studying under Bill Monroe and now firmly ensconcing himself as a country music elder. In between then, he had tremendous commercial success in the 80′s when country was searching for its next superstar. This would be another pick that few could argue with.
Kenny Rogers – He must have been only a few votes from induction last year, and it only seems like a matter of time before The Gambler gets in. The month after the 2012 inductees were named, Rogers was named the Hall of Fame’s “Artist in Residence,” possibly signaling that Kenny was close, but not quite there. Some purists may complain that Kenny started in rock and also helped usher in a more pop-influenced era in country, but you will find few who can argue that eventually Rogers doesn’t belong in The Hall.
Hank Williams Jr. – Could also be considered a veteran candidate depending on where you start your timeline, and another man who will be a hall of famer at some point (with 2 CMA Entertainer of the Year awards under his belt). The question is, is this the year? Last year Jr. seemed like a strong possibility, and then a political brushup that cost him his long-standing gig as the singer for Monday Night Football seemed to sour Hank Jr. sentiment with some. With so many eligible names and so few slots, if there’s any little reason to leave a name out until next year, it’s likely to be passed over. Hank Jr. has become a polarizing figure, and the selection committee may look for someone who can build more consensus.
Brooks & Dunn – Brooks & Dunn was a commercial powerhouse whose career is somewhat shadowed by the success of Garth and their strange place as a non-familial country duo. Their first album Brand New Man sold 6 million copies, and they won the CMA for Vocal Duo of the Year every year between 1992 and 2006, except 2000. They’ll be in eventually, but is the list of names in their field still too strong for this to be the year? Their success is not debatable, but did they have the type of influence it takes to be Hall of Famers this early in their eligibility window?
Toby Keith – Officially eligible because his “Should’ve Been A Cowboy” was released in 1993, but it wasn’t until the 2000′s when Keith really became a dominant force in country music, both commercially and influentially. He’s a long shot, but a possibility.
Other possibilities: Ronnie Milsap (saddled by his “crossover” status), The Judds, Randy Travis (bad news year for him), Clint Black (and his disappearing act for the last few years), Tanya Tucker, The Oak Ridge Boys, Crystal Gayle, and Mickey Gilley.
Veterans Era Possibilities
It is much harder to compile a field of candidates in this category because the time period is so wide, and the possibilities are so endless. So instead of trying to name off every possibility, here are some serious contenders, and some interesting names.
Gram Parsons – The push to put Gram into the Hall of Fame has been going on for years, but with a wet finger sticking up in the air, I think this year may be the one that if he’s not fully inducted, there will at least be enough votes for him through the induction process that he will really have to be looked at in coming years as a serious candidate. Influential country writer Chet Flippo featured Gram’s influence in August. What once looked like a ridiculous notion, now seems like a real possibility, and that is a victory for the Gram Parson camp in itself.
Jerry Lee Lewis – Jerry Lee has received a big push this year, and is a definite possibility for induction. He may be held back some since he came from rock & roll, and his antics on The Grand Ole Opry and other places over the years. But his contributions as one of country music’s preeminent piano players cannot be denied. If Elvis is in the Country Hall (and he is), his old Sun Studio’s buddy can’t be that far behind.
Jerry Reed – Such a great ambassador over the years for country music from his work with Smokey & The Bandit to Scooby-Doo, but Jerry Reed should be inducted for his stellar and influential work as both a performer and a musician. There weren’t many better guitar pickers back in the day than Jerry Reed.
Lynn Anderson & Dottie West – Lynn and Dottie are the two ladies that probably lead the field for female veteran inductees. The question with Dottie is if she’s known more as a duet performer. The question with Lynn Anderson is a few DUI arrests over the years. Still, both of these ladies are right on the bubble, and would not be surprising as the 2013 veteran pick.
John Hartford – I admit this is a long shot pick, but I believe he deserves induction. As I said in last year’s prognostications, “The Country Music Hall of Fame works like a timeline as you walk through the displays that weave around the massive archive in the center of the building. As you start from the beginning, each artist and their impact is displayed on a plaque that includes their Hall of Fame induction date. When I came to the John Hartford display on my last visit to The Hall this summer, he was the first to have a display, but no Hall of Fame induction date.”
The Maddox Brothers & Rose – The Maddox Brothers & Rose was a name I’m sure was not on anybody’s radar, until this year. With their prominent place at the very beginning of the Hall of Fame’s current Bakersfield Sound exhibit, it is hard not to see how important their influence was on country music, especially West Coast country, and the flashy dress of country performers that still influences the genre today. I agree it is a long shot, but if groups like The Jordanaires and The Sons of the Pioneers are in The Hall, certainly The Maddox Brothers & Rose should be.
