The story of a little independent record label in Texas becoming “a force” in the Nashville country music industry brings an outsider’s perspective to the anatomy of a machine. Going from backwoods honky tonks and roadhouse jukeboxes to stretch limos and private planes takes a lot of crooked deals and shameless hustle. When confronted by a powerful enemy, you’ll do whatever it takes to survive the turbulent rock and roll. When the whole world acquires a taste for your strain of Kentucky bluegrass, you’ll rake in the green. When they get their ears on for truckin’ songs, you’ll put the hammer down and stand on it. But don’t let the stars get in your eyes, because this story only ever ends one way.
Contents (Click/Tap to Scroll)
- Primary Sources – books, documentaries, etc.
- Transcript of Episode – for the readers
- Liner Notes – list of featured music, online sources, further commentary
Transcript of Episode
A Powerful, Corrupt, Greedy, Political Machine
Nearly everybody’s confused by their first interaction with a pinball machine. Some people think the game’s broken because they don’t know you have to press the START button. Or they get it going, slap the ball around a bit, maybe hit a few random targets before draining and the whole thing’s over seconds after it began. And why would anybody want to spend money on that? Pinball isn’t even a game you can win – not really. You can learn to use the flippers to gain control of the ball, aim shots at flashing lights for big points, complete series of tasks for jackpots and make it a competition to see who scores the highest before they lose. If you get a good enough score, the machine may even reward you with a free credit to play again. But after sending the ball up ramps, through spinners and down whatever winding trails the designers put on the table, you’re going to lose the free game, too. No matter how good you get, pinball ends with the ball going down the drain. This is not a game you win. It’s a game you try to play for as long as you can until you lose. In other words, if you’re the kind of person who knows you can do better if only you had another chance, pinball is inherently addictive… which may have been the only criticism American politicians needed in order to outlaw the game in many states for about thirty years. (Many country musicians were famously addicted to pinball during this time. Waylon Jennings used to drive all night after a show to get back to his favorite machines in Nashville. Tompall Glaser spent so much money on pinball, the second time he went back to a spot with a machine he liked the owner had installed six more.)
The politicians who banned pinball had additional concerns, though. Like how these addictive machines were part of illegal gambling operations across the United States. Of course, this was true. Waylon and Tompall weren’t addicted to gaming. They were addicted to gambling. But why would anybody gamble on a game you can’t win? And how would that even work? Well, the flipper setup on a modern pinball machine is the only thing that allows players to temporarily control the ball in order to aim their shots. And no game had those kind of flippers until the second half of the 20th century. Before then, even if there was a flipper somewhere on a table, you’d be lucky to use it more than once to affect the ball’s path of travel. On most games, a player’s only hope of directing the ball was by using their knee, hip or hands to nudge and bump the whole damn table, like someone trying to get a snack machine to release their dangling bag of chips or some kind of weird dance. (At least, that’s what it looked like to Red Foley, as sung about in “Pinball Boogie.”) Hit the machine too hard, though, and the game would instantly end, thanks to the TILT mechanism designed to keep players from lifting the table off the ground to cheat the ball around. Unlike the game we have today, pre-flipper pinball was nearly entirely dependent on chance, thus useful for gambling purposes. This is the game Hank Locklin was singing about in 1950 on the song “Pinball Millionaire.”
When Fiorello La Guardia became mayor of New York City in 1934, he immediately made good on campaign promises to take down the mafia, particularly mob boss Frank Costello’s illegal citywide slot machine operation. La Guardia had a couple thousand of Costello’s slots confiscated and destroyed. Those slots were quickly replaced with pin games and gambling continued while everyone argued over whether pre-flipper pinball was a game of skill or chance. In 1942, after nearly a decade of back and forth on the topic, LaGuardia finally armed the NYPD with sledgehammers and a mandate to smash pinball machines on sight. Some ten thousand tables were destroyed while he served as mayor. Several thousand were dumped in the Hudson because who cares about pollution as long as nobody’s gambling? (Plus it made for a pretty great picture in the newspaper.)
These early pinball tables somewhat resembled the Japanese game pachinko, only kicking one larger ball at a time out onto a horizontal field of pins rather than dumping a bunch of tiny balls at once down a vertical board of pins. The horizontal playing field did make it possible to slightly improve the chances of a ball going where you wanted it to go but at no point could you gain what anyone would call real control of the ball until the modern flipper setup came along in 1950. Even then, gamblers kept the older version of pinball in high demand. In 1951, an extremely successful gambling pin was introduced to the market with artwork and a layout designed around the theme of bingo cards. The playing field held square grids of numbered pockets corresponding to bingo cards up on the backlit display. If you shot five balls onto numbers lining up a bingo, you won free credits, which you could use to keep playing… Or, if you were somewhere without much concern for what was and was not legal, maybe you could cash those credits in with the house for real money. On bingo pins, the toughest shot was the pocket in the center of the grid. On many versions, this middle pocket was numbered “16” and it gave a lot of trouble to people like the protagonist of Lonnie Irving’s “Pinball Machine.” Bingo pins were popular enough to remain in production well into the 1980s, which is why they were still around for Waylon Jennings and Tompall Glaser to pump full of money, regardless of the laws in any state where they were playing.
The aggressive laws, policies and positions against pinball were not rewritten when machines with flippers came along in 1950, which meant modern pinball was illegal before it even existed. In fact, it was quite some time before most people realized flippers had changed the entire nature of the game and, for much of its existence, “pinball” was one word we used to refer to two very different things. If you’ve ever wondered why the “rebel” character in old movies and TV shows loves to play modern pinball or there’s often a machine in the background of a bar we’re supposed to read as sketchy or at least rough, this is why. Because of its hazy legality and conflation with the game’s previous incarnation, pinball is a signifier of people with ambiguous morals who will break the law if the reward is having a good time. In the mid-1950s, Elvis Presley was known to play pinball while in Shreveport to appear on the Lousiana Hayride, despite all pinball being illegal in Shreveport until 1970, when a 10-to-8 vote barely overturned the ban. Laws against pinball stayed on the books in New York City until 1976, when Roger Sharpe took a couple machines into a courtroom and saved the future of the game by demonstrating how many things he could do on purpose… before losing. In Tennessee, there was a law against kids under the age of 18 playing pinball unsupervised until the year 2000. But don’t worry, I’m sure Bobby Bare, Jr. was never left alone with the three machines his father used to have in his office on Music Row.
The confusion surrounding pinball from its start is fitting, perhaps, as the very first coin-operated pin game to become popular was called Baffle Ball. In 1931, Baffle Ball sold 50,000 units. The manufacturer produced 400 machines a day and still could not meet demand, which one of their distributors recognized as an opportunity to launch a rival game. In 1932, he sold close to 50,000 units of a pin called Ballyhoo, thus founding a company we all recognize from casinos and jukeboxes bearing the name Bally. This is only a few years into The Great Depression. Everything’s going to hell and two different entrepreneurs strike it rich on something that had not even existed when the market crashed in ’29. By the way, these first two breakout pins were not used for gambling. All we’re talking about is a few moments of addictive distraction at the cost of a penny. Like I said, given the financial circumstances of the era, it’s probably the only ammunition needed by the Fiorello LaGuardias of the world to call a game immoral and parasitic. Maybe you or I would even have agreed at the time. But I’m here to tell you: pinball is responsible for some of the greatest country music that has ever been made…
Don’t Rock the Jukebox
1931: a 29-year-old accountant for the Southern Pacific Railroad Company in Houston, TX decides to stop waiting for his turn to be laid off during Depression-era downsizing and find out if people really do continue to spend money on entertainment during a recession. The accountant’s name is Harold Daily. In less than five years, his South Coast Amusement Company will be the largest coin-operated amusement machine business in Texas and he will secure exclusive distribution of an early model of music jukebox manufactured by Bally. Now, a coin-op distributor such as Daily can outright sell you a machine to put in your place of business, which may be the move if you run an arcade and make your money on games and cheap prizes. Say you own a soda shop or bar, though. Your money’s made at the counter and you don’t need to spend time fixing broken games or keeping up with which records customers want to hear on the jukebox. For you, coin-op machines are just a way to get more people in the door, make ‘em stay a little longer and spend more money on food and drinks. You’d probably want work out a deal with Daily to park a machine or two on the premises and take care of all the upkeep himself so you can stay focused on the rest of the business. From Daily’s side of things, this is called “operating” a machine.
By the early 1940s, Harold Daily sold, owned and operated more pin games and jukeboxes than anyone else in the state of Texas. Then World War II killed off the manufacture of most non-military machinery. Without a supply of jukeboxes to sell, his primary focus became running those he had in operation. Billboard magazine had launched in 1894 with the intention of printing news and numbers in the advertising industry. Around the turn of the century, Billboard pivoted to the entertainment industry, which included coin-operated machines. By the mid-1930s, in addition to reporting sales figures of various pin games, Billboard was using data from jukebox play counters to chart the most-played records in major markets, informing operators which popular songs they should consider buying and stocking in their machines. By the early 1940s, Harold Daily found himself paying a lot of attention to these charts.
1945: the war ends.
1946: Daily opens a record store in Houston. Having the most jukeboxes in Texas means having the most data in the market and the ability to stock his shelves accordingly. Other music store owners within driving distance see his success and ask Daily to order stock for their shelves, too, whenever he makes calls into the record labels. After this goes on for a while, Daily begins to think of himself as someone with a good ear for what songs have the potential to become hit records, which local singers have the potential to become stars. When you own a record store, wannabe singers and musicians tend to hang around, especially after word gets out you’ve started helping the best of them find record deals on the California-based 4 Star label. After being sent there by Daily, Webb Pierce and Hank Locklin both release their first notable records on 4 Star. Locklin, summing up Daily’s role in launching the careers of so many artists, saddles him with the nickname he will carry for the rest of his life: Pappy.
And, yeah, we could spend all day analyzing the ethics of Pappy Daily using his power as a trusted buyer for so many stores and his army of jukeboxes to potentially influence which records and artists become local hits. But the fact is this system works so well for everyone involved nobody questions it. In 1950, MGM Records makes him their exclusive distributor in southern Texas.
Also in 1950: a young singer named Lefty Frizzell plays a show in Beaumont, Texas at a honky tonk called Neva’s, owned by Neva Starnes. When Neva’s husband, Jack, finds out Lefty Frizzell’s management keeps two-thirds of every dollar Lefty earns, Jack decides it’s worth spending a week trying to replace Lefty Frizzell’s management. He drops everything to go on tour with Lefty, pulling out all the stops to nail this audition. He solves every little problem, even going into his own pocket to cover expenses, knowing he’ll be more than reimbursed later if he can convince Lefty Frizzell to ditch his current management and sign with Jack. Lefty goes for it and signs a two-year contract giving Jack Starnes exclusive management of Lefty’s tour schedule and a slightly-less-parasitic 50%. But Jack only gets 50% during the term of the contract, so he starts working Lefty as hard as he can. By the end of 1951, Lefty Frizzell’s been on the Louisiana Hayride, the Grand Ole Opry, toured with Hank Williams and released four #1 singles, including his breakout hit and signature song, “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time).” Lefty’s making so much money he buys a tour bus and his own airplane to keep up with Starnes’ constant bookings.
On one particularly exhausting leg of a tour, Lefty calls home to have his wife check the contract and see just how long he has left until he can take some time off at home, which is when his wife finds the clause stating Jack Starnes has the option to keep Lefty working another two years from the expiration of the initial deal, should Jack choose to exercise the option, which of course Jack chooses to exercise the option. So Lefty threatens to quit right there. To hell with the contract, he’s going home. Jack threatens to have Lefty thrown in prison. Lefty says he’ll finish out the original two-year term but that’s it, the ride ends there. He plays all the shows left on his schedule and he goes home. Jack sues Lefty. Lefty countersues Jack. In the end, June 1952, Lefty Frizzell settles out of court for $25 grand, which is a hell of a lot of money in 1952. Basically, Jack Starnes takes Lefty for everything, even his backing band, who’d signed a separate contract with Neva Starnes to work under the name Blackie Crawford and The Western Cherokees.
The Starnes keep Lefty’s old band and put ‘em behind whichever local singers they think are good enough to sign and send on tour. It doesn’t take long to figure out the bookings are better when pitching an act with a new single, especially one getting lots of plays on jukeboxes and radio in the region. But why should Jack waste time trying to get record labels interested in taking a piece of his artists’ action when he’s got the money and a band to make records on his own? He looks around for a business partner, someone else in the area who could benefit from the ability to press their own records, and lands on Pappy Daily, who by this time has years of experience scouting Texas talent, helping them cut singles, then profiting from local sales and jukebox plays. (Pappy had also recently realized how hard 4 Star in California was screwing him the entire time but we’ll come back to that in a minute.)
June 1953: Billboard runs a small blurb on the formation of Starday Records down in Beaumont, TX. (That’s Starday as in “Starnes” plus “Daily” equals Records.) As planned, Starday’s first releases are from artists managed by The Starnes. Pappy distributes the records to store shelves and jukeboxes, which helps Jack book the artists on bigger and better shows, where larger audiences are exposed to music they can go find in stores and on jukeboxes. It’s a pretty solid system. The fourth single they work this way becomes a nationwide hit and instant standard of country music…
For the rest of his life, Arlie Duff told it like he was just a schoolteacher on a long drive toward somewheres else when he got hungry, pulled into Neva’s for a bite to eat, heard a country band playing in a back room and sort of accidentally stumbled into country music history by making up a song on the spot to knock everyone out. He must have thought it made for a better story than the truth, which is he’d written the song maybe six months earlier and it was burning a hole in his pocket when he walked into Neva’s, knowing exactly what he was there to do. Because word travels fast when touring acts begin driving away from some random honky tonk gig in Beaumont with record deals, management contracts and promises of fame and fortune. Just like wannabes hung around Pappy’s record store, they came out of the woodworks to make the trip to Neva’s and find out if they had what it takes to become the next Lefty Frizzell. The day it was Arlie Duff’s turn, he walked out with a record deal.
Fall 1953: Starday has their first major local hit with Arlie’s “You All Come,” which is when Jack and Pappy realize, in order to break records outside of Texas, in order to turn a major local hit into a national hit, they’re gonna need to…
Well, they don’t actually know what they’re gonna need to do.
Enter Don Pierce
Don Pierce learned the record business as an employee and part-owner of 4 Star Records in California. And he loved the record business, right up until this asshole named Bill McCall bought a majority stake in the company and became Don’s new boss. Don did not like his new boss or agree with the way he conducted business. For example, McCall had this guy out in Texas, who was not even an employee of the label, fronting his own money to send in tapes of the best local singers he could find. Whenever this guy sent in tapes, he also ordered a sufficient quantity of records to cover 4 Star’s manufacturing costs, then put his own assets to work promoting the product he’d gifted to the label. Pappy Daily was effectively a one-man, self-funded subsidiary label sending free money to 4 Star for years. This is only one example of Bill McCall’s questionable practices. Eventually, after much hassle, Don Pierce was able to sell his shares in 4 Star and break free.
But then he couldn’t find any other country music work in Los Angeles. Some time around September of 1953, keeping an eye on industry trades, Don notices a new label on the Texas country music charts. When he discovers Pappy Daily is part of this new operation, Don figures it’s worth a phone call to see if Starday needs any help. When Pappy gets this call, “You All Come” is a huge hit in the Houston area and Starday simply does not know how to take it to the next level. Pappy essentially being an A&R man and local distributor, he curates and records talent, then makes it possible for everyone within however many miles to spend money on the product. The Starnes are essentially booking agents and tour managers. These skill sets are not sufficient to run a record label. For one thing, none of these people know how to get a single played on the radio or stocked in stores at a national level. Don Pierce does, so Pappy brings him in. They add a publishing company under the Starday umbrella, then split the label and pub. co. in three equal shares between Jack, Pappy and Don. Don Pierce is the only partner who works full-time at the label.
November 1953: Pappy places a full-page ad in Billboard to promote the Arlie Duff record, now being pressed, promoted and shipped with the shorter title “Y’all Come.” The next month, the single goes Top 10 in the nation and Don Pierce calls record stores all over the country to pitch them on stocking Starday’s new releases. At some point, Don gives a copy of the Arlie Duff record to Bing Crosby’s bandleader, who plays it for his boss. When Bing Crosby’s version sells half a million units, “Y’all Come” turns into a standard, a song everyone and their uncle must record. BMI names it the Most Popular Song of 1953. Starday Records has existed for less than six months.
A Singing Marine
January 1954: Starday brings George Jones into their studio for the first time. And by “studio” I mean Jack Starnes’ living room, where he records artists on the cheap. Jack’s 19-year-old son Bill is the engineer, which means he’s stashed away in some other room of the house with all of the recording gear and a switch to control the living room light. Between takes, all the musicians stand in the dark, waiting for the living room light to come on and let them know they are now recording. They must stand still, too, since they’ve been carefully positioned around the one and only microphone. There is no possibility of overdubbing anything or fixing any mistake. If a loud vehicle drives by in the middle of a take, they have to reset and start the song over. But this is about as good as it gets for home studios in 1954 and, besides, it’s not like they’re recording the Greatest Country Singer Ever. George Jones is just some singing Marine who got a letter from Starnes the year before saying he should come talk to Starday when he got out of the service. Being a devout Lefty Frizzell fan, it’s likely George was marginally aware of Starnes’ connection to the most successful period of Lefty Frizzell’s early career, if not the full particulars of how it all worked out for Lefty. So, when George returns home to Beaumont in November of 1953, as Starday’s “Y’all Come” is becoming the biggest song in the country, he wastes very little time before swinging by the label. Now he’s here, standing in the dark, waiting for the light to come on and let him know it’s time to start singing. And he just can’t help himself…
Every show he plays, no matter what, he always covers a few Lefty Frizzell songs in a dead-on impersonation. The crowds always go nuts for it, especially on ballads, the slow songs with enough space to twist the words all into knots. Sometimes people say he sounds just as good as Lefty. When this light comes on, he’ll be singing with Lefty Frizzell’s actual band behind him and there’ll be a recording he can listen to later. He has to know what his Lefty sounds like. After “For Sale or for Lease,” George tries on Lefty again for “If You Were Mine.” Then he kicks over to his equally popular impersonation of his personal favorite singer, putting more than a little Hank Williams in the next couple songs. Due to the title, people who don’t waste time listening to music before writing about it often erroneously refer to “Play It Cool Man – Play It Cool” as a rock or rockabilly song. In truth, it is straight-up honky tonk country, as is “You’re in My Heart.” Of all the songs from this living room session, George Jones’ first record sounds the least like one other singer and the most like a different genre of music. On “No Money in This Deal,” George switches between his Hank Williams and his Lefty Frizzell for a near-rockabilly update of Lefty’s “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time).” When the single came out in February of 1954, George drove copies around to all the local radio stations and asked them to play it. Some did but not enough to make much of a splash. No matter. The following month, Starday launched the Houston Hometown Jamboree, a country music concert broadcast live on radio.
