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Country Music History – Essential Recordings of 1953

Slim Whitman004

We get The Big Three in 1953 – death, alcoholism, and Slim Whitman.

1. “Hey Joe,” Carl Smith. Tennessee native Carl Smith was performing on Knoxville radio as a teenager and was signed to the Grand Ole Opry after serving during World War II. Smith scored his first country hit in 1951 and became June Carter’s first husband in 1952. A major star during the 1950s, “Hey Joe” was Smith’s fourth #1 single, topping the charts for eight weeks in 1953. Instead of questioning a man with a gun in his hand, Smith’s “Hey Joe,” written by Boudleaux Bryant, is about a love struck lad who straightforwardly addresses his desire to steal his friend’s woman. Kitty Wells scored a #8 hit with her 1953 answer song, also titled “Hey Joe.” A rather silly dilly number, Moe Bandy and Joe Stampley had a #10 hit in 1981 with their bro country version, titled, “Hey Joe, Hey Moe.” (Nyuck, nyuck).

2. “It’s All Your Fault,” Wade Ray with Noel Boggs. Wade Ray grew up in rural Northeast Arkansas and started playing a homemade fiddle, legend has it, at the age of four. He group up performing on the vaudeville circuit and later performed in Patsy Montana’s Prairie Ramblers. He released 23 singles for RCA in the 1950s, but never had a hit. “It’s All Your Fault” is a Cindy Walker composition that Bob Wills first recorded in 1941. Recording with steel guitarist Noel Boggs, Ray leans hard on the jazz side of Western swing on this humorous look at rejection. Ray relocated to Nashville in the 1960s, working as a session musician and releasing solo material. His early 1950’s single “Idaho Red,” which pairs a truck driving theme with a boogie woogie swing rhythm, is also worth a listen.

3. “Kaw-Liga,” Hank Williams with His Drifting Cowboys. On January 1, 1953, Hank Williams, the man who had completely transformed country music with his deeply personal lyrics and heartfelt vocals, died at the age of 29. During the 1940s, Bob Wills had brought an unmatched spirit to the genre; Williams brought a depth of soul that perhaps has never been matched. After his death, MGM released singles for several years, with three of those releases going to #1. His biggest posthumous hit was “Kaw-Liga,” which topped the charts for either 13 or 14 weeks (sources vary). A collaboration between Williams and Fred Rose, the lyrics relate the unconsummated love affair between two wooden Indian statues. Nashville studio musician Tommy Jackson’s grave is inscribed with the words “World’s Greatest Fiddler.” Whether that’s true or not, he makes a valid argument here.

4. “The Last Waltz,” Webb Pierce. Before “The Last Waltz” became a term synonymous with The Band, Webb Pierce scored a Top Five country hit with his take on the theme. Webb relates his heartbreak as he dances with a woman he loves who will soon marry another man. A strong vocal performance by a man whose nasal voice resulted in one observer saying he played “his sinuses like a pedal steel.”

5. “Mexican Joe,” Joe Reeves & the Circle O Ranch Boys. Joe Reeves grew up in rural East Texas and worked in radio at a young age. A star athlete, Reeves played minor league baseball in the St. Louis Cardinals organization for three years in the 1940s, performed as a sideman for Moon Mullican, and launched his career as a performer on “The Louisiana Hayride.” Although Reeves would become known for his smooth ballads, his 1953 #1 single “Mexican Joe” is an upbeat Western swing number about a charismatic con artist/dancer/drinker/romancer. Reeves eventually scored 11 #1 country hits with six of them occurring after he died in a plane crash in 1964.

6. “North Wind,” Slim Whitman. Like Jim Reeves, Ottis Dewey “Slim” Whitman was a minor league baseball player who transitioned into music. Colonel Tom Parker heard him perform on Tampa, Florida radio and landed him a contract with RCA. Whitman scored two Top Five hits in 1952, displaying his eerie falsetto swoops on “Indian Love Call,” which was memorably used in the 1996 comedy film “Mars Attacks!,” and with the sad sack lament “Keep It a Secret.” “North Wind” sounds more like a folk ballad than traditional country of the era – Slim pines for his lost love and wonders about the mysterious breeze that carried her away. Whitman wasn’t a consistent hit maker, but received a major push from late night television ads in 1979/1980, introducing his high pitched yodel to a new generation of somewhat befuddled viewers.

7. “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I,” Hank Snow, The Singing Rancher and the Rainbow Ranch Boys. Songwriter Bill Trader is an enigma. Either from North or South Carolina, he could neither read nor write music. His primary job was vending machine maintenance and he paid a friend to write lead sheets for his composition. It is not known how “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I” made it to Hank Snow; it was the only hit that Trader ever wrote. Snow gives a beautiful, understated performance on his #4 hit. Elvis had a #2 pop/#6 country release in 1959 with his doo wop meets rockabilly cover.

