As promised, here is the bonus Q&A Episode for Season 1.
You might think, “How could anyone finish a season of a podcast like Cocaine & Rhinestones and have questions? That guy saturates every episode with details like he’s getting paid by the fact.”
There’s always more to know. Just remember, don’t ask a question if you don’t want the answer. From the FAQs down to the minutiae of, well, whatever anyone wanted to know, it’s all here. Like, how does one even go about making a podcast on such a huge subject as the history of country music? Whose “fault” is pop country, really? Is this Merle Haggard song communist? Is that Merle Haggard song racist? There had to be more men banned from country radio, right? One at a time, people. One at a time…
Who’s ready to learn some stuff? Let’s do it.
Contents (Click/Tap to Scroll)
- FAQ – Season 2, Future Topics, What Is Country?, Tales from the Tour Bus, Merchandise
- General Questions – Cocaine & Rhinestones, Tyler Mahan Coe
- CR001 Ernest Tubb: The Texas Defense
- CR002 The Pill: Why Was Loretta Lynn Banned?
- CR003 The Murder Ballad of Spade Cooley
- CR004 Bobbie Gentry: Exit Stage Left
- CR005 Breaking Down Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee”
- CR006 The Louvin Brothers: Running Wild
- CR007 Harper Valley PTA, Part 1: Shelby S. Singleton
- CR008 Harper Valley PTA, Part 2: Jeannie C. Riley
- CR009 Harper Valley PTA, Part 3: Tom T. Hall
- CR010 Buck Owens & Don Rich, Part 1: Open Up Your Heart
- CR011 Don Rich & Buck Owens, Part 2: Together Again
- CR012 Wynonna
- CR013 Rusty & Doug Kershaw: The Cajun Way
- CR014 Ralph Mooney: The Sound of Country Music
It’s weird how quickly you become used to something, huh? Three months of Cocaine & Rhinestones every week and one week without it brings on the withdrawal symptoms. It did for me, at least. Anyway, I’m happy to be talking to you again.
Right up top, I need to say to anyone who clicked on this because it’s the most recent thing on the site: what you’re reading right now is not in any way representative of this podcast. This is just a bonus episode, a little night cap for everyone who already read the first season and wanted a bit more. To see what this show is really all about, you’ll want to go back before this. If you start the first episode and you’re not sure about it, maybe check out a newer one, like CR012 on Wynonna Judd or CR013 on Rusty and Doug Kershaw. Those are good, standalone examples of where the podcast is at now, now that I’ve figured out what I’m doing. If you like it, you will want to go back to the beginning for the full picture because it’s all connected.
Alright, everyone else, we’ve got some unfinished business, you and I. Somewhere, near the beginning of all this, I had the bright idea of suggesting listeners could send in questions and I would answer them at the end of the season. What I didn’t know was how many people were going to hear me say that and what I didn’t think about was how little time I was giving myself to come up with answers on all these different topics, then record and edit and everything else. But if you’re reading this then that must mean I got it done, right?
Two things saved me.
The first thing is that many people sent in questions as the season was in progress and those questions were answered in the content of later episodes. I did try to respond to all of those emails and make sure everyone felt like their questions were answered, so there’s no reason to get into them today. If anyone feels like their question wasn’t answered and isn’t answered here, you can try searching the site for a keyword related to your question. The Liner Notes for every episode are included in the transcript in every blog post on the website, so all that stuff is searchable. If you still can’t find your answer, send me another email. It’s possible I missed it.
The second thing that saved me is the vast majority of questions I received were variations of the same four or five questions. If every email I got included a unique question that needed an answer, I’d have been screwed, so hard.
So, here’s how this is gonna go down…
I said you could ask me anything, about individual episodes, the whole podcast, me, my life, whatever. What makes sense to me is to start by answering those most common questions first, general inquiries about me or the entire show, then move through questions that relate to individual episodes in the order those episodes came out. For example, the Tom T. Hall episode was the ninth episode of the podcast and it had an intro that explored some ideas about country music radio. If someone sent in one question about country music radio, I’ll probably answer that with the rest of the Tom T. Hall questions. The next episodes were on Buck Owens and Don Rich, so I’ll talk about them after the Tom T. Hall stuff. If anyone sent in a question about reincarnation or soap commercials, which they did not, I would talk about those at the same time as Don and Buck.
Before we get started, one of the last things you heard from me was about how I setup a Patreon page for the podcast, how it was a necessary step to take in order to keep the podcast alive. All I can say is, wow. Thank you so much for getting on board with that right away. I don’t know what I did to deserve all of you. You’re amazing. If this is the first anyone is hearing about it, please check it out at patreon.com/tylermahancoe.
Here we go…
Frequently Asked Questions
This is not the question I received the most but it’s the question I know I’m going to get the most in the next several months, which is: When does Season 2 come out?
I’ve already answered this elsewhere but maybe I can cut down on it a little bit by repeating here: I don’t know. I have to make it first. I’ve never made the first season of a podcast before, which took me seven months, and I’ve never made the second season of a podcast before, which I don’t expect to take as long. How much more quickly I can create the second season than the first is really anybody’s guess. I don’t want to give anything like an estimated release date or even a release month and then hit an unexpected setback. Please know that I will be working obsessively on it from now until the time you hear it.
Hands down, the most common email sent in was: Are you going to do an episode on ______?
Again, I’ve already answered this in the Liner Notes somewhere in the middle of the season but due to how many people asked, it’s worth repeating: Yes. I’m in this for the long haul. We’re doing the history of 20th century country music, for real, here. If you’ve heard of them, if there are enough reputable sources I can use to put the story together, if you haven’t heard me flat out say, “No, I’m probably not doing that one,” then you can expect to hear those stories. That may not mean everyone gets their own episode but I intend to do what I can for as many people as possible.
For everyone who’s asked when I’ll do an episode on the big names, like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings: I hear you. I get it. Of course you’re going to hear about those people. I have to talk about Johnny Cash quite a bit today, in fact. But I do have to think about this like a long-running TV series. I can’t put all that stuff up front and then say, “Okay, now, who’s ready to hear about Dallas Frazier?!” Good storytelling involves pacing yourself. I’m telling a lot of individual stories but it all comes together as one massive story, a history, and I have to tell it in a way that keeps people listening. That also means I need to find a way to tell the Hank Sr. story in a way that it hasn’t been told before, which is not going to be easy and is going to take some time.
One variation on that last question was whether or not I intend to do an episode on this artist or that artist because you’re not sure if I consider that person a country artist. People want to know if I’ll talk about folk musicians, singer-songwriters, alt country acts, cowpunk bands, etc.
I’m not sure how many of these emails came in before the person who sent them heard the Bobbie Gentry episode. As you heard me say there, I don’t think Bobbie Gentry ever even thought of herself as a country artist, yet the episode on her was the first one that came close to two hours in duration, which is my approximate maximum length for one episode. So, you can see, it’s really not so much important whether an artist is or isn’t a country artist, as it is important that they are relevant to country music in the 1900s. Whatever you want to call Bobbie Gentry’s music, there is no denying her importance to the genre of country music.
If it led to, came from or intersected with country music, I think it’s relevant. For what it’s worth, as far as Cocaine & Rhinestones is concerned, I regard my own opinion about what is and isn’t country music as totally worthless. This will never be about setting the record straight once and for all about what “real country music” is. You’ll have to go to someone else for that.
It’s interesting how many people want to know what I think about Mike Judge’s TV show, Tales from the Tour Bus.
I have spoken about that a little bit in public but I’ve since told a friend of mine that I would stop. What I’ll say here is that I believe the reason so many people thought to ask my opinion is they can see a clear difference between what I’m doing and what that TV show is doing. It’s possible that I simply want that to be the reason why it was such a common question. But I think if anyone asked Mike Judge what he thinks about my podcast, he’d probably say he hasn’t heard it and that would probably be true but, if he had heard it, I’m sure he would agree: it’s different.
