The Golden Age of Honky Tonk
Country Music 1949 - 1955
~Graham Baker

Jimmy Rodgers

Mr. Edison invented the phonograph in 1876 thereby kick-starting the recording industry, but 46 years would pass before any attempt to record folk/country music. The first effort was made in 1922 in New York City when RCA waxed six fiddle tunes. The next year there were a few more feeble efforts but the breakthrough came in 1924. A man by the name of Marion Slaughter, a singer of light opera, Gilbert & Sullivan type material, came across a cowboy song he fancied. Released under the name of Vernon Dalhardt (a name invented from two Texas towns) the record had The Prisoners Song on one side and The Wreck of ‘97 on the other. One million copies were sold, a staggering amount for that time. It’s success opened the eyes of the recording companies and the search was on for performers who were then listed in the trade magazines of the day as “hillbilly” acts, most of them coming out of the Appalachian Mountain states and the rural south. As the years passed they would be labelled folk singers and later country & western. By the late ‘50's they was simply referred to as country.

In 1927 Jimmie Rodgers a twenty eight year old railway brakeman in poor health appeared at an audition with RCA at a mobile recording studio in Bristol, Tennessee. The Carter family also showed up at this session. Their “mountain music” swept the nation and lives today in the form of bluegrass. Jimmie brought a different approach. Travelling the south with the railroads he had been exposed to Dixieland jazz and New Orleans’s blues. He developed what he called a “blue” yodel and used a wide variety of instrumental backing including ukulele, Hawaiian guitar, piano….. even Louis Armstrong’s horn on one session. In five short years he would record 125 songs. He left the blueprint for those who would follow.....coming to the studio with his guitar, original material, and delivering it in a style which was a perfect marriage of the hillbilly mountain music and blues. The first major star, he is often referred to as the father of country music. Dead at age 32 from TB, the happy go lucky musical drifter spent the last five years of his life wallowing in bad health, fame and fortune. He became the inspiration for the next generation of performers.

During 1936 both Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow started their recording careers. Both were disciples of Jimmie Rodgers. By 1953 when they were established stars at the Grand Ole Opry, they placed an Italian- made statue of their hero in his hometown, Meriden Mississippi. They organized an annual festival to salute the man whose star had led them into country music, later withdrawing their active support when commercial interests kidnapped the event. Ernst Tubb made his way to the top of the charts with Walking the Floor Over You in 1941. In 1950 he got Snow a spot on the Opry, but his most influential move was “plugging- in” his guitar to override the noise of the honky tonks where he played........this became a widespread practise and set the tone for mainstream country music. Bands built around a singer and electrified steel, fiddle, rhythm and bass instruments became the sound of the fifties coming to full bloom with Webb Pierce’s outfit featuring a petal steel guitar.

In 1949 with just such a band Hank Williams appeared on stage at the Opry and sang Lovesick Blues to thunderous applause ushering in the Golden Age. It became song of the year and Williams a country music sensation (he had been recording since 1946). Eddie Arnold’s soft crooning and Bob Wills western swing had dominated the country charts through the a more gutsy country sound would hold sway...........Hank Snow exploded on the scene in April of 1950 with I’m Moving On would go to #1 and stay there for 29 weeks ,a feat never duplicated. It stayed on the charts for 44. A driving train song, it featured fiddle and steel along with Snow’s masculine voice. Snow & Williams toured together and became personal friends. While Snow held #1 in l950, Williams held #4 Why Don’t You Love Me and #5 Long Gone Lonesome Blues. The next year, 1951, Williams was back on top with Cold Cold Heart . Snow placed Rhumba Boogie at #4 and Golden Rocket at #10.

Song of-the-year honours in 1952 went to another Hank........Hank Thompson with his rendition of The Wild Side of Life. Hank Williams was riding high with #3 Jambalaya and Webb Pierce made his first major contribution with Decca by taking #7 with Wonderin. Snow did not place a song on the top ten of the year but had five songs on the charts: The Gold Rush Is Over, Lady’s Man, The Gal Who Invented Kissing, Now and Then (There’s a Fool Such As I) and I Went To Your Wedding. On New Year’s Day 1953 country music received it’s greatest shock since the death of Jimmie Rodgers with the death of Hank Williams at age 29. Williams, a sensitive man with the touch of a poet could evoke passionate images with a few simple words .......a good example is this line .....” like a bird that’s lost it’s mate in flight, I’m alone and oh so blue a piece of driftwood on the sea, may you never be alone like me.” His songs will endure for as long as there is country music. He remains the quintessential country singer.

Following his death Hank Snow was called upon to fill a number of Williams’s bookings and became recognized by the trade publications as country music’s # 1 star.... fans of Country Music Roundup voted him America’s number one folk and country performer. He hit the top ten of the year in 1953 with Now & Then (There’s A Fool Such As I) which had made a start on the charts the previous year. Williams, even after his death remained a force.........he took #1 Kaw-liga.....#2 Your Cheatin’ Heart and #9 Take These Chains. Webb Pierce came in at #8 It’s Been So Long Darling.

