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Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California

Alexandra Haslam Russell
Richard Chon
Copyright Date: 1999
Edition: 1
Pages: 392
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  • Book Info
    Workin' Man Blues
    Book Description:

    California has been fertile ground for country music since the 1920s, nurturing a multitude of talents from Gene Autry to Glen Campbell, Rose Maddox to Barbara Mandrell, Buck Owens to Merle Haggard. In this affectionate homage to California's place in country music's history, Gerald Haslam surveys the Golden State's contributions to what is today the most popular music in America. At the same time he illuminates the lives of the white, working-class men and women who migrated to California from the Dust Bowl, the Hoovervilles, and all the other locales where they had been turned out, shut down, or otherwise told to move on. Haslam's roots go back to Oildale, in California's central valley, where he first discovered the passion for country music that infusesWorkin' Man Blues. As he traces the Hollywood singing cowboys, Bakersfield honky-tonks, western-swing dance halls, "hillbilly" radio shows, and crossover styles from blues and folk music that also have California roots, he shows how country music offered a kind of cultural comfort to its listeners, whether they were oil field roustabouts or hash slingers. Haslam analyzes the effects on country music of population shifts, wartime prosperity, the changes in gender roles, music industry economics, and television. He also challenges the assumption that Nashville has always been country music's hometown and Grand Ole Opry its principal venue. The soul of traditional country remains romantically rural, southern, and white, he says, but it is also the anthem of the underdog, which may explain why California plays so vital a part in its heritage: California is where people reinvent themselves, just as country music has reinvented itself since the first Dust Bowl migrants arrived, bringing their songs and heartaches with them.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92262-4
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VIII)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. IX-X)
    (pp. XI-XII)
    (pp. 1-6)

    Nodding in rhythm to the music, the big man wears boots, Wranglers, a pearl-snapped shirt, and a battered five-gallon hat. His face appears to have been gouged out of metal; his shoulders are wide; his belly ample; his hips nonexistent. Noticing him, Jimbo whispers to me, That guy was flew over by the butt fairy and landed on by the gut fairy. I stifle a laugh.

    One of the large man s boots is planted on the floor, while the other touches the wall behind his flexed knee. At the end of an arm ruddy as terra-cotta, his right hand...

    (pp. 7-24)

    In June of 1922 country music’s roots and stems were powerfully, if unintentionally, reflected in the outfits worn by two southwestern fiddlers, Henry C. Gilliland and Alexander C. “Eck” Robertson. Fresh from entertaining at a Confederate Army reunion in Virginia, they trooped uninvited into the New York City oices of the Victor Talking Machine Company, Gilliland decked out in a reb uniform, Robertson clad in a cowboy costume. The folks at Victor wondered what in the world they were dealing with. The company’s catalog later recounted, “They told us they could play the fiddle, and asked for a hearing. As...

    (pp. 25-28)

    After bouncing from West Virginia to New Mexico then back to Kentucky, John and Admonia Crockett arrived in Fowler, California, with their brood in 1919. They had not been aiming at the Fresno County farming town, but when John “Dad” Crockett was oer ed a job there, the family settled.

    This clan of displaced southerners in many ways summarized country music’s beginnings. Both John and Admonia were familiar with traditional songs; their son, Johnny, remembered that his mother sang at home such songs as “Barbara Allen,” “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” and “The Dying Ranger,” the kind of material folk-music...

  7. 3 1920s
    (pp. 29-42)

    The increasing numbers of Californians who owned radios in the mid-1920s could barely discern familiar tunes rasping from ultra-low-fidelity speakers: Johnny Crockett and the Crockett Cowboy Singers from KNX in Los Angeles. Old-timers recalled that at first all they heard was something a little like music. “You had to listen real close before you caught on to what they were doing,” said J. K. Johnson, a musician born and reared on California’s Central Coast late in the last century. “We had a crystal set, and mostly things just kind of buzzed.” Little did anyone suspect that those buzzes announced a...

    (pp. 43-50)

    Gene Autry owned the next decade because he shaped the image of the singing cowboy, and that image in turn shaped what came to be called country-and-western music. Gene achieved a degree of commercial popularity previously unknown by any “hillbilly” entertainer because he moved well beyond that concept, and he spread his version of that music to countless listeners previously untouched by it. As writer J. R.Young points out, Autry “represented the first popular commercialization of country music on a grand and sweeping scale.”

    When Gene’s signature was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he became one of the...