I’m thrilled by how many of you wrote to ask when I’ll have Cocaine & Rhinestones merchandise available for sale.
The short answer is, as soon as I can.
The longer answer is that it depends on a few things. It’s something I really want to do. The artwork is amazing. The logo is amazing. Shoutout to Rachel at Pony Gold studio in Australia for her phenomenal work. Mainly, I need to get something setup to where I’m not the one spending time fulfilling orders. That’s time I need to spend making the podcast. The other thing is, I’m not interested in slapping the name on the cheapest shirts and hats around with crappy screenprints and all of that. I want good shit. I’ve been trying to make your favorite podcast, so I need to try to make your favorite shirt or your favorite hat to go along with it. Doing anything the right way takes time but this is a priority for me.
Okay, those were all of the most frequently asked questions. Now, we’ll get into more specific questions, mostly about the show overall and a couple about myself.
Andrea Hendrix from Ohio wants to know, “What made you decide on the topics/musicians of each episode?” Justin writes, “My favorite quirk of the podcast is the fact that all of these artists kept running into each other. It was like a new Marvel Cinematic Universe that I had no context for. Was that planned from the beginning or did that happen through the research and reality of the small world of country music?”
Thank you, Andrea and Justin, for the questions.
Country music is a small world, although I’m sure my approach to a version of this podcast in the pop or rock world would have just as many run-ins between characters. What it really comes down to is, you have to start somewhere. Once you define the parameters of your topic, country music from the year 1901 to the year 2000, the very first decision is: do you try to go in chronological order? That seemed like a terrible idea to me, for dozens of reasons, but, pertinent to this question – okay, we’re in the year 1901: Is this where the seed of country music sprouted? Is this where it all started? Of course not. We have to go back at least as far as the Middle Ages for that. So we’re already failing at a chronological timeline and probably confusing the hell out of everyone in the process because nobody has any frame of reference to tie the Middle Ages back to whatever is happening in the year we’re supposed to be starting from, 1901. So, forget chronological order…
What’s the real beginning of the story of country music, no matter what year or decade or century it is? It’s a kid throwing away a normal life to become a singer. That’s Ernest Tubb. How do you write yourself into that story? Release a song that makes everyone lose their minds and be the person who knew that it would. That’s Loretta Lynn. Who’s the antagonist, what’s the conflict in this story? It’s fame and fortune not being able to save you from your demons. That’s Spade Cooley. These three stories slap us upside the head with those themes and telling them the right way begins building a world. Once you’re in that world, you can spread out in all directions at once, introducing new themes, connecting the dots, building more of this world. That’s what happens over the course of the rest of the season, in the only way that made sense to me.
And what we’re talking about is why the show has to be presented in seasons, rather than a constant cycle of producing and releasing episodes one at a time. Creating a group of episodes, I can at least try to present these interactions and expansions in a way that strengthens the story and our understanding of this world. If I do it one episode at a time, there’s nowhere for me to stand back and see the bigger picture before I show it to everyone else.
Chad Evans writes, “I am curious what podcasts are your influences? It hits me as a cross between Radiolab and Hardcore History.” Kathy wants to know, “What are your favorite podcasts?”
Thank you both, Chad and Kathy, for writing.
I’m pretty sure the first podcast I ever heard was Radiolab. It wasn’t really my thing, at the time. I did get into it for a while a few years later but it being the first podcast I heard essentially informed my idea of what a podcast is. Another one I heard early on would have been Freakonomics. These are both very produced podcasts. They have a whole team of people making every episode. They do a lot of interviews and have a lot of music and sound effects. You can hear in my show that I like those ideas. Karina Longworth makes a podcast, called You Must Remember This, where she tells classic stories about Hollywood, actors and the movie business. I’m not really in to most of that podcast but I did like her series on Charles Manson. I was actually listening to that for a second time when I had the realization that nobody was making a podcast about the history of country music. I’m pretty sure I ordered a microphone within a week of that. You could say these podcasts were all somewhat of an influence on Cocaine & Rhinestones.
However, I will never forget hearing Paul Harvey tell The Rest of the Story on the radio when I was a kid, feeling like I’d just been clued in to some real insider knowledge by someone who knew exactly what they were talking about. I will never forget riding through the night to the next town with the driver listening to Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM. I haven’t heard that particular show in years but I am aware that it’s gotten extremely political. When I was young, it was a late-night show where Art would ask people to call in with their psychic experiences or alien abduction stories, ghost stories, conspiracy theories, people who thought their cats were talking to them – the wildest shit you ever heard on the radio and they all sounded completely serious. Especially being a child, staring out the windshield at the headlights meeting the darkness on the road ahead of us, it was like we’d driven straight into The Twilight Zone, where, who even knows, maybe these people are right and the entire universe is magical and insane. From the beginning, my goal for Cocaine & Rhinestones was to strike the perfect middle ground between those two old school radio shows: the hard facts of The Rest of the Story meets that other dimension of Coast to Coast AM.
As for what podcasts I like to listen to, well, I don’t really get to listen to them anymore because I now spend all of that time working on my own. Just tonight I realized that I haven’t watched a TV show or a movie since October, which is a pretty big deal for me because I’m the kind of person where every day is a struggle to not spend the entire day watching movies. If I press play on something now, it’s usually Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast. That’s going to be more political than many people probably want to hear and I should specify that I frequently disagree with things said on that show but they are almost always having very intelligent conversations on complicated subjects. If you enjoy thinking for yourself and hearing smart people talk to each other helps that happen for you, then you may want to check that out. I like You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes, if the guest is someone who interests me. I’m a lifelong fan of stand-up comedy but I’m also sick of listening to comedians talk to each other about stand-up comedy, so the guest has to be a good one. How Did This Get Made? is a podcast where three people watch bad movies and talk about them. It’s some of the funniest shit I’ve ever heard and it was a big influence on the other podcast I’m involved with, Your Favorite Band Sucks, which, by the way, I would obviously recommend that you check out Your Favorite Band Sucks. There are some other podcasts I got into for a while and then got sick of, like Lore and Hidden Brain. If you like war, Hardcore History is great. I don’t really like war and some of those stories were interesting enough to keep me listening for 7 hours or however long his episodes are.
Riley from Lawrenceburg, TN asks, “What music genres do you listen to besides country music?”
Thank you for the question, Riley.
I’m one of those people with an immaculately organized iTunes collection and I’ve got about 750 artists in there, categorized into 15 genres that may or may not make sense to other people. Going in alphabetical order. First, there’s ambient/drone/electronica. This is everything from Kraftwerk to Steve Reich to Autechre. Avant-garde is where I have Diamanda Galas, This Heat, Moondog, Iannis Xenakis. Blues, I really like Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Scrapper Blackwell, Otis Rush, Elmore James – you get the point. Classical, I’ve got Mahler, Stravinsky, Beethoven. Country/folk, obviously, though most of my stuff here is on vinyl instead of the computer. Dream/post is where I put everything that is in some way otherworldly or post-some-other-genre. Some of my favorites here would be Kate Bush, Serge Gainsbourg, Disco Inferno, Suicide, Roxy Music. Dub/funk/salsa/soul doesn’t mean I think this all sounds the same but when I want to listen to one I usually want to listen to the others, so it’s all together. Here, you’ve got Curtis Mayfield, Fela Kuti, Funkadelic, Orchestra Harlow, etc. Guitar is self-explanatory: Kaki King, Frank Zappa, John Fahey, Al di Meola. Hard rock/metal/punk is The Stooges, Botch, Converge, all that stuff. Hip-hop/rap is basically just ’90s rap. For newer stuff, I just listen to these guys, The Hood Internet, who do amazing mashups. That’s how I find out what’s new. Jazz is Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Alice Coltrane. Pop/rock is all the mainstream stuff: Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Neil Young, etc. Prog/psych is a lot of ’60s and ’70s weirdness like Captain Beefheart, Can, The Soft Boys, Silver Apples. Score/soundtrack is a big genre for me, pretty much just because of Ennio Morricone (I’d listen to that guy every day until I die.) but I have a lot of other stuff in there, too. And, finally, singer/songwriter, which I guess, to me, is just a different listening vibe than country or folk music, so that’s why I have it separate. Here, you’ve got Gene Clark’s solo albums, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt, you know.
Scott from Denver writes, “I know this is a random ass question but did you tell the story about Jim Dandy from Black Oak Arkansas on a Goatsnake album?”
Thanks for asking, Scott.
If anyone else thinks that sounds like me talking and was wondering the same thing, I’m sorry to tell you that it is not me. However, I can confirm that if you’ve ever heard any insane story about Jim Dandy that you think has to be too crazy to be true, you’re wrong. It’s true.
Trey writes, “I’m wondering about your audience and its various demographics. What stands out to you as a surprising aspect of your audience, if anything? Do you notice any patterns?”
Well, Trey, this is a damned interesting question and I’m glad you asked because it gave me an excuse to poke around in the analytics. This is something I’ll spend too much time on so I haven’t been letting myself do it. I don’t pay for the big statistics package with my audio file host but doing the blog posts and transcripts on the site sends a ton of traffic there, so I can look at the Google Analytics to see what’s going on. Oh, and I want to be clear about this for anyone who has no experience with this stuff. I’m about to say some things like where my audience lives and what languages they speak and what they’re interested in. This is all completely anonymized information. I have no idea who you are or what other websites you’re looking at or anything like that. Any website that you go to can see this stuff. I’m not doing anything weird.
First, referrals are the lowest source of traffic to the website. What that means is just a little over 10% of the first-time visitors to cocaineandrhinestones.com ended up there because of some other website talking about the podcast. That’s because the podcast has received no attention from the mainstream media, except for a podcast of the week pick from The Guardian and that just happened last week. But it’s also because of how many people are telling their friends about the show. I’d estimate that well over 50% of the new visitor traffic to the website is a direct result of one person telling one other person about the podcast. As I will never stop saying, I can’t thank everyone enough for doing that. Word-of-mouth has been everything for me.
Most listeners are in English-speaking countries, of course, but I have a significant percentage of people from Germany, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden, which is not a surprise to me, as country music is very popular in all of those places. This is probably a surprise: more of my listeners are in New York City than in any other city in the world. Nashville is second, then Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Seattle, Austin, London, Houston. Although, the state with the most listeners is Texas, followed by California, then Tennessee, Georgia, New York, North Carolina and then all the midwest states you’d expect.
Ages 18-24 represent the smallest percentage of listeners, not a surprise to me. Most listeners are ages 35-44 with 25-34 right behind that. Close to 80% dudes, which I think is right on trend for the entire podcast medium, but I would love to have more ladies listening. Someone should at least tell all the murderinos out there about the Spade Cooley episode.
Affinity categories are Entertainment & Celebrity News, Music Lovers, Green Living Enthusiasts, Art & Theater Aficionados, Avid Investors, Political News Junkies, Book Lovers, Movie Lovers and Outdoor Enthusiasts. And it looks like my audience is always on the go, staying in a lot of hotels, probably a lot of musicians in touring bands, fans traveling to concerts and festivals, things like that.
So, yeah, nothing too surprising to me but maybe some surprises for people who think this podcast only appeals to existing country music fans and also believe stereotypes about those fans.
That was the last of the general questions. We will now get into the stuff that relates to individual episodes.
Ernest Tubb: The Texas Defense
Ryan from Nova Scotia, Canada writes, “You briefly referenced Hank Snow and some sort of impact or correlation Ernest Tubb had on the Hank Snow story, but never mentioned it again in the episode. I’m curious as to what that story is all about??”
Thank you for writing, Ryan.
I’m sure you’re already aware but, for everyone else, Hank Snow was also from Nova Scotia, Canada. It’s a story I have every intention of giving the full Cocaine & Rhinestones treatment but, like Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow was obsessed with Jimmie Rodgers. He had a little success with country music up in Canada, pretty much copying Jimmie Rodgers, just like Ernest Tubb started out doing. Hank decided to see what he could make happen in the United States and moved here in 1944. But it didn’t really work out. He couldn’t make any progress anywhere he went and he often had to go back home to Canada to pool enough money together to move somewhere else in the US and give it another shot.
Remember, “Walking the Floor” hit in 1940 and Ernest Tubb was on the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 on. So, when Hank got to open for Ernest at a Texas show in 1949, it was a pretty big deal for him, especially because everyone knew how much Ernest Tubb loved Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Snow had a son named Jimmie Rodgers. So, they bonded over their love of Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest started trying to get Hank on the Opry. The Opry was not interested but Ernest kept trying. He recorded a song that Hank wrote, called “My Filipino Rose.” Finally, after nearly an entire year of trying, Ernest got Hank Snow on to the Grand Ole Opry. It didn’t go well. But that’s another story…
We heard a little bit from Johnny Paycheck in this episode, so I’ll field a question about him now. Adam Sheets writes, “I know that Johnny Paycheck performed a show while incarcerated at Chillicothe Prison. Merle Haggard came out to introduce him, maybe perform a few songs with him, and Billy Don Burns wrote a song specifically for the show. I’ve seen a few clips which appear to be sourced from an ancient VHS and I believe I’ve heard the show was recorded and meant to be released as an LP. Do you know why that didn’t happen and who owns the master recordings now?”
Adam, thanks so much for the question.
You are in luck. I do have some answers for you.
For years, this was one of those stories where we only had bits and pieces. In 2016, Billy Don Burns gave the full story, or a least his side of it, which seems legit to me, to Outlaw Magazine. Once they got the green light to record in a prison, Merle Haggard was brought in and Hank Cochran came through with a big chunk of money that was needed to make it all happen. That left Hank as the owner of the recording. At this time, Merle Haggard would have been with Epic Records, which was owned by Sony, who was represented by an attorney named Joel Katz, who, if anyone doesn’t know, is not a guy you ever want to fuck with. All of the sudden, Billy Don and Hank Cochran are dealing with a lawsuit from Sony, handled by Joel Katz, and Hank gets freaked out, shelves the tapes. Even after Merle left Epic (which, according to Billy Don, was a direct result of Sony filing this lawsuit, which went away when Merle left Epic), Hank remained too skittish to do anything with the tapes.
The Pill: Why Was Loretta Lynn Banned?
I don’t think anyone will be surprised to learn that I got several emails regarding the episode on “The Pill.”
Clint Dorris writes, “I was just curious if it was possible that any of the male producers were also in on Loretta’s banning. You paint her as a wise woman who knew what she was doing, and there is no doubt about that. But could all these men have been so dumb over and over again?”
I’m very glad that you sent in this question, Clint, because, if I gave anyone else the impression that this was the case, I need to make it clear that it was not.
Of course her producers were not stupid. This was not a situation where Loretta Lynn was constantly defying the wishes of everyone on her team and keeping everyone in the dark. Maybe the first time it was an accident, they didn’t realize some people would think they’d done something outrageous… But when those sales figures came in, I have to assume they all reached the same conclusion at the same time: “This is a button we should keep pushing because, every time we do, more money comes out of the machine.”
I did have two songs suggested to me as examples of male artists being banned from country radio in the 1900s. Both of them were songs that I knew about and I’ll give my reasons for not including them in just a second. However, even if we did add them to the other banned songs by men, the total would still be fewer than singles Loretta Lynn had banned on her own and nowhere near the number of [banned] songs by all women in 20th century country music.
My friend, Rodeo, wrote in, “Big Bad John—by Jimmy Dean was banned on radio simply because of the use of the term ‘One helluva man’—changed to ‘a big, big man.'”
I’m always glad to hear from Rodeo.