The Jamboree featured a core lineup of artists from the Starday roster plus a few guest singers each week. George Jones was on the first broadcast, along with Starday’s two main money-makers, Arlie Duff and Sonny Burns. Arlie had the bigger record and therefore brought in more money to Starday. (It’s a little-known fact George Jones picked up some early session work playing the flatpicked acoustic guitar on Arlie Duff’s “Let Me Be Your Salty Dog” and “Back to the Country.”) But Sonny Burns was an extremely popular live act in the Houston area and he happened to think George Jones was a great singing/drinking partner. The Jamboree crowd loved it when they sang duets, which made Sonny and Jones a bigger draw and worth more money when booked together on the road. They spent a lot of time traveling, singing and partying together. Since they were such an immediately popular live act, Starday tried recording them together about a month after the first Jamboree, back in Starnes’ living room, but let’s skip ahead another month to their first session in a better studio.
Bill Quinn’s Gold Star Studios in Houston was not on the level of studios then being built by Owen Bradley in Nashville but it was a lot better than Jack Starnes’ living room. This is where Sonny Burns and George Jones recorded “Heartbroken Me,” written by “Big Red” Hayes. The single wasn’t a hit but, soon after this session, based on their growing reputations as live performers, Arlie Duff, Sonny Burns and George Jones were all added to a Grand Ole Opry package tour with Marty Robbins and Ray Price at the top of the bill. By this time, Pappy Daily had begun to take a special interest in young George Jones. Anyone could hear the boy sang his ass off and audiences seemed to adore him, so Pappy made it a priority to be in the studio whenever George recorded, just in case there was anything he could do on the front-end to help the kid get a hit. It took about another year from that first Opry package tour for anything special to happen on tape. In the interim, Starday lost one of its founding partners and “Big Red” Hayes wrote one of the best songs of all time.
To Get a Start in Life’s Game
According to Hayes, he grew up with pretty philosophical parents. He said most of the ideas in his song came from things his mother said over the years and the title came from the time his father told him to make a guess as to who was the richest man in the world. Hayes threw out a few names of famous rich men but to each one his father said “no.” Then, something to the effect of “the wealthiest person is a pauper at times compared to the man with a satisfied mind.” Jean Shepard, Red Foley and Porter Wagoner were in Springfield, MO for the Ozark Jubilee the first time they heard Hayes do “A Satisfied Mind.” All three singers knew it was a hit, so they made a deal for everyone to cut it with the understanding they’d release their singles simultaneously, giving everyone a fair chance at having the hit. They all had the hit. Shepard and Foley both went Top 5 and Porter took it all the way to #1. The list of people who’ve cut the song since then is impossibly long. Within two years of launching their little country music label and publishing company, Starday was cashing checks for two of the biggest hits of the decade, songs still being recorded today.
And here’s where Jack Starnes took the opportunity to cash out his shares and walk, which may seem like a pretty stupid thing to do (and, at this particular moment, it was) but Jack only ever viewed the label as a tool in service of his booking and management business. Say he’s on the phone trying to book some premium gig and the jerk on the other end wants to know if Jack’s artist has a new single out. If Starnes can’t lie, say yes and throw something together real fast to land the check, then what’s the point of owning a record label, right? Well, ask Don Pierce and he’ll tell you the primary point of owning a record label is to also own a publishing company and to stay in business long enough to build a catalog of earning copyrights. Abandoning studio schedules, promotion and release strategies to suit the immediate needs of a part-owner’s booking agency is not the point of owning a record label, at least not a profitable one. And Don Pierce did have to say all of this to Jack Starnes, however many times it took for Jack to finally understand Starday would not drop everything to meet his requests. Jack got all pissed off and sold his part of Starday to only Pappy Daily. Once Jack was out, Pappy turned around and sold half those shares back to Don so the partnership remained equal. Then they got some pretty interesting tape on George Jones.
According to Pappy, the most involvement he had during recording sessions was telling George to stop impersonating famous singers. He’d wait until a take was over, say it was the best damn mockingbird act he’d ever heard, but could George now, please, sing one like George Jones so they can sell some records? The man had a point. Honky tonk crowds love a good impersonation but Jones hadn’t yet learned how the tricks he used to make barrooms cheer weren’t worth much in a recording studio. Run through his early sessions and you can hear the layers of paint being sanded away until the natural grain starts to show through.
March 1955: George cuts “What’s Wrong with You.” It sounds like someone overdubbing honky tonk piano and vocals on a slowed-down and warbled Hank Williams recording, which makes it sound more than a little bit like Roy Acuff. On “Painless Heart,” George takes another step toward Roy Acuff. There’s no telling if he even knew he was doing it. We’re in his fifth recording session ever and for much of his adult life it would be an understatement to call George Jones a bundle of nerves. Now he’s got one of the label owners in the studio, saying he sounds too much like Hank and to do something different. It’s a stressful situation. Consciously or not, he reaches further into his bag of voices and pulls out whatever’s there. Roy Acuff was certainly deeper in the bag than Hank Williams because for nearly a decade prior to Hank’s first record, Roy was George’s favorite singer
July 1955: Pappy finally gets George to sound mostly like himself in a session, although you should pay special attention to the way he sings the word “kid” in “What Am I Worth” to hear just a second of his Ernest Tubb. As Jones worked backwards through his biggest influences, cherrypicking keepsakes on the way to finding his own voice, country music fans began paying attention. In January 1956, “What Am I Worth” comes out and hits the Top 10 Country Records… as the follow-up to a Top 5 single already released from the same session.
Believe whichever version of the story you like best. Maybe Sonny Burns was supposed to record a duet with George but Sonny got too drunk or didn’t care or, who knows what happened, he failed to show up. Whether it’s true or not, whether it was planned or not, George Jones did show up for a session at Gold Star, where they had the equipment for him to overdub a second vocal and make “Why Baby Why” a duet with himself. His is the only voice on the recording. George wrote “Why Baby Why” with Darrell Edwards, a childhood neighbor who started bringing around hit songs when he found out the kid next door grew up to have a record deal with Starday. George probably has a co-writing credit on many songs he did not actually help Darrell Edwards write but he did finish this one because Darrell was off in the Coast Guard when Starday wanted George to cut it.
Don Pierce claimed he always knew “Why Baby Why” was the hit but Pappy favored a different song from the session. This was possibly a cover story to keep himself from looking foolish for putting George Jones’ first hit on the b-side of a record. If so, the explanation was unnecessary because anyone who did not have a crystal ball would have put a spliced-together, fake duet on the b-side of a record. The a-side was another Darrell Edwards song, “Seasons of My Heart.” Although clearly sung by a huge Hank Williams fan, Pappy Daily must have heard enough George Jones in this recording to choose it as the big seller. When the George Jones single shipped in fall of 1955, DJs who flipped it found much stronger listener response from “Why Baby Why.” Starday quickly changed their promo campaign and pushed the b-side in all marketing and advertisements. The record soon went #4 country. For what it’s worth, Pappy probably wasn’t wrong about “Seasons of My Heart.” The song went Top 10 the following year when Jimmy C. Newman covered it, as did a version by Johnny Cash five years later.
Every Little Dog
When George Jones started hitting the Top 10, he learned all about the then-standard industry practice of major labels having their artists cover the latest records from newcomers like him. From the perspective of a major label, the strategy is a no-brainer: take a song starting to do well for some relatively unknown act in an isolated market and put your comparatively massive resources behind it. We’re talking a bigger budget for everything from recording to promotion, much wider distribution and a major artist who already has a huge audience. This used to be nearly un-fuck-up-able. However, from the perspective of an indie label, a major label cover could kill your record. (In fact, that’s why it’s called “covering” a song. The idea is for the major label to blanket the national market with a new record, covering the regional hit from sight.) This is what concerned Pappy Daily when Webb Pierce covered “Why Baby Why” as an actual duet with Red Sovine.
