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Country Music History – Essential Recordings from 1934

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We begin to see changes in country music in 1934, moving away from traditional Appalachian music and Delta blues into commercial Country and Western music with the emergence of Patsy Montana and the Sons of the Pioneers. Included below, a vulgar number by a future governor, jug band music, and the true Father of Western Swing.

1. “Brown’s Ferry Blues,” The Delmore Brothers. The Delmore Brothers and the McGee Brothers were both Grand Ole Opry acts who recorded this number in 1934 and both have claimed credit for writing the composition. However, The Delmore Brothers released the song first, were much more prolific songwriters, and their version is better known. Brown’s Ferry, Tennessee was a crossing point over the Tennessee River in Chattanooga and became a vital route for the Union Army in moving supplies during the Civil War. The song is played for laughs (“Two old maids playing in the sand/Each one wishing that the other was a man”) and is an example of early bluegrass guitar playing. The fundamental tune was recycled by Woody Guthrie for “Jackhammer Blues” and by Bill Monroe for “Doghouse Blues.”

2. “Georgia Brown Blues,” Bill Cox. West Virginia native Bill Cox was not known for his dependability. His employer at Charleston, West Virginia radio station WOBU once noted, “Bill was a reprobate from the word go. To get him to perform, the first thing you would have to do, would be to sober him up.” Cox was encouraged to put his work on vinyl, since he was so unreliable in making his regular radio gig. “Georgia Brown Blues,” not to be confused with the jazz standard “Sweet Georgia Brown,” is a high quality Jimmie Rodgers imitation with Cox performing harmonica as well. In the 1940s, Ernest Tubb had a major hit with the Bill Cox composition “Filipino Baby” and Webb Pierce scored a Top Five single covering Cox’s “Sparking Brown Eyes” in 1954.

3. “Jelly Roll Blues,” Jimmie Davis. Louisiana native Jimmie Davis had dual careers, serving as Governor of his state from 1944 to 1948 and serving a second term from 1960 to 1964. He also had a long career in music, most famously writing “You Are My Sunshine,” and scored a #1 country hit in 1945 with “There’s a New Moon Over My Shoulder” while serving as Governor. In his spare time, he appeared in seven movies. He started his music career performing raunchy blues numbers, a reality that did not escape the attention of his future political opponents. This is another Jimmie Rodgers imitation, one that praises the joys of his baby’s jelly roll, which has nothing to do with baking.

4. “Memphis Shakedown,” Memphis Jug Band. One of the most striking elements of “Memphis Shakedown” is the integration between black and white musical styles (the tune is carried by the fiddle playing of Charlie Pierce) a few decades before Sam Phillips made it his calling card at Sun Studios. The other noteworthy element is how the vocal interjections sound like what Bob Wills would later be doing in Western swing and it’s pretty obvious that Wills was aware of this recording – he took one of the major hooks of the song and used it in “Osage Stomp.”

5. “Montana Plains,” Patsy Montana. Patsy Montana (known to her parents as Ruby Rose Blevins) grew up near Hope, Arkansas and later moved to California to study violin. She started performing on Chicago radio in 1933, backed by the Prairie Ramblers. During this same timeframe Stuart Hamblen, best known for his 1950’s composition “This Ole House,” was doing a singing cowboy act, sometimes billed as “Cowboy Joe.” Hamblen penned the tune “Texas Plains,” which Patsy and the Prairie Ramblers changed to “Montana Plains” to suit her name/gimmick. The song successfully mixes Jimmie Rodger’s yodeling style with an upbeat Western swing rhythm.

6. “Oh, You Pretty Woman,” Milton Brown & His Musical Brownies. After the dissolution of the Light Crust Doughboys, it wasn’t Bob Wills that made his name first in Western swing, but his former partner Milton Brown. Brown played dance halls in Texas and Oklahoma, but was best known for his radio program on KTAT and for selling out the Crystal Springs Dance Hall in Fort Worth almost every Saturday from 1933 to 1936. It was Milton who is credited with one of the most important innovations in the history of country music, introducing steel guitar into the genre. “Oh, You Pretty Woman” is a comical number about romantic innocence (“We won’t marry until the Spring/But mama’s taught me everything”) that has a strong rhythmic edge, suitable for “The Father of Western Swing.”

7. “Ragged But Right,” Riley Puckett. We first met the hideous Riley Puckett, whose image graces the cover of the Nick Toshes book “Country,” when writing about “Soldier’s Joy” by Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers. Puckett was the lead vocalist for that outfit which disbanded in 1931. In the traditional song “Ragged But Right,” Puckett brags about a life of crime – he may be a thief and a drunk and a loafer and a rambler gambler, but he eats porterhouse steak three times a day. A gifted flatpicker guitar stylist, Puckett passed away in 1946 from blood poisoning.

8. “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” Sons of the Pioneers. The Sons of the Pioneers evolved out of several Depression Era singing groups in Los Angeles during the early 1930s. The original members were rhythm guitarist Leonard Slye (who became better known as Roy Rogers), bassist Bob Nolan, and vocalist Tim Spencer. “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” was written by Bob Nolan while he was working as a caddy. While later versions would be submerged in strings, the original was a spare arrangement to emphasize the vocalists. This country standard was a pop hit for Bing Crosby in 1940 and a country hit for Slim Whitman in 1956. Other artists who have recorded “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” – The Supremes, The Meat Puppets, and Kate Smith.

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