As he mentioned, the line “one helluva man” was changed to “a big, big man,” after radio stations informed Jimmy Dean that they were getting complaints. This is all near the end of the year 1961. When it got to the point that the stations told Jimmy they were going to have to stop playing the song, he simply went back in the studio, cut a version with the new lyric there, sent that to radio and kept right on getting airplay. So, in the episode, when I say that I’m not talking about men who released radio edits of songs, I’m grouping this song in with those, as an early instance of a radio edit.
While the song did cause some controversy, I don’t think it’s fair to say it was outright banned when radio programmers were in communication with Jimmy and his team, working together to find a solution to keep the song on the airwaves. That’s much different than what happened with “The Pill” and nearly every other banned song from a woman.
Troy King wrote to say, “In 1964, Johnny Cash released ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes.’ It was banned by radio to the point that Cash took out a full page ad in Billboard calling out country radio and challenging them to play the song. If you haven’t read the ad, it is a hoot.”
Thank you for writing, Troy.
I agree with you: the ad is a hoot. It’s too long and rambling to quote in its entirety but you can read it here. Here are a few key parts:
- “DJs, station managers, owners, etc., where are your GUTS? (I know many of you [are] Top 40, Top 50 or what-have-you, so a few of you can disregard this ‘protest’ and that is what it is.)”
- He rambles a lot about how much the song is selling and how important it is.
- “Some of you Top 40 DJs went all out for this at first. Thanks anyway. Maybe the program director or station manager will reconsider. This ad (go ahead and call it that) costs like hell. Would you, or those pulling the strings for you, go to the mike with a new approach? That is, listen again to the record?”
- More rambling about why they should reconsider because of the song’s appeal and importance outside of country music alone.
- “I’ve blown my horn now, just this once, then no more. Since I’ve said these things now, I find myself not caring if the record is programmed or not. I won’t ask you to cram it down their throats. But as an American who is almost a half-breed Cherokee-Mohawk (and who knows what else?) – I had to fight back when I realized that so many stations are afraid of ‘Ira Hayes.’ Just one question: WHY?”
That is a great question: why. There is, however, a lot more than meets the eye, here. According to Robert Hilburn, pop music critic and the author of a biography on Johnny Cash, it was John’s own record label that refused to throw any promotional weight behind this song. Once Cash hired a third-party promotion company, radio stations that weren’t playing the song started playing it. They would not have done that if the song was banned.
With that in mind, reading the Billboard letter again makes some things pop out. Cash doesn’t call anyone out by name for not playing the song. He starts by asking all the DJs, station managers and owners where their guts are. Then, he lets anyone who wants to believe they’re one of the good ones off the hook by including that bit about how “some” DJs did play the song. See, he knows he’s about to dump a bunch of money into independent promotional efforts, so he can’t very well call all these people bastards and then expect them to play his song. So, he’s railing against all these major stations who are outraged by this song, knowing that they really aren’t, therefore none of them will read this letter and feel that Cash is speaking to or about them.
It’s a strong PR move. Kick up a bunch of meaningless dust in advance of a real promo push. Include a call-to-arms for everyone to reevaluate the song. That way, when the radio promo works and everyone starts hearing the song on the radio, it looks like, wow, that letter really made something happen. It makes us feel like we really won a fight against the system.
Troy also asked me to “explain how and why Johnny Cash got dropped by Columbia and then exacted revenge with music’s greatest comeback ever.”
I believe I touched on the “how and why” part in the intro to the Tom T. Hall episode and I actually need to talk about the Johnny Cash comeback in response to another question, so I’ll get to that in just a few minutes.
The Murder Ballad of Spade Cooley
I think we all now know much more than we ever thought we wanted to know about Spade Cooley. But Nathan Dunn is a young British writer who hopes to write something about Ella Mae Cooley. If anyone has sources that may be useful to him, other than what I cited in my episode on Spade, please contact me with that information and I’ll be sure to get it to Nathan. He’s also asked to hear more of my thoughts regarding the separation of art and artist.
This is never an easy conversation because it’s such a personal thing for every single one of us. I refuse to criticize anyone for not being able to separate art from artist and I refuse to criticize anyone who does choose to separate art from artist, provided the art is not inherently wicked or intended to inspire further unacceptable behavior. I know for some people who can’t separate art from artist, it’s not even a conscious decision. It’s more like an instinctual, physical revulsion, and I think I understand that. For others, it seems to be an ideological thing and I’m often curious to hear where and how they draw the line. Though, again, it’s never something I would criticize or try to argue against or debate or even play devil’s advocate with on a level of personal interaction.
[If you do have a hard time separating art from artist you may want to scroll quickly past the next paragraph.]
For myself, I don’t know how to have a hard and fast rule. The music business is especially difficult because of how many individual people contribute to every work. What do we do about Phil Spector? He’s one of the greatest music producers ever and made major creative contributions in his work with legendary artists who did nothing wrong. He’s literally responsible for assembling The Wrecking Crew. But he’s also a convicted murderer with a shocking history of abusing women. What do you do with that? To remove from my life all of the music he had a hand in creating is simply not an option for me. On the other hand, there are some artists who I would never be able to enjoy regardless of how talented they may be. This is more common with people who are still alive, still creating and releasing new work, still profiting from the sale of that work.
I think most people have a line that can be crossed. Maybe even I hope that most people have that line. I think the reason I’m usually interested to hear other people talk about where their line is is that I don’t know exactly where mine is or how to define it.
Bobbie Gentry: Exit Stage Left
Mark wrote to ask if I have a source for my claim that Bob Dylan hated Bobbie Gentry’s song “Ode to Billie Joe.” He says, “Writing Clothes Line Saga as an answer song doesn’t seem to me evidence that he hated the song, in fact, it always felt to me like an affectionate and whimsical parody.”
Mark, thank you so much for this awesome question.
I want to say up front, you could be right, I could be wrong. I do not have a quote from Bob Dylan, saying he hated the song or anything like that. I believe I said he apparently hates the song. While it is possible that “hate” is too strong of a word, it may not be and I do believe there are enough things we can put together to show that the general consensus among his fans, which is that he does not have much affection for the song, is probably accurate.
And I should say that I, like so many others, am a Bob Dylan fanatic. If any of what I’m about to say sounds like I’m running him down, I’m not. I’ll also point out that I’m pretty sure Bob Dylan has even called “Ode to Billie Joe” a great song on his fantastic Theme Time Radio Hour show, which, by the way, was another influence on my podcast, if anyone hasn’t heard that.
Now, Bob Dylan is a mercurial character, on a day-to-day basis, a decade-to-decade basis, across the board. Everyone has an idea of who he is and we are all certainly wrong. But he’s always struck me as a defensive person, very critical of others, particularly artists, particularly artists who are receiving praise that Dylan thinks should all go to him. Even though he’s been called the greatest everything-there-ever-was since the 1960s, that doesn’t stop him, decades later, in the moment of accepting a major award, from using that acceptance speech to criticize the work of other writers, like Tom T. Hall. That’s a clear indication, in my opinion, of a personality type and there is no shortage of similar examples from any phase of his career. Look at how obsessed he becomes with the media’s attention to Donovan in the documentary, Don’t Look Back. Dylan will also tell you that he doesn’t read or care about his bad reviews. He will tell you this so often and with such a detailed response to what was in those reviews that it is painfully obvious he does, in fact, read the reviews. Again, see that MusiCares Person of the Year speech.
An answer song is not inherently a parody of the original song. However, “Clothes Line Saga” is clearly a parody, which automatically puts us on a scale of mockery, anywhere between gentle teasing to unadulterated spite. If we pretend the song isn’t a parody of another song and judge it on its own, “Clothes Line Saga,” nearly aggressively, goes nowhere. It’s a rambling, nonsensical narrative with a person telling us a bunch of random, unimportant things. Being that it is a parody of another song (and applying some of the rules of satire which I present in the “Okie from Muskogee” episode), we can assume this meaningless meandering, intercut with small talk between the townsfolk, is what Dylan saw in “Ode to Billie Joe” and wanted to amplify in his parody of it. I don’t see how it would be possible to think of “Ode to Billie Joe” in that way while also thinking of it as a great song. This, combined with what I stated I believe about Dylan’s personality and what we know about his very contentious relationship with the press, is one reason I think his praise for “Ode to Billie Joe” was based in ulterior motives. He knows most people think he wrote “Clothes Line Saga” from a place of hatred. He knows that makes him look jealous and insecure. He goes on the radio and says some stuff that’s supposed to let us know we’re all wrong and we don’t understand him, even if we’re not wrong and we do.