Back in the day, Webb was still working as a shoe salesman at Sears when Pappy first sent him to 4 Star but his first #1 record on Decca hit in 1951 and he had not missed the Top 10 since. “Why Baby Why” was a guaranteed smash for Webb Pierce and guaranteed to bury Starday’s record, so Pappy called Webb to cash in a favor and Decca pulled their single from the market to give George Jones enough room to do whatever he could do. A month after Starday’s “Why Baby Why” peaked at #4, Decca re-released the Webb Pierce and Red Sovine cover. It hit #1 and became one of the ten best-selling country singles of 1956. This was a monumental favor Webb Pierce did for Pappy Daily. You will almost never hear of someone in the music industry going to such lengths, certainly delaying and potentially diminishing huge returns on a sure thing #1 single in order to repay a personal debt. This is just as much a testament to Pappy’s support of young artists as it is to Webb’s sense of loyalty. It can’t have been easy for Webb to convince his label or even his duet partner to pull the single. The b-side of Decca’s original release had Red Sovine covering “16 Tons,” the Merle Travis song Tennessee Ernie Ford had burning up the charts. But Decca’s re-release, the record that went #1, had Red singing a song he wrote on the b-side, which was likely the extra incentive he required to go along with Webb’s request. And I have no earthly idea how they talked Decca into pulling the single. But, by the time Webb and Red were on top of the charts with “Why Baby Why,” George Jones had spun his record into an appearance on the Louisiana Hayride, followed by more hits and bigger package tours with, among other stars, Johnny Cash, Carl Smith and Ray Price. They toured all over North America, even Canada. In early 1956, Jones played the Grand Ole Opry for the first time. In August, they made him a member. Various magazines voted him Best New Country Fill-in-the-Blank. All this momentum soon carried Starday into a merger with Mercury Records.
But let’s go back to cover songs for a minute because there’s a lot we need to understand about how different the record industry was when regional markets existed. And if you were feeling bad for the little indie labels getting their records covered by the majors, you should know this street ran both ways. In the days of regional markets, it was entirely possible to take a hometown hero and successfully cover a national hit before it reached your turf. You had to be quick and you had to be smart but, if you did it right, the kids buying records in your area may never care as much about the original hit whenever they eventually heard it. That’s how big of a deal local artists used to be.
A February 1956 issue of Billboard lists the best-selling and most-played country music singles in the United States but also contains lists of which records are performing best in various regions of the nation. For example, in this issue, “Why Baby Why” by Pierce and Sovine is the third-best-selling single in the nation, down from #2 the previous week and “Why Baby Why” by George Jones is the twelfth-best-selling single in the nation, down from #7. Kick over to the local charts and it’s mostly the same story nationwide, the newer major label record outselling the indie label’s older original… Except in Houston, New Orleans and St. Louis, three major markets in the path of George Jones’ regular touring circuit. In those cities, George’s follow-up record is crushing Decca. “What Am I Worth” is the best-selling single in Houston, a not-so-small pond in which it’s very worth trying to be the biggest fish.
But in the mid-1950s, everything began to change. Every year’s advancements in telecommunications technology made it harder for truly independent labels to beat the majors in regional markets. Thanks to nationally syndicated radio and now television shows, music fans were increasingly likely to have already heard the original hit before you could possibly get out a cover from a local artist, thereby upping the odds of your local artist sounding unoriginal and uncool by comparison, like a cheapo generic imitation of a popular cereal brand. Of course, there will always be a market for the cheapo generic imitation of anything and music is no exception. With regional hit covers becoming an untenable strategy, indie labels leaned in to the practice of creating “soundalikes,” essentially audio forgeries of popular recordings. Not quite bootlegs so much as a cheaper alternative version, often produced and packaged in such a way as to allow buyers to believe they may have found a great deal on the actual hit record. Because of the obvious potential for negative fallout, here, steps were taken to protect the identity and legitimate careers of artists used for soundalikes. Singers worked under pseudonyms and producers traded soundalike masters with indie labels in other regions to put distance between locally famous voices and fans who may recognize them.
Studying industry trends in this period, Don Pierce reached two conclusions. One, most country music was purchased by adults rather than kids and, two, adults preferred buying the new EP and LP formats rather than the singles preferred by a younger audience. So Starday set up the Dixie Records subsidiary to release compilations of soundalikes without compromising the integrity of the main label. By cramming three songs on each side of three 45s and packaging it as one unit, they could get eighteen songs into a set of EPs. One side of each record typically contained the original version of at least one legitimate hit, either something from Starday’s catalog or licensed in trade from another label running the same racket. These tracks were always specified on the label as “The Original Hit Recording.” Surrounding those hits, though, were soundalikes. At bargain prices, these Dixie EP collections flew off the shelves.
In October of 1956, Starday released their first LP, Country Song Hits by “Grand Ole Opry’s New Star” George Jones. Nearly every song had already come out on one side or the other of a George Jones single but fans still bought the LP. Maybe their records had been worn out, scratched or stolen. Maybe they just didn’t want to get off the couch every three minutes to change a record, listening to one song at a time. Three of the fourteen included songs had been Top 10 hits, which may have led fans to save shelf space by trading out multiple records for this LP. In any case, Starday’s eventual philosophy of business was set in wax on those Dixie EPs and this first LP: give the potential buyer a few familiar hits on a tracklist and they will probably suspect the rest of the album is of similar quality, which gets you most of the way toward making a sale.
The other major paradigm shift in the mid-1950s was rock and roll, practically a political movement in the existential threat it posed to country music. At the beginning of 1956, Elvis Presley’s cut of “Heartbreak Hotel” was the biggest song in the United States and his second not-country-at-all single to go #1 on the country charts. Imagine you’re in the business of trying to put records as close as you can to the top of country charts and here comes some kid who starts tossing hits up there like it’s nothing without even bothering to make sure he’s in the right genre. Even if you’ve got a young country singer who recently started going Top 10, playing all the radio shows and package tours every artist plays on their way to becoming the next big thing in country music… Well, maybe it starts to look like the next big thing in country music isn’t gonna be a thing at all. Maybe it starts to look the party’s over. George Jones once described this era to Nick Tosches by saying, “…with rock-and-roll getting as strong as it was at that time, it seemed like country music was really a losin’ battle except for the three or four major artists that had it made at that time, like Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, some of those people…”
Most country artists in the 1950s spoke of rock and roll like they thought it sounded as bad as wet garbage smells in 100 degree weather. They said they were confused as to why anyone would want to listen to some kid have a fake conniption fit into a microphone while his band played their instruments poorly, either on purpose or because they just weren’t very good musicians. But you’ve got to remember this new noise appeared almost sentient in its mission to conquer and replace country music. Rather than build their own platforms from the ground up, rock & roll acts invaded those of country music, going where the stages and audiences already were to take over country barn dances and radio shows. As tropes of this new genre crystallized with popularity, hordes of screaming fans drove away and replaced the audience who’d previously filled these venues to hear country music. As the new genre moved in on country’s markets, stages and radio stations, so did the first hit rock and roll records move in on country charts, with trend-driven sales towering above even the best-selling artists using a country music sound.
Some country artists recognized how much money could be made in rock and roll and tried crossing over but others saw this as switching sides in what they and many fans felt had become an us-versus-them battle. Singers, in particular, the people with their names and faces on album covers, were hesitant to risk their reputations with country fans by trying to court a rock audience. But, let’s be honest, country musicians could cut this rock bullshit without even trying. And if a country singer who was already doing soundalike work did want to earn a few bucks off rock & roll, well, they already knew how to keep their identity a secret… All of which explains how an indie country label like Starday could take their most promising singer (who they’ve famously and repeatedly begged to stop singing like other people) and send him into the studio in March of 1956, mere weeks after his second Top 10 hit, to record an entire session of soundalikes including “Heartbreak Hotel.” Starday traded this recording to the Tops label in Los Angeles, where it was released under the pseudonym “Hank Smith.” They had George Jones cut more rock material in his next session, released under the alias Thumper Jones. By any measure, these are not important singles. But they are interesting because, for the rest of his career, any time someone asks about these records, George says something negative and attempts to distance himself from a thing nobody was ever supposed to know he did, nor would they if he hadn’t gone and turned himself into a legend, inspiring countless fans to dig through the garbage of his life. However, when he has his first #1 country record only a few years later, it’s with a song he continues to perform for the rest of his career, a song he never badmouths in any way and a song that rocks a whole lot more than it “billy”s.
So maybe most country artists really did think rock music was wet, hot trash. Many were told by their record labels to ditch the fiddles and steel guitars if they wanted to keep their deals, which can certainly inform the way a person feels and the things a person says about a style of music. But it’s also true some such remarks made in liner notes and interviews were nothing more than the result of competent PR coaches instructing their artists to give good copy by throwing strong opinions into a divisive narrative. The fact is country music was one of the foundational genres necessary for rock & roll to come into existence. On a purely sonic level, the dividing lines between rock music and hardcore honky tonk were impossibly blurry in the early days. For instance, Glenn Barber’s “Ice Water.” Despite the jazzy slang sprinkled throughout the lyrics for anyone hip enough to spot it, there’s no question this sounded like a straight up honky tonk barnburner to most anyone who happened to hear the single. “Ice Water” was cut in the same living room studio as George Jones’ first Starday sessions and came out on Starday in 1954. Glenn Barber later played guitar on “Why Baby Why.” Starday’s flirtation with rock & roll went much deeper than secret pseudonym soundalikes and treating steel guitar like country music camouflage. Sonny Fisher was just one of the label’s country artists who began unapologetically recording rockabilly music (like “Pink and Black”) in the mid-1950s. By 1956, Glenn Barber was cutting undisguised rock and roll (like “Shadow My Baby”), saxophone and all. Not many people have heard of Sonny Fisher or Glenn Barber and, great as they may be, these singles didn’t do much to change that, probably because one of Starday’s owners legitimately hated rock music.
