Music History: From “Hillbilly Music” to Country-Western

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Photo by Brent Thorgren
Marc Bristol performance repertoire includes "hillbilly" music and every other folk form.

Back during the years leading up to the Great Depression, the recording industry was just getting on its feet. In those days, phonographs — the windup 78-RPM kind were sold in furniture stores, and so were the records to play on them. It wasn’t long, though, before many rural people had acquired the machines, and a vast market for what was then called “hillbilly music” was born.

One of the industry’s pioneers who recognized the potential of the largely untapped market was Ralph Peer. While working as a talent scout with RCA Victor in 1927, he set up a portable recording studio in Bristol, Tennessee (on the Virginia/Tennessee border a stone’s throw from North Carolina) and advertised for singers and players from that mountain region to come and audition.

Among those who showed up was a fellow by the name of Jimmie Rodgers (incredibly, Peer also “discovered” the then unknown Carter Family at the same tryouts). Jimmie persuaded the talent scout to record two of his tunes, and later that year Rodgers traveled to Victor headquarters in New Jersey and cut several other numbers, including one titled “Blue Yodel” (which has come to be called “T for Texas”).

That first recording of Jimmie’s distinctive blue yodel style — an electrifying blend of blues and yodeling — sold over a million copies. Rodgers ultimately recorded 12 different “blue yodels,” as well as a wealth of other tunes that revealed an amazing versatility which spanned (and often combined) a variety of musical forms. Rodgers’ songs ranged from religious to mildly risque, from traditional to “hot,” and incorporated backup music from Hawaiian slide guitar (now a fixture in country performances) to Dixieland (Louis Armstrong once played behind Jimmie!).

In the six years preceding his untimely death from tuberculosis in 1933, Jimmie Rodgers became country music’s first true superstar and inspired hundreds of other performers — including such greats as Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb to emulate him. He expanded the public’s concept of country music far beyond that of hillbilly string bands. And because many of his tunes (such as “The Yodeling Ranger”) romanticized the West, he is credited by most historians with firmly establishing the association between “western” and “country” music, and for setting in motion America’s long love affair with such country-western “singing cowboys” as Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Tex Owens, and Roy Rogers.

Another major force — a person who created a new style of popular music known as western swing — was Bob Wills. In 1931, young Wills and his band were hired to play (and to advertise Light Crust Flour) over radio station KFJZ in Fort Worth, Texas. The group, calling themselves the Light Crust Doughboys, combined a dominant fiddle with blues, ragtime, and big-hand swing to produce a sound that set listeners’ toes to tapping and kept dance halls hopping throughout the Southwest.

As a result of almost nonstop squabbles with his sponsor, however, Wills eventually left the Doughboys, taking with him some of the group’s best musicians (including Leon McAuliffe, amazing young whiz of the then newly electrified steel guitar). When Wills finally settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he renamed the band Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, and launched a spectacularly successful career that spanned more than three decades. Wills is said to have had a repertoire of some 3,600 songs. At times his increasingly jazz-oriented band featured as many as 22 pieces, including drums and horns (both of which were significant departures from country music tradition).

A good many other fine western swing groups were around during the 30’s and 40’s (many of them were started by alumni of the Doughboys and the Playboys), but none achieved the national popularity that Bob Wills and his band enjoyed. The style, however — the rhythms, the instrumentation, and the songs themselves — exerted a strong and lasting influence on country music as a whole.

Bob Wills’ band broke up during World War II(Bob himself did a short stint in the Army). After the war, however, Wills put together a group featuring mostly string players — the big-band era was winding down — and Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys continued to tour throughout the 50’s and early 60’s. Ironically, though, western swing was gradually overshadowed by a genre it had helped to foster: rock and roll. (In 1953, a western swing group called Bill Haley’s Saddle Pals changed its name to Bill Haley and the Comets and recorded “Crazy, Man, Crazy” … and in the following year cut “Rock Around the Clock.” Also, among Elvis Presley’s earliest recordings is “Milk Cow Blues,”a western swing standard.)

Old Time Records

It’s only natural that, as rock and roll evolved over the past several decades, many people have come full circle to rediscover western swing and the music that preceded it.

Those of you who are flea-market goers and/or record collectors would do well to keep your eyes out for 78-RPM disks with “Hot String Band” or “Old-Time Singing and Playing” designated on their labels. Among the performers to watch for are Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies … Bill Boyd and The Cowboy Ramblers … Adolph Hofner and His Texans … Jimmie Revard and His Oklahoma Playboys … The Tune Wranglers … Cliff Bruner’s Texas Wanderers … and, of course, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, and the Light Crust Doughboys.

Most contemporary swing music as well as a few reissues of Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills recordings (and those of other old-time groups) — has been released on major labels and can usually be found in record stores. However, a number of smaller companies firms that sell their records primarily through the mail — also offer a good selection of new and old music for you western fans. I’ll mention a few of them here.

Arhoolie Records offers western swing, folk, rockabilly, blues, and vintage country music. Among its many fine albums are Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3 of “Western Swing” ($8.98 each plus $2.00 postage per order), which provide a good sampling of the major artists from the 30’s on through more recent material.

Flying Fish Records offers some excellent new recordings, including “Hillbilly Jazz,” a two-record set of mostly western swing performed by such artists as David Bromberg and Vassar Clements ($11.98 postpaid, complete with a history book). It has several other swing albums in its catalog (which is available free for the asking), including “Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers” (by the group of the same name) and “River of Swing” by Dakota Dave Hull and Sean Blackburn ($8.98 each, postpaid).

Kaleidoscope Records also offers a free catalog listing a substantial variety of recordings. Among them are a couple of albums featuring Tiny Moore (“Back to Back” and “Tiny Moore Music”, $8.98 each, postpaid), who played electric mandolin and fiddle with Bob Wills for many years.

Perhaps best of all, Kaleidoscope has released Volume I and Volume 2 (also $8.98 each, postpaid) in a planned 10-volume series of Bob Wills recordings called “The Tiffany Transcriptions”, a famous series of radio transcriptions cut by Bob and his Texas Playboys in 1946 and 1947. Most critics agree that the music is some of the finest ever produced by Wills’s band!

Marc Bristol — a homegrown musician who performs’ regularly throughout the Pacific Northwest — began sharing his knowledge of do-it-yourself entertainment with our readers back in 1978. Marc’s columns have touched on everything from access information for recorded music to detailed instructions on how to make your own instruments.