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Country Music History – Essential Recordings from 1941 to 1942

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During this timeframe, Hollywood was having a major impact on country music, as many of these songs were written for movies. Elsewhere, we have a bluegrass starter kit, a pot number, the first honky tonk song, and Roy Acuff engages in a little theft.

1. “Bluegrass Breakdown,” Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys. If you note the name of Bill Monroe’s backing unit, you understand the origin for the term “bluegrass music.” Monroe was still experimenting with his sound in the early 1940s and “Bluegrass Breakdown” is the type of song that would become a staple in the genre – a performance at lightning speed with an emphasis on musicianship. The specific meaning of “breakdown” in music is not an invitation to a funny farm, but a performance with a series of instrumental breaks/solos, each performed by a different instrumentalist.

2. “Cherokee Maiden,” Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Mexia, Texas native Cindy Walker is one of the most noteworthy songwriters in country music, with many of her compositions performed in Western swing. She had her first break in 1940 when Bing Crosby recorded “Lone Star Trail” and also had a comedic turn that year in the Gene Autry western “Ride, Tenderfoot, Ride.” In the early 1940s, Bob Wills signed a contract with Columbia to star in eight movies and Cindy Walker was hired to write songs for each film. With its tribal drum intro, lilting melody, and a New Orleans jazz horn sound, “Cherokee Maiden” was a major hit for Wills and returned to #1 on the country charts with a Merle Haggard cover in 1976.

2. “Cool Water,” Sons of the Pioneers. As a teenager in Arizona, Bob Nolan would often hear stories/warnings about prospectors and adventurers dying in the desert due to a lack of water. He wrote the lyrics of “Cool Water” when he was a teenager and it was turned into a Western classic after he joined the Sons of the Pioneers. In the tune, a man and his animal (speculated as either a mule or a horse) are tortured by a lack of water and the narrator is beset by mirages. The best-selling version of “Cool Water” was released by Vaughn Monroe backed by the Sons of the Pioneers in 1948, but this version has the proper stark flavor.

3. “Mary Jane,” Modern Mountaineers. Modern Mountaineers band leader Smokey Wood didn’t get his name through clean living. With his fondness for marijuana, he could be known as the Bob Marley of Western swing. Despite the obvious drug reference in the title, the lyrics aren’t too explicit, although a pretty little girl named Mary Jane has Smokey under her finger. A good song besides the novelty factor, written by Jerry Irby who would later pen the major country hit “Nails in My Coffin.”

4. “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. In one sense, “Take Me Back to Tulsa” is simply a catchy fiddle based tune that’s a fun sing along. However, after leaving Oklahoma for California, his fifth wife Betty commented, “Bob always tried to establish the same thing he had in Tulsa.” He found the musicians to be more loyal in Tulsa, was home more often, and was such a part of the community that the band regularly performed at funerals for fans who had passed away. Biographer Charles Townsend, “There was a sense of the tragic and pathetic in the life of Bob Wills, which stemmed from his fruitless twenty-year search for another Tulsa.”

5. “Walking the Floor Over You,” Ernest Tubb. Ernest Tubb grew up in the rural, farming community of Crisp, Texas, now officially listed as a ghost town, and was obsessed with the music of Jimmie Rodgers. In the 1930s, he befriended Carrie Rodgers, Jimmie’s widow, and she became his first manager. Tubb did not find fame quickly and was working at a Fort Worth radio station when he wrote “Walking the Floor Over You” in 1941. Often categorized as the first “honky tonk” song, it’s notable for including what may the first electric guitar solo (as opposed to steel guitar) on a country record. “Walking the Floor Over You” became Tubb’s signature song and he remained a major country star through the early 1960s.

6. “Won’t You Ride in My Little Red Wagon,” Hank Penny. Hank Penny was never a major star, but had a long career in entertainment, working in radio, being a bandleader, doing television gigs, and he even had a seven year run in Las Vegas. Alabama alcoholic songwriter Rex Griffin, who penned “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby,” wrote “Won’t You Ride in My Little Red Wagon” and Penny gives a vocal performance that’s more crooner than cowboy. This song was later covered by Hank Thompson and Willie Nelson and was also most likely the inspiration for the Audra Mae composition/2012 Miranda Lambert hit “Little Red Wagon.”

1942

1. “Born to Lose,” Ted Daffan’s Texans. Attentive readers will recall Ted Daffan as the composer of the Cliff Bruner hit “Truck Driver’s Blues.” He had a few more classic compositions in him. He released “I’m a Fool to Care” in 1940, a weeper that has been covered by Les Paul and Mary Ford, Ringo Starr, Delbert McClinton, and was a million selling swamp pop hit for Joe Barry in 1961. Daffan’s hard luck number “Born to Lose” would find a bigger audience when recorded by Ray Charles for his landmark 1962 album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.” Perhaps showing a bit of the German influence on Texas music, Daffan’s original includes an accordion solo.

2. “Cow Cow Boogie,” Ella Mae Morse with Freddie Slack and His Orchestra. Ella Mae Morse was born in Mansfield, Texas, where this typist currently resides, and starting singing with orchestra groups at the age of fourteen. “Cow Cow Boogie,” written for the 1942 Abbott & Costello film “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” is pure Hollywood with a country theme and a lyrical hat tip to Western swing (“He’s got a knocked out Western accent with a New Orleans touch”). The Morse version was a million selling single, the first for Capitol Records, and it was also a major pop hit for Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots in 1944. The Judds sucked all of the life out of the song for their 1987 cover version.

3. “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” Gene Autry. The first version of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” was recorded by Perry Como two days after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Several artists cut the song in 1942, including Bing Crosby and Gene Autry. Don Swander composed the tune with his wife June Hershey and considered the hit more based upon timing than quality. Swander, “It was World War II than made it a hit. Those Texans go all over and raise hell. They wanted to hear that song.” Swander took no pride in his accomplishment, “I wrote a lot of songs that were better. I’m ashamed of ‘Texas.’ It’s a two chord song.”

4. “Home in San Antone,” Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Fred Rose is an important figure as a songwriter and a businessman. He partnered with Roy Acuff to form the Acuff-Rose Music publishing company in 1942 and his songwriting/business partnership with Hank Williams was beneficial to both parties. Rose has songwriting credits on “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Kaw-Liga,” and “Texarkana Baby.” He also penned this Texas themed number, where location trumps poverty in the pursuit of happiness.

5. “Jingle Jangle Jingle,” Gene Autry. “Jingle Jangle Jingle” was more Hollywood country, penned by Frank Loessner and Joseph Lilley for the 1942 film “The Forest Rangers.” Admittedly, this is slight number to include, but I’m a sucker for the title hook.

6. “Wreck on the Highway,” Roy Acuff. As noted in “Home in San Antone,” Acuff-Rose was the major publishing company for country music and, given the history of that song, there is no small amount of irony in Roy Acuff’s participation. “Wreck on the Highway” was originally recorded by the South Carolina based Dixon Brothers as “I Didn’t Hear Nobody Pray” in 1938. Acuff cut his version in 1942, claiming a writing credit. Legal action was taken in 1946 and an out of court settlement was reached. “Wreck on the Highway” has a strong gospel influence and was an inspiration for the 1980 Bruce Springsteen composition of the same name.

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