After spending decades referring to Starday’s rockabilly sessions as a failed experiment, Don Pierce finally admitted he never even really tried to promote the rock records because he didn’t have the first clue where to start. However, staying in his lane is what kept Starday in the business of releasing country hits while other artists and producers in the genre made huge swerves trying to figure out where they were on the map. Take Ray Price. His cut of “Crazy Arms” spent more weeks at #1 than any other song in 1956 but Ray Price only had one #1 country record in a year when Elvis Presley released four, so Elvis held the top spot for more weeks than any other artist in 1956. In 1957, hoping to get back above Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Everly Brothers, Ray Price jumped all the way into the Nashville Sound. Since everyone already had Johnnie Ray records, “I’ll Be There (When You Get Lonely)” didn’t even crack the Top 10, prompting an immediate return to his 4/4 shuffle on “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You,” which walked Ray Price back to #1. In 1958, Price charted at #1 for three months by finding a middle ground between his old sound and the Nashville Sound on “City Lights.” None of his ‘60s singles went #1 but continuing to straddle the sonic line between Texas and Nashville did keep him near the top of the chart for much of the decade.
Crazy ‘Bout a Mercury
In the Shelby Singleton episode of Season 1, you heard some of how Starday came to briefly merge with Mercury Records in Nashville. Here is the rest of it.
1956: Jim Denny is fired from the Grand Old Opry and the head of Mercury’s country operations, Dee Kilpatrick, quits to go take Denny’s job. The reason Kilpatrick goes to the Opry is Mercury has been steadily losing their biggest country artists and he knows the label is headed into 1957 with a barely-there roster of The Stanley Brothers, Jimmie Skinner, Carl Story… and that’s about it. So, now, Mercury needs someone to build and manage a country division. They take a look around at who’s doing well in the genre and there’s Starday, the little indie who could. Starday’s flagship LP, the first collection of George Jones hits, came out in October 1956 and was an instant success. A month earlier, they released a George Jones single which wasn’t included on the LP so fans had to purchase it separately and “Just One More went Top 10 country while Elvis Presley’s not-country “Don’t Be Cruel” held the #1 position. The month before, Starday released Benny Barnes’ first hit single, “Poor Man’s Riches,” which went Top 10 country while Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” sat at #1. This is more than doing well in the genre during a confusing time. This is an independent label repeatedly achieving mainstream success by sticking to what they know, dealing almost exclusively in country music and winning with innovative business strategy. I know of no other such label in this period. Other indies did exist but most had to seriously work multiple genres to stay afloat and none of the 90%+ country operations could hold a candle to Starday’s track record.
November 1956: Mercury Records cofounder Art Talmadge meets up with Pappy Daily at the DJ Convention in Nashville to propose placing Mercury’s greater resources behind Starday’s roster and approach to running a country label and calling the joint venture Mercury-Starday. As you know, this is what happens and, about a year and a half into the five year contract, Mercury terminates the deal early. Don Pierce will later grudgingly admit Mercury had a valid complaint: the vast majority of singles released on Mercury-Starday came from Starday’s publishing company, which was more of a priority for Don than whether or not the songs were any good. Don’s views on the matter were (and I quote) “Why would we go to a publisher who ‘lets’ us be privileged enough to use their song and then put all of our money into promoting their stuff? Fuck that.” End quote. If more of the songs in Starday’s catalog were hits Mercury probably wouldn’t have cared. But now Mercury wants out of the whole arrangement and they also want to keep the few artists who continued to sell records, like George Jones. Pappy Daily explains to Don how Mercury has so much money it wouldn’t even be worth trying to fight all their lawyers, who’d probably just wrestle out of the contract in the end anyway. Then Pappy mentions he’s staying with Mercury, too, which is when Don Pierce gets the picture and agrees to the split.
And right here’s where the value in Don Pierce’s perspective on how and why to own a record label and publishing company becomes clear. Because the way he and Pappy agree to split the Starday catalog is by tossing a coin to see who gets first pick, then taking turns calling out a letter of the alphabet to secure all the song titles beginning with that letter. So when Don wins the coin toss and calls out “s” as his first pick, he walks away with the label’s biggest earner, “A Satisfied Mind.” On his next turn he takes “y” for “Y’all Come,” then “w” for “Why Baby Why.” Meanwhile, Pappy Daily uses his first three turns to pick his favorite songs with no consideration given to any title’s monetary value. When Pappy gets his first royalty check following the split and it’s nowhere near what he knows half the Starday catalog is worth, he’s furious and slaps Don Pierce with a lawsuit. A mutual friend has to lock them in a hotel room at a business conference to get them to work out a more financially even split. As part of this final arrangement, Starday (a.k.a. Don Pierce) walks away with 50% of George Jones’ publishing for the next 18 months plus the Mercury-Starday office building.
Real True Authentic Country Music
Even though Pierce will later say the move to Nashville is what opened the door for Starday to become “a force in country music,” he’d deliberately placed their office at a remove from the rest of the Nashville industry, all of whom he regarded as competition. Ten miles away from Music Row, Starday set up shop as the leading alternative brand. There, major labels use the Nashville Sound to fish for attention from pop and rock audiences. Here, hardcore country lives on in an Anti-Nashville Sound. The majors have money to throw behind promoting hot new singles on radio to a young audience but Starday knows they don’t have to go through radio if they’re only trying to get to those kids’ parents, who don’t really like much of what they’re hearing on radio these days anyway. All Starday has to do is package a few hits with some filler, then use all 12 inches of an album cover to sell it from the shelf. Even today, old Starday LPs practically jump out of a stack of country albums: loud jackets with color photographs, gaudy fonts and, usually, some type of genre manifesto disguised as liner notes. You’re gonna see the word “country” a lot and it’ll be next to words like “real” and “authentic” and “true.” If you take a drink for every cowboy hat you see on a Starday album cover, you will die. Photos show artists holding the old-timey instruments supposedly feared by producers like Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley. Or, you know, holding a rooster, maybe while standing near a horse… Or sitting on a horse, near a fence, near a barn, in a field, by a creek… Starday uses album jackets to tell anyone who may care to know they’re still making country music the way it was made before rock & roll. And the music’s there to back it up.
Wayne Raney’s “We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus (And a Lot Less Rock and Roll)” came out on Starday because Wayne was a songwriter and harmonica player who hosted a Cincinnati radio show on which Don Pierce bought advertising. Whenever Raney played a song from Starday, he’d be sure to tell listeners they could get it directly from the label, plugging the mail order catalog Don Pierce sent free of charge to any distributor, retailer or residence who wanted one. With the Nashville labels and radio stations catering to young pop and rock audiences, older country music fans felt forgotten. For Starday, direct-to-consumer sales reinforced their identity as the anti-Nashville, sending the message: We haven’t forgotten you or your kind of country and we’ll ship it right to your doorstep. Hell, if you want to make your own country records, we’ll do that, too. Just send in a master tape of an original song and a little over $100 for Starday to send back 300 copies of your brand-new single, 100 of which were pressed on higher quality vinyl, packaged and pre-addressed to the 100 nearest radio stations most likely to play it. There was the small matter of the release form giving the song’s publishing rights to Don Pierce, in case he ever wanted to release it on Starday proper, but customers received royalties when this happened. If by some small chance a custom pressing client happened to become the next big thing, the release form also gave Starday the option to retain their services as a recording artist, so it was essentially a probationary contract with the artist covering their own studio costs and doing most of the legwork while Starday watched and waited to see if they were worth anything. A whole lot of wannabes (and some gonna-bes) tried to get their start in the business through Starday’s custom press program. Willie Nelson sent in his very first single to be pressed by Starday in 1957. While “No Place for Me” didn’t make Willie a star, he did already have a DJ gig and used his radio show to sell out the initial order then print another run.
Though their custom press operation was one of the most reliable, Starday were not the first or only label to do this. Don Pierce had overseen a nearly identical service all the way back at 4 Star in California. When Don was at 4 Star, yet another country music DJ sent in a song. Slim Willet’s initial order of “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” sold out fast enough to warrant his ordering another 5,000 units, so Don figured they oughta go ahead and put out the record on 4 Star. It went #1 in 1952. Perry Como covered it the same year and took it to #1 on the pop charts. In 1953, after Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” Goldie Hill became the second woman to go #1 country as a solo artist, also with an answer song, called “I Let the Stars Get in My Eyes.” Goldie Hill’s answer song was adapted from the original by her brother, Tommy Hill, who also wrote “Slowly” for Webb Pierce around the same time. Goldie and Tommy Hill both signed artist contracts with Decca but Tommy didn’t put out a #1 single right away like his sister did, so the label dropped him by the end of the year. JD Miller of Feature Records signed him, then farmed him out to Hickory Records the same as Rusty & Doug Kershaw, complete with JD Miller magically appearing as a co-writer on every side written by Tommy Hill. After a couple years without much action, Tommy went back to not having a record deal and playing in the backup bands of other artists, which is what he was doing when he ran into Don Pierce near the end of 1958, just after the Mercury-Starday split. Don was in need of another pair of hands to pack and ship records in the Starday warehouse and Tommy had never quit looking for another record deal or whatever other work he could find in the meantime, so the two came to an arrangement. Tommy Hill did start recording for Starday in March of 1959 – cutting some singles and some compilation filler (like the great “Oil on My Land”) but he became much more important to this story behind the scenes, as an employee of the label.
