An open letter to the CMA and Country Music Hall of Fame on behalf of Johnny Horton
Last week the newest members to the hallowed Country Music Hall of Fame were officially inducted. The three artists selected by the CMA for induction this year are all unquestionably deserving of the honor. And yet I find myself, as with every year, in utter disbelief at a continuing, inexcusable oversight. One of the most popular, influential, innovative, and lasting country music stars of the 1950’s and early 1960’s remains excluded. That artist is Johnny Horton.
Johnny Horton died tragically at the age of 35 in 1960, when a 19-year-old drunk driver smashed his pickup truck head-on into the singer’s Cadillac on a Texas bridge. That was 53 years ago. He isn’t going to record any new records. There isn’t going to be any new reason for his induction that doesn’t already exist; that hasn’t existed for more than half a century. His legacy is what it is: remarkable.
At this point one has to wonder whether the omission is an innocent, albeit drastic, oversight or an intentional snub. It is well known, in circles where such things are known, that Webb Pierce – inarguably, statistically, the biggest star of the 1950’s – was denied membership for decades because of personality clashes and small-town Nashville pettiness. What a shame. What a complete and total breach of the CMA’s and Hall’s hallowed mission. In fact, considering that Horton’s contemporary Ray Price (who had his first charting hit in 1952) was not inducted until 1996, one also has to wonder whether the CMA and Hall of Fame have some sort of aversion to 1950’s honky tonk innovators. I can’t tell you how many debates in which I have found myself with people who think that Johnny Horton is already a member. Of course he’s in the Hall of Fame, most people argue. The general public just assumes he is. How could he not be? Why wouldn’t he be?
Country music is supposed to be about authenticity. Many of the men who first sang about hopping freight trains and serving time in prison actually did. Horton was born a sharecropper’s son and made his way to Alaska to work as a fisherman and dig for gold, where he began writing songs. No wonder then that he would score two of his three No. 1 country records with “When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s Forty Below)” and “North to Alaska,” from the John Wayne film of the same name.
Johnny Horton’s records can be loosely categorized into three main styles, and his output in any of the three alone would warrant induction. When considered together as a body of work produced in a tragically brief career, it is awe-inspiring. His rockabilly-tinged honky tonk barn burners such as “Cherokee Boogie” and “Honky-Tonk Hardwood Floor” remain among the most exciting records of that style, directly influencing an entire generation of traditional country music revivalists. Dwight Yoakam took Horton’s self-penned 1956 debut single (and repeat 1962 posthumous hit) “Honky Tonk Man” to No. 3 in 1986. BR5-49 drew from Horton’s 1950’s rockabilly and honky tonk sides as much as anything when they literally revived downtown Nashville and traditional honky tonk music in the 1990’s. They packed in throngs of young listeners a night to a once-desolate seedy strip that is now a tourist mecca where, not coincidentally, the Hall of Fame prosperously relocated in 2001 and remains today — on the power of Horton’s music. Even George Jones covered Horton’s self-penned “I’m A One Woman Man” in 1988 – and then named the album after it. Isn’t there some sort of rule that if George Jones covers your song 32 years later – and has a No. 5 chart hit – that is per se evidence of an artist’s greatness? There should be.
Much like Ray Price, Horton also displayed a restrained, vulnerable side with mournful ballads such as “Words” and “The Mansion You Stole.” There is an almost Dean Martin-like quality in his deceptively easy approach to ballads, yet they are unmistakably country records.
He is best known, however, for his historical saga songs such as “Sink the Bismark,” the aforementioned “Alaska” songs, and the immortal “The Ballad of New Orleans.” Hell, he practically invented the sub-genre, one of country music’s richest and most distinctive. I challenge you to find a more animated, exuberant vocal performance in all of country music than “The Battle of New Orleans.” It is as good a record as country music has produced, sui generis really, unlike anything that had come before. From Harold Bradley’s opening guitar lick, rigged to sound like a banjo sputtering out the first phrase of “Dixie,” to the quasi-military snare drum patterns and Horton’s relentless performance, it is one of the most iconic, unique, popular and lasting country music records of all time. It was a smash No. 1 pop hit as well, not by smoothing itself over in order to please the pop music palate but by its unapologetic sense of self. It is a perfect country crossover record; bringing the mainstream to it, rather than the other way around.
Allow me, if you will, to close with an anecdote. One soft and snowy Sunday afternoon, sometime in the post-holiday season hangover period that stretches seemingly endlessly until spring, I was working at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop with a good friend of mine. The shop was empty. Lower Broadway was empty. The sidewalks and honky tonks were empty. A soft layer of new snow began to blanket the entire street. We had a 100-disc CD changer loaded up on shuffle playing in the store with somewhere between 1,000–2,000 different songs that could play randomly at any given moment. At this moment, as we stared out the window into the clean white street, Johnny Horton’s version of “Lost Highway” came on. I had never paid much attention to his cover. Although the song was written by Leon Payne, Hank Williams brought so much weight to his definitive version of what may be the quintessential county music song – certainly one to point to when trying to encapsulate the genre into one record – that cover versions seemed superfluous.
Yet, here was this record playing in the eerie stillness of the afternoon, and I truly heard it for the first time. Hank’s life and Horton’s would be woven together in bizarre and almost chilling ways. Both died incredibly young and widowed the same woman, Billie Jean Jones, who married Horton after Hank died in the backseat of a Cadillac in 1953. Horton heard the news of his friend’s demise on a car radio in Milano, Texas, the same town where he would eventually die in his Cadillac leaving a gig at the Skyline Club in Austin, the same venue as Hank’s last gig.
While Hank’s version impeccably captures all the tortured dichotomy of what makes country music so powerful, Horton brings something else to his performance. His is smoother, more subdued and muted, but just as piercing. Here is a voice that, like Hank, sounds so much wiser and knowing than the implausible young age of the singer. While Hank’s vocal is that of the ragged lonesome troubadour forever thumbing his way down the highway, Horton is the old man at the end of the bar cautioning the listener about the consequences of life’s choices without any romanticism for the wanderlust. His good friend Hank Williams had only been dead six years, leaving Horton with recurrent premonitions about his own early death when he recorded it. He would die, like his friend, on the Lost Highway the following year.
As my friend and I gazed out of the record shop window onto the softly falling snow over an empty Lower Broad I began to speak in order to express these new thoughts. “Shh,” my friend cut me off without turning his gaze from the window, “I’m having a moment here.”
And so we stood in silence and had our moment.
What does that say about an artist who can recast the most iconic performance from the most iconic artist in country music history and still have something new to say? What does that say about an institution charged with preserving and honoring the greatest performers of the genre when it ignores such achievement, and continues to do so over half a century later?