Another reason is that “Clothes Line Saga” was recorded within two months of “Ode to Billie Joe” becoming a hit song. That’s practically a knee-jerk reaction. I doubt he spent very much time at all analyzing the lyrics or thinking about the nuances of the song. The entire country would have been obsessing over this song when Dylan recorded his parody of it. At the very least, my money would be on him thinking it was overrated, unworthy of the rapid sensation it became in America and worth knocking down a peg or two. It may be fair to say that “Clothes Line Saga” is more a parody of the reaction to “Ode to Billie Joe” than it is a parody of the song itself but I do believe the primary motivation was jealousy over seeing a young woman called a genius songwriter because of a song Dylan didn’t think was that special.
I hope it’s obvious to everyone that I’m not saying anyone who disagrees with me is objectively wrong. It seems most people think Bob Dylan hates “Ode to Billie Joe” and I think those people are correct.
Tim from Watertown, Wisconsin has several questions and I can answer a couple. First, he reminds me that I said Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” is not a country song and asks what I consider it to be instead and why?
Thank you for the question, Tim.
Some other people have asked me why I said Bobbie didn’t make country music. It didn’t seem controversial to me at all when I said it. I still believe if we could ask her, then she would flat out say that it was never her intention to make country music. I believe calling her a country music artist is extremely reductive.
I also don’t think we have a word for what “Ode to Billie Joe” is. If it didn’t have those strings in it, it would almost certainly be considered a folk song but Jimmie Haskell’s overdubs transform it into something else. I don’t think there’s another song anything like it and I don’t think there ever will be, so there’s never been a category invented for that. I would say Bobbie herself is equally unclassifiable, a truly unique artist. I mean, in that episode, Kate Bush was the closest reference point I could come up with to explain something Bobbie had done. I would be amazed if Kate Bush is ever mentioned on Cocaine & Rhinestones again, which is a testament to how far outside the box I see Bobbie Gentry being.
Tim also wants to know how I feel about ageism in country music, what do I think of comeback efforts by artists, because in his opinion some of the music recorded after the peak of their original career is brilliant. He mentions Johnny Cash’s American recordings and Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose.
I should start by saying, of course, I think Johnny Cash’s American recordings and Loretta’s Van Lear Rose are outstanding. But the only honest answer I can give, here, is that I’ve seen it go both ways. I wouldn’t want to put a percentage on it and I’m not going to give any examples of it going wrong. But when it does go right, it really is great.
Historically, the country music establishment, especially country radio has not been kind to the old guard and I find that pretty disgusting. If the quality of the music declines, yeah, don’t play it. But here’s something I don’t think a lot of people realize about that Johnny Cash comeback. You’ve got a big deal producer attached in Rick Rubin, right? Then, you add in this novel concept of an old school country legend recording a lot of covers of pop and rock and metal and whatever else. Pretty interesting, yeah? Not according to country radio. Second time around, they bring in Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers to be his band, plus half of Fleetwood Mac for a song – album does even worse. Third album, they don’t even bother releasing a single. It’s not until the fourth of the American recordings, all of which were great, that you get to “Hurt” and we all know what happened there. But country radio practically had to be embarrassed in to playing Johnny Cash, through how often he was by then appearing on Best Albums of the Year lists in rock magazines. It would be a joke if it were even slightly funny.
Breaking Down Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee”
Okay. I got more emails about the “Okie from Muskogee” episode than any other episode.
I’d estimate that 98% of the overall response to this podcast has been positive. I’d estimate that 75% of that other 2% has been due to things I said about Merle Haggard, in this episode and others. This isn’t something I’m going to spend a lot of time on here because I doubt many of those people are listening to this. None of the people who got mad at me and told me I’m wrong backed it up with a single source. I presented facts, cited my sources, was very clear about what was my own opinion and how I reached it using those objective facts. People have political biases. People have emotional attachments to things they’ve been told by people they care about. But if you care about understanding that song more than you care about winning an argument, I would urge you to go back and listen to the episode again.
One of the goals of this podcast is to get the story right. The reason that’s important is because of how often we have the story wrong. That’s why you hear me say, “As far as I can tell, here’s the truth about this [story],” at the beginning of every episode. I want to tell the truth. So, if you think I’m wrong about something, don’t complain about it. Prove it.
That is my response to most of the “Okie from Muskogee” emails. Here are some individual questions about Merle that still need to be answered…
Jesse Martin asked if I can please explain the Merle Haggard song “Rainbow Stew.”
Thank you for asking, Jesse.
I’m not sure that I or anyone else can explain that song but I’ll talk about some themes I see in it and I’ll talk about why we’re probably not meant to have a concrete explanation for it. If anyone hasn’t heard the song, you should probably go listen to it. Similar to “Okie from Muskogee,” even the way the song is performed implies there’s something going on, here. “Rainbow Stew” is way more over the top. I don’t think everyone was drunk when they recorded it but it sure sounds that way and I think it’s supposed to.
It seems obvious to me that the song is about creating a utopia on earth. God showed a rainbow to Noah as a promise that he would never again destroy all life on earth with a flood. In Irish folklore, a leprechaun hides his pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. But everyone knows there’s no such thing as the end of a rainbow. You can not touch a rainbow. You can not hold a rainbow. These rainbow ideas are nice but, if that’s all you’re planning on eating for dinner tonight, then you’re going to bed hungry. Just as worldwide war being over and done and free beer for everyone are nice ideas, even promises made by various political ideologies, but we’ve yet to see any evidence of humanity’s ability to reach this idyllic way of life.
However, this doesn’t mean the song is intended as satire. Singing about things that would be wonderful even though plenty of people believe they can never happen sure sounds to me an awful lot like gospel music. You’ll find this exact same setup in any gospel song concerning the kingdom of heaven coming to earth. It’s something people have been gathering in rooms and singing about for hundreds of years, waiting for it to happen, hoping it will happen. “Rainbow Stew” has the potential to be this, just as much as it has the potential to be making fun of this. The sense of intoxication I hear in the performance is not necessarily sarcastic. People become intoxicated in religious settings all of the time – glossolalia, a.k.a. speaking in tongues, for example. It’s possible that “Rainbow Stew” is meant as, sort of, a secular gospel song. But I would say it’s almost certainly meant to appeal to listeners who would interpret it either way because that’s what great songwriters do. They create something specific enough to make us invested but open enough to interpretation that we can find our own meaning and our own way to relate. I feel like I need to remind everyone that this was 100% not Merle Haggard’s intention in writing “Okie from Muskogee.” As evidence, we have his own statements immediately following the release of the song, as well as everything else I pointed out in that episode. He had realized it would be misinterpreted before it was recorded and released but a rational analysis of the lyrics alone reveals the intention in writing it.
Gibb Brown writes, “You’ve stated that fans shouldn’t assume that one particular song with perhaps questionable lyrics defines an artist’s world view. With that in mind, what do you think about Merle Haggard’s song, “I’m a White Boy.” I’m a huge Merle fan and I’m desperate to find a way to take that song as anything but racist but it’s hard. What are your thoughts?”
Hey, Gibb. I’d be lying if I said I was happy you sent in this question but I’m glad to have you listening to the show.
As you just heard, many Merle Haggard fans are generally pissed off at me. They don’t like what I said about “Okie from Muskogee.” They don’t like what I said about Merle Haggard not being involved in creating the Bakersfield Sound. They’re definitely not going to like what I have to say about this song because I think it’s racist.