After hanging around long enough to get a feel for Don’s approach to business, Tommy pointed out how much money Starday could save if they built their own studio. Then he went and found the label’s first post-Mercury hit to help cover the cost of construction. Frankie Miller was another one of those singers Pappy Daily sent to 4 Star while Don was still there and Don remembered Frankie’s early stuff being quite good but Frankie got drafted to Korea in 1952. When Frankie came back in 1954, Columbia signed him but the thing about Frankie Miller is he was practically a Hank Williams impersonator. The Hank Williams style of doing things was on its way out and – in 1956, after rock & roll hit the mainstream – Columbia dropped Frankie Miller. A few years plugging away on the live circuit and fronting the cost to record whenever he could afford it brought him back Starday’s way in early 1959. Yet another sign of the country music industry’s lack of interest in actual country music in this era, Frankie recorded “Blackland Farmer” a full two years earlier at Gold Star Studios in Houston – that’s Glenn Barber on guitar again – and tried selling the tape to every label he could get to listen to it before Tommy Hill finally heard it and knew it was just the kind of thing his boss would want. Starday released the record in March of 1959 and it hit #5 country. They finished construction on the new studio in May of the following year. When the labels on Starday records began to read “A Tommy Hill Starday Studios Production,” it’s because Tommy was put in charge of the studio he’d conceptualized and found the money to build. Some of his go-to session players were Pete Drake on pedal steel, Hank Garland on guitar, Junior Huskey on bass and Willie Ackerman on drums. The Anti-Nashville Sound label used several of the same musicians who helped create and continued to record the Nashville Sound only a few miles down the road.
It wasn’t only Frankie Miller and other unsigned artists struggling to sell hard country music to the major labels. The artists they’d actually signed couldn’t do it, either. With few exceptions, acts who kept showing up to the studio with twang long after it stopped selling were told to stop showing up at all. And, wouldn’t you know it, Don Pierce found room at Starday to sign all the major label castoffs who wanted to keep making country music. His label went from branding itself as the little guy still making country music the way Nashville did in the good old days to literally making country music the way Nashville did in the good old days, putting the exact same people to work in a different building down the road. It’s worth noting the handful of country artists who Mercury brought to the Mercury-Starday merger – Jimmie Skinner, Carl Story, The Stanley Brothers – every one of them later ended up on Starday. To quote Don Pierce, “If they were an established act, I wasn’t interested in putting out singles because I couldn’t get them on jukeboxes. But if they’d played 20 years on the Opry I knew they could sell albums.” Some of the acts Starday picked up from other labels were Red Sovine, Justin Tubb, Lonzo & Oscar, Archie Campbell, Johnny Bond, Floyd Tillman, Pee Wee King, The Blue Sky Boys and T. Texas Tyler. Pierce also began releasing material from artists we would call “legacy acts” or “musicians’ musicians,” people like Minnie Pearl, Texas Ruby, Harry Choates, Cowboy Copas, Stringbean Akeman, Shot Jackson, Buddy Emmons, Moon Mullican and members of Roy Acuff’s band, The Smokey Mountain Boys. As far as Don was concerned, the more twang it had, the easier he could sell it. And it certainly doesn’t get much twangier than the style of music which by the late 1950s had come to be known as “bluegrass.” Some of the all-time great bluegrass recordings came out on Starday: “Rank Stranger” by The Stanley Brothers, Bill Clifton’s Code of the Mountain LP, the Charlie Monroe Tally Ho LP produced by Jackie Phelps, “Lonesome Wind” by Buzz Busby, Bashful Brother Oswald’s “Black Smoke.”
Hillbilly Fever’s Goin’ ‘Round
In 1958, The Kingston Trio hit big on the pop charts with the traditional folk murder ballad, “Tom Dooley.” The arrangement in contrast to the lyrics is unintentionally hilarious, doubly so in contrast to the earliest known recording of the song from three decades earlier by Grayson and Whitter. But the Kingston Trio’s single made millions of dollars, so, naturally, a bunch of musicians launched pop-folk acts, got record deals and started cutting their own huge hits, same as any other craze in the music business. Only this particular craze pulled from folk music, which, naturally, led a curious percentage of people to the source material. It’s likely they first discovered The Kingston Trio’s immediate predecessors, artists like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and The Weavers, or The Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem, before working their way further back to earlier recordings of the same songs, which nearly always sounded a hell of a lot more interesting than the pop-folk versions on the radio. Musicians who caught this particular bug ended up creating little local scenes, pockets of folkies dedicated to getting as near as possible to “the real thing,” whatever they thought that meant. The most famous of these pockets is the Greenwich Village, NYC scene of the early 1960s, which gave us Bob Dylan. I will assume you’ve heard a little about it. What everyone alive at the time heard was a shitload of banjo, at every level of this folk explosion, from the Kingston Trio down to The Village, down to college campuses and bus stations. It was banjos all the way down. This being an integral element of bluegrass quickly led to bluegrass music being swept up in the folk craze… Shortly after Starday Records established itself as the de facto home of the genre. Don Pierce may not have had all of the major label hitmakers – Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Martin – but he had damn near everyone else. Starday’s bluegrass catalog combined with Don’s tried-and-true compilation LP strategy started bringing in money hand over fist, right up until 1965 when the whole thing died on its feet.
Don seems to’ve believed Starday’s bluegrass sales dropped off due to the genre’s association with all those folk pockets and their predominately leftist politics. You know, dope smoking pinkos showing up to Vietnam War protests playing songs on banjos just didn’t sit right with country folk, so they stopped buying banjo music in response. This is essentially what Don wrote in a letter to Bluegrass Unlimited magazine in 1967, saying it’s what he’d heard straight from Starday’s mail-order clientele. In reality, leftist politics and protest songs were a very visible part of the folk scene from the beginning, long before it crossed over into pop culture. And while I’m sure that did bother many people, it isn’t likely they were the same people responsible for bluegrass music’s sudden launch into crossover pop sales figures. The much more likely explanation is: Bob Dylan giveth and Bob Dylan taketh away. This is more or less what bluegrass expert Neil Rosenberg says happened to the genre in his 1985 book, Bluegrass: A History, where Rosenberg points to Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. After shocking his audience’s sensibilities, Dylan then spent two years tugging them over to the electric side of the fence. Rosenberg was there and he watched this all happen in real time. He also responded in real time to Don Pierce’s letter in Bluegrass Unlimited. The magazine published Rosenberg’s response, in which he suggests Starday would probably sell more albums if they prioritized releasing new material instead of constantly repackaging their most well-known titles until the endless compilation LPs became indistinguishable from one another, save for a shuffled tracklist and new cover art. Pierce didn’t even bother denying it. He sent in another letter, explaining the higher cost of sourcing, recording, distributing and promoting new material. He explained Rosenberg’s suggestion would require more of an investment and a much greater risk in an untested product than Starday’s present business model. Unlike major labels, Don simply could not afford to bankroll all of the misses in between the hits. All true, but it didn’t make Dylan any less electric, Rosenberg any less right or bluegrass any more profitable.
Don’s LP strategy had given Starday an angle in the country music market. To a fan of the genre, your first clean copy of a Starday compilation is a wonderful thing. So much so, you’ll probably keep buying more of them, until the day you get home with your fourth or fifth one and realize you already have all these songs on other Starday compilations. From then on, you’re more careful about purchasing Starday compilations. About a year after that little exchange in the bluegrass press, Don Pierce started looking for a way out of the music business. And it wasn’t because hippies invaded bluegrass or else Don could have simply gone back to country music, especially since the number of radio stations in the United States dedicated to country music had grown from about 80 in the year 1961 to over 600 by 1970, the year Don retired. It’s not like he stopped being good at his job right as the country music market became bigger than it ever was. If anything, Don Pierce was too good at his job. The rise of country radio stations can be largely attributed to efforts by the Country Music Association to educate the rest of the music industry on the topic of how much money adult fans of country music have. Don Pierce was a founding member of the CMA in 1958 and served on the board for years, all the while firing off motivational rants to industry trades: here’s how and why we should convince radio stations to launch country music programs, here’s how and why we should prioritize overseas distribution of country records, etc. In 1959, Billboard magazine named Don Pierce “Country and Western Man of the Year.” It’s no exaggeration to say he played a starring role in making the genre too profitable for his independent label to survive.
Starday may not have had the budget to risk promoting new material to so many radio stations but the major labels could well afford the losses between hits. Don’s big moneymaking idea had always been to fill the gaps left open in the country market when the major labels pursued a pop or rock audience. Where they sold 45s, he sold LPs. Where their country artists went pop, his stayed hardcore. Where they dropped country artists, he picked them up. But in the mid-1960s, country music started making so much money the major labels had enough to circle back and fill the gaps themselves. All they had to do was keep one Merle Haggard or Loretta Lynn for every five Patsy Clines or Glen Campbells and a major label could make more money on both sides of the country music fence than Starday had ever seen.