Johnny Paycheck and David Allan Coe – These names come up every year from hard country fans, and are names regularly held up as evidence of the Hall of Fame’s illegitimacy. The simple truth is that with these two performer’s shady pasts, Hall of Fame induction is going to be difficult. Johnny Paycheck has a more distinct possibility than David Allan Coe, because Coe could create a public relations nightmare for the Hall of Fame from people (correct or not) who label Coe a racist, sexist, etc. etc. Patience mixed with persistence is what Coe and Paycheck fans need to see their heroes inducted, as time heals all wounds. Eventually I think both men should be in, but they may have to wait for a year with a weaker field. Seeing Hank Jr. go in may be the sign the Paycheck and Coe’s time is coming.
Other possibilities: Johnny Horton, Bobby Bare, Jimmy Martin, Ralph Stanley, June Carter Cash, Tompall & The Glaser Brothers, and an endless list of other possibilities.
Non Performer Possibilities
Possibly the hardest category to prognosticate, I would put Fred Foster as a producer candidate, music publisher Bob Beckham as another candidate, and Chet Flippo as a candidate for a music writer. Chet Flippo wrote the introduction to Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and Wanted: The Outlaws, and was seminal in spreading the influence of country in the 70′s with his writing in The Rolling Stone.
Really, Mike Curb‘s name should be in the discussion. He is the namesake of the conservatory that greets you when you walk into the Hall of Fame. But with his shenanigans the last few years battling both artists and other labels in the courts, Mike Curb may be waiting a lot longer for Hall of Fame induction, if not forever.
Saving Country Music’s Picks
If I had a vote…
Modern Era: Ricky Skaggs
Veterans Era: Gram Parsons, Jerry Reed, John Hartford, Maddox Brothers & Rose, Johnny Paycheck. If I had only one? Give me Gram and we’ll worry about the others next year.
Non Performer: Chet Flippo
Country music songwriting legend and original Outlaw Billy Joe Shaver will be releasing a loaded 20-song CD package with companion DVD called Live at Billy Bob’s Texas on July 17th, recorded in the “World’s Largest Honky Tonk”. This will be Shaver’s first album in five years after winning a court battle for aggravated assault in April of 2010, and heart surgery in May of 2010, and after taking some time off from touring due to a shoulder issue.
From The Press Release:
The fully loaded special package includes 20 live renditions of some of his most notable compositions on an audio CD and DVD as well as two bonus tracks, and is the first set of new concert recordings since 1995 to be issued to the public. Included among Shaver classics and favorites are two new songs: “Wacko From Waco” (co-written with his longtime friend Willie Nelson) and “The Git Go,” proving that his muse remains as fertile as ever.
As a songwriter, Shaver’s songs have been recorded by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kris Kristofferson, The Allman Brothers, Bobby Bare, BR549, Elvis Presley, John Anderson, George Jones, Tex Ritter, and Patty Loveless amongst others. Waylon’s landmark album Honky Tonk Heroes included all Billy Joe Shaver songs except for one.
Billy Joe Shaver will be the 42nd artist to release a “Live at Billy Bob’s” album, company that includes David Allan Coe, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard. He recorded the album with his young, rocking band guitarist Jeremy Woodall, drummer Jason Lynn McKenzie, and bassist Matt Davis. Even at 72, Shaver still delivers a very high energy set, punctuated by his punching and personality on stage.
Some of the Shaver songs to be included on Live at Billy Bob’s are:
- Heart of Texas
- Georgia on a Fast Train
- Honky Tonk Heroes
- Old Chunk of Coal
- Live Forever
- Old Five and Dimers
- That’s What She Said Last Night
- Black Rose
- Hottest Thing in Town
- Good Old USA
- I Couldn’t Be Me Without You
- Star in My Heart (a Capella)
- You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ
- Wacko From Waco (studio bonus)
- The Git Go (studio bonus)
We like to rag on people around here like Jennifer Love Hewitt and 80′s pop star “Tiffany” for “Going Country.” This has prompted a few to criticize me and others for thinking anyone that didn’t start in country cannot “go country” or dabble in the music, or that I have some predisposed problem with rock influences mixing with country.
So I wanted to compile a few examples of when it has been good for artists to “go country,” and hopefully I will turn a few people on to some great country music, performed by non-traditional country artists.
One of country purist’s prerequisites for someone “going country” is that they pay more than just lip service to the legends and traditions of country music, and what better way to do that than to team up with Loretta Lynn. In 2004, Jack White (The White Stripes, Racounters) produced and played on Lynn’s Van Lear Rose album. White encouraged Lynn to write her own songs for the album, and this one of the standout tracks:
There are country influences in a lot of Jack White’s music, and I wouldn’t count out a full on country project from him in the future.
The leader of California punk band Social Distortion has a solid country solo career that has produced some great songs and albums. His first album Cheating at Solitaire featured great original songs and performances by Bruce Springsteen and Brian Setzer. He also released the album Under the Influences of country covers.
On a side note, Mike Ness is the only male artist approved by Saving Country Music to wear eyeliner.
Jerry Lee Lewis & Bob Dylan:
It wouldn’t be a proper list if I didn’t look to the past for a few examples. After his rock career went down in a blaze of scandal, Jerry Lee Lewis re-emerged by beginning a full fledged country career. Far from a marketing ploy, Jerry Lee put out some of the best piano-based country music I have ever heard. If you ever find a vinyl copy of one of his Country Music Hall of Fame Hits volumes, don’t pass it up.