8. “Playin’ Dominoes and Shootin’ Dice,” Red Cook Jimmy Richards and His Westerners. I know absolutely nothing about Red Cook and Jimmy Richards. I have the same amount of knowledge about songwriters O.D. Dobbs and Tex Wood. On “Playin’ Dominoes and Shootin’ Dice” a “wheelin’, dealin’, sneakin’, stealin’, aggravatin’ man” cheats on his wife and gets his comeuppance in the form of an early grave. This wagering warning has been recorded by Arkie Shibley & The Mountain Dew Boys, Ramblin’ Jimmy Dolan, Red Foley, and Willie Nelson.

9. “Red Light,” Merrill Moore. Pianist Merrill Moore was raised in Iowa, but relocated to San Diego after World War II. His hard rocking Saddle, Rock & Rhythm Boys played Western swing meets boogie woogie with a rockabilly edge. Rockabilly Hall of Fame member Moore pounded and tickled the ivories in a manner that Jerry Lee Lewis undoubtedly approved. This pre-rock rocker was penned by Broadway songwriters Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson.

10. “South in New Orleans,” Johnnie and Jack, The Tennessee Mountain Boys. Johnnie Wright and Jack Anglin were brother in laws who started performing together in 1938. Johnnie’s wife, Muriel Deason, would often sing with the group. She gained greater fame using the name Kitty Wells. With the Tennessee Mountain Boys, Johnnie and Jack started performing on the Grand Ole Opry in 1948. They first hit the charts in 1951 and had two #1 singles in 1954 with “(Oh Baby Mine) I Get So Lonely” and “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight.” “South in New Orleans” wasn’t a hit, but interestingly paired a Latin rhythm with a Cajun fiddle break. The song would later be named “Down South in New Orleans” and was performed by The Band in “The Last Waltz.” Jack Anglin died in a car accident in 1963. Johnnie Wright recorded into the 1980s, scoring a #1 single with “Hello Vietnam” in 1965. “Hello Vietnam” was written by a young songwriter who moved to Nashville in 1964 with $46 and a guitar to his name. Oh, and his name was Tom T. Hall.

11. “Take These Chains from My Heart,” Hank Williams with His Drifting Cowboys. “Take These Chains from My Heart” was written by Fred Rose and Hy Heath. Heath had a background in vaudeville and minstrel performing and also wrote “Mule Train,” a #1 pop hit for Frankie Laine in 1949. “Take These Chains from My Heart” is performed from the perspective of a man in a loveless marriage, yet his wife will not grant his freedom. Although not a Williams composition, it mimics his ability to discuss serious themes with simple language. “Chains” was Hank’s second posthumous #1 hit. Ray Charles took “Chains” to the pop Top Ten in 1963 and Lee Roy Parnell scored a #17 country hit with his 1994 release.

12. “There Stands the Glass,” Webb Pierce. Webb Pierce’s greatest commercial achievement came in 1955 when his cover of “In the Jailhouse Now” spent twenty-one (yes, twenty-one) weeks at #1 on the country charts in 1955. His most significant artistic achievement was “There Stands the Glass,” which ranks with the very best of country music drinking songs. Webb sings about alcohol as pain medication, as liquid bravery, as a method to try to forget that which cannot be forgotten. Perhaps the theme resonated with Pierce, who like his contemporaries Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, was also an alcoholic.

13. “This Weary Heart You Stole Away,” The Stanley Brothers and The Clinch Mountain Boys. The Stanley Brothers were an influential genre act, but they had limited chart success. After recording for Columbia Records from 1949 to 1952, they began a four-year association with Mercury Records in 1953. Thematically, “This Weary Heart You Stole Away” is another complaint about a morally ambiguous female. (One wonders if their request to “wake up, sweetheart” was an inspiration for “Wake Up Little Susie,” but I’ve found no direct link). Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs cut a cover version of “This Weary Heart” when they worked with The Stanley Brothers as teenagers in 1971.

14. “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” Hank Williams with His Drifting Cowboys. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is a you’ll get your just desserts composition that Hank wrote about former wife Audrey with future wife Billie Jean Jones taking dictation. Hank biographer Colin Escot “the song – for all intents and purposes – defines country music.” Historian Ronnie Pugh, “It’s Hank’s anthem, it’s his musical last will and testament.” Hank gives a lyrical hat tip to Ernest Tubb (“You’ll walk the floor/The way I do”) on his timeless farewell to a bad marriage. The signature song of the genre’s most iconic performer.

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