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Country Music History – Essential Recordings from 1947 and 1948

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This will be the last time during our journey where we cover more than one year in the same article. 1948 was a thin year for releases because the American Federation of Musicians had another strike, similar to what caused the lack of product during World War II. The primary cause of the recording ban was a lack of royalties from radio airplay. Columbia Records worked to solve the problem by producing a more direct to consumer market. The 33 1/3 long player album was created in June of 1948. The next year, RCA debuted the 45 RPM single format. The ban ended in December of 1948, not due to these recording changes, but due to a legal decision. I’ll stop here, you really don’t want to read about the Taft-Hartley Act.

1947

1. “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. Bill Monroe transformed his sound when he added guitarist/mandolin player Lester Flatt and banjo pioneer, founder of the three finger picking style, Earl Scruggs to his unit in 1945. Monroe wrote the brokenhearted 3/4 waltz time “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and gave an appropriately plaintive vocal take. Elvis recorded “Blue Moon of Kentucky” at Sun Records in 1954, completely reworking the song as an upbeat rockabilly number. Sam Phillips new a winner when he heard one, “”Hell, that’s fine! That’s different! That’s a pop song now, nearly ’bout! That’s good!”

2. “Bringing in the Georgia Mail,” Charlie Monroe. “Georgia Mail” was written by Fred Rose, perhaps inspired by “Freight Train Boogie” by the Delmore Brothers, in that both are train songs that feature harmonica playing. Charlie was Bill Monroe’s older sibling, but like many others, found it too difficult to work with the founder of bluegrass music. (When Bill Monroe’s musicians weren’t performing, they were required to labor on Bill’s farm). “Georgia Mail” has become a bluegrass standard, yet poor Charlie had another member in his band at this time that would eventually outshine him in music history – that’s Mr. Ira Louvin on the mandolin.

3. “Dark as A Dungeon,” Merle Travis. In an attempt to compete with the success in the folk market that Decca Records was having with Burl Ives, Capitol Records released a Merle Travis album, originally issued as a 78 rpm box set, titled “Folks Songs of the Hills” in 1947. The album was primarily traditional material including “Nine Pound Hammer,” “John Henry,” and “I Am a Pilgrim.” The Travis composition/coal miner warning “Dark as a Dungeon” was never a hit, but became a folk/country touchstone performed by everyone from Johnny Cash to Amy Grant to Slobberbone.

4. “Fat Girl,” Merle Travis. Travis had an obsession with well-fed women that wouldn’t return to popular music until the glory days of Sir Mix-A-Lot. This warm in the winter, shady in the summertime Top Five hit repeated the theme of “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed,” which hit #1 earlier in the year. Inexplicably, “I Like My Chicken Fryin’ Size” never charted.

5. “Move It On Over,” Hank Williams. Despite his relatively short career, Hiram King “Hank” Williams is widely revered as one of the most talented singers and songwriters in American music history. Raised in southern Alabama, Williams was taught guitar chords by a local black street performer named Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne. Williams started performing on Montgomery radio when he was thirteen, however, World War II and his own battles with the bottle delayed his success. Businessman/songwriter Fred Rose signed Williams to a six song contract in late 1946. After four singles failed to chart, Williams scored a Top Five country hit with the doghouse blues of “Move It On Over.” Bill Haley recorded a cover version of “Move It On Over” in 1958, but more famously released an unofficial cover in 1954 titled “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock.”

6. “My Rose of Old Kentucky,” Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. Kentucky based folklorist William Hugh Jansen once speculated that Monroe might have composed this touching tale of life long devotion based upon a minstrel song of the same name. Although clearly about romantic love, late in his life Monroe named his niece, Rosetta Monroe Kiper, as the song’s inspiration. There are a number of cover versions of “My Rose of Old Kentucky,’ with perhaps my favorite being Barbara Lamb’s 2005 version, strictly based upon it being from an album titled “Bootsy Met a Bank Robber.”

7. “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! That Cigarette,” Tex Williams and His Western Caravan. Tex Williams’ Western Caravan was basically the same unit that had backed up Spade Cooley on the Cooley/Williams recordings. The musicians happily left Cooley, finding Williams to be a more amenable boss. Penned primarily by Merle Travis, although Williams got a co-writing credit, “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! That Cigarette” was performed in the New Orleans jazz/Western swing tradition and stayed at #1 on the country charts for an astonishing sixteen weeks. Williams had eight Top Twenty country hits in 1948, but his success quickly faded, although he recorded through the 1970s. His last Top 40 entry came in 1971 with the comedy brothel number “The Night Miss Nancy Ann’s Hotel for Single Girls Burned Down.”

8. “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed,” Merle Travis. Merle Travis owned the #1 slot on the country charts for a total of thirty weeks in 1947, sixteen with the previous entry and fourteen with the advertising slogan filled “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed.” The lyrics have references to advertising taglines from Lucky Strike, Camel cigarettes, Packard automobiles, and Coca-Cola. Ultimately, and a testament to the writing, the song works whether or not you know the inside jokes.

9. “Sugar Moon,” Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. The Tin Pan Alley standard “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” became infamous for its “moon/June/spoon” rhyming scheme. This Cindy Walker/Bob Wills composition moves with such effervescence that you barely notice the “moon/June/soon” lyrics. This was the last #1 single for Wills and lead vocalist Tommy Duncan, having grown tired of Wills’ alcohol issues, left the band in 1948. The glory days were ending for Bob Wills and a different sound, spearheaded by Hank Williams, would take his place.

1948

1. “Cocaine Blues,” Roy Hogsed. “Cocaine Blues” is an adaptation of the traditional folk ballad “Little Sadie,” first recorded by the master of mystery, North Carolina clawhammer banjo specialist Clarence Ashley in 1929. Flippin, Arkansas native Roy Hogsed sings about murder and cocaine with the gravity of a man playing hopscotch on this Western swing interpretation. Perhaps the definitive version comes from Johnny Cash’s epic 1968 “At Folsum Prison” album. Those inmates could sniff out a good tune.

2. “Honky Tonkin’,” Hank Williams. In anticipation of the AFM strike of 1948, Fred Rose had Hank Williams record a number of potential singles in late 1947. Recorded in the style of Ernest Tubb, “Honky Tonkin’” reached #14 on the charts and includes some of Hank’s unusual vocal phrasing. I have no idea what this means, but “Billboard” magazine praised the song at the time of its release for its “deft ork beat.” Hank Williams, Jr. took his Vegas style cover to #1 on the country charts in 1982.

3. “I Saw the Light,” Hank Williams. Gospel composer Albert E. Brumley published “He Set Me Free” in 1939 and it was first released by The Chuck Wagon Gang in 1941. “I Saw the Light” is almost a direct copy of the Brumley song. Yet, Hank’s discovery and thrill of redemption is a classic marriage of country and gospel themes. Never a hit record for Hank, but eternally relevant.

4. “Texarkana Baby,” Eddy Arnold. Richard Edward “Eddy” Arnold was born in Henderson, Tennessee and landed a number of radio gigs as a teenager. He signed with RCA in 1944 and was managed by Colonel Tom Parker. He scored his first hit in 1945 with the #5 single “Each Minute Seems a Million Years” and had a string of #1 hits by 1948. In fact, the Fred Rose composition “Texarkana Baby” was the b-side to the #1 single “Bouquet of Roses.” Eventually both songs topped the charts. “Texarkana Baby” was also a hit single for Bob Wills in 1948 and the Longhorn/Razorback love song has recently been rediscovered with cover versions by Jason Ringenberg in 2013 and The Cherokee Maidens & Sycamore Swing in 2014.

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