Thursday, June 3, 2010

Whatever happened to hillbilly music?

“Murder on Music Row”
by Robert A. Waters

I grew up listening to country music. For the first eight years of my life, I lived with my grandfather, grandmother, mom, and two brothers on a farm in Fellowship, Florida. Some of my best memories are of listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the family radio. In her teenage years, my mom had been a singer in a local group called the Orange Grove String Band. My granddaddy loved Jimmie Rodgers (the Blue Yodeler) and Uncle Dave Macon. He would bounce me on his knee and sing songs like “Hobo Bill” and “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad.” Occasionally, he’d pull his banjo out from under his bed and fram a tune or two.

When I was eight, my dad and mom (who’d been divorced) re-married and we moved away from the farm. But the seed had been planted and one of my passions was always country music. In the 1950s and 60s, there were lots of great singers and songs. My favorite was Hank Williams. As a kid, I remember sitting on the front porch of my granddaddy’s home, beating my mom’s old Kalamazoo guitar, and trying to sing Hank’s novelty song, “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used To Do?” Many years later Johnny Cash recorded a song called “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town” that captures the flavor of the 1950s in rural America as well as any song I’ve heard.

During that time, the music was as likely to be called “hillbilly” as country. But sometime in the 1970s the powers that be decided hillbilly wasn’t good enough and watered down the music I loved. They even gave it a name: the “Nashville Sound.” They were horrid, those recordings, but for a while, there were still good singers and good songs making the charts.

As the decades ticked away, political correctness gained sway in country music. I remember Hank Williams, Jr.’s song, “If The South Woulda Won (We’d Have Had it Made).” That may have been the last politically incorrect song to score on the country charts.

Through the years, the songs got worse and worse, and at some point, like a bad divorce, I had enough and left behind the music that had nurtured me.

I know lots of people like the new stuff and won’t agree with me. Doesn’t matter. I like my country hard, with a touch of gospel to soften it a bit. An example is “The Titanic” by Roy Acuff. “God with power in his hands showed the world it could not stand,” he crooned. “It was sad when that great ship went down.” Not politically correct, of course, even in the 1940s when it was recorded. But a great song with a powerful message.

Cheating songs have always been popular in country music. In the 1950s and 1960s, a cheating husband or wife in rural America had a good chance of ending up dead. Like it or not, that’s just the way country people were. In the old Harlan Howard song, “Miller’s Cave,” the protagonist catches his wife with a lover named Big Dave. “They laughed at me and then I shot them,” the singer says. “I took their cheatin’, schemin’ bones to Miller’s Cave.” Again, not politically correct. But who cares? It’s a great song with an ironic twist at the end.

Today I read on a CNN website that “the Pulitzer Prize Board awarded a posthumous special award to Hank Williams, who died in 1953 at 29, for his lifetime achievement as a musician, praising the country legend for ‘his craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force...’” Hank may be the most unlikely person to have ever won a Pulitzer Prize.

A few years ago, I shelled out twenty-five bucks for a book entitled, Hank Williams: Snapshots from the Lost Highway, by Colin Escott and Kira Florita. Rockabilly and country music historian Marty Stuart lent the authors his stunning collection of Hank Williams memorabilia, allowing them to publish hundreds of photos of Hank and Audrey and his second wife Billie Jean as well as pictures of some of his hand-written lyrics. The title of the book comes from “Lost Highway,” one of Hank’s songs: “Just a rolling stone, all alone and lost. For a life of sin, I have paid the cost. When I pass by, all the people say, ‘Just another guy on the lost highway.’” That song, more than any other, summed up the life of the greatest hillbilly singer of all time.

It was a different era back then, a time that provided some of the world’s greatest music. But it was also a time that literally ate country singers alive. In his last days, Hank was a morphine addict, prescription drug addict, and alcoholic. He died in the back seat of a 1952 Cadillac somewhere on the road between Knoxville, Tennessee and Canton, Ohio as he tried to make a show in the middle of a blizzard.

The song “Murder on Music Row” describes my feelings about modern country music. It was written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell and popularized by country traditionalists Alan Jackson and George Strait. Here’s the first verse:

“Nobody saw him running from 16th Avenue.
They never found the fingerprints or the weapon that was used.
But someone killed country music, cut out its heart and soul.
They got away with murder down on music row.”

If you like traditional hillbilly music, you’ll love this song. As the lyrics state: “Hank wouldn’t have a chance on today’s radio.” He wasn’t smooth enough or slick enough or politically-correct enough. All he did was write and sing songs that changed people’s lives.


Anonymous said...

Virtue dwells not in the tongue but in the heart. ............................................................

Cranky Amy said...

Guess it's not technically referencing 'hillbilly', but it's what I thought of when I read this post: