Gene Austin – The father of southern pop
As astronomers will tell you, stars often come in pairs, one obvious to the eye, the other unseen. Telltale evidence of interactions between the two is often spotted first in photos — the obscure binary companion detected in changes in the brighter, noted star.
For over 75 years, the hand-tinted photo on the previous two pages — nattily-dressed jazz-age swells partying on a small yacht — had gone unnoticed, left in a decaying frame somewhere in the archives of the Jimmie Rodgers Museum in Meridian, Mississippi. It has never been published.
Most prominent and identifiable, in that collegiate bow tie, glistening white shirt and snappy sailing cap, is Jimmie Rodgers himself; he’d just emerged as a star of the earthbound variety. His first Victor recording, “T For Texas”, had become a brand new sensation, south and north, in the weeks just before this excursion on the Potomac River. They’d begun to bill him, in a nod to his hit’s other name, as “America’s Blue Yodeler”.
This is a historic boat ride, one that Rodgers’ wife Carrie (seen in the scarlet dress toward the right, behind all those contraband Prohibition-era shipboard bottles) would describe in her memoir in some detail. It’s the Fourth of July, 1928.
And that’s not Jimmie Rodgers’ yacht.
As the words “Blue Heaven” stenciled on the life preserver suggest, the owner of this luxurious vessel is the heavier-set man in the middle, arm draped over his first wife, Kathryn, enjoying his own time of singular domestic bliss and stardom. The photo’s focus on Rodgers leaves this man’s face obscured, and so he remains today: pop crooning sensation Gene Austin, Rodgers’ idol and new friend.
Austin’s Victor recording of “My Blue Heaven” was, at the time of this photo, a hit of gargantuan proportions. With millions of copies eventually sold via multiple pressings, it would be ranked as the highest-selling single in all American recording history until 1942, when Bing Crosby, another Gene Austin fan and acolyte, would top it with “White Christmas”.
More than 30 years later, when the genre and industry that eventually dubbed itself “country music” got around to building a Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Rodgers would be its first inductee. The plaque there reads, in part: “Jimmie Rodgers’ name stands foremost in the country music field as the man who started it all…starting a trend in the musical taste of millions.” The unsuspecting Mississippi vaudevillian is today immortalized as “the father of country music.”
Largely because his style and interests were something else again, Gene Austin is rarely mentioned in the history of country music. But he had continuing impact on the genre for over 45 years — from his immense popular success in the late ’20s and early ’30s, right through to his death in 1972.
The year after the “Blue Heaven” photo was taken, a teenager Austin hired to work for his publishing company regularly entertained partygoers on that same yacht, when it was anchored in New York, by playing a jazzy, dampened-string banjo. As he recalls now at age 91, he’d regularly be called on, too, to dive into the Hudson to retrieve the Austins’ French poodle.
The ambitious teen was Ken Nelson, who would go on to record Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and much of California country at Capitol Records, and wind up in the Country Hall of Fame himself. Back then, he was helping to market the Austin song that would give Gene a telling nickname through the ’30s: “the voice of the southland.”
Austin fathered and fostered a style of pop music that recognized its roots and its audience in the middle-class suburbs — especially in the south. There is, of course, no “Suburban Music Hall of Fame” with a plaque for Gene. And he’s never been memorialized as the founder of a genre called “southern pop,” since it’s a category that’s not been studied, anthologized, or generally acknowledged to exist.
The standard reference Encyclopedia Of Southern Culture simply suggests, in passing: “Pop musicians and singers associated generally with mainstream sounds tend not to reflect regional identities.”
“Except when they do,” might be the reply of many pop artists with southern ties — from Johnny Mercer to John Fogerty, from Dinah Shore to Kid Rock — who, knowingly or unknowingly, hitched their wagons to Gene Austin’s invisible companion star to country.
The Birth of Southern Pop
Jimmie Rodgers’ contributions to establishing a definition for country music are indisputable: the forceful introduction of a “hillbilly blues” style that would prove adaptable again and again as country evolved; an honest, even confessional detailing of health and other personal issues that would set singer-songwriter evolution in motion; an emphasis in many of his songs on the work lives of Americans who don’t get much time on pleasure yachts; an early fusion of hillbilly content and jazzy arrangements that would lead to western swing; and even his adoption of a cool cowboy “look and feel” despite his southeastern origins. Perhaps most lastingly, this hoboing rambler who sang about his “rough and rowdy ways” virtually invented the image of the romantic guitar-slinging, solitary country bad boy, an image cemented by his early death from tuberculosis in 1933.
Gene Austin’s important contributions to pop music were of a different, less-recalled order — in part because he led an American vocal revolution we’ve long since come to take for granted. He was among the first recording artists to dump the sound of arty, stodgily enunciated, semi-operatic “refinement” on the one hand, and the over-the-top vaudeville minstrel histrionics of an Al Jolson on the other. Austin favored an intimate singing style based on a recognizable American way of talking; he had an up-close relationship with the microphone. He was singing that way even before those mikes first “went electronic” in 1925.
Austin’s much younger cousin, protege, and eventual country music hitmaker Tommy Overstreet vividly recalls a question Austin would ask him decades later: “What’s the most important instrument when you’re singing, kid? Think about it! What’s the most important instrument for you as a singer? The microphone. You’ve got to learn how to hold that microphone, and caress it, and sing to it — so you can get the emotion through to the people. If you don’t do that, everything else is whistling ‘Dixie’. It won’t work! And you’ve got to pronounce your words — articulate them and breathe properly. You’ve got to phrase. It has to come from the way you talk, and with emotion, sung from the heart.”
Austin, you see, knew what he was doing.
When Victor Records chief Nat Shilkret first heard Gene sing in 1924, he was astonished by his original, intimate approach. In to the sometimes dubious memoir Gene Austin’s Ol’ Buddy (edited and published after his death by his third wife LouCeil and two fast-talking literary hucksters who got the singer’s friends to finance it), Austin explained, “Well, Mr. Shilkret, when I came to New York, all the singers were tryin’ to follow the great Al Jolson. I knew I could never sing as loud, or perhaps as good. Since he was always talkin’ about how his mammy used to ‘croon’ to him — I just croon like his mammy.”