You could take what I would call an ill-advised route and propose that it’s about being proud of what he is and it isn’t about belittling any other races, except there are only about six seconds of time that pass between the line “I ain’t black and I ain’t yella” and the line “yeah, I don’t want no handout livin’.” The proximity of those phrases, the fact that they both assert what he is not and are only separated by an assertion of what he is, which is a white boy, automatically associates minorities with “handout livin’” and presents white people as possibly better than that but certainly separate from that. There is nothing in the song that indicates Merle wants us to laugh at the person saying these words. I don’t think it’s funny or meant to be. I don’t think it’s a joke or meant to be.
Now, as I said in the episode on “Okie from Muskogee” and as you quoted me saying in your question, we can not listen to this song and think it tells us very much about who Merle Haggard is as a person. I believe we have plenty of evidence to show that Merle Haggard’s politics can not be reduced to simple statements like “he hates black people” or “he thinks white people are better than minorities.” I presented some of that evidence in the episode on “Okie from Muskogee” and there is plenty more where that came from. But, whatever you choose to think about Merle Haggard, the man, I don’t see any way around this song being racist. I think it’s safe to say that Merle himself had some reservations about it. He didn’t record it until 1977, even though he for sure had it written by 1975 because that’s when Jim Mundy’s version of the song came out. Merle Haggard put out, at least, five full-length albums between Jim Mundy’s recording of the song and his own. There’s got to be something to that, though I have no idea what and we’ll probably never find out.
Marlon would like to know if the reason Merle never mentions who he voted for is because he was a felon and couldn’t vote?
Thanks for the question, Marlon.
If you go back and listen I believe you’ll hear me say that Merle says he never voted and, yeah, I would assume being a felon had something to do with that.
Next, Marlon wants to know if Merle was married to Tom T. Hall’s ex when he took Naomi Judd on his tour bus for a few days in the late ‘70s?
I’ve got to assume that Marlon meant Buck Owens’ ex, instead of Tom T. Hall’s ex. No, Merle was not married to Bonnie Owens but this is something I was very careful to look into before telling that story to the whole world. In her first autobiography, even though she doesn’t mention Merle inviting her and Wynonna on the bus for a few days, Naomi makes a point of saying that Merle’s lawyer was there to serve him divorce papers from Leona Williams. Now, if you keep in mind what we all know about that autobiography of hers, I don’t think anyone will be surprised to learn that Leona Williams and Merle Haggard were not divorced until years after this – in 1983 – by which time The Judds had been living in Nashville for several years, not California, where that concert happened.
The Louvin Brothers: Running Wild
Craig from Ontario, Canada didn’t have a question but he wrote in to let me know that the Inuit were also throat singing, which would bring that vocal style at least on to the same continent as Arthur Miles from the Louvin Brothers episode.
Thank you for that information, Craig.
Kenny has a series of questions about The Louvin Brothers, Capitol Records and country music in California. He asks if the Louvin Brothers were flying out to California when they recorded with their producer, Ken Nelson. There’s a follow-up question wondering if the Louvin Brothers would have then had any influence on the Bakersfield Sound. Lastly, he wants to know if the “dearth of commercial success of West Coast Country” is a result of Capitol moving its country division to Nashville, or Merle Haggard leaving Bakersfield or Don Rich dying or what?
These are great questions, Kenny.
I’m particularly glad you asked where the Louvins were recording because I thought I specified in the episode but it turns out I did not. It is my understanding that Ken Nelson was flying in to Nashville for Louvin Brothers recording sessions. While I’m certain they had fans in the California country music scene, I don’t think you could call The Louvin Brothers a strong influence on the Bakersfield Sound. I don’t really hear that and we have no reason to believe anyone on the West Coast would even really be aware of The Louvin Brothers until “When I Stop Dreaming” became a hit in 1955, the year after that Bud Hobbs song I’ve talked so much about.
As for “the dearth of commercial success of West Coast country,” there is a lot to unpack, there. Capitol’s country division did officially move to Nashville in October of 1974 but I don’t know that there’s any one reason you can point to for Bakersfield’s country music scene petering out. I’m certainly not an expert on the local economy or any of a dozen other variables that could come into play. One thing I can tell you is that Buck Owens and Merle Haggard are the most successful practitioners of the classic era of the Bakersfield Sound. You could argue about which one of them is #1 and which one is #2. I wouldn’t care to participate in that argument or the argument concerning who should be in the #3 position. But I will point out that, no matter who you want to put in that #3 position, the dropoff from #2 to #3 would be steep, to say the least. When a couple stars come out of a music scene, it brings the industry people around and a lot of money comes with them. When that scene doesn’t produce any more stars, the industry people take their money somewhere else and the scene usually ends up worse than it was before everything got hot.
I would also propose that the Bakersfield Sound itself never died but was incorporated into other musical movements then evolving within country music. The Bakersfield Sound was largely a result of the okie migration. Texas in the mid-’70s was home to the outlaw country movement, which picked up that Bakersfield banner of anti-establishment country and was led, among others, by Waylon Jennings, who recruited Ralph Mooney to see his vision through. You see what I’m saying.
Harper Valley PTA, Part 1: Shelby S. Singleton
The Shelby Singleton & Jeannie C. Riley episodes are the only ones nobody had a specific question about, which I’m choosing to take as a compliment on a job well-done.
Harper Valley PTA, Part 2: Jeannie C. Riley
The Shelby Singleton & Jeannie C. Riley episodes are the only ones nobody had a specific question about, which I’m choosing to take as a compliment on a job well-done.
Harper Valley PTA, Part 3: Tom T. Hall
Here’s something I talked a little bit about in the intro of the Tom T. Hall episode but there’s some more I can say. This is from Morgan, who writes, “How much responsibility for the degradation of ‘country’ in modern country music is the fault of the establishment? I read an Oxford American article in one of the music issues, can’t remember which, in the defense of pop country. It went something like this: the country music industry has always been mercenary – the argument being the fan is largely responsible for the output – ‘country’ is a dynamic and complex demographic.
This is an interesting question, Morgan. Thank you.
The short answer to your direct question is probably 85-90%. There have always been artists eager to explore elements from other genres of music. I can’t think of many examples where the “country” in their sound was degraded in the process. Buck Owens comes to mind with the elements of polka, pop and rock in his brand of the Bakersfield Sound. Then, there were artists eager to work within movements like the Nashville Sound because, like the establishment, they were interested in profiting from potential crossover success.
I would say there’s no question that the entire music industry, regardless of genre, has always been mercenary. Where I would disagree with the premise of this article (which isn’t necessarily a condemnation of “pop country”) is in saying “the fan” is responsible for the output. Which fan? Certainly not the fan of traditional country music or there would be no reason for this article in Oxford American to exist, as “the fan” would be happy with what they’re getting from the industry and a defense would not be necessary. So then, it must be the fan of pop music or the fan of whatever music gets played on Top 40 radio, as this is the fan movements such as the Nashville Sound were openly catering to. Honestly, I would rather use a word like “market,” here, instead of a word like “fan.” It’s not about people and what they want. It’s about money and who you can get to give it to you. The market is largely responsible for the output of the establishment. But, again, not the Country Music Market because that’s not big enough. The Top 40 Market is where they want to be competitive.
Country is a dynamic and complex demographic and here’s where they’re getting creative with their representation of the Country Music Market. But let’s switch back to using the word “fan.” What about that Top 40 radio fan who hears one of these softened up pop country songs and that brings them into the fold? They get into the harder stuff but they still appreciate the pop country because that’s what brought them to the table. This person is now a country music fan. Every pop country crossover hit creates more of this person. So, now, the industry gets to say they’re “just giving fans what they want” but they had to create that type of fan, first. Or, back to the market way of thinking about it, the establishment has now nudged the Venn diagram of Country Music Market and Top 40 Market one step closer to being a single circle. You can say, “We were here first. Those aren’t real country music fans.” But, in 50 years, you’ll be outnumbered by them, the Venn diagram will be even closer to looking like a single circle.
