Songs that would be Gold

January 2017

Before you begin reading, I recommend you visit my website, http://www.krisrutherford.com, and click “About Me.” You’ll come away with a much better understanding of how I think and, hence, write. Basically, don’t take anything I write too seriously. I’ll give my opinions, but I have a tendency to exaggerate for dramatic effect on occasion (maybe every other sentence to two). After checking out the page (feel free to buy some books while you are there), return to the homepage and click the  “Me & Jerome” link to return here.
Welcome back.

As my family drove the 250-mile trek from Central Arkansas to our weekend home in Texas the other day, a shuffle of Gene Watson and the Oak Ridge Boys playing on my IPhone, I caught myself wondering about all the undiscovered classic country songs. I mean, have you ever wondered where the unseen jewels of classic country music are actually stored? No, I don’t mean those hidden in the crown George Strait wears under his black Resistol. Nor am I referring to those that echo in some long-shuttered West Texas dance hall or rest in a yellowing sludge pile in a corner office on Music Row. The real gems of country music are readily open for public viewing (or listening) every day. Today’s generation of country (I use the term loosely) fans just don’t have a clue where to find them and wouldn’t recognize them if they did. As an Oak Ridge Boys fan of the late 70’s and 80’s (which I assume you are since you are reading this), I assure you, the hidden gems are right under your nose.

You can find classic country’s jewels right between the wide lines on your old ORB vinyl LPs—the tracks you never ran your needle through like you did with “Elvira,” “I’ll Be True to You,” or “You’re the One.” On the other hand, if you’re a collector of old 45 RPMs, take a look at the flip side you’ve ignored for the past thirty-plus years. There they are—the precious stones of classic country music. Most never made it to radio and haven’t been played in a live ORB concert in years, but give them a listen. You’ll find some of the ORB’s finest work. As a fan since the tender age of ten when the Y’all Come Back Saloon album first charted, I’ve carefully selected my favorite ten ORB songs that would, or should, be gold. So, in no particular order:

1. “Easy”— As far as I’m concerned, the body of work of Y’all Come Back Saloon remains the ORB masterpiece to this day. Other albums offered bigger hits, but as a collection, it’s hard to top the ten tracks on this record. Give me one album to listen to on a cross-country bike ride, and it’s no contest. Y’all Come Back Saloon put country music on notice that gospel didn’t have the ORB under lock and key. No song better exemplifies the transformation than “Easy.” Keep in mind, this was back in the days when Dallas’ WBAP still used that annoying “BLEEEEP” to censor Faron Young’s “Here I am in Dallas, Where the Hell are You?” The uproar from country’s conservative audience hearing “Easy” over the public airwaves would have deafened any outcry from Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore being shown sleeping in the same bed. Nearly four decades later, the risqué lyrics of promiscuity and teen pregnancy featured in “Easy” are mild at best, but I’m not even sure Outlaw Country Artists would have been so bold in 1977.

Duane Allen’s vocals on “Easy” are, to at least my two ears, the best piece of work he ever recorded. Changing his voice inflection from a “matter-of-fact” mood to one of sympathy with a touch of anger to understanding and tenderness in the span of three minutes must have been a hard chore.
Now, at the age of ten, a few years before cable TV and a long time before the internet, I had nary a clue what “Easy” really meant. When I reached high school and beyond, though, the raw honesty, emotion, and depth of the lyrics became clear. Never released as a U.S. single, “Easy” became an overseas hit and the subject of a very early music video. Had conservative country radio been ready to openly discuss the topic matter at hand, “Easy” would have surely been a chart-topper. Thinking back on it, I may remember “Easy” so well from the infamous episode when my mother heard me singing along and asked me if I even knew what the words meant. Without thinking, I responded with a short, “No, but it’s a hell of a tune, ain’t it?” She bleeped me all the way to my bedroom.

2. “Didn’t She Really Thrill Them (Back in 1924):” Shockingly, I have read reviews naming “Didn’t She Really Thrill Them” as the weakest link on the ORB debut country album. I beg to differ. Even though I was wet behind the ears, I connected with the song immediately. I may have been a legal resident of Maine, moving there at just three months of age, but Mainers only accept someone as native if they are born inside the state’s boundaries. As far as they were concerned, I was a “From Away,” and the summers I spent in Texas did little to hide the Scarlet “FA” showing brightly in my sleeve. I may have been ostracized as a foreigner in New England and considered a Yankee in Texas, but those summers in the South allowed me to experience rural life. Northeast Texas’ Lamar County, my summer home and the roots of the modern Rutherford family, is an area still 99.7% rural as it approaches the age of 175. For a kid, that statistic translated to 99.7% old people. After all, how many kids do you remember from “The Beverly Hillbillies?” Jethro doesn’t count.

The lyrics of “Didn’t She Really Thrill Them” still ring my senses today, the story of an old maid and a schoolgirl taking me back to the many hours I spent around country ladies who, at the time, seemed ancient. Duane Allen’s trademark smooth delivery raises memories of sipping iced tea from one of those ribbed yellow and red striped “hoop” glasses made back in the 50s. Those glasses must have been molded from lexan, because every old lady I knew still had a complete set they’d used every day since the Korean War. I can picture myself in the shoes of the schoolgirl (well, you get my point) who made daily visits to the old maid’s house. Rather than trying on dresses and looking at old dance cards, I could be found sucking on three or four lemon drops melted together in a cut-glass bowl because old people hadn’t yet discovered the convenience of air conditioning. Or, how about those candy gel-like orange slices covered with sugar? I never had the heart to tell an old lady even solid sugar comes with an expiration date and turns to concrete after about six years.

In the end, “Didn’t She Really Thrill Them” isn’t really a song about an old maid and a teenage girl. It’s about choices—making choices that may be unpopular with some but living with the choices that can’t be undone. ORB lawyers should have sued George Jones’ songwriter for stealing their idea twenty years later.

3. “An Old Time Family Bluegrass Band”—I told you, it’s hard to get away from the ORB first country album when looking for their hidden gems. Dad was a bluegrass fan when I was a kid, but I didn’t get it. Sure I loved “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme, but bluegrass was way too primitive for me. How about using some electricity when you cut an album? “An Old-Time Family Bluegrass Band” changed my attitude. I became downright addicted to the sweet cocktail of fiddles, mandolins, guitars, and banjos the song featured. Despite his Philadelphia upbringing, Joe Bonsall puts on a pretty good impersonation of having been reared in the deep woods of Eastern Kentucky. The song is the story of bluegrass itself and depicts the genre in no uncertain terms. No one can walk away from “An Old-Time Family Bluegrass Band” without understanding bluegrass music is all about preserving the rural lifestyle, simpler times, and the sense of family among those who may have been separated by miles of wooded hills.

4. “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well”—As hard as it is, I’m breaking away from 1977 and skipping ahead two years to the ORB’s third album, The Oak Ridge Boys Have Arrived. For those who inexplicably missed out on the debut album, the hit songs “Sail Away” and “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” and the Richard Sterban masterpiece “Dream On” caught undoubtedly caught their attention. For my money, though, there isn’t a better song in the bunch than “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well.” The upbeat tune features each vocalist’s distinct tone in its three stanzas, the perfect harmonies pulling the listener into the recording studio. The song is even better live and has been a favorite at every ORB concert I’ve attended, playing second fiddle only to “Elvira.” “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well” is classic country at its finest, its lyrical euphemisms and energy carrying through until the band hits the tune’s last abrupt note.

5. “Dancing the Night Away”—Country radio didn’t seem to care for five-minute recordings in the 70s. A few novelty songs like “Convoy” managed to top the charts, but songwriters seemed hooked on what I call the “Rhinestone Cowboy Formula”—Verse 1- Chorus-Verse 2-Chorus-Repeat Chorus-Fade. “Dancing the Night Away, featuring Joe Bonsall’s elevated tenor offered a whole new ORB sound. Maybe an intentional throwback to Bonsall’s American Bandstand days, the song abandoned pure country for a bit of rock-pop and should have exposed the ORB to fans from other walks of life. Anyone who knows me knows I am no fan of crossover country, but this tune showcased the ORB’s diversity and ability to perform gospel, classic country, and pop. Little did we know the song was a precursor of things to come just a couple of years later.

6. “I Would Crawl All the Way to the River”—1981 brought ORB fans Fancy Free, the multi-platinum album remaining the group’s top-seller to this day. Fancy Free, of course, is known for the ORB’s signature song and megahit “Elvira.” In fact, “Elvira” alone likely carried the album to its success and entrenched the ORB as a major player across musical genres. The tune drove the Boys into the crossover ranks, but without the “in your face” plunge a few unnamed country artists took. Yes, at least one of those gamblers won big-time, but was it really good for country music? Yet, I digress.

While Fancy Free took the ORB to an entirely new level in the national spotlight, the album also returned them to their gospel roots. The only thing I knew about gospel music at the time came from mouthing my “ABCs” silently as a congregation belted out seemingly unending verses from dusty church hymnals. In short, my gospel exposure was bo-ring. No offense to a gospel aficionado who may be reading, and I am certainly not demeaning religious songs, but any kid exposed to off-key singing accompanied by an out-of-tune piano would have had the same reaction. I had heard the ORB had been founded as a gospel group and remained so until I picked up their first country album, but I couldn’t name a single gospel song they’d recorded. The lively hidden gem from this album, “I Would Crawl All the Way to the River,” caused me to seek out some of those early tunes that earned the group multiple Dove Awards. Gospel, I realized, wasn’t necessarily painfully-slow, poorly-sung songs from the pews of a church with bad acoustics and an outdoor toilet. Thanks to this song, the last on side two of the album, I discovered earlier ORB recordings like “Heaven Bound” and “The Baptism of Jessie Taylor.” Both have become favorites.