Sometime around 1962, Johnny Bond signed to Starday. Years later, Johnny told the Country Music Hall of Fame he made this choice because Don Pierce wanted to make a full album on him, not just a single or two. In 1965, Johnny had the biggest hit of his entire career with a rerecording of a novelty single he’d cut to little fanfare on Columbia over a decade earlier. The remake of “10 Little Bottles” was recorded during the 1964 Disc Jockey Convention in front of a “live” audience of a bunch of country music DJs. When these DJs went home and this record souvenir of their party showed up in the mail, they played it so much it sold nearly a million units, stayed at #2 country for a month and nearly broke into the pop Top 40. (Please tell this story to anyone who doubts the impact of payola, airplay and/or chart placements on the history of music.) But “10 Little Bottles” was a gimmick with a corny product and even Don Pierce admitted he thought it was horrible. This was not a trick they could repeat often, if ever. And major labels were by this time pushing LPs just as hard as singles, shoving Don out of the territory he’d called his own for years. He simply could not compete. He tried everything, even the unthinkable.
Following the British Invasion, Starday began signing American pop acts dropped from major label deals, like Guy Mitchell, who originally broke through on Columbia Records in 1950 with a couple Top 5 pop hits (like “My Heart Cries for You”), then kept his career going long enough to hit #1 pop in 1956 with a hokey version of Melvin Endsley’s “Singing the Blues,” just after Marty Robbins had the country hit. In 1959, Guy found another #1 pop record by sucking the life out of Harlan Howard’s “Heartaches by the Number,” just after Ray Price had the country hit. By 1967, Guy Mitchell couldn’t get a hit if he ran out into the middle of the interstate, so Starday figured it’d be worth signing him and a bunch of other washed up pop singers to see if they could make anything happen. Maybe having Guy record a ripoff of Roger Miller’s “Engine Engine No. 9” just a couple years after Roger had the hit seemed like a good idea but “Traveling Shoes” didn’t make anything happen and neither did re-recordings of his two #1 hits from the previous decade. The other legacy pop acts signed to Starday were similarly unsuccessful.
In February of 1968, Glen Campbell won four Grammy awards – two in pop categories and two in country categories – so he was a pretty big deal when someone called Starday’s office saying they had unreleased Glen Campbell recordings they were willing to sell for $10,000. Don bit, paying ten grand for what ended up being a bunch of demo recordings from a decade earlier. There are records of internal correspondence proving Starday knew Glen Campbell would sue if they released these demoes but they did it anyway, figuring they’d sell enough copies to settle the lawsuit and still turn a profit. They were right. Campbell sued, yet Starday came out the other side of the settlement far ahead on the investment.
Again, Don Pierce was great at his job and exploited every opportunity to its maximum potential. There simply stopped being opportunities to exploit. Gimmicks, flukes, unreleased demos from the early careers of now-major stars – these were not replicable strategies a label could adopt as a business model. By the end of The ‘60s, Don knew he needed an exit. The one he found is way too complicated for this episode and better told whenever King Records has its day on this podcast. But the short version is Tommy Hill saw where all of this was headed and quit to take a job at MGM in 1968, the year Starday purchased King, another indie label, in order to sell both indie labels (plus subsidiaries and song catalogs) packaged together as Starday-King. This sale was finalized in 1970 for a little over $5 million. Starday-King managed to lose money for about a year and a half until the new owners decided to take the hit and sell at a loss, which is what the next buyers did two years after that, until the whole thing eventually landed back in the hands of… Tommy Hill. When his job at MGM didn’t work out, Tommy launched Gusto Records in 1972, then sold ownership of Gusto so he could focus solely on producing sessions for the label. In 1975, Gusto bought Starday-King for a mere $375,000. Over the years, Gusto similarly acquired many indie labels, like Little Darlin’, Chart, Musicor, etc. Gusto does still exist as something of an aggregate for all these catalogs, working reissues, placements and licensing deals. The labels purchased by Gusto usually cease to exist as standalone, functional entities pretty soon after being acquired. One interesting thing about Starday, though: they released their biggest-selling hit single ever after folding into Gusto, which means we get to talk about truckin’ songs.
Hot Shot Freight
Back in 1959 a truck driver, named Lonnie Irving, started sending tapes into Starday’s custom press service. Lonnie said his songs were about the people he met and things he saw while on the road. Hopefully, he was at least partly lying because, if he wasn’t, then “Pinball Machine” is about a trucker he met who was so desperately addicted to gambling on bingo pins, his family couldn’t afford food or heat, his children died and his wife killed herself. (You may recognize the melody as “Rye Whiskey,” “Jack o’ Diamonds” or “Way Up on Clinch Mountain,” if you’re familiar with Americanized versions of European folk songs with titles I cannot pronounce.) As a result of nothing more than Lonnie Irving using the pre-assembled promo kits from Starday to mail his song to radio stations, “Pinball Machine” was an instant hit. The record landed at a very fitting #13 on the country chart and BMI gave Lonnie an award in 1960. This was not the first hit with a truckin’ song (and we’re not having that argument today) but it was the first one on Starday, so Don Pierce told his other artists to consider releasing similar material.
In 1961, Starday released Jimmy Simpson’s “The Alcan Run.” In 1962, Tom O’Neal’s recording of “Sleeper Cab Blues” came out on Starday. Neither song was a hit. Then – in 1963, not on Starday – Dave Dudley dropped “Six Days on the Road.” It hit #2 country, went pop Top 40 and set the pace for truckin’ songs in the 1960s to make a slow climb toward semi-truck drivers finding themselves at the direct center of American pop culture in the following decade. For whatever reason, storytellers decided truckers were the ideal protagonists for their working class fantasies and Starday was once more in a position to capitalize on the foresight of Don Pierce. A month after Dave Dudley released “Six Days on the Road,” Bobby Sykes was in Starday Studios cutting “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves,” a song originally done by Doye O’Dell in 1952, followed by Sons of the Pioneers, then a pop version by Burl Ives and nobody touched it again until Don Pierce needed songs for a truckin’ compilation in the wake of Dave Dudley. “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” wound up being the title track of this first trucker comp. Following Starday’s playbook, the album cover had a full-frame color photo of a leggy truck stop waitress whose next customer could be seen through the window climbing down off a big rig in the parking lot. It sold about 10,000 copies a year for at least the first five years it was out. Small potatoes compared to major label numbers but enough to put Starday in the business of truckin’ songs for quite some time.
In 1964, The Willis Brothers had a Top 10 hit with “Give Me Forty Acres (To Turn This Rig Around).” Starday threw it on the hit pile for future compilations, scheduled more pretty lady photoshoots and kept right on truckin’. In this particular sub-genre, the label’s experience with flashy album covers gave them a pretty huge advantage and high curb appeal. As for the music itself, Don Pierce had long ago given Tommy Hill his most important instructions for producing a Starday session: “I want to hear the melody. I don’t want no hot licks in there.” To Don, Starday’s product was the singer and the song they were singing. No session musician, no matter how good they were, ever needed to put their instrument in the way of a song. As such, records cut in Starday’s studio tend to feature a clear vocal all the way at the front of the mix, which makes the singer easier to hear in noisy environments, like a crowded bar or the cab of a truck running a diesel engine.
In 1965, Webb Pierce’s old duet partner Red Sovine released his first #1 as a solo artist, “Giddyup Go,” a sappy recitation about a long-lost father and son who reconnect when they run into each other as truck drivers on the road. “Giddyup Go” being the final record Starday put at #1 while Don Pierce ran the show, it’s fair to assume this is around the time he started wondering if the best he could do was no longer good enough to stay in the business. Red Sovine’s next major hit with a trucking recitation was “Phantom 309,” a story even more farfetched than “Giddyup Go.” This time the narrator is a hitchhiker who gets picked up by a ghost truck driver in a ghost semi truck… or something to that effect. By the time “Phantom 309” went Top 10 in late 1967, Don had decided to get out of the business. After the sale (and all the resales) of the label, after it ended up back with Tommy Hill and Gusto, it was Red Sovine who released Starday’s final #1 country record. Sandwiched between C.W. McCall’s late-1975 #1 pop hit “Convoy” and the commercial peak of truckin’ culture in 1977 with Smokey and the Bandit, Red Sovine took a truck driver recitation all the way to Top 40 radio. For anyone who’s ever actually listened to CB radio for longer than 30 minutes, “Teddy Bear” is one of the most implausible stories of all time. But CB was still fairly new in 1976, so Red and his co-writers were able to get away with this emotionally manipulative yarn about a disabled boy with a dead dad getting on his CB radio to have a bunch of truck drivers abandon their routes and line up on his street to take turns giving the boy truck rides before leaving his mom with a bunch of money.
Gusto threw it on the hit pile for their next compilation.