History is constantly redefining cultural boundaries, which is why I think it’s foolish to plant a flag on a hill and say, “This is where I stand with real country music and real country music fans,” or do anything like that but it is disingenuous for the industry to pretend that it’s simply giving the people what they want. And I will repeat that I think the crossover success of hard country acts like Buck Owens reveals a flaw in their entire hypothesis. No fan of music wants all music to sound the same. We want our metal to sound like metal, our bubblegum pop to sound like bubblegum pop, our country to sound like country. Creative experimentation is fine. Systematic gravitation toward the middle sucks. It would be like if you loved to drink lemonade but milk was a more popular drink. So, every time you bought a jug of lemonade, they had a little bit more milk in it to try and get milk drinkers to buy it. I like lemonade. I like milk. One day, I might even get stoned and decide to mix them together to see how it tastes. If I like it, fine, I’m the weird kid who drinks lemonade milk. But when everyone goes to the store and the only thing on the shelf is jugs of lemonade milk, that’s a problem.
I’m reminded of the famous quote about not being able to please all of the people all of the time but being well capable of pleasing some of the people all of the time or all of the people some of the time. The most concise way to sum up the history of the pop country “problem” is that it has been a blatant attempt to please all of the people some of the time. The traditional country music fan wants the country music industry to focus on pleasing some of the people – actual fans of actual country music – all of the time.
Larry has a question about how Don Williams and Tom T. Hall might have influenced each other. He writes, “Don is one of my favorite country artists, his songs seem so sincere and easy for me to identify with. Tom T Hall is another favorite with his song ‘I Love.’ I listened to your episode of Tom T. Hall and learned a lot of his style. My question is what influence did these two artists have on each other if any. They both seem to have a similar style and delivery that meets the sincerity criterion for country music.”
Thank you, Larry.
I also love Don Williams and agree with you that his simple vocal delivery could be thought of as similar to Tom T. Hall’s. I’m slightly hesitant to suggest this but, if you’re interested to see how different two seemingly similar styles can be, go to YouTube and search for Tom T. Hall and Don Williams performing the song “Tulsa Time” together. The reason I hesitate to suggest a Tom T. Hall fan do this is because it is plainly evident that Tom is struggling with singing a song that has been tailored to Don’s way of singing. You can just tell he’s having a hard time putting everything where it’s supposed to be and keeping it there. That doesn’t mean Don is a better singer or performer than Tom or anything like that. It just means that, although they walk the same territory, they’ve each worn their own path through it.
Regarding what influence they may or may not have had on each other, that I can not definitively answer. I’ve never seen either of them cite the other as an influence and their professional careers got started around the same time. I’m certain they were aware of each other’s work, probably admired each other’s work but I would call them contemporaries before I’d call one a strong influence on the other.
Buck Owens & Don Rich: Open Up Your Heart
More than one person wrote in to ask what was up with Buck Owens’ rockabilly recordings under the name Corky Jones.
This wasn’t something I expected to be of that much interest but I can say a little bit about it. As I’ve already mentioned in this episode and elsewhere, Buck was always a fan of all kinds of music and constantly being exposed to it around Bakersfield. In his autobiography, he says the Corky Jones recordings were mostly inspired by Elvis, although I can tell you Elvis wouldn’t have been anywhere near the first rockabilly artist that Buck ever heard. He would, however, have been the most successful, which would have been very influential to a man like Buck Owens. He was still on Pep records at the time but already gaining some attention as a country artist around Bakersfield. He didn’t want to deal with anyone giving him shit about making non-country records, so he came up with the Corky Jones pseudonym. That one record is said to have received a little local airplay but I, for one, am grateful Corky Jones did not become a star because then we wouldn’t have gotten Buck Owens.
Don Rich & Buck Owens: Together Again
Michael Conkin writes, “Hey Tyler, love the podcast but have a question about the Buck & Don episodes. You mention early on about them wearing Nudie-like suits but they weren’t actual Nudies. I seem to remember you saying it may have caused some kind of stir and you would get to that later in the next episode but don’t remember it coming up again. Did I miss it? Or is there a good story that got cut?”
Thanks for writing, Michael.
Let me go back and see exactly what I said in that episode:
The podcast is called Cocaine & Rhinestones, so I’ve got to let you know those rhinestone suits they’re wearing on the album cover are not Nudie suits. They were made by Nathan Turk, who did good work and didn’t charge nearly as much as Nudie Cohn, which, would be a good segue into one of the many problems Buck is about to have except we’ve got to talk about a different problem first. You already know a little bit about it. It’s Buck’s lady problem…
Okay, so what I was saying there is Buck went with Nathan Turk because he charged less money than Nudie. One of the next topics discussed, after introducing the problem with Don and Kay, is how a common criticism of Buck is that he was a cheapskate. I don’t think his choosing the Turk suits was necessarily a sore spot with anyone but, if the Kay Adams situation didn’t need to be introduced right there (which, it did), I’d have used the suits as a way to get from Carnegie Hall over to discussing the criticism of Buck being a miser.
One might wonder why I’d put an offhand comment like that in the episode when there’s no way a person could know what I’m talking about the first time they listen. It’s one example of a thing I put in for people who decide to listen to the show multiple times. When someone knows what’s coming because they’ve heard the story before, I think a little comment like that can give them more appreciation for how everything is being put together. At least, that was my intention there.
I think Bryan Stoker wants to see if he can get me killed because he’s asked me to rank the following guitarists in terms of skill and importance to 20th century country music: Don Rich, Pete Anderson, James Burton, and Brett Mason.
[That’s got to be a typo. I think he meant Brent Mason.]
Well, damn, Bryan. I don’t know what I did to deserve this but thanks for writing in with a question.
First of all, I need to say that ranking musicians is not something that really interests me but you’ve explicitly asked me to do that. I should also mention that virtuosos don’t really do it for me. Maybe I’ll watch a video on YouTube of some guy playing a ridiculous guitar solo but I don’t want to hear that shit all the time. Maybe I’d like it more if I drank energy drinks, I don’t know. But, yeah, I don’t tend to think of technical skill as very important in my own personal listening choices or in a conversation about history, like the one we’re having now. So, what I’m going to do is pretend you asked me two separate questions about the same set of guitar players and I’m going to try to be as objective as possible in my answers.
I feel pretty comfortable with saying Pete Anderson is the most skilled player of the four, then Brent Mason (who, I should note, I’ve seen talk about how great Pete Anderson is), then James Burton and then Don Rich. That’s not at all an insult to Don Rich’s playing but he’s certainly the least technical player of the bunch and, despite that Carnegie Hall album being note perfect, Don did make a lot of mistakes. The reason Pete and Brent are clearly more skilled than James Burton is that Pete and Brent got to learn how to play like James Burton when they were younger, which is why the next part of my answer is going to get me in trouble…
In my mind, Don Rich is the most important one when it comes to 20th century country music, hands down, no question. And I don’t really need to get into why because I already did over the course of two episodes. What I have to do here is explain why Pete Anderson is the second most important one, Brent Mason is third and James Burton is fourth. The reason is because we’re talking about country music.
Acknowledging that James Burton influenced Pete and Brent and acknowledging that he had more than a little country in his style (you know, corn pickin’), he was much more important to rock and roll. Yeah, he played on some of those early Ricky Nelson hits that crossed over to the country charts but that was almost entirely Joe Maphis doing the real guitar work. And, of course, James went on to his most high-profile gig, playing with Elvis from 1969 to 1977. Personally, I would be inclined to say this has very little to do with country music, at all. But, okay, Elvis also crossed over to country charts a lot. Go listen to those songs, though, and what you’re going to hear is a ton of piano and strings. You’ve got a song, here and there, like “She Thinks I Still Care” or “Pledging My Love,” where you can hear James doing some work. But it’s nearly never anything remarkable, nearly never a showcase for his instrument. You could see that at an Elvis Presley concert but, again, I’m not sure that’s important to country music, at all – especially when the entire time James was in Elvis’ band, you could have just gone to see Waylon Jennings play guitar and you’d be watching maybe one of the 10 most important guitarists in country music history. (Please, nobody ask me who the other nine might be. I am not Country Music Buzzfeed.)