7. “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport”—1982’s “Bobby Sue” album introduced ORB fans to who I guess must be the third lady in a string of their hearts’ desires after “Emmylou” and “Elvira.” For the second straight album, the ORBs included a gospel tune to offset the title cut, a song may be the most energetic they ever recorded. This time the gospel selection couldn’t have been more opposite from the album’s hit. “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport,” also recorded by George Jones in 1990 (do I sense a pattern here?), didn’t offer the up-tempo energy of “I Would Crawl All the Way to the River,” but I was actually beginning to pay real attention to lyrics and they grew on me quickly. I’ve always been a bit of a geography nerd, so the featured cities of Nashville, New York City (Wall Street), Wichita, Salt Lake City, Boston, and Shreveport naturally piqued my curiosity. The words, though wrapped around a religious theme, stretch far beyond gospel and hold deep meaning in secular life as well. While several cities are called out by name, any American town could be inserted in place of any on the list. The lyrics offer no condemnation of those who live in these places, but they highlight stereotypes and prejudices that are simply a fact of life in all areas of the country. Featuring all four vocalists in separate verses, “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport” forces the listener to look inward. Duane Allen seemingly directs the song’s final word to the individual, as “Would you laugh and call him crazy and send him on his way?” forces each to face his or her own pitfalls and accept their own prejudices. Gospel or not, the theme cannot help but resonate with anyone who pays attention.

8. “My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me”—Any list of ORB favorites would be incomplete without including a song featuring contra-bass Richard Sterban. Long before he “Oom-pop-a-mow-mowed” his way into country music history, you could find Richard “On the radi-i-o-i-o-o.” Oddly enough, “My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me” isn’t country, and it isn’t pop. Technically, it’s a pure 1970’s Funk tune (I admit I found that on Wikipedia, so it must be true). I’d forgotten all about Funk. From what I can tell, some Funk group named Graham Central Station actually recorded the song a year before the ORBs. So, here we have a group of four guys who can sing gospel, country, crossover-country, and pop, and I can now add Funk to the mix! Allow me to pause while I take some deep breaths as this sinks in. Well, at least they haven’t released any heavy metal…..yet.

I guess a little Funk makes sense. As I recall from my vague memory of the genre, it was all about fun, and “My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me” is nothing if not a fun tune. Don’t try to find any depth in the lyrics, because they are pretty shallow. As a matter of fact, is it even possible to put the lyrics of this song in writing? Every once in a while it’s nice to read a piece corny poetry from Robert Frost or find some William Faulkner short story he enjoyed writing but would probably rather forget. Such is the case with “My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me.”

“On the radi-i-o-i-oi-o…..” You gotta love it. Incidentally, are you aware that “Funk” is derived from an African word meaning “bad body odor?” Amazing what you can learn on Wikipedia.

9. “Old Time Lovin’”—Say I lack creativity all you want, but when I’m looking for ORB hidden gems, I just can’t get away from 1977. Once again a few years ahead of my time in subject matter, “Old Time Lovin’” is another slice of undeniably classic country music. This cut, like so many others in the ORB discography, features a solo of all for members and teases the ear with a bluegrass-country blend. The arrangement of harmonies versus the lead, tenor, baritone, and bass solos on this recording keep every vocalist fully engaged. Richard Sterban’s bass sets a perfect lead-in to the harmonic, “How I want that old time love again with you” on two occasions, and the change of key in the oft-repeated ending chorus puts the icing on the cake. Plus, the ORB performed the song on an episode of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Can it get any more country?

10. Well, I’m down to the last of my top ten ORB songs that be gold. It’s a tough, tough choice, and frankly, one I’m not going to make (because it’s my blog and I can do whatever I want). Instead, I’d rather get on my soap box for a minute and address what I believe is not just a hidden gem, but a lost gem of the entire essence of the Oak Ridge Boys. I warn you, this will probably enrage a few of you, so before you read further, go back and re-read my opening paragraph. Now, if you will indulge me, the following is an open letter to Richard Sterban:

Dear Richard… Rich… Rick… Ricky,

I don’t know what happened about a decade ago. Perhaps it was a late-blooming mid-life crisis. If so, I feel your pain. I had my first at 16 and have continued to have one about twice a year ever since. But, Richard, I don’t know you anymore. The distinctive personality and persona of Duane, Joe, William Lee, and yourself offered the ORB’s greatest appeal at a time when so many followed the crowd. While some other country groups of the 70s featured four guys dressed identically in suits pulled out of the Brady Bunch dressing room, y’all have always kept to your roots. We still admire Joe’s hip urban appearance, Duane’s contemporary casual look, and William Lee’s….errrr….rural attire. But, what happened to the Richard who stood heir apparent to Ray Price as the best dressed man in country music? The voice I hear belongs to a clean-cut, buttoned-down, dapper looking fellow tapping a tambourine against his finely-tailored, creased dress pants on the left side of the stage.

Now, we both know there’s some gray in your hair. I’m a quarter-century younger, and I even have a touch of it. But, your voice hasn’t aged a minute in the 37 years I’ve been listening. There’s no need to maintain a “more youthful than you are” appearance,” because you don’t look old just yet. Think about it. Would George Strait wear anything other than Wranglers and a Resistol? Would John Conlee ever be the same if he took off those dated rose-colored glasses? And, how about Willie? Imagine Willie without the bandana and ponytail, braids, or whatever he calls those things hanging off the side of his head (hint: you can find an early sixties version of a clean-cut Willie Nelson on YouTube. It kind of destroys the image he’s worked so hard to convey). So, go ahead and cover up the gray if you want to, but can I please have the old look back.

All my best,

Kris Rutherford

P.S. You might remember me. I was the kid you inspired to switch from the standard B-flat clarinet to bass clarinet back in 1979.

So, there you have it—my top ten ORB songs that would be gold. With or without “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport?” as inspiration, I fully admit my list shows a great deal of prejudice. I’m a conservative fellow, I don’t like change, and I am no fan of what today’s radio promotes as country music. Obviously, I have a bias toward the ORB’s earliest albums when they were still establishing themselves as a country act. But, 1977-1982 represent what I consider my formative years in developing a musical taste. The body of work the ORB put out during those years made me the only young lad in New England who claimed a country group as his favorite. While the rest of my running crowd scrambled their brains with the likes of KISS, Queen, and Iron Maiden (I wouldn’t even remember those names if their “music” wasn’t so painfully neurotic), by 1985 I hummed “Ozark Mountain Jubilee” and my all-time favorite “Heart of Mine”—in public. Country music had firmly entrenched itself as my genre, and I never planned to listen to anything else. Somewhere, though, the country music I loved lost its bearings.

The phenomenal success of George Strait in the mid-80s gave rise to a jumbled group of solo “hat acts.” Though I can find an occasional keeper among their collective body of work, in general I remember hat act vocalists as punctuating the end of stylists in country music. No doubt Tracy Byrd, Mark Chesnutt, and Rick Trevino all had decent voices, but they couldn’t be distinguished without music videos. Thanks to MTV and CMT, appearance became more important than musical ability (do you really think Little Jimmy Dickens would have a chance today?). By the mid-90s, the ORB had largely fallen from the charts and a new breed of country fans decided they preferred light shows, fireworks, and theatrics to music, and I pretty much disowned modern country. Music is meant to be heard, not watched. I yearn for the days of a stool, a spotlight, and a guy (or four) with a guitar. Today’s, young crowd screams wildly at the likes of Billy Currington, Luke Bryan, and the Zach Brown Band. Personally, I can’t name a single song they’ve recorded. Maybe the ORBs fall from the charts was simply a sign of the times. Unlike Garth Brooks (a soapbox I could write 5,000 words about in a single sitting), the ORBs kept their feet planted firmly on the stage instead of flying across it on a tethered wire. Kids developing their musical tastes today find two hours of pure country music dulling to the senses.

Though we seemed to have lost our place on the dial, a few years ago the media giants controlling country radio realized they had lost a huge market. Hence, they came up with the novel idea rock/pop radio executives had about forty years before—oldies, or “classic country.” Be still my heart, I had been saved! Unfortunately, I probably won’t find any of the songs on my list played on even the classic country stations, but you will find the Oak Ridge Boys and a satchel full of ’70s and ’80s recordings firmly established them as one of music’s most successful groups. And, you can rest assured whether they are playing one of country music’s all-time greatest hits or a filler song on the flip side of a 45 single, one thing will not change. The Oak Ridge Boys will remain true to their roots, and as a fan, they’ll be true to you.

Now, Richard, let’s talk some more about that hair thing…..

Chisled in Oak

January, 2017

On April 15, on the outskirts of Taylortown, Lamar County Commissioners unveiled a plaque dedicating the CR 16590 bridge over Big Sandy Creek as the Duane Allen Memorial Bridge in honor of Lamar County’s favorite son and lead singer of the phenomenally-successful musical group, The Oak Ridge Boys. A crowd far outnumbering the total population of Taylortown and its suburbs combined crowded around as Duane offered an emotional speech that could only be given by a man who, despite worldwide fame, remained firmly -grounded on the blackland farm where he was born. Nearly 35 years ago, Iwell-recall my pilgrimage to the nearby town of Cunningham in search of a boyhood hero.You might say I was musically-misplaced. Unlike the typical late 70’s teenager, I didn’t suffer permanent hearing loss to the likes of Queen, Aerosmith, or AC/DC, bands performing what I still refer to as “snake dancin’ music.” I held far more refined musical tastes. Aside from a very brief and ill-advised KISS phase in the early summer of 1978, I was pure country-country gold, in fact. Glen Campbell, Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare, and Merle (no last name needed) filled my record cabinet. Heck, I’ll admit it. I even had a “Whispering” Bill Anderson album, and my friends snickered heartily. No, my problem with music certainly wasn’t a matter of taste; rather, I suffered from time and location. I was not just country when country wasn’t cool. I was country where country wasn’t cool. In fact, the entire population of Maine found country gold so “uncool,” I had to search late night AM radio for some static-laced clear channel country show from the Midwest.