Thank you for reading Cocaine & Rhinestones. Every episode is written entirely by me, Tyler Mahan Coe. Last season I asked everyone to share each episode with only one person and I asked you to prioritize doing that in person rather than simply posting about the podcast on social media. Well, obviously, the world is radically different this time around so I’m now going to ask the opposite of you. If you enjoyed this episode, please do talk about it on social media, message boards, chat rooms, videos, TikTok, wherever you’re interacting with people through your phone or online. If it doesn’t break any rules, you can post a link to this episode’s companion blog post on cocaineandrhinestones.com, where anyone who can’t or doesn’t want to listen to a podcast can read a transcript of the episode. Each post also contains information on my sources, some relevant pictures, sometimes video and always a complete list of all song excerpts in the episode, along with links to purchase the full songs if they are available online. While you’re on the website, be sure to check out whatever official podcast merch is currently available in the store. If you’re listening soon after the release of this episode, there should be several shirt designs and all kinds of other good stuff. Alternately, you can support the podcast by signing up for the Patreon to gain access to ad-free versions of every episode as well as the entire archive of behind-the-scenes work journals I’ve posted every month since the end of the first season.
Aside from the general state of the world, there are several major differences between Season 1 and Season 2 of this podcast. I’m not going to talk about all of them today because there are a lot of things I want people to discover as we go but one thing that’s different is the average length of each episode in Season 2 is significantly longer than the average length of episodes in Season 1. In order to make sure as many people as possible have time to listen to each episode in full before the next one is released (and in order to give myself the additional time needed to create these longer episodes), there will be a two week gap between releases instead of the one week gap of Season 1. I know there are people who won’t be happy about this but I don’t care. This decision was made to prioritize launching the season as early as possible. It was either put a two week gap in the release schedule or delay the beginning of the season by however many more months it would have taken for me to make the entire thing ahead of time. Again, I’m certain some listeners would rather I had done that, just like I’m certain some listeners would rather the whole season be released at once Netflix-style but that is not what’s going to happen because this is what’s going to happen. Anyone having a really hard time waiting on the next episode, I can wholeheartedly recommend re-listening to whatever episodes have been released, as doing so will only improve your enjoyment of those episodes, the next episode to come out and the season as a whole.
When the podcast does return in two weeks, I will be talking about Owen Bradley. This is a name that means many different things to many different people. It’s also a name that means a lot to some people and very little to others. Most of you who recognize the name Owen Bradley have seen it on the records he produced for artists like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Brenda Lee and Conway Twitty. What we’ll look at in the next episode is how, when and why his work came to be incredibly misunderstood and Owen Bradley came to be regarded as a villain by many fans of country music. This is a pretty big can of worms to crack open and I’m excited about doing it.
This episode featured excerpts from the following songs, in this order [with links to purchase or stream where available]:
- Red Foley – “Pinball Boogie” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Hank Locklin – “Pinball Millionaire” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Lonnie Irving – “Pinball Machine” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Webb Pierce – “Heebie Jeebie Blues” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Hank Lockin – “The Song of the Whispering Leaves” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Lefty Frizzell – “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time)” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Arlie Duff – “Y’all Come” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bing Crosby – “Y’all Come” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “For Sale or For Lease” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “If You Were Mine” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Play It Cool, Man, Play It Cool” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “You’re in My Heart” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “No Money in This Deal” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Sonny Burns – “A Place for Girls Like You” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Arlie Duff – “Back to the Country” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Sonny Burns – “Heartbroken Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Red Hayes – “A Satisfied Mind” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Jean Shepard – “A Satisfied Mind” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Red Foley – “A Satisfied Mind” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Porter Wagoner – “A Satisfied Mind” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “What’s Wrong with You” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Painless Heart” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Roy Acuff – “Is It Love or Is It Lies?” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “What Am I Worth” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Why Baby Why” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Seasons of My Heart” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Jimmy C. Newman – “Seasons of My Heart” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Johnny Cash – “Seasons of My Heart” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Webb Pierce & Red Sovine – “Why Baby Why” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & unknown artist – “Running Wild” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Elvis Presley – “Heartbreak Hotel” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Heartbreak Hotel” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “How Come It” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Glenn Barber – “Ice Water” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Sonny Fisher – “Pink and Black” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Glenn Barber – “Shadow My Baby” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Elvis Presley – “Teddy Bear” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Jerry Lee Lewis – “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- The Everly Bros. – “Wake Up Little Susie” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Ray Price – “I’ll Be There When You Get Lonely” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Ray Price – “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Ray Price – “City Lights” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Just One More” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Benny Barnes – “Poor Man’s Riches” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Wayne Raney – “We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus (And a Lot Less Rock and Roll)” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Willie Nelson – “No Place for Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Slim Willet – “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Perry Como – “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Goldie Hill – “I Let the Stars Get in My Eyes” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tommy Hill – “Oil on My Land” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Frankie Miller – “Blackland Farmer” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- The Stanley Bros. – “Rank Stranger” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bill Clifton – “Moonshiner” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Charlie Monroe – “Down in the Willow Garden” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Buzz Busby – “Lonesome Wind” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bashful Brother Oswald – “Black Smoke” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- The Kingston Trio – “Tom Dooley” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Grayson & Whitter – “Tom Dooley” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Henry Whitter – “Lonesome Road Blues” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Johnny Bond – “Ten Little Bottles” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Guy Mitchell – “My Heart Cries for You” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Guy Mitchell – “Singing the Blues” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Guy Mitchell – “Heartaches by the Number” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Guy Mitchell – “Traveling Shoes” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Glen Campbell – “For the Love of a Woman” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Jimmy Simpson – “Alcan Run” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tom O’Neal – “Sleeper Cab Blues” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Dave Dudley – “Six Days on the Road” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bobby Sykes – “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Doye O’Dell – “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Sons of the Pioneers – “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Burl Ives – “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- The Willis Bros. – “Give Me 40 Acres to Turn This Rig Around” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Red Sovine – “Giddy Up Go” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Red Sovine – “Phantom 309” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Red Sovine – “Teddy Bear” [Amazon / Apple Music]
These videos were excerpted in the episode. For any number of reasons, YouTube may remove them in the future but here they are for now:
Commentary and Remaining Sources
The pinball machine sounds in the beginning were from Joker Poker, one of my favorite classic tables. The clip of the mobsters intimidating a soda shop owner about installing some pin games was from an old movie called Bullets or Ballots. And, of course, that clip of Fiorello LaGuardia was just some speech that he gave in which he happened to use the word “machine” and I thought that’d be cool to use. I did read a book called Pinball Wizards by Adam Ruben and some of the info came from there but that book is not really anything like what I did with this intro. There’s a little history but it’s mostly about how the author gets addicted to pinball and gets into competitive play. Really, I didn’t need much of a source for this intro because I’ve been playing pinball my whole life. For all the reasons mentioned, it seems like there were always machines around in the kind of places where I grew up. So a lot of my awareness of the history of pinball just comes from a lifetime of talking to other people who play it. And I did all my usual fact-checking before saying any of those things, using many sources readily available to anyone who runs a quick internet search.
It didn’t really make sense to use a clip of it but if it’s been bothering anyone trying to figure out where they’ve heard Lonnie Irving’s “Pinball Machine” before there’s a chance you heard a recording of The Fall covering it live, as Mark E. Smith was a big fan.
Red Sovine’s “Teddy Bear” is so objectively terrible that I didn’t want to end an episode full of mostly great music by bumming everyone out but if the way I talk about “Teddy Bear” seems excessively harsh in the context of the clip you heard, go ahead and listen to the whole song to have your day ruined.
On the topic of soundalikes, another way labels tried to confuse fans from being able to identify who they were hearing was by using the same pseudonym for multiple singers. So George Jones had soundalikes issued under the names Hank Smith and Thumper Jones but so did Leon Payne. There’s one side of a Dixie EP that has George Jones doing “Heartbreak Hotel” and Leon Payne doing “Folsom Prison Blues” – both credited to Thumper Jones – along with the “original hit recording” of “Seasons of My Heart,” credited to George Jones. Oh, and that soundalike of The Louvin Brothers’ hit with “Running Wild” was, of course, sung by an uncredited George Jones and some other unknown vocalist.
The song “Why Baby Why” was also recorded by Hank Locklin in 1956 and he also had a Top 10 hit with it. Then, almost 30 years later, Charley Pride took it to #1 again, so I’d say that’s a pretty great country song.
I couldn’t find out enough about what happened to bring this up in the main episode but Bill Starnes, Jack’s son who engineered Starday’s recording sessions when he was just a teenager, apparently robbed a bank in late 1956 and this somehow led to his mother Neva being arrested. If anyone out there knows anything more about this, I would definitely appreciate any information because nothing about it makes much sense to me and I’d love to know what really happened there.
Music publishing is a pretty confusing thing to a lot of people so I wanted to specify that Don Pierce walked away from the Starday split with 50% of the publisher’s share of George Jones compositions. It was only after listening that I realized some people could misunderstand what I said to mean Don took money that would’ve otherwise gone to George Jones, which was not the case. And the reason I could see some people hearing it that way is Don Pierce is another one of those music industry guys who has a reputation for being pretty ruthless in his business dealings…
There’s a story about Frankie Miller’s “Blackland Farmer” being signed over to Don Pierce in a way some people feel is unethical. I have not looked into Frankie Miller as deeply as others, specifically Jimmie McDonough, but I have seen Frankie Miller allude to whatever deal he