  9. 5 1930s
    (pp. 51-76)

    In 1930 Glen Rice, the manager at radio station KPMC in Los Angeles, conducted an elaborate publicity campaign claiming that he had discovered a small village of primitive folks living in log cabins near Beverly Hills. Amazing as it seems, some listeners swallowed his story. Rice then announced that he had invited a few of the bumpkins to the station to entertain and—after an interval to build interest—the Beverly Hill Billies arrived.

    Leo (“Zeke Craddock”) Mannes, Cyprian (“Ezra Longnecker”) Paulette, Aleth (“Lem H. Giles, H. D. [horse doctor]”) Hansen, and Tom Murray were talented musicians, and their gentle...

  10. 6 BOB WILLS
    (pp. 77-82)

    Bob Wills—of English, Irish, and Cherokee extraction—was a Texas native, and one reason he liked the Golden State after he had seen a bit of it was the similarity of some locales there to the region where he had been raised. The Great Central Valley, in particular, he recognized as a comfortable enclave. That territory was full of folks happy to pay to hear and dance to good music, so the Texas Playboys filled dance halls from Pumpkin Center in the South to Del Paso Heights in the North. Retired oil worker Lee “Brownie” Brown recalls, “He could...

    (pp. 83-86)

    Main Street, the parade route, fishhooks a total of two blocks from Old Redwood Highway to Adobe Road. Four other short streets comprise the remainder of tiny Penngrove, population 893. A railroad track slashes diagonally across the parade route, and the old wooden buildings on both sides are wedges: two feet wide on one end, fifty on the other; folks don t waste space here.

    Fifty miles north of San Francisco, this farm town has no sidewalks, but some yards do have horses, goats, geese, and cows. Everyone picks their mail up at the post office on Main Street no...

  12. 7 1940s
    (pp. 87-120)

    The key figure in the West Coast’s unexpected domination of country music during World War II wasn’t a musician at all, but an astute disc jockey named Burt (also spelled Bert) “Foreman” Phillips. He had noticed that the movie industry in Southern California was attracting a remarkable gang of musicians and that war-related industries were also concentrating tens of thousands of workers with money in their pockets. Then he figured out how to bring musicians and fans together, developing a circuit of dance halls and assembling bands for each.

    He began with the Los Angeles County Barn Dance at the...

    (pp. 121-128)

    The rise and fall of Spade Cooley is a representative California tale, embodying the best and the worst of country music here. It also mirrors trends that led to western swing’s widespread popularity in dance halls and ballrooms, its translation to television, and the eventual heavy encroachment of pop styles into this music.

    Donnell Clyde Cooley was a poor boy who rose high, partook of his rewards, then tumbled tragically. When he murdered his wife Ella Mae in 1961, his accomplishments as an entertainer were suddenly obscured by his horrible crime and the sensational reporting that followed. He moved from...

  14. 9 1950s
    (pp. 129-166)

    “Town Hall Party,” televised locally each week from Compton and broadcast nationwide as “Western Ranch Party,” illustrated the abundance of country talent in Southern California during the 1950s. One 1957 show, for example, supplemented the distinguished regular cast—Johnny Bond, Wesley Tuttle, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, Les “Carrot Top” Anderson, the Collins Kids, Skeets McDonald,Tex Carman, Fiddlin’ Kate, and the singing host,Tex Ritter—with three guest stars: Ray Price, George Jones, and Tex Williams.

    That remarkable gathering of talent would have stopped traffic almost anywhere; yet in Southern California it hardly merited a nod. More and more entertainers had...

    (pp. 167-176)

    To understand why many longtime fans of country music consider Nashville’s pop-influenced incarnation of it to be terminally bland, one needs only to listen to forty-five-year-old recordings by the Maddox Brothers and Rose. These precursors of rockabilly and cowpunk were arguably the most original, most outrageous, most entertaining of all California-based performers. They were also forward-looking, trying virtually everything, but they always remained undeniably country. Although the country-music establishment has paid far too little attention to this exciting band, other musicians hold them in awe. Rockabilly Roy Campi, for example, recalls, “They were the definitive hillbilly, boogie woogie, western swing,...

  16. 11 1960s
    (pp. 177-206)

    California’s country scene was in an uncertain position early in the 1960s. Since Nashville’s successful promotion of itself as this music’s one and only true home, performers in the Golden State were being increasingly marginalized, while fewer and fewer performers were migrating west. Yet by the end of the decade country music here was once more big indeed. Credit for that resurgence goes largely to two singers originally from the Southwest, Buck Owens and Glen Campbell, and to a producer from the Midwest, Ken Nelson.

    Also important was that some rock and roll, which had started as such defiant music,...