The programming gods of Maine radio relegated mid-70s country to the occasional crossover hit on WJBQ, better known locally as the home of the Bay City Rollers, Captain and Tennille, and KC and the Sunshine Band. Any other teenager would’ve buckled under the harassment dished my way when I set the old phonograph ablaze with the likes of Charley Pride and Larry Gatlin, but I had knees as solid as Barbara Mandrell’s steel guitar. Plain and simple, if it wasn’t country, it was the Devil’s music. While horrific sounds relentlessly blared from my brother’s bedroom across the hall, I found inner peace as Johnny Horton flew me “North to Alaska” under the protection of stereo headphones. Dad, a fan of what he called “Hillbilly Music,” had given up on traditional country a year or so earlier. When classical strings replaced the twin fiddles backing up Eddie Arnold, he realized the music he grew up with in Roxton listening to WBAP had moved on. Today, he’d be a sure candidate for cognitive therapy as he became musically-bipolar, turning to the outlaw country of Willie and Waylon for kicks and classical composers like Bach and Mozart for sophistication. I was an outsider even in my own house.

The backbone of most 70s music was the band, be it rock, pop, or (forgive my words) heavy metal. Still, soloists ruled the country scene. Stylists like George Jones led the country charge into the 70s before Chet Atkins’ “Nashville Sound” evolved into crossover and country pop. Olivia Newton-John showed up in Kitty Wells’ honky tonk, and John Denver caused Charlie Rich to put on country music’s first pyrotechnic display when the Country Music Association named him the 1976 Entertainer of the Year. Producers, seemingly embarrassed to associate with classic country music, forced Kenny Rogers on the masses, and he soon became the most recognizable voice on both country and pop radio. Group performers in country music remained few and far between, as most potential acts stayed in the shadows and gripped to their gospel roots. In fact, it took two gospel groups to blaze their own crossover trail before Nashville fully-embraced the group performers who came to dominate the genre a decade later.

The Statler Brothers and The Oak Ridge Boys both migrated from the gospel ranks, the former stepping gingerly onto the country scene after a stint as background vocalists for Johnny Cash. The latter, on the other hand, arrived with the splash of a cannonball off a railroad trestle into a Sulphur River swimming hole. Virginia’s Statler Brothers entered the country waters with a boatload of patriotic songs country fans couldn’t help but love. As 1977 approached, the Statlers rested as the most popular group in Nashville as executives fought to keep rebellious group performers like The Charlie Daniels Band out of the mainstream. The Statler Brothers stuck to risk-free songs and nostalgic memories. Blue-haired ladies swooned and hijacked The Music City News awards voting, honoring them as Group of the Year well past their prime until the magazine folded in the mid-90s.

While The Statler Brothers tread lightly in their move to country music, The Oak Ridge Boys transformed overnight, completely abandoning their gospel roots with the unquestionably country single, “Y’all Come Back Saloon.” Featuring Philadelphia-born tenor Joe Bonsall and Camden, New Jersey, native contra-bass Richard Sterban, the only glaringly country member of The Oak Ridge Boys was Brewton, Alabama’s baritone William Lee Golden, an individual who gained fame a few years later by turning so country he might have even alienated the Outlaw crowd. Less conspicuous, but just as country, was lead singer Duane Allen, a native of Lamar County’s Taylortown, a side trip along the route between Deport and Cunningham. Allen, an East Texas State University graduate trained in the classics, aspired to sing in a quartet and brought the smoothest voice in gospel to the country charts. With the members’ diverse backgrounds, The Oak Ridge Boys offered the closest thing mainstream country music had to a hip band; in fact, they almost made country cool.

Now, I have to admit, although a lyric of Chicago or Journey never crossed my lips, peer pressure did play a role in my life. While some early Oak Ridge Boys tunes like the risqué teen pregnancy-focused ballad “Easy” were a bit beyond my eleven year-old comprehension, it took about twenty seconds of “You’re the One” before I realized The Oak Ridge Boys would soon be the face of country group acts. The Statler Brothers would find themselves relegated to “dorky” status, I surmised, and I planned to be on the cutting edge. Santa Claus left two albums under the tree at the Rutherford house in 1978, the Statler Brothers’ “The Originals,” a browning package of 73% torpedoed ground beef, and “The Oak Ridge Boys Have Arrived,” a seasoned filet mignon marinated in fine spices and grilled to perfection. With “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” and “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well,” the Oak Ridge Boys had indeed arrived and pulled me in a trailer right behind them. Unfortunately, a storm brewed on the horizon.

Well, by 1980, you were either The Oak Ridge Boys or you were not. how original is that?) released its debut album and raced up the charts, country music transformed from entertainment into a contact sport. I may roll wannabes supplant my Oak Ridge Boys as the premier country group. ”s successes as I cheered each gold record. If The Statler Brothers had been ground beef, Alabama was rotting road kill. Yet, as the Alabama hits kept coming, I watched wearily as their albums began to fill the small country section of MusicLand in the Maine Mall. But, country was my brand of music, and The Oak Ridge Boys were my group. I adopted the fight for supremacy as nothing less than a spiritual experience.

A year removed from the hottest summer I can recall during my annual trips to Roxton, in 1981 Dad made the fateful decision the family could survive without air conditioning in the new Chevy station wagon. After all, it was only for three months, and AC wasn’t even standard equipment on New England car lots. Plus, with gas prices topping ninety cents, he figured squeezing a couple more miles out of a tank would save him a nickel or two every three or four months. As we arrived in Texas in mid-June, a blow torch chafed us through the Chevy’s open windows, and Mom repeatedly cussed his thriftiness while nursing a cup of ice. The asphalt bled through the chip seal along Highway 82, and as the summer went on lane markings twisted and slid off the shoulders as the road took on a molasses-like consistency. Not yet a legal driver, the law nonetheless had little impact on my mobility that summer. My grandparents purchased my first car, a ‘73 Impala equipped with the finest air conditioner Detroit ever produced. The Impala and I cruised the back roads all summer, as I avoided the main highways on the oft chance a wayward highway patrolman might spy a hundred-pound adolescent’s eyes just above the steering wheel. But, the world grew a lot smaller behind the wheel of the Impala, and so did Lamar County. 

On a roadmap Taylortown looked to be a hundred miles from Roxton. Duane Allen’s hometown might as well have been Lubbock a year earlier, but it now sat just a few gallons of Dad’s ninety-cent gasoline away in the green Impala. I plotted my trek to the holiest of lands, where a young Duane Allen nurtured what had become the finest voice in all of music. 

My parents had little problem with me driving the back roads without a license; after all, they did the same thing a quarter-century before, and I certainly ranked as the most responsible of the two Rutherford siblings. The farm-to-markets weren’t a problem either, and I challenged them daily without incident. Highway 24 between Commerce and Paris sat as the only barrier between me and what I knew would be a spiritual country music experience. Any trip from Roxton to Taylortown required crossing what amounted to a major highway in Lamar County. Parental approval was far from guaranteed. I needed a gimmick. My parents’ desperate urge to see the Texas-roots sprout through my Yankee shell seemed just the ticket.

I didn’t exactly consider myself a social outcast. Admittedly, being known as the kid from Texas nine months a year and that “damned Yankee” the other three months played a bit with my sanity, and I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about great Roxton past-times like fishing with crawdads when normal Americans slept or swimming in snake-infested muddy creeks. I guess if I have to own up to it, my disposition probably did impact on my summer social life. But, I always had my cousin, Brock (known affectionately as “Cousin Brock”), as a companion. A Paris native transplanted to Colorado, like me, Cousin Brock spent the summer months in Roxton with his grandmother. A horror movie aficionado and obsessed with obscure monster magazines, Cousin Brock was every bit as weird as me, and we had a mutual respect for each other’s idiosyncrasies. Regardless, the key to getting permission for such a distant drive was an excuse to socialize with some fine Texas youngsters my own age, and what better social activity could be had than a spirited game of baseball. Baseball….that was the answer. Cousin Brock and I would drive to Taylortown to play baseball with some kids he knew from when he lived in Paris. 

The first hurdle behind me, I set my sights on the next goal. Taylortown wasn’t exactly a metropolis, but exactly what, or who, would we find when we arrived? Grandmothers are good at this sort of thing, and most are quite trustworthy. I immediately put mine to work calling every “Allen” in the phone book to locate my hero’s boyhood house. A drive-by photo would be the ultimate prize. To say Granny succeeded is to say Merle Haggard had a hit with “Okie From Muskogee.” Not only did Granny find his house, she found his parents, Loretta and Fred, alive and well in Cunningham. Jackpot! Reportedly, they had a fine conversation, and Mrs. Allen said she’d be thrilled to meet her son’s biggest fan. The stage was set as Cousin Brock and I prepared for the trek across the southern end of the county, armed with a couple of RC Cola’s and the sack of pimento and cheese sandwiches Granny made everyone she knew would be travelling more than 20 miles.

The drive to Cunningham was uneventful, and the crossing of Highway 24 anti-climactic at best. I did make a slight error in judgment waiting far too-long for an old Farmall tractor to clear the intersection, but we arrived mid-afternoon. Sure enough, the first house on the right heading into town sported a mailbox with the name “Allen” in block letters. I pulled the Impala into the driveway and scratched to a stop behind a late model Cadillac parked in the carport. I must admit I found the scene underwhelming. I had imagined a country music superstar’s parents lounging by the pool of a mansion. Instead, the Allen’s lived in a small, mid-century, white-washed bungalow like just about every other older couple in the small towns dotting Lamar County. If it wasn’t for the Cadillac, I’d have been sure we’d picked the wrong house.

Cousin Brock and I sat in the Impala a few seconds alternating between awe and fear as we debated who would take the brave step of knocking on the door. A short, lost argument later, Cousin Brock cowered behind me as I lightly rapped my knuckles on the aluminum screen door. In a matter of seconds a lady looking absolutely nothing like Duane Allen greeted us warmly and invited us inside. Politely turning down the obligatory offer of lemonade and taking a seat on the couch with Cousin Brock, I took in the scene, or at least what there was of it. Family photos covered the walls where I expected to find flashing Oak Ridge Boys signs and concert memorabilia. We patiently sat through a tour of the photo collection, as Mrs. Allen pointed out each daughter and son and praised their successes as a missionary, a doctor, and a few other professions I can’t remember. Finally, she pointed out the man of the hour, though no one would have known it if they hadn’t seen an Oak Ridge Boys album cover. Awkwardly pictured in a family photo like those I used to be coerced into posing for at K-Mart, there was Duane Allen himself, along with the wife and kids. Mrs. Allen said she was kind of embarrassed by his beard, apparently taboo in the Allen household. She’d told him the beard made him look like Jesus in hopes the idea of blasphemy would convince him to shave. But, she claimed his response of “Oh, Mama, I don’t think I’m that good,” pacified her, at least for the time being. The longer we talked, the more amazed I became at the normalcy of it all. I found the furnishings typical, the walls covered in inexpensive paneling, and the house filled with the same aroma of every other old person’s house. If it hadn’t been for the blue water I noticed in the toilet when I politely asked to use the restroom, I would have thought the Allen’s to be everyday people.

After visiting a while, Mrs. Allen retreated to a back room, eventually returning with some souvenirs–an autographed concert program and a couple of tour T-shirts, far too large for either of us but no matter. I was in the midst of the most indirectly famous person I’d ever met. If that shirt had pink lace sleeves, I would have worn it with pride. We soon made our way outside where Mrs. Allen introduced us to Fred, sprawled in a reclining lawn chair. “Sure been a hot summer, ain’t it?” he grumbled from under the brim of his ball cap. A very short conversation made it clear Fred wasn’t at all impressed at his son’s fame. Fred Allen was a farmer, and Duane was a farm boy. No doubt, Fred would have preferred if Duane had put his hands to use hauling hay instead of strumming a guitar. When Fred asked his wife to fry him up a mess of okra, Cousin Brock and I knew it was time to take leave. A few hours later, back in Roxton, I wrote the Allen’s a thank-you note with a Maine return address, just in case they got the urge to have Duane send me some concert tickets or something.

The hot Texas summer soon came to an end, and a month later I was back in Maine and Cousin Brock in Colorado. Soon, I received a letter, not from Duane Allen, but from his mother. Much like she had that day in Cunningham, she filled me in on what each of her children was up to and tossed in a few tidbits about the grandchildren and Fred’s thoughts on the autumn weather. She also pointed out she had to get the letter to the post office. After all, the Boys’ tour bus would be coming by in a while and she’d be heading on the road with them for two weeks. She just loved hearing them perform “Sail Away” in person, she wrote

A second later Dad walked in and took a quick glance at the cameo photo Mrs. Allen had included of her and her son.

“Who’s that with Duane Allen?” Dad asked. “You know, we used to be fraternity brothers.”

What in the name of Elvira?

“He wouldn’t remember me. He’s a singer or something, isn’t he?” Dad added. “Seems like he joined some country group… Alabama, maybe?”

It was at that moment I discovered a boy could indeed choke to death on his own tongue.

Country road song covers a lot of territory. How do y’all stack up?

The line separating “trucker” and “road” songs is thin. Roger Miller’s signature song, “King of the Road,” makes no mention of trucks but it’s still about life on the road. Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road” is written from a truck driver’s perspective. Although both songs include “road” in their titles, Miller’s is about the “hobo” lifestyle while Dudley’s is about a hard-working truck driver excited to get home. One interesting aspect of country music is its ability to connect people from seemingly different worlds. In the instance of Miller and Dudley, when they do connect, the difference between trucker and road songs blurs. So does the difference between country and city folk.

Hank Snow was born in Brooklyn, Nova Scotia in 1914. Separated from his father, authorities deemed his mother unfit to care for him. Instead, he lived with his paternal grandmother, reportedly a despicable human being who made sure Hank grew up in a household filled not with love but physical and verbal abuse. Eventually, Hank reunited with his mother. And when she purchased a guitar and allowed him to play, word spread of his talents.

At just 12 years old, Hank Snow set to sea, not uncommon among youth growing up in Canada’s maritime provinces. A cabin boy on a fishing schooner, the job paid nothing except experience. Four years later, after his schooner barely survived a storm, Hank decided he had all the experience he needed.

In the meantime, Snow’s musical talents developed, and he eventually found his way to Nashville. By chance, he got his shot to play the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville’s most coveted welcome gift. His second single, “I’m Movin’ On,” placed him on the road to stardom as it hit the No. 1 slot on country charts and remained there for 21 weeks. In 1962, “I’ve Been Everywhere,” became another of his Snow’s signature songs, version of Australia songwriter Geoff Mack’s tour of his home country rewritten by Lucky Starr. Hank Snow’s version, with apologies to Johnny Cash’s outstanding cover, is arguably the most recognized among fans of classic country music, with bonus points added to the original singer.

“I’ve Been Everywhere” begins with Snow (singing as a hitchhiker) along “the dusty Winnemucca road,” a reference to U.S. Route 50, a cross-country highway passing through north-central Nevada. The chosen road, known as “The Loneliest Road in America,” tells listeners a lot about the hitchhiker and his secluded life, slow-paced life. When “a semi with a high and canvas covered load” stops and the driver asks if the hitchhiker needs a lift to Winnemucca, the passenger climbs aboard.

The conversation in the cab turns to U.S. 50 when the driver asks if his passenger has “seen a road with so much dust and sand.” The response reminds one of the pause in Beethoven’s “Surprise Symphony,” a halting answer showing little appreciation for the ride the trucker is providing – “Listen, Bud. I’ve traveled every road in this here land.” And with that, “I’ve Been Everywhere” abruptly shifts from a trucker song to a tune about the road.  

The remainder of “I’ve Been Everywhere” begins with a chorus that will be repeated five times and four stanzas of lyrics listing what Snow means by “everywhere.” But the song is far more than an impressive memorization of many obscure locations in the western hemisphere. The style Snow employs is indicative of the “road” experience and how it can change depending on perspective.

Snow sings the remaining lyrics at a fast pace, so fast that the names of cities, towns, states, and areas of the U.S., Canada, Mexico and South America almost blend into a very long multi-syllable-to-the-extreme word. In fact, the slow, lonely introduction having passed, the change in tempo is likely intentional, as Snow’s contrasts of a life walking the roads with the trucker’s high-speed, deadline driven lifestyle.

Snow references 91 locations he has visited. He could easily list 500 more, and the song would never get old.

If we mapped the 91 locations Hank Snow mentions, we’d realize that he has “been everywhere.” The various locations are spread across the country and a few outside the U.S. Snow tells us he has visited eight countries in North America, Central America, and South America. In the U.S., he rattles of 64 cities loosely broken down as: Southwest, 10; Northwest, 10; Midwest, 15; Southeast, 17; and Northeast, 12. He mentions nine states by name, four locations in in Canada, and eight south of the U.S.-Mexico border. By the time the song wraps up with a fading chorus, listeners can imagine the truck driver’s exhaustion; in fact, they are exhausted as well, proof that the song filled its intended purpose. Still, firing the tune up is almost an addiction, if only to see how much of the song listeners can memorize.

Somewhere out there in the sea of Americans, at least one has visited every location Hank Snow rambles through in “I’ve Been Everywhere.” But what about country folk like the readers of this blog?

Your Challenge A list of all the locations Hank Snow mentions is below. Circle those you’ve been to, passed by, or maybe even flew over. My count is 32, or 35%, not bad for someone who hasn’t visited the Northwest or South America. Take a few minutes to count how well you’ve followed Snow’s trail and make a note in the comments section!

Sorry… got to run. I just remembered I have an appointment in Ombabika.

First verse

Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota, Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma, Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma, Bangor, Baltimore, Salvador, Amarillo, Tocopilla, Barranquilla, and Padilla.

Second verse

Boston, Charleston, Dayton, Louisiana, Washington, Houston, Kingston, Texarkana, Monterey, Ferriday, Santa Fe, Tallapoosa, Glen Rock, Black Rock, Little Rock, Oskaloosa, Tennessee, Hennessey, Chicopee, Spirit Lake, Grand Lake, Devils Lake, and Crater Lake.

Third verse

Louisville, Nashville, Knoxville, Ombabika, Schefferville, Jacksonville, Waterville, Costa Rica, Pittsfield, Springfield, Bakersfield, Shreveport, Hackensack, Cadillac, Fond du Lac, Davenport, Idaho, Jellico, Argentina, Diamantina, Pasadena, and Catalina.

Fourth verse

Pittsburgh, Parkersburg, Gravelbourg, Colorado, Ellensburg, Rexburg, Vicksburg, Eldorado, Larimore, Atmore, Haverstraw, Chatanika, Chaska, Nebraska, Alaska, Opelika, Baraboo, Waterloo, Kalamazoo, Kansas City, Sioux City, Cedar City, and Dodge City.

When the rubber meets the road, do you do anything but “drive, drive, drive”?

Few people question Johnny Cash’s love of America. It’s something that comes through in countless of the performer’s recordings ranging from his 1972 double-disc vinyl album “America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song” to his 1974 hit “Ragged Old Flag.” But if you listen to his repertoire of songs, you’ll no doubt realize that while Cash was a patriot, he didn’t march blindly to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.”