1954 was to be the high mark for Snow. His recording I Don’t Hurt Anymore became the number one song of the year, stayed on the charts for 41 weeks, almost as big a block buster as the monster I’m Movin On in 1950. I Don’t Hurt Anymore was the most programmed number on radio and like Movin On became a classic. It has been recorded by scores of recording artists. For the first time since ‘49 Williams failed to place a hit on the top ten of the year but Webb Pierce had his breakthrough taking four of the top ten spots. (Unbelievably, Eddy Arnold held five of the top ten in 1948 and Elvis four of the top ten in 1956). Webb’s songs included: #3 Slowly, #4 Even Though, #6 More and More, and #8 There Stands The Glass. In 1955 Webb recorded a new rendition of an old Jimmie Rodgers song, I’m in the Jail House Now. It became song of the year......Snow held on with #9 Yellow Roses . Snow would continue to place songs on the charts for the next twenty years including a number of #1 hits; Ninety Miles An Hour, I’ve Been Everywhere and Hello Love, but the golden years of country music was about to be eclipsed by a new sound.

By the end of ‘55 most country fans were familiar with Lefty Frizzel, Carl Smith, Chet Atkins, Kitty Wells, Porter Wagoner, Jeanie Sheppard, Faron Young, Stonewall Jackson and a number of others who made significant contributions to this era.......but no one knew of Bill Haley who change the name of his band from the Saddle Pals to the Comets and started playing Rock Around the Clock or the rock-a-billies who would come out of Sun records and turn Nashville upside down.

In 1956 Elvis grabbed four of the top ten songs of the year on the country charts. He became the first recording artist ever, with the song Don’t Be Cruel, to hold #1 on the country, pop and rhythm & blues listings at the same time......he truly was king. Carl Perkins took #4 Blue Suede Shoes and Johnny Cash #3 Walk the Line.

This onslaught on the country music scene created a seismic split in Nashville. The industry reacted by inventing the Nashville Sound, a watered down version of traditional country leaving those fans unfulfilled.............dropping emphasis on the fiddle, they attempted to appeal to a wider pop audience with a soft sound epitomized by the work of Jim Reeves, Don Gibson and probably the best female voice in the history of country music Patsy Cline.

The second direction was to follow the lead of the rock-a-billies with heavy reliance on drums and beat. That has led us to the current country-rock which today dominates country charts. The honky-tonk sound, like bluegrass became a subculture within country music and survives outside the mainstream.

Jimmie Rodgers had set the train in motion in 1927. Through the years, Tubb, Snow, and countless others jumped on for the ride. Traditional country music fans are still singing Hey Good Lookin’ and Mansion On the Hill a testimony to Hank Williams enduring spirit. Chet Atkins emerged as the best know guitar player of the golden age and Kitty Wells became the first major female singer.

Clarence Eugene ”Hank” Snow was a triple threat. When the final history of country music is written it will be recognized that no performer approached his audience and the recording studio with a more professional and dedicated delivery than this man......easily the most versatile artist of his time. His finesse with the guitar included sharing albums with Chet. His recitations, particularly of the Robert Service Tales of the Yukon poems are unequalled. He delivered a wide variety of songs from simple cowboy ballads to latin flavoured hits like Caribbean. He offered duets with Anita Carter, yodelling, tongue twisters (I’ve Been Everywhere), Hawaiian echoes, driving train songs, gospels, interpretations of the Jimmie Rodgers style and tributes to the Sons of the Pioneers. Hank placed 85 songs on the charts. All this following a 14 year Canadian career where he was elected for ten consecutive years as it’s #1 country artist. A stage performer for over sixty years he was a headliner at the Opry for 45 years and had a continuous contract with RCA for 45 years an endurance record in the industry. His song Hello Love gained for him the honour of being the oldest recording artist ever to have a # 1 hit. Voted into the songwriters Hall of Fame, many of his self-penned songs have been recorded by scores of others including Elvis and Ray Charles. His pioneering career spanned 78's, 45's extended play, LPs, eight tracks, cassettes and CDs. (The Bear Family of Germany has released a complete collection of his prolific recordings which number approximately one thousand selections). RCA revealed Snow sold 86 million records. His close association with Jimmie Rodgers, help in launching Elvis’ career, his work for abused children decades before that cause became popular, world tours and induction into numerous Halls of Fame have branded him a legend and as the Toronto Star Weekly once declared with a full page colour picture on their cover “Canada’s King of Country Music”.

A museum has been established to honour Hank Snow in Liverpool NS and a festival is held each year in nearby Bridgewater attracting thousands. Contact the Friends of Hank Snow Society in Liverpool for information on these programs.

The Range Riders Association, a private group of Hanks personal friends and fans whose motto is “to celebrate, honour and defend country music’s most versatile performer “ provide a newsletter featuring Hank Snow. To be an Associate or for info on Hank’s career.....write Range Riders Box 747 Lunenburg NS B0J 2C0

Author’s Note: this article has been prepared for the Range Riders News & Views is not to be reproduced whole or in part without written permission.

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