It sounds mythical, but it’s true. Farm laborer and aspiring singer-songwriter Stonewall Jackson (his real name), having undergone a horrific, Dickensian childhood, drove his pickup truck from rural Georgia into Nashville on Halloween in 1956. Prospects of dues-paying, begging auditions by day and nursing beers at Tootsie’s by night hoping to meet the right people didn’t faze him. His uncanny self-confidence made him certain he’d be quickly discovered.
And he was. Defying conventional wisdom, three songs he taped at Acuff-Rose, who’d published Hank Williams’ tunes, so impressed owner Wesley Rose he arranged an Opry audition for Jackson, unsure WSM would bite. They did, despite an unwritten requirement that members have a record deal. He signed his Columbia contract in January 1957, where this four-disc, 124-song chronicle of his first decade with Columbia begins.
There was, of course, more going on. Jackson’s talent was undeniable, yet he couldn’t have better timed his arrival. Autumn 1956 marked turbulent days in Nashville as the rock boom left Opry attendance reeling and the fortunes of even its biggest stars in doubt. Proudly country, Jackson was a reassurance that the Opry under its new manager, the rock-hating “D” Kilpatrick, would welcome young talent, but never become a rockabilly showcase as the Louisiana Hayride and Town Hall Party had.
While Ernest Tubb, renowned for his beneficence, helped Jackson establish himself onstage, it took time for him to find his vocal style and to overcome tendencies to mimic Hank Williams. Jackson found himself by embracing his natural, twangy baritone, using it well on “Don’t Be Angry” and George Jones’ “Life To Go”, his first chart single.
In mid-1959, when historical saga songs briefly ruled and Johnny Horton’s “Battle Of New Orleans” owned the #1 country and pop spots, Don Law, Horton’s producer, had Jackson record “Waterloo”, a half-baked melange of homilies and history by quirky Nashville songsmiths John D. Loudermilk and the often overrated Marijohn Wilkin. Law applied the martial arrangement of “New Orleans” to “Waterloo”. It knocked Horton from #1 country that summer and reached #4 pop. An insipid saga follow-up, “Uncle Sam And Big John Bull”, was justifiably DOA.
The more unvarnished the song, the stronger Jackson’s performance. He poured himself into “The Sadness In A Song” (a collaboration with Wayne Walker) and the previously unissued “The Neon Lights (Don’t Care Who They Burn)”. He excelled on “Black Sheep”, a late 19th-century morality play performed a la Luke the Drifter. The barroom sing-along chorus of “Stamp Out Loneliness” was a smart confluence of commerciality and hard country.
Occasionally Law, who produced Robert Johnson and Lefty Frizzell, screwed the pooch. It’s hard to understand why he wasted Jackson on Wilkin’s trite novelty “Igmoo (The Pride Of South Central High)”. For Law, such deviations were infrequent. Not so during Jackson’s final six years (1968-73) with Columbia, a period Bear Family wisely avoided. After Law retired and Frank Jones, his successor, stepped aside, less sympathetic producers sent Jackson’s studio career into an aesthetic freefall that reached its nadir with his final Top 10, a painfully contrived 1971 cover of the hippie pop throwaway “Me And You (And A Dog Named Boo)”.
At 72, Jackson remains an active, compelling performer. Brought to the Opry nearly 50 years ago by a hardcore traditionalist manager, he’s ironically been scaled back by yuppified Opry management disdainful of traditionalists trying to reinvent the show as a Nashville-ized “Prairie Home Companion”. No matter. Jackson’s musical dictums remain universal: “Keep the simplicity and get your story told.” Most of the time, he did just that.