Johnny Cash didn’t skirt from calling out the sins of the U.S. in songs like “Ira Hayes,” a story of oppression and patriotism following World War II. And he virtually made a career with his countless songs about those confined to prisons or committed to death. “San Quentin,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Greystone Chapel,” and “25 Minutes to Go” are but a few examples

Of “Folsom Prison Blues,” his most recognized prison song, Cash famously said, “the culture of a thousand years is shattered with the clanging of the cell door behind you. Life outside, behind you, immediately becomes unreal. You begin to not care that it exists. All you have within the cell is your bare animal instincts.”

Comments like these led to the myth that Johnny Cash had spent hard time in prison. In fact, his incarceration consisted of a handful of overnight stays in county jails from misdemeanor offenses. But Cash had empathy — and a way with words that could convince a listener he had walked in the shoes of many men.

Along with Merle Haggard (who did spend his share of time in prison), Johnny Cash’s recordings became symbols of the working man, often playing the role of a downtrodden, underappreciated, and abused member of America’s socio-economic system. Then again, seemingly on cue, Cash could turn to songs making political statements like “Don’t Go Near the Water,” a song blaming industrial America for pollution of what were freshwater streams until they reached the cities below the hills from where they began. When Johnny Cash stepped off the line he walked, public opinion showed in the Billboard charts. Many of his anti-establishment opinions landed in lyrics that never reached the airwaves or Cash’s standard high-water mark, a gold record.

Johnny Cash sang several songs about truck drivers, but as is often the case with performers recording hundreds of unknown songs that find a home on the B-side of hit records, most have been ignored by mainstream country music fans. During his career, Cash turned out 91 albums and nearly 200 singles, so he had his share of songs that might have been hits if they had made it onto radio playlists. When it comes to trucking songs, “All I Do is Drive” is a story that didn’t fit with America’s rapidly increasing view of truck drivers as virtual super-heroes of the highways. As such, it never escaped the confines of his “Ragged Old Flag” album.

Whether or not “All I Do is Drive” is based on a true story of Cash’s conversation with a truck driver is largely immaterial. Once again, it’s an example of how Johnny Cash could put another man’s thoughts into words and music — on this occasion, perhaps, by making inaccurate assumptions.

Johnny Cash meets a truck driver and as asks if the driver does a lot of singing when he’s on the road, either to pass the time or to make his solitary job a little less lonesome. He asks if the driver has a pretty waitress who knows him at every truck stop café and if he gets a lot of smiles from the people traveling along the highways with him. Cash asks him about trucking songs — do they capture the story of his life? Between the lines, a listener can tell the driver’s answer isn’t the one Cash expected.

            “All I do is drive, drive, drive,

              Try to stay alive,

              And keep my mind on my load,

              Keep my eye upon the road.”

The driver goes on to explain no man who goes home at five o’clock every day can relate to his job. All he does is “drive drive, drive, drive, drive, drive, drive.”

Cash seems to believe he’s reached an understanding of the truck driver’s state of mind as they shared a cup of coffee, one that had to be warmed up for the slow talking driver trying to delay his walk back to his rig. Then Johnny Cash implies he has made a major mistake.

            “And I said, don’t you hear a lot of music,

              See a lot of sights?”

Before the driver can respond, Cash promises,

              “But if you’ll tune into the Grand Old Opry Saturday night,

                I’ll dedicate you a trucking song to which you can relate.”

Cash is stopped short when the driver offers the most telling lyric of the song when he answers,

            “You just do the singing,

              And I’ll do the driving mate.”

With that line, Johnny Cash confesses that maybe he can’t always walk in every man’s shoes; perhaps he can’t understand every soul he meets to empathize with every situation. Despite the legends and lore of truck drivers, how it is depicted on screen and in song, the trucker’s life is a lonely one, and excitement isn’t something expected or particularly wanted. All the trucker wants to do is “drive, drive drive,” stay safe, and reach his destination by keeping an eye on his load and both eyes on the road. For Johnny Cash, every man’s working man, “All I Do is Drive” is a stunning admission that sitting in his position with a career in the spotlight has isolated him from the men who he sings about on stage every night. As the song closes, the listener can feel Cash sinking in his truck stope café chair — and wondering why he has the luxury of fame and fortune while the truck driver simply wants to make it from one point to another alive.

Until next time, while you’re on a stretch of open road, cue up “All I Do is Drive” and find out where you fall. Does your life mirror that of Johnny Cash the storyteller or the subject of one of his “also-ran” songs from the early mid-1970s. I’m guessing you’ll come to the conclusion that not much has changed in 50 years.

What Color is Your Time Machine

If you’ve sat behind a steering wheel, you have one — that one particular vehicle from your past that you wish you could drive once again. If you’re a trucker, it may be your first truck, some cabover from the ‘70s, or one that had a little quirk or rap in the engine that drove everyone except you crazy. And if like me, you aren’t a trucker, there’s some vehicle you’ve owned, driven, and retired after it left you stranded one too many times. On the other hand, it might have been one you sold too soon, with dreams of the memories to be made in that clean new ride.

Years, or even decades, have passed. You now know how much you miss that old drive that cost far too much money, time, and frustration to keep on the road. If you’re lucky, something reminds you of it on occasion. If you’re really lucky, your old ride became a hit country song. That’s where I sit. I once had a car, and I swear a country songwriter wrote about that car in lyrics directed at me.

To admit it is kind of embarrassing. The year? 1984. The car? A 1976 bright yellow Ford Pinto wagon. It was the first car I ever bought entirely with my own money — 500 Little League ballfield maintenance dollars earned the previous summer. I didn’t own it long, but to say the least, the old girl was memorable.

Anyone with a little bit of insight into the automobiles of the 1970s knows the story of the Ford Pinto. The car sold dirt cheap when brand new, made possible by the fact Ford only invested about two percent of the selling price in the parts that held it together. As far as engineering went, there was none. The Pinto had a knack for exploding when hit from behind. Fortunately, the ’76 wagon was not a model with a disposition to explode, or maybe I just never got hit from behind. But I take solace in the fact I didn’t drive an orange AMC Gremlin like a friend did. No one had a hit song about an orange Gremlin.

“My Old Yellow Car” was a No. 9 country song for the former soft rock turned country artist Dan Seals. The song debuted in February 1985, just about the time I parted ways with my “yellow submarine,” as it became known around town.

As far as the song goes, change the color to fit your own vehicle, and the lyrics are universally appreciated. Of course, I was special. Dan Seals, after all, sung specifically about my yellow car.

“She weren’t much to look at.

  She weren’t much to ride.

 She was missing a window on her passenger side.

 Her floorboard was patched up with paper and tar,

 But I really was something in my old yellow car.”

Well, my old yellow car wasn’t missing a window; in fact, the passenger window wouldn’t move up or down. Its floor was patched up with paper and tar — to the point it failed inspection, and my dad had to get a sticker from a friend who owned a garage. That sticker — obtained illegally (the statute of limitations has long passed, I assume) — somehow allowed me to drive a deadly hunk of steel unfit for the road. Dad must have recalled his own rides from the ‘50s and figured the Pinto couldn’t be any more dangerous than his jalopies. Of course, most of those didn’t have a reputation for exploding.

Seals goes on to chronicle his experiences in his old yellow car — the type of experiences any young guy turned old remembers well. Perhaps the lyric giving the song universal appeal is when Seals fondly recalls, “There was no road too winding and nowhere too far, with two bucks of gas and my old yellow car.”

My personal old yellow car had its set of issues, and they were probably a bit more serious than the one Dan Seals drove. The Pinto held no fluids other than gasoline. Ford’s engineers designed the vehicle where all of the liquids needed to make it run smoothly traveled through a bundle of cardboard tubes in front of the firewall. As miles passed, the tubes rubbed holes in each other. A lack of brake fluid left me skillfully using the parking brake to stop. When it was time to get moving, the car did so without the aid of transmission fluid. I just put the pedal to the metal and waited. Gears eventually caught, and off I went. When I managed to get up to speed, I always wondered why everyone passed me so quickly. I finally realized the speedometer registered 12 miles higher than my actual speed.

I didn’t move on to another car in 1985 because the Pinto had trouble stopping and going. Rather, I took note that the yellow submarine left an oil slick that rivaled the Exxon Valdez a few years later. To be precise, both the front and rear engine seals of the car had disintegrated. The poor car wasn’t holding a drop of oil. On last check, it leaked a quart a day. Those ballfield maintenance dollars allowing me to buy the car weren’t enough for the “fill up the oil and check the gas” approach the Pinto demanded.

Some poor soul took the Pinto off my hands for the same thing I paid for it — 500 bucks. Last I knew, it sat in his front yard sporting a flowerpot for a hood ornament. But, hey, I broke even. Or maybe I lost more than I expected.

After “My Old Yellow Car” fell from the charts, I didn’t hear the song on the radio for years. In 2003, I bought a shiny new Nissan Frontier pickup truck I’d been eyeing — yellow in color. And I swear on Dad’s grave that on the drive home, “My Old Yellow Car” came across the airwaves! You can bet that Nissan went down many winding roads far from home.

Until next time, when you think about a car or that pretty Mack, Kenworth, or Peterbilt you drove into the ground in your distant past, consider the chorus of “My Old Yellow Car.” I bet you’ll shed a tear:

            “Somewhere in a pile of rubber and steel,

            There’s a rusty old shell of an automobile,

            And if engines could run on desire alone…

            That old yellow car would be driving me home.”