  17. 12 BUCK OWENS
    (pp. 207-216)

    California’s unwillingness to accept southern domination of this national music was augured by Buck Owens, who perfected an exciting style and who refused to abandon his Bakersfield base. The dominant country-music performer of the 1960s, he brought the Central Valley town with him to the heights. As a result more than a few people came to believe Bakersfield had risen to challenge Nashville’s power, but that wasn’t the case.Owenshad risen to challenge Nashville’s power.

    Although twelve of his records had already made the charts, including three number-two hits, in the spring of 1963 “Act Naturally” initiated Buck’s unparalleled...

    (pp. 217-220)

    “This is uptown! grins a large, balding man wearing lizard-skin cowboy boots as gray as his remaining hair. Thissureisn t like any honky-tonk I remember.

    The crowd outside spills onto the street and winds around the corner, and older fans are far outnumbered by hipsters, punks, as well as yuppies because country ishot,man, and maybe a little funky, too: roots stuff. We oldsters are also a tad funky ourselves as we shuffle toward the door, excited at the prospect of seeing an enduring favorite, as well as a couple of touted younger acts new to most...

  19. 13 1970s
    (pp. 221-246)

    While Buck and Glen rode personal crests well into the 1970s, the decade was finally dominated by California’s first native-born superstar Merle Haggard. The Oildale native continued exploring his own considerable talent and expanding country’s stylistic and thematic boundaries as a result. He matured into a powerful creative force, shaping the future without abandoning the past.

    Following his Jimmie Rodgers–tribute albumSame Train, A Dierent Timethe previous year, in 1970 Merle releasedA Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, a paean to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Haggard wrote in the liner notes,...

    (pp. 247-258)

    Merle Haggard ascended as an artist at a time when children of the Dust Bowl migration were making their artistic marks—fiction writers such as James D. Houston, Raymond Carver, and Ken Kesey, for example, or poets like Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, DeWayne Rail, and Dorothy Rose. The Oildale native was part of this surge, as were other songwriters—Red Simpson, Dallas Frazier, and Buddy Mize, among them.

    Merle’s parents had still been kicking the dust of Oklahoma o their boots when, on April 6, 1937, the boy was born in Bakersfield. He is thus old enough to have been touched...

  21. 15 1980s
    (pp. 259-280)

    In 1980 Hollywood produced the hit movieUrban Cowboy, which triggered an explosion in neocountry disco music. Various accoutrements of the film—mechanical bulls, feathered cowboy hats, and sexy tank tops—sprouted in bars all over California and the nation, including many swank locales. Mickey Gilley, a journeyman Texas singer best known as Jerry Lee Lewis’s cousin, was a sudden star, as was his pal Johnny Lee. The sales of country music at record stores rocketed to $250 million in 1981. Between 1979 and 1984, 900 radio stations nationwide joined the ranks of fulltime country or neocountry pop programmers. Like...

    (pp. 281-288)

    Dwight Yoakam entered the highly competitive Los Angeles club scene as a twenty-year-old fresh from a frustrating stint in Nashville. Asked why he relocated there, Dwight said he had been aware of California’s country-music tradition—“Rose Maddox and the Maddox Brothers, Tommy Collins, Wynn Stewart, the whole Ken Nelson scene that he started over at Capitol . . . Buck Owens . . . Merle Haggard. . . . That legacy was here.” As a result, he “just thought the environment would be more conducive to me performing live if I came to California, and that proved to be the...

  23. 17 1990s
    (pp. 289-314)

    Early in the 1990s Merle Haggard’s career symbolized the diminished commercial condition of country music in California. While his artistry remained intact, Hag’s recording career dwindled as he battled in court against Curb Records, which then controlled his releases. Merle explained the consequences of that prolonged legal squabble to Jason DeParle in 1993: “It’s real frustrating, and . . . it’s really a big financial valley for me because I’m used to having records out, and records cause things to happen—and the same thing in reverse, if you don’t have one. It’s caused me to go to bankruptcy, Chapter...

    (pp. 315-322)

    The headline says it all:



    Buck & Merle

    making country

    music history

    in the streets of


    Well, my wife, some pals, and I are together again, too, home for the show. Old friends have saved seats for us in the half-circle of bleachers around a turf standing room, but we decide to join the crowd closer to the stage. That youthful gang socializes much flirting and posturing as it enthusiastically awaits the big stars.

    This is a different mix than we d seen at performances here thirty years before, when spectators were almost exclusively white, dominated by Okies...

    (pp. 323-334)
    (pp. 335-356)
    (pp. 357-362)
    (pp. 363-380)