Pure Pop for Country People
I’ll never forget the 78 I found at a house sale 30 years ago. It was one of those maroon and gold label Kings, the kind you’d see by the Delmore Brothers or Moon Mullican. This one bore the name of Elliott Lawrence & His Orchestra. The song: “Don’t Leave My Poor Heart Breaking”, an eminently forgettable ballad with a bland arrangement. The vocalist, Lloyd Copas, sang the trite lyrics in an utterly confident baritone despite being out of his element and well beyond his better-known persona of Opry star Cowboy Copas.
Lack of musical merit aside, the record taught me a valuable lesson: The line of demarcation between country and pop was a lot blurrier than I’d first assumed. The interaction went on long before anyone thought of “sweetening” country records with strings and voices. It predated Hank Williams recording “Lovesick Blues”, originally penned for a 1920s musical comedy, and went on long before Tony Bennett recorded “Cold, Cold Heart” or Bing Crosby covered “New San Antonio Rose”.
It’s also a fallacy to accept the oversimplification that early recorded country emanated totally from ancient British Isles folk tunes. Country and pop interacted virtually from the start. American rural stringbands absorbed ragtime and 19th-century “parlor tunes.” Affordable phonograph records and radio allowed rural America to hear the day’s popular songs at the same time as urban dwellers. It was inevitable that some of this wound up in early country repertoires. That’s why among the discography of Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers are pre-World War I pop favorites “Darktown Strutter’s Ball” and “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary”.
Part of the purist mythology came from Grand Ole Opry founder George Dewey Hay, the ex-Memphis newspaperman who, at WSM, fabricated the Opry’s rural southern ambience. He stuffed suit and tie-wearing amateur stringband musicians into overalls, and christened them with colorful, ersatz monikers like the Fruit Jar Drinkers or Gully Jumpers. That credo explains why Hay barred instruments (drums, horns) too pop for his ideas of “country.” It doesn’t quite explain why in 1931, WSM management hired the Vagabonds, a professional pop vocal trio, to work both pop broadcasts and the Opry.
Vernon Dalhart, renowned for his million-selling 1920s hit recordings of “Wreck Of The Old 97” and “The Prisoner’s Song” — numbers whose popularity transcended their rural flavor — was a trained vocalist renowned for dialects, the kinds he created on these and other southern tunes he recorded. In Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, guitar thumbpickers Kennedy Jones, Ike Everly and Mose Rager, who inspired (or taught) Merle Travis, mixed originals with blues, antebellum and post-bellum instrumentals but also the 1920s anthem “Five Foot Two, Eyes Of Blue” (a great fingerpicking tune).
Clayton McMichen was a great old-time fiddler with the Skillet Lickers, but his own Georgia Wildcats recorded the New Orleans Rhythm Kings’ “Farewell Blues” as part of a repertoire skewed toward swing and pop (Bill Monroe was also a Rhythm Kings fan). On another tune, McMichen dryly proclaimed his desire to “get me a job with [the ultra-jazzy] Casa Loma [Orchestra] — I’m gonna learn to swing.”
These pop elements didn’t always sit well with early producers. Art Satherley barely tolerated Bob Wills’ horn section, preferring the Texas Playboys’ earthier “fiddle band” arrangements. He didn’t dare dissuade the tough-minded Wills from recording pop tunes; Wills’ eclecticism was part of his appeal. Yet even the success of the big-band “New San Antonio Rose” never assuaged Satherley’s ambivalence. He recorded other blazing Wills-Playboys orchestral sides from 1940-42, but left many unreleased.
Pop connections only expanded as time went on. Owen Bradley, who grew up in Nashville, played piano or trombone with Middle Tennessee dance bands. Bradley’s own orchestra, with its flair for swing, became a popular regional favorite at the same time he co-wrote “Night Train To Memphis”. As WSM’s house orchestra, the Bradley band played a prominent role on “Sunday Down South”, a slick weekly NBC radio show slanted toward pop fare. Harold Bradley, Ernie Newton, Anita Kerr, Jack Shook and Farris Coursey — all pioneer Nashville studio musicians — worked in Bradley’s orchestra.
A similar credo applied to the other architect of the Nashville Sound: Chet Atkins. Rural East Tennessee roots notwithstanding, Chet’s musical pluralism came into play early. His older half-brother Jim played with Les Paul’s Trio. Chet worked with a swing group on WNOX in the early 1940s, and his early RCA instrumentals included big-band standards such as Glenn Miller’s “Sunrise Serenade” alongside Merle Travis-esque originals. A Django Reinhardt fanatic, he often recorded with fellow Django junkies Homer & Jethro, which explains the airy but intense swing of early Atkins.
It wasn’t just a one-way street. Frank Sinatra appeared several times as a guest on comic Fred Allen’s radio show, and an October 1945 aircheck reveals a main sketch that satirized an Opry-style radio show. Sinatra’s spirited performance of “Open Up Them Pearly Gates” left little doubt that in his travels, the then-youthful Blue Eyes had heard more than a little Acuff and company along the way.
None of this justifies the endless stream of slick, reprocessed classic rock coming out of Music Row for the past decade. It’s simply another reminder that when it comes to the past, dreamy romanticism is usually at odds with the truth. O Brother’s Soggy Bottom Boys were presented as the height of Depression-era country purity, but an actual stringband of that time would have had a few Gene Austin and Bing Crosby tunes up their sleeves alongside “Man Of Constant Sorrow” and “In The Jailhouse Now”.
Hell, when Robert Johnson played to a crowd, even he threw in a few pop and cowboy tunes and an occasional polka. His Hellhounds weren’t the whole story.