Pioneering artist rides his thumb to Music Row and top of the charts

Country performer Johnny Rodriguez has frequently mentioned that he was drawn to country music because it is so similar to the music of Mexico. “The lyrics to both country and Mexican songs tell stories,” he said. I can’t claim to know about Mexican songs, but Rodriguez is correct when it comes to country music. It is a genre of a variety of themes running through thousands of recordings by thousands of artists. Tales of lonesome roads, lost loves, and regretted decisions wind through many country songs, including both trucking music and road songs. When the artist has actually lived the experiences as told in the lyrics, it makes country music all the better.

While Juan Rauol Davis “Johnny” Rodriguez was born and bred in Sabinal, Texas, just 25 miles north of the Rio Grande. While not a native of Mexico, he will be remembered in country music history as the first star of Mexican descent. A son of Mexican immigrants, his father worked at Kelley Air Force Base in San Antonio. The distance kept him away from Sabinal much of the time, leaving young Johnny with his mother and siblings. He was particularly close to his older brother, Andres.

By the time Johnny Rodriguez turned 16, he starred as a high school athlete and served as an alter boy. In the span of a year, however, his world tragically turned upside down. His father died of cancer, and just months later, Andres was killed in an automobile accident. Trouble quickly caught up to Rodriguez’ already troubled soul.  Ironically, his first contact with the justice system gave him the break he needed to, seemingly, emerge a better man.

When Johnny Rodriguez was 18, legend has it took the rap for a group of friends who had stolen a goat. Rodriguez and the arresting Texas Ranger thought it to be a minor offense, but they didn’t realize the value of a goat in South Texas. Rodriguez spent a weekend in a jail cell, and to pass the time he sang incessantly. The Texas Ranger was impressed with what he heard. Rodriguez paid a fine for the goat theft and thought he was done with the matter. But the Texas Ranger passed Rodriguez’ name on to the owner of “Alamo City,” a tourist attraction west of Sabinal. Soon, Rodriguez was a regular performer on its stage, one which drew the likes of country stars Tom T. Hall and Bobby Bare. Hall encouraged Rodriguez to travel to Nashville. After debating the idea for some time, Rodriguez took Tom T. Hall’s advice.

As the legend continues, Rodriguez arrived in Nashville with his guitar wrapped in cellophane and $14 in his pocket. He soon found his way to Tom T. Hall who hired him to front his band on lead guitar. Before long, he used Rodriguez as an opening act, a role the young shy performer wasn’t eager to accept. He excelled, and Hall managed to secure Rodriguez a recording contract. The rest is country music history.

During his career, one which isn’t done yet, Johnny Rodriguez has recorded 26 albums, his first rising to No. 1 on the charts in 1973. That same year, he was nominated for the Country Music Association’s “Male Vocalist” award. Of his 15 top ten singles, most of which he wrote or co-wrote, 6 achieved No. 1 status. Songs like “Pass Me By”, “You Always Come Back (To HurtingnMe)”, “That’s the Way Love Goes” and “Just Get Up and Close The Door” created a legion of Johnny Rodriquez followers. But while he still had decades of recording and performing ahead of him, perhaps his signature song remains his second No. 1 single, “Riding My Thumb to Mexico,” released in August 1973.

“Riding My Thumb to Mexico,” written by Rodriguez, is a two-minute tale of a tortured soul on the road. The opening stanza most everything a listener needs to know about what follows. It should strike a chord with those who lived through similar circumstances, and it’s a theme in countless trucking songs:

This old highway seems so lonesome
When you’re going where you’ve been
And a lonesome song can make you cry
Time and time again…

Any truck driver no doubt recognizes the tortured soul in the lyrics of “Riding My Thumb to Mexico” and has probably seen it in the eyes of fellow drivers at truck stops across the country. Unfortunately, in the case of Johnny Rodrigues, “Riding My Thumb to Mexico” was as much an omen as a song.

While his signature song came early, the theme Rodriguez wrote of eventually mirrored Johnny Rodriguez himself. He continued his recording success through the 1970s and into the 80s, but drugs and alcohol took their toll. Rodriguez has said in many interviews that his career would have been far more successful had he been able to resist the temptations of the road. And with the notoriety of being country music’s first Mexican American star, he is surely correct. But Rodriguez’ troubles lasted nearly three decades. In the late 1990s, his problems became far more complicated.

In a story that played out in court rather than song, Johnny Rodriguez faced a first-degree murder charge after killing an intruder in his mother’s home with a single shot from a pistol. Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, the perceived burglar was actually an acquaintance, one he had spent the entire previous night with as Rodriguez and others drank the evening away. By the time the dust settled 18 months later, Rodriguez was acquitted of the charge. In the process, Rodriguez has said he learned valuable lessons. He admitted that substance abuse habits he gained with his troubled life on the road contributed to the incident, although he stands by his word, on the jury agreed with — the shooting was a case of self-defense and misidentification of an intruder. It’s an incident that will continue to haunt Rodriguez, but while his career was on a steep grade downward before the incident and he no longer has hit records, Johnny Rodriguez lives on, hopefully a soul who over the course of the previous 20 years has become less troubled. The fact of the matter is, the Johnny Rodriguez story is one of rags-to-riches, the tale of an unlikely young man who literally rode his thumb to stardom.

Until next time, when you see a troubled trucker along your way, pass along a few encouraging words. It might make all the difference.

Who Owns Gene Autry’s Valor?

When tiny Tioga, Texas (Grayson County), paused when it came time to put forth its rightful claim as the home of recording and silver screen star Gene Autry on January 6, 1937, Oklahoma swept in and claimed Autry as its own.

Silent film actors like Tom Mix, a native of Pennsylvania, are often credited with starring in the earliest Western films. With true-to-life cowboy antics as fictionalized on motion picture screens remained only ten or twenty years in the past, Mix and others like Broncho Billy Anderson and William S. Hart began filming early Westerns around the turn of the century. Perhaps the most noted film of the era was “The Great Train Robbery,” its set not based in the west as some would expect but instead in Paterson, New Jersey. In fact, a number of western movie stars of both the silent and modern era played roles of cowboys in the rough and tumble towns of Texas, the badlands of New Mexico, and the deserts of Arizona. But they were merely actors, coming from across the country and calling states like New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, and California their homes.

The early western stars used the concept of “Texas” as a stage for their on-film personas as too often the actors never set foot in the Lone Star State. California, after all, offered its share of terrain that resembled parts of Texas, and it cost producers far less to film near the motion picture hub of Los Angeles than traveling nearly halfway across the country. In many ways, it could be said that Hollywood stole Texas’ identity and passed it off as authentic generations of western movie fans who have followed. But misleading moviegoers was not nearly as criminal as the true story of a Texan considered among the most popular of all 20th-century entertainers.

Orvon Grover “Gene” Autry was born September 29, 1907, near the small town of Tioga in North Central Texas. At the time of his birth, Tioga claimed less than 800 citizens, a number that declined to only 600 by the time Autry began his show business career two decades later. Tioga was cattle country, and true to his on-screen persona, Gene Autry was every bit a cowboy, growing up on his parent’s ranch and, as one newspaper declared, “riding a horse before he could walk.” He eventually worked on the ranch and entered his first rodeo at the age of twelve. But even more than cattle, Gene Autry loved music.

Although the stories documenting Gene Autry’s earliest days in music vary, most agree he began singing long before he reached ten years of age. When he was ten, young Autry decided he didn’t like the way his voice sounded without instruments in the background. He managed to obtain a $5 mail-order guitar and taught himself to play chords. Soon he was playing and singing at nightspots along the Red River. While the date of the event varies, during this period Autry and his family moved 60 miles north of Tioga to Ravia, Oklahoma; in fact, many accounts of Gene Autry’s life note Ravia as his boyhood home.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence that Tioga, Texas, took its name from a New York Indian Tribe; after all, as so many supposedly Texas-based movies filmed on out-of-state sets, it could be considered poetic justice that Autry lived in a town named after a northern tribe. Then again, Gene Autry was no Yankee. He was Texas-born and played the role of a Texan in some of the 93 films in which he starred between the 1930s and 1950s. If only it could be so easy for Texas to lay claim to Hollywood’s first and most successful singing cowboy. 

Some historians have credited Gene Autry as the second most influential star in the development of country music, arriving on the scene just a few years after Jimmie Rodgers. Biographer Don Cusic noted Autry as using the nationwide appeal of western movies along with his distinction as a singing cowboy to introduce much of America to country music, a genre rooted in the South. And there is little doubt Autry’s singing gave a sub-genre of country music — western — its first widespread popularity outside states like Texas and Oklahoma. Moviegoers perceived Gene Autry for what he was — a singing cowboy from Texas, although a brand of Texas twisted to Hollywood’s marketing preferences.

Gene Autry never lived in the cactus-thriving region of West Texas and Big Bend Country where it appeared so many of his movies had been filmed. And he certainly was not native to California, where he shot his 1950s television show, “The Gene Autry Show,” on a ranch he purchased. No, despite the entertainment business’ ability to parlay the Texas mystique into untold millions of dollars, in reality Autry only occasionally performed live shows in his home state. The rest, as they said, was “Hollywood.” It was also reality, as after Autry became uprooted from Texas and drifted across the Red River, Oklahoma is where he began riding the trail to stardom.

Ravia was only a short distance north of Tioga, but it might as well have been a world away. After all, Texans stake claim to anything happening inside Texas boundaries. In North Texas, the determining factor depends on which side of the Red River the event occurs. And the privilege of claiming to be Texan follows along the imaginary lines dividing Texas from its four bordering states and Mexico. The width of a cowboy boot is the difference between being a Texan or a native of another state.

Gene Autry attended school in Ravia, Oklahoma, and eventually took a job as a telegraph operator with the Frisco Railroad. Working the late-night shift, Autry passed his time singing and strumming his guitar in the Berwyn telegraph station, a short distance from his adopted home. Eventually, he worked for another telegraph company in Chelsea, a town in northeast Oklahoma. Apparently, company policy prohibited Autry from playing music on the job, as he soon found himself unemployed.  But before his dismissal, his singing caught the ear of Oklahoma’s famed humorist Will Rogers. He suggested Autry take his music to a larger stage. Autry didn’t find the larger stage in Dallas or San Antonio; rather, he traveled to the Victor Talking Machine Company in New York City to get his official start in the music business.  

Autry found his trip to New York disappointing. Victor turned him down not because of his singing ability but because the company already had two similar singers under contract. A Victor executive advised Autry to begin singing on radio, gain some experience, then return for another audition. Autry returned to Oklahoma with the advice and landed a slot on Tulsa radio station KVOO where he performed as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy.” When he signed with Columbia Records and moved to Chicago to appear on “America’s Barn Dance” in 1929, his native Texas grew more distant than ever.

Over the course of his career, Autry recorded nearly 650 songs. Of those, he wrote 300, including one of his most widely played, “Back in the Saddle Again.” His popularity boomed nationwide, and Autry sold records counted in the tens of millions. He outsold the likes of Bing Crosby, a star who appealed to every region of America, and he turned out the first gold record ever certified.

While Gene Autry built a wildly popular career on radio, diversification turned him into the huge star he became. Autry played the part of businessman as well as he did entertainer. After reaching stardom, he took up the movie business in which he was wildly successful, starring in “B” Westerns, pictures that appealed more to small-town America than city markets. Of course, the star knew that in the 1930s, many more people lived in small rural communities than big cities.

Autry played along with sidekick Smiley Burnett and guest-starred with his horse “Champion” in low-budget films debuting at the rate of seven per year. By 1940, Autry could command more money per film and his stardom increased to where he had become a marquee drawing card in cities and rural communities alike. Autry productions grew in budget as much as they did in popularity. 

In. the 1940s, when kids caught the cowboy “bug” and managed to build Western films into a generation’s means of escaping the trials that schooling and childhood offered, Autry not only appeared on screen but also released 39 hit records. All of them peaked in the Top 10 on US Country Charts, 9 becoming No. 1 hits. On-screen, Republic Studios promoted Autry as “King of the Singing Cowboys.” Autry’s drawing power reached immense proportions and carried an entire generation of stars including fellow Texan Bill Boyd who grew up near Ladonia in Fannin County. Autry soon called the shots in what rapidly rose into a lucrative career.

After his contract with Republic Studios expired, Autry moved to Columbia Pictures. At Columbia, he became the powerful star who mesmerized audiences nationwide with his ballads surrounded by western plots on the movie screen. The change also took him back across the country, again bypassing his native Texas to land in California. The “Monogram Ranch” he purchased in the early 1950s became the filming site of many of Autry’s and other western star’s films and television shows including “Gunsmoke.”

By the end of the 1950s, Autry sat among the wealthiest Hollywood stars and claimed a spot among the richest men in America. He later built his Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles, a display of countless Western artifacts accumulated over a lifetime. Ever the businessman, Autry no doubt knew the museum would be a larger attraction in California than in Texas, New Mexico, or Arizona. In 1961, he purchased his own major league baseball franchise, the California Angels, a team he owned until his death.

Aside from baseball and his performances as a singing cowboy, Autry also enriched himself in the rodeo business. He purchased a ranch adjacent to Berwyn, Oklahoma, where he had started as a telegraph operator and owned stock supplying rodeo promoters throughout the West. He also starred in his own line of comic books and earned royalties from toys ranging from pistols to guitars. He even owned a Los Angeles television station. While he may not have made his riches in Texas, he certainly earned them in the true Texas way — diversity coupled with ingenuity and a recognition of good investments over bad.

In 1936 when Autry was only a few years into his career, the city council of Tioga took up a proposal to rename itself as “Autry Springs.” Although newspapers reported that Gene Autry played no role in the campaign, they also documented a plan to turn Tioga into a resort community similar to Mineral Wells west of Fort Worth. Tioga claimed mineral waters of its own, and it seems Gene Autry, or at least his supporters, had eyes on using his fame to turn the town into both a tourist attraction and a money-making machine.

On January 6, 1937, Tioga held a community-wide vote on the issue of renaming itself Autry Springs. Tioga’s 600 or so citizens overwhelmingly declined the change by a margin of 2:1. A number of reasons for the ballot issue’s failure were reported, most notably that the older citizens of the community voted against the proposal. Another story, unconfirmed, claims that one of Tioga’s prominent citizens — a doctor who attended to Gene Autry’s birth — spoke loudly against the name change. He claimed that Autry’s parents never paid the bill for his bringing young Gene into the world. The long-held anger at the Autry name was said to have held water among enough residents to cause the proposal’s failure. Regardless, Autry Springs was left without a home, and the tourist attraction never came to fruition. Still, when Gene Autry’s birthplace passed on its claim to the singing cowboy, an Oklahoma town stepped in.

Although Berwyn, Oklahoma, didn’t market itself as the home of Gene Autry, the community near Ardmore could claim that it served as the springboard for launching Autry’s career. After all, had the young singer not spent his shift in the local telegraph office singing and playing his guitar, he may have never met Will Rogers or taken his shot at the recording business. And when Autry purchased land for his ranch adjacent to the community, Berwyn saw an opportunity to capitalize on its neighbor’s name.

In 1941, bolstered by the efforts of a local deputy sheriff, citizens of Berwyn claimed Gene Autry as their own, not out of genuine right but from association. On November 16, just three weeks before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Gene Autry, Oklahoma, was born. A crowd of 35,000 turn out for the ceremony, one attended by Governor Leon C. Phillip and representatives from the Santa Fe Railroad. A day of festivities concluded with Gene Autry — the star — performing his nationwide radio show, “Melody Ranch,” on CBS live from a flat car on the railroad tracks. Less than a month later, Autry enlisted in the Army Air Corps, putting a temporary hold on his entertainment career.

So, it was with the man who should be remembered among Texas’ most popular native sons — the only entertainer to have amassed five stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

Gene Autry — Oklahoma may have stepped in and taken his Texas valor, but he will forever remain a Texan by birth. And that’s what really matters.

The media destroys country’s biggest star

In the early 1980s, Barbara Mandrell took root as the hottest female vocalist if not the hottest artist period on the country music planet. Between 1978 and 1984, she’d scored her first number one single (Sleeping Single in a Double Bed) and added six more, including the county music anthem of the era with 1981’s, I was Country when Country wasn’t Cool. And in 1980 she’d headlined one of the last variety series on the “Big Three” networks, NBC’s Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters. But overwork was taking its toll, and in 1982 Mandrell was under doctor’s orders to slow down her performing schedule. Instead, she headed to Las Vegas and premiered her show, “The Lady is a Champ.” Then on a September night in 1984, Barbara Mandrell’s world crashed to a halt, and the media-fueled aftermath cut deeply into her fan base. She never fully returned to the country music scene.

Barbara Mandrell was born Christmas Day 1948 in Houston, the first of three daughters of musically-inclined parents. A musical prodigy, Barbara quickly learned to play seven instruments ranging from the guitar to the accordion. But it was the steel guitar that gained Mandrell her earliest fame. By the age of 13, she’d toured and received accolades from the likes of Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, and George Jones, earning her nickname, “The Sweetheart of Steel.”

As Barbara grew to adulthood, she began receiving recording contract offers, first signing with Columbia in 1969. Despite Columbia’s slate of stars like Johnny Cash, Mandrell did not sell well with the public. In 1975, she shifted to ABC/Dot Records and began experiencing success, reaching the top ten with several singles. When Sleeping Single in a Double Bed hit number one in 1978, Mandrell’s career skyrocketed.  Awards, ranging from the Grammys to many presented by the Country Music Association began piling up. In 1980 and 1981, Mandrell not only became the first artist to win the CMA “Entertainer of the Year” in consecutive years, she became the first to win it twice. By 1983, Mandrell was among the most awarded artists in country music history. She’d helped launch the careers of sisters Louise and Irlene and was happily married with two children and living in a mansion near Nashville. All was well until the night of September 11, 1984.

Sometimes accidents simply happen. No one has to be at blame. Property is destroyed, people are badly injured, and sometimes people die. But it is simply an accident.  When 19-year-old Mark White of Nashville crossed the center line of the highway and crashed head-on into Barbara Mandrell’s Jaguar that night in 1984, it was a simple accident. Unfortunately, for White it was fatal. He was killed instantly. Mandrell was badly injured with numerous broken bones and head injuries. Her two children suffered less serious injuries. At first, the media sung the praises of Mandrell and her achievements. They relayed expectations of a long rehabilitation period ahead and the fact that Mandrell might never return to the force on the country music scene she’d been just days earlier. Thanks to a Tennessee legal requirement, those praises and well-wishes turned in an instant.

According to Tennessee law in the 1980s, in order for a victim of an accident to be awarded an insurance settlement, whether by their own insurance or the other victim’s, the person wanting the payout was required to sue the other party. As Mark White had been killed, Mandrell, who despite her wealth had mounting bills and a band to pay, was forced to file a lawsuit against White’s family, namely his parents. Both Mandrell and her lawyer went to great lengths to explain to the Whites and the public the reasons for the lawsuit; yet, the media took the story and ran with its own agenda. “Here was a country music superstar taking advantage of a grieving family in order to get an insurance settlement,” served as the gist of the stories. “Lawsuit puts Mandrell in hot water with fans,” a United Press International headline, pretty much summed up the way the media had twisted the facts and pitted Mandrell against Mr. White’s parents. Even the White family publicly supported Mandrell, but the damage had been done. Years later, Mandrell noted that the required lawsuit devastated her career and future ticket sales. In fact, she noted, she never received a dime as her insurance company filed for bankruptcy before offering a payout.