Now, the reason I would say Pete Anderson was more important to country music than James and Brent is because of how important Dwight Yoakam was to country music, at the time. Not only did Pete play guitar on those albums but he produced them. That’s a big footprint and a lot of inspiration for future country artists on any instrument, not just guitar players.
As for Brent Mason, he is a terrific guitar player. He’s done incredible work with legends of country music from the mid-’80s on. It would take me two hours to sit here and list the hits he played on. If you are at all interested in country lead guitar, you should be searching Brent Mason on YouTube. But, there you have it, there’s my answer.
Dan has a question that I thought was inspired by the Wynonna episode but it turns out he hadn’t listened to that one yet when he asked, “Is it fair to say that the “new country” artists, beginning with perhaps Garth Brooks? (Or earlier?) are generally less authentic than those like Cash, Haggard, Jennings, Lynn, etc.? As a fan of Cash and Haggard at around age 12–I’m now 58–I wonder, but at the same time, I don’t want to run down the new talent.”
Thank you, Dan. I’m so glad you asked.
No, it is not fair to say that. There is no such thing as authenticity. There is not a socioeconomic recipe for country music singers or songwriters. This issue of authenticity in country music only exists in the mind of marketers, music journalists and the rare fan who buys too much into what these people say. There is a gigantic flaw in this idea that country music fans need any sort of backstory at all, let alone one that passes some sort of hypothetical realness or authenticity test, and it’s in the name of my podcast. Has anyone ever seen a sharecropper work a field while wearing a rhinestone suit? Seems like, if this authenticity thing mattered so much, everyone who makes country music would be dressed in tattered overalls and have a couple of teeth blacked out.
The word these authenticity people are always looking for is sincerity. We don’t care care if the guy onstage singing about being poor isn’t really poor. We know there’s more than one way to feel poor. We care if we think he doesn’t really feel poor when he sings about it. We care if we think he’s being insincere. And every music fan, regardless of genre, has a right to care about that. To bring it back to Dan’s question, I don’t believe it’s fair to say that anyone is more or less sincere simply because of when they were born.
Here’s a side note: this is one reason why artists with addiction problems are so frequently lionized in every genre of music. Doing heroin or cocaine or being an alcoholic doesn’t make that artist any more real, doesn’t make that artist any more authentic. But what it does do is tell us that artist knows exactly what it’s like to feel extreme highs and extreme lows. Whether they’re singing about happiness or sadness, there can be no question that they mean it. Whether they’re singing about feeling good or feeling bad, there can be no question that they are sincere. (Please understand that anyone who takes what I just said to mean they should develop a substance abuse problem so people will take them seriously is an idiot. Do not do that.)
Rusty & Doug Kershaw: The Cajun Way
Larry wrote to say that Tanya Tucker’s rendition of “Jamestown Ferry” never made too much sense to him although he does enjoy her performance. He wants to know if Mack Vickery’s original version was written in the masculine tongue and modified for Tanya. He also wants to know if Doug Kershaw’s version came first.
Thank you for the question, Larry. I always love an excuse to talk about Tanya Tucker. She is one of my favorites.
First of all, I need to throw Bobby Borchers name in here as a writer on the song with Mr. Mack Vickery.
Next, Tanya Tucker’s version came out earlier in the same year as Doug Kershaw’s version (which was 1972) but I think Larry is probably on to something, here. For one thing, there’s a great essay by Daniel Cooper, called “Tanya Tucker: Almost Grown,” which was published in The Journal of Country Music. It’s loaded with details on how Tanya’s career got started. They were not having songs written for her because the entire hook, here, was to have this powerhouse vocalist of a child sing songs meant for adults, frequently alluding to mature themes. So she was selecting material from demo tapes and it’s safe to assume that’s how “Jamestown Ferry” got to her. The lyrics to the final verse of Tanya’s version are a little awkward and they go: as I walk through his kingdom of honky tonks and bars / I remember how he’d hold me and comfort me with talk / he didn’t cuss with every breath, he had a soothin’ southern drawl / he made me feel like a lady through it all.
Doug Kershaw’s version: as I walk through my kingdom of honky tonks and bars / I met a queen of a woman who could comfort me with talk / she didn’t cuss with every breath, she had a soothin’ southern drawl / and her long auburn hair hung to the pockets of her jeans. Now, I think those probably aren’t the original lyrics, either. They’re even more clumsy and Doug changed the words of just about every song he ever sang.
Here’s how that verse later ended up in Johnny Russell’s recording of the song and my guess would be these are the original lyrics because they make the most sense of the three: as I walk through my kingdom of honky tonks and bars / I met a queen of a woman who could comfort me with talk / she didn’t cuss with every breath, she had a soothin’ southern drawl / she made me feel like her man through it all.
There’s my best guess.
Ralph Mooney: The Sound of Country Music
Paul has an interesting question, prompted by the Ralph Mooney episode. He wants to know how these musicians came to be who they were. He writes, “I can see how someone like Merle Haggard might have just sort of been blessed being a decent poet with the perfect voice of god. But someone like Ralph Mooney is a beyond sophisticated musician playing a very complicated instrument that is also completely new and modern without much of any kind of precursor. How did someone I’m presuming from a not rich background end up becoming such a prodigious and sophisticated musician?”
That’s an amazing question, Paul. Thank you.
I’m afraid my answer may be boring and disappointing to you but I do believe it is the truth: practice. Many of the world class musicians I’ve been around often take issue with the entire concept of “talent.” They say it’s really about time. The younger you start, the better, for the same reason that it’s easier to learn to speak multiple languages when you’re young rather than waiting until you’re older. You can still learn another language when you’re older (and you should start as soon as possible if you think you want to do that), it’s just not going to be as easy as if you’d started when you were, say, 10.
But starting young isn’t a magic pill. If you begin occasionally dicking around with a guitar when you’re seven and all you ever do is occasionally dick around with it for the rest of your life, you’re never going to be Roy Nichols. I’m not going to say it takes passion because I really believe it does just come down to time (and I’d throw focus in there as well) but passion certainly makes it easier to dedicate that time and focus to the instrument. I think about it like a connect-the-dots picture, where there are always new dots showing up to make the picture better. But you have to be there and you have to already be connecting dots before you notice those new dots showing up. The more time you spend connecting the dots, the better you get at seeing the new dots arrive and connecting them with the ones you’ve already connected. I hope that makes sense.
As for there not being much of any kind of precursor for a pedal steel guitar, I wouldn’t really say that. The first pedal steels weren’t nearly as complicated as what we see today. It was often just one or two pedals. Very similar to a non-pedal steel, which had been around for a long time and was essentially just an open tuned guitar, which had been around much longer. Mooney was a master of the instrument but we’re not talking about a musical quantum leap, here. He was always building on what came before, building on what he’d already figured out. As I mentioned in the episode, you can hear the beginning of his pedal steel style when he was still playing a standard electric guitar. So his first move on the pedal steel would have been to figure out how to do what he already knew how to do on a guitar and take it from there. It’s always a process of connecting one more dot, one more dot, one more dot, until you get there.
Friends, that is the end of this little experiment.
I really need you to let me know if you enjoyed this because it was so much more work than I thought it would be. If it’s not something people want more of, then I need to cut it from the to-do list in the future. I had fun doing this. If you want another one for season 2, I’ll do another one for season 2. It will almost certainly tie in to the Patreon in some way. I’m not sure how but keep an eye on patreon.com/tylermahancoe as I figure these things out. Supporters of the podcast will also get a monthly update post from me on how season 2 is coming along. That’s exclusive to Patreon. For as little as $2 a month, you can help me make the podcast and get those behind-the-scenes updates.
Thank you for everything. Take care of yourselves. I’ll be back as soon as I can.