Don Maddox was arguably the oldest living legend in country music. And he will remain a legend, today and forevermore. But his time as one of the last living links to the very formation of country music has officially ended. Don Maddox of The Maddox Brothers & Rose has died at the age of 98.
The Maddox Brothers and Rose were quite literally there as hillbilly music, rockabilly, and rock and roll were formed, and when they ultimately split into separate genres, with the band influencing all three in very significant ways. Their colorful stage suits were the inspiration for Elvis’s stage wear. An up-and-coming singer from Texas named George Jones once opened from them. And though they never seem to receive their proper due, those who know, they know that American music would sound like something fundamentally different if it weren’t for the Maddox Brothers and Rose.
Born on December 7th, 1922, fiddler, singer, and band comedian Don Maddox moved with his family to California from Boaz, Alabama during the 1930’s and the early stages of the Depression. Tired of working as itinerant farmers, they decided to become entertainers and The Maddox Brothers were born in 1937. 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 with the nickname “Don Juan.”
The Maddox Brothers and Rose were known as “The World’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band” for their bright embroidered Western suits inspired by the silver screen actors in Hollywood where the got their start. They wore Nudie suits before anyone knew what a Nudie suit was. Seminal to both the California Country and Bakersfield scenes, they also toured the United States as a headliner act, and played The Grand Ole Opry and The Louisiana Hayride in the early stages of the institutions. According to Don, they were responsible for Elvis adopting his flashy stage attire.
“We were playing a show with Elvis in Beaumont, TX at the auditorium.” Don told Saving Country Music in a 2012 interview. “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.”
Two of the most important contributions to music from the band came from Don’s sister Rose, and his brother Fred. Rose Maddox has been called anywhere from the queen, to the mother, to the grandmother of rockabilly music. Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton both cite her as a significant influence.
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.”
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. Rose did have some moderate success, but never hit it big, and in subsequent decades, the contributions of the Maddox Brothers and Rose faded mostly to memory.
But in recent years and retrospectives, the importance of the Maddox Brothers and Rose has come sharper into focus. When the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville opened a major exhibit on the Bakersfield Sound in 2012, Merle Haggard was quoted as saying, “If you don’t get Don Maddox back here for this exhibit, you might as well not have it at all.” And so with the help of Marty Stuart, they did. Marty is the owner of many of the group’s colorful stage suits, and these constituted the very first thing you saw as you walked into the exhibit that ran until 2014.
Then in the 2019 Ken Burns documentary on country music, the 2nd episode of the series focused extensively on the contributions of The Maddox Brothers and Rose, and specifically included an interview with Don Maddox. They were also featured in the 3rd episode of the series. This once again helped underscore the band’s importance. But despite the renewed interest in the band, and the efforts of people such as Marty Stuart, The Maddox Brothers and Rose have still yet to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame—something many fans were hoping might happen while Don was still alive. His last sibling to pass away was Rose on April 15, 1998.
Don Maddox was 37-years-old when the Maddox Brothers and Rose disbanded, and was living in Hollywood at the time. 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 300-acre plot just east of town. They wouldn’t take his pink Cadillac in trade, but he was able to buy the place for $27,500.
Don then bought a legendary Angus bull named “Ben Bond Revolution #73,” and started a “revolutionary” cattle ranch. Don kept the Revolution Ranch running for decades, and the barn that reads “Maddox Revolution Angus” that overlooks Ashland, OR on a bluff is a landmark of the area.
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 through performing, and make it last. So when Rose’s career came to a halt in Nashville, she, along with brother Cal and mother Maddox moved to Ashland, OR where Don sectioned off 5-acre plots of the ranch for them to live on. Mom, Rose, and Cal lived there for the rest of their lives.
Don Maddox continued to fiddle and perform up until the last few years, including flying out to play the Muddy Roots Festival in Cookeville, TN, and playing the West Coast Country Music Festival in Greensprings, Oregon. He would also regularly perform with the Oregon Old Time Fiddlers in the Southern Oregon region.
The death of Don Maddox is truly the end of an era in American music.
He is survived by his wife Barbara, who he affectionately referred to as his “child bride.”