It would be a decade before Barbara Mandrell was able to mend fences with fans and, apparently, the country music community. In 1995, a book relayed the entire story to fans, and public regret responded. But for Mandrell, she’d moved beyond country music. She went onto have a couple of minor hits, but in 1997 she retired from the business. Her retirement once again brought on an onslaught of awards for career achievement, the CMA’s Pioneer Award, election to the County-Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Academy of Country Music’s Triple Crown Award, and a host of others. It was not until 2009, however, that Mandrell took her rightful spot in country music history when she was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Today, her former mansion has been turned into a resort managed by her daughter, and last year she celebrated her fiftieth wedding anniversary with one-time Mandrell Family Band drummer Ken Dudney.

As for the media, 1984 was still early in the information age. Television shows like Entertainment Tonight, 24-hour news networks like CNN, and even cable channels like The Nashville Network, had to fill air time with something, and Barbara Mandrell was an unfortunate recipient of the media’s growing pains. Many, of course, will tell you those pains have only become worse in the past 34 years.

400 Hogs

I was a bit of a latecomer when it came to grasping music, particularly music fronted by lyrics. I understood beat and rhythm, or I could at least tap my toe. When words were set to the music, the singer as well have been speaking an alien language from a galaxy far, far away. What most people took for lyrics, I took for meaningless syllables strung together to somehow match the beat. Perhaps it was “Batman’s” fault. All those afternoons of “…na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na, Batman!” had me spoiled. Or it could have been Roger’s Miller’s “Dang Me” and the way he vocalized his guitar picking. Either way, I didn’t understand that songs meant anything until much later than my friends—say my mid-20s or so—but, I wasn’t a complete idiot.

Country music offers more opportunities to grasp meaning than other genres. I think it’s for three reasons: 1. The music behind the country lyrics is a bit more “tame” than in some genres, meaning one can hear the vocalist’s words (I will gladly give up my column space for a week if anyone wants to write about the deep philosophical meaning of Van Halen’s “Jump!” Or is that, “Jump!” “Jump!” “Jump!”); 2. Country singers tend to lay it out there in blunt terms without unnecessary symbolism that leaves listeners scratching their heads; and 3. Country music, more than any other genre above the level of “Toot-Toot Tootle the Tugboat,” tells stories. When it comes to telling stories, no one on the country music scene has ever been better than “The Storyteller” himself, Tom T. Hall.It’s been a good many years since Tom T. Hall was a fixture on the airwaves; in fact, his last album released on a major label was in 1997, and his last Top 40 single came in 1985, and his last Number 1 in 1974. He’s retired and given up touring now but at 81 years old, he’ll still make an impromptu appearance now and then, and he still writes songs that become hits today (Alan Jackson’s “Itty Bitty,” for example. With age, when he does perform, he tends to sing a Tom T. Hall Greatest Hit that was never even a single, much less a hit. But I do remember it as the first song I “got” all by myself. It was a momentous occasion when I explained what the words to “Who’s Gonna Feed Them Hogs?” meant.

Hall recorded “Who’s Gonna Feed Them Hogs” for his 1971 album In Search of a Song. The only real hit from the album happened to be “The Year Clayton Delaney Died,” which, depending on who you ask, is either Hall’s best or second-best song, with “Watermelon Wine” holding the other spot. When Tom T. Hall performs “Hogs” today, he explains the song was inspired by a true event of the late ‘60s. Tom visited a friend in the hospital, and four beds down, he saw an older man with his leg propped up and tubes sticking out of him. The man wasn’t quiet. He vocalized his discontent of lying in the hospital, largely to the discontent of those around him. Tom’s friend said the old man had been the victim of a farming accident. Doctors didn’t think he’d live.

About two weeks later, Tom returned, and the old man’s bed was empty. He asked if the man had passed away, and to his surprise his friend said, “No, a few nights ago, he got up out of bed, pulled all the tubes out, put on his overalls, and stumbled out the door muttering something about feeding hogs.” At that moment, Tom said, he needed to write a song.

So, “Who’s Gonna Feed Them Hogs” tells the story as summarized with a few embellishments. In the musical version, the old man repeatedly claims he has 400 hogs, his wife can’t feed them, and his neighbors don’t care to help. He notes that he can turn his hunting dogs loose to fend for themselves, but not his hogs. He even calculates that 400 hogs equals 800 hams and 1,600 feet, and if somebody didn’t feed them, he’s could to lose a substantial investment. Then the old man laments, “Here I am in this dang bed, and who’s gonna feed them hogs?”

Well, as in real-life, in the last stanza, Tom T. describes how the old man got out of bed and left the hospital, and doctors still didn’t know how he survived. Finally, Tom T. Hall hints he’s been singing the song to a waitress in a diner and, when finished, asks he, “…would you bring me some coffee and a hot ham sandwich please.”

Well, I think I heard the song twice (I must’ve been about 6-years-old), and Wallah! It struck me like a sack of bricks! Now, I’m sure without listening, you can it figure out based on my brief description. If not, you’ll find several versions on YouTube, and if your brain works faster than a 6-year-old, you’ll figure it out quickly. I won’t spoil your moment of glory. Plus, you must hear the original recording to get the full impact of the song. After all, in the music that serves as a backdrop, you’ll hear the distinct sound of a kazoo, although I believe it is Charlie McCoy on harmonica. If a classic country singers ever need kazoos to back them up, have them call me.

Okie Baritone’s Simple Song Still Breaks Country Fans Hearts

When Billy Ray Cyrus somehow squeezed through the door of country radio in 1992 and took his shot at plunging a dagger into classic country’s “Achy Breaky Heart,” apparently no one bothered to apprise him of the fact country crooners have been breaking hearts for decades. We sure didn’t need Cyrus and what many music critics of all genres consider one of the worst songs ever recorded helping out the greats like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and Ricky Skaggs. These artists and many more broke country music’s hearts many times over, but when it comes to truly heartbreaking songs that still resonate today, it’s hard to beat Cal Smith’s 1974, “Country Bumpkin.”

Cal Smith never fit into the country “superstar” category, but during the 1970s, he recorded four top ten hits, three of which reached number one on the U.S. country charts. “Country Bumpkin,” Smith’s signature song, was the second of the three and despite just one week as a chart-topper, its pure country sound and story pulled in both the Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music’s “Song of the Year” award for 1974. Interestingly, “Country Bumpkin” was released just three months after Terry Jacks’ painfully depressing “Seasons in the Sun” topped all of Billboard’s U.S. Pop Charts. It’s almost as if Cal Smith’s mission was to answer Terry Jacks with an equally depressing country tune. If so, he achieved his goal, and “Country Bumpkin” remained the standard for sad country songs until George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” replaced it in 1980 as what will likely be permanent status as the saddest song ever recorded.

The fact that Cal Smith ever even got the opportunity to spend his season in the sun as country’s top bumpkin is a bit of an oddity in itself. Born in Gans, Oklahoma, a few miles southwest of Fort Smith, Arkansas, Calvin Grant Shofner was the youngest of three Shofner sons whose father worked as a truck driver for the WPA during the Great Depression. At the outset of WWII, the Shofners relocated, as so many Oklahoma natives already had, to California, and young Calvin spent his teenage years growing up in San Jose, a long way from where country music was just beginning to sprout wings. He started playing clubs in San Francisco when he was just 15. In Cal’s first gig as a newbie on the music scene, he realized he had the worst three-piece band in California backing him up. With no success, Cal gave up music and worked as a truck driver and a bronc buster during the 1950s.

After two years in the military, Cal returned to San Francisco in 1961 and took another shot at music. He managed to catch the ear of a touring Ernest Tubb one night and got his first break when Tubb asked him to join his famous Texas Troubadours. Tubb was one of few artists with the clout to demand his band play in the studio, so much of Cal Smith’s rhythm guitar and vocals are featured on Tubb’s records from the 1960s. After nearly a decade of wearing the classic Troubadour high-angled brim cowboy hat, taking the stage name “Cal Smith,” playing poker against Ernest Tubb, and “generally getting on his nerves,” Cal decided to give a solo career a shot. He managed a minor hit in 1969 with “Drinkin’ Champagne,” but it wasn’t until he signed with Decca Records, the same label of Tubb, that Cal got shots to record songs from the best writers in Nashville.

Smith himself said that he had a problem finding his own voice after working with Tubb and Hank Thompson, and the result was a slow rise to success. Cal couldn’t hear a song without singing it in either the style of Tubb or Thompson, and he knew the key to becoming a vocalist in his own right lay somewhere in between. Smith did establish a voice of his own when he took his distinctive baritone sound; added a hard “R” (“bar,” “part,” etc.), and when needed, reached down and grabbed a note from the bass clef for emphasis.

His first Decca album, “I’ve Found Someone of My Own,” peaked at number six on the album charts and offered two single hits including the title song and “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking.” But it would be nearly two years before “Country Bumpkin” hit blockbuster status. Much as a TV star becomes typecast, “Country Bumpkin” seemed to do the same to Cal Smith. He recorded albums until the mid-80s but never came close to matching his signature song’s success, one which still receives airplay today.    Unfortunately for Cal Smith, he hit his prime just about the time country entered its late 1970s “crossover” phase, and his solid country sound didn’t fit with what Nashville producers wanted. Like many of the 1970s’ moderately successful country artists, Cal Smith eventually found himself in Branson, Missouri, but on the side was owner of the Nashville Sounds, a Double-A franchise in baseball’s Southern League. Along with Conway Twitty, Larry Gatlin, Jerry Reed, and the Oak Ridge Boys’ Richard Sterban, Smith remained invested in the team until his death in 2013. For Cal Smith, the frost melted from the pumpkin at the age of 81.

 So long, Country Bumpkin.

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