Country songs you never knew you knew

Apr 2019 Country songs you never knew you knew

By Pat Murphy

The music we now know as country evolved out of a genre that used to be referred to as hillbilly.

As the sound of white rural America, it was particularly pop­ular in the southern states although its early radio reach extended as far north as Chica­go and as far west as California.

Roots-wise, the music was derived from the ballads and folk tunes of working class immi­grants from the British Isles. There was nothing posh, preten­tious or high class about it.

According to Joel Whitburn, the dean of American chart his­torians, Billboard’s country popu­larity tracking began in January, 1944, and initially related to juke box plays. Retail best sellers were introduced in 1948.

So here’s a half-dozen chart-toppers from those early years. Between them, they’ll give you a sense of what songs moved the popularity needle back then. Think of it as country at the beginning.

Smoke on the Water by Red Foley, 1944, 13 weeks at No. 1

I first encountered Red Foley’s name in the late 1950s. He was Pat Boone’s father-in-law and the originator of Old Shep, the musical tale of a boy and his dog, which served as the first public repertoire of the 10-year-old Elvis Presley.

But Foley was much more. He was actually one of the biggest country artistes of the 1940s/50s, scoring nearly 50 hits, including 10 that went all the way.

Mind you, Smoke on the Water isn’t for the faint of heart. A prod­uct of its very specific Second World War environment, it’s a fierce cry for military retribution against the Axis in general and Japan in particular. There’s no kumbaya moment here.

At Mail Call Today by Gene Autry, 1945, 8 weeks at No. 1

This is another wartime song, the backstory to which relates to Autry’s own military service. Purportedly, he read a piece in the services newspaper telling the story of a soldier who received a Dear John letter in the mail. So he took a first crack at writing this song, had Fred Rose polish it and then recorded it while on leave.

Fitting the moment perfectly, it was a big hit. Indeed, legend has it that a wartime shortage of shellac meant the record com­pany couldn’t fill all orders. And within weeks of Autry’s original exiting the charts, Red Foley’s cover entered.

Divorce Me C.O.D. by Merle Travis, 1946, 14 weeks at No. 1

Merle Travis was a singer-song­writer from Kentucky who played guitar in the local fingerpicking style. With Ike Everly, Don and Phil’s father, as an early tutor, Travis went on to be recognized as “one of the most influential American guitarists of the 20th century,” inspiring the likes of Chet Atkins.

After signing to Capitol in 1946, he made his country chart debut with the double-sided smash Cincinnati Lou/No Vacancy. Then he hit the top with Divorce Me C.O.D. It’s a great little tune that deploys some clever wordplay around terms like C.O.D. and P.D.Q.

Nor was it a one-off in the clever lyrics department. He was soon back at No. 1 with So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed, a musical tribute to female charms told through the device of contemporary advertis­ing jingles. Great fun!

I’ll Hold You in My Heart by Eddy Arnold, 1947, 21 weeks at No. 1

Eddy Arnold had his first of many country chart-toppers in 1946 but it was 1947’s I’ll Hold You in My Heart (Till I Can Hold You in My Arms) that gave him his longest sojourn at the sum­mit. And when it finally vacated the top spot, another Arnold record – Anytime – was availa­ble to take over.

Rich Kienzle’s liner notes to 2003’s Ultimate Eddy Arnold neatly capture his early essence.

There’s this: “His style in those days was smooth and light, spiced by an occasional yodel.”

And this: “Tennessee Plowboy Little Roy Wiggin’s elemental, chiming steel guitar became the optimal foil for Arnold’s voice.”

Listening to it more than 70 years later, it’s easy to see the appeal. I suspect Daniel O’Donnell will get around to it one of these days.

One Has My Name by Jimmy Wakely, 1948, 11 weeks at No. 1)

One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart) was in regular radio rotation when I arrived in Toronto in late 1965. The per­former was Barry Young and his rendition was firmly located in the easy listening country fla­voured style in vogue at the time. Subsequently, I discovered Nat King Cole’s version on the best-selling Ramblin’ Rose album.

The original, though, goes back to 1948 and Jimmy Wakely.

Wakely was an Arkansas native who’d enjoyed a stint as a singing cowboy on the silver screen. While his work in that genre never approached the popularity levels of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, it was sufficiently prolific to include more than two dozen westerns between 1944 and 1949.

And in addition to being an excellent example of basic coun­try, the record has a trivia inter­est. Uncredited harmony vocals were provided by the lady who later became Mary Ford in the famous Les Paul & Mary Ford duo.

Lovesick Blues by Hank Williams, 1949, 16 weeks at No. 1

Although songs written by Hank Williams are considered to be among the very best American 20th century compositions, this – his first country No. 1 – dates back to 1922, the year before his birth. It made its public debut in the New York stage musical Oh! Ernest.

Influenced himself by Roy Acuff, Williams became one the most iconic country artistes of all time. This is attributable to sev­eral factors. There’s his distinc­tive honkytonk blues style, his facility at writing songs, and the melodramatic circumstances of his early death.

In the small hours of New Year’ Day, 1953, he died in the back seat of his Cadillac while travelling to a gig in Ohio. The official cause of death was heart failure, most likely occasioned by a combination of alcohol, chloral hydrate and morphine. Living self-destructively and dying young – he wasn’t yet 30 – can convey a perverse glamour.

None of that, however, detracts from his gifts. To quote Mitch Miller: “Nobody I know could use basic English so effectively.”

So there you have it, my take on country at the begin­ning. Between now and year-end, there’ll be several more excursions updating the story.

A native of Ireland, Pat Murphy now lives in Toronto, Canada.