Another oldtimer that went country was Bob Dylan. His album Nashville Skyline might be one of the best country albums ever cut. Recorded in Nashville with country set musicians, and with an appearance by his friend Johnny Cash, this album is about as good as it gets.
Though he’s never officially put out a complete country project, Beck is about the only artist in my opinion who has successfully blended country influences with what could be considered “techno” or “hip-hop”; things involving turntables and such. It has been tried many times and failed, and one reason that I think Beck can do this in a respectable manner is because he approaches the music from a respectful point of view.
On an album called Stereopathetic Soulmanure, an album you can’t get except for in bootleg form, Beck does a couple of outright country songs with steel guitar and all. One of them is the song “Rowboat,” which is probably one of my top 20 country songs of all time, and probably my #1 from a non-country performer. Johnny Cash took a shine to the tune as well, and covered it as the opening track to his Unchained album.
Here is Cash and Beck talking about the song:
Beck wrote and recorded the song while recording Mellow Gold, his big debut album, so he wrote the song before he was a well-known, national artist.
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So not every non-country artist or actor (like Billy Bob Thorton, for example) who wants to stick their toe in the country waters has to worry about it getting bitten of by country purists. The main the is the approach by the artist. If they want to “go country” as a marketing ploy, they take a risk. Some have been successful, like Hootie and the Blowfish’s Darius Rucker. And sometimes it goes over like a poop in a punch bowl, like Jessica Simpson. The main thing is that their heart truly has to be in the music. Country music has a way of starring into the soul of artists and exposing the truth. That is why I still have some faith in our tarnished genre.
DeFord Bailey was the most influential harmonica player of the early 20th Century, and is known as the ‘Lost Legend of the Grand Ole Opry.’ The Opry owes this dude a ton. He is credited for actually inspiring the name ‘Grand Ole Opry,’ he was in the first ever recording session to ever take place in Nashville, and he played the FIRST EVER song on the Grand Ole Opry, the ‘Pan American Blues.’
Problem was Deford was a brother, and the other performers would not allow him to eat in the same restaurants, and he’d sleep out in the car while the other slept in posh hotel rooms. Then in 1941, they fired his black ass, because his ass was black.
Some of you hardcore people may think a brother has no place in country music to begin with, but as Hank Jr. pointed out a couple of years back when his two daughters were in a bad car accident and he was being accused of being a racist: “A black man taught Hank Williams Sr. how to play the guitar, and if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t even be here.”
The influence of the brother in the early formation of country music cannot be denied.
Charlie Louvin, Stonewall Jackson, and Other Aging Opry Members :
Many aging Opry members, including legends Charlie Louvin and Stonewall Jackson are being kicked out of the Opry, in a move that violates a long standing unwritten code between the Opry and its musicians. The Opry has never paid their performers very well, but the code has always been that if you showed loyalty to the Opry in the highlight of your career, then they would take care of you in the twilight of your career, giving you a place to perform even when you are not a current-day superstar.
In 2000, Louvin and Jackson got purged out of the Opry along with many other aging musicians, causing them to lose health insurance and other benefits.
“The only ones they want to see in the audience and on stage are young people,” said Joe Edwards, a musician in the Opry’s house band for about 45 years before he was asked to leave.
Skeeter Davis & Jerry Lee Lewis:
During a 1973 performance at the Grand Ole Opry, Skeeter Davis dedicated a gospel song to some evangelists that had been arrested. The Opry saw this as political grandstanding, and suspended Skeeter for 15 months.
Jerry Lee Lewis, who was launching a country and western career after his rock ‘n roll career had tanked for nearly a decade due to a controversy involving him marrying his 13-year-old second cousin, was publicly admonished by the Opry when he said on stage to the family-oriented crowd, “”I am a rock and rollin’, country & western, rhythm & blues singing mother fucker!”
So as you can see, the Grand Ole Opry has a history of pissing people off, and on the other hand, being pissed off themselves.
Out of one side of their mouth they talk about family values, and out of the other bark marching orders to drum out all the elderlies and minorities.
It is a theme with the Opry throughout it’s history, a long standing pattern of collusion and closed-mindedness. It seems to be a pillar of their existence, just like the music and the mother church itself.
The major hangup between the Opry and the Reinstate Hank movement seems to be that as soon as a member dies, they are immediately removed from the member roster. First, isn’t this just a morbid practice in its own right? I mean why couldn’t they at least have ‘lifetime members’ or something, for the legends that have filled its ranks? Furthermore, why can’t they just reinstate him, AS THEY WERE PLANNING TO DO ALREADY (see prev. blog) as a gesture to the family, and then remove him later if that, as they say, is what they do with all their dead members. Reinstating Hank Sr. could be an event to draw revenue and attention to the Opry.
But most importantly, it is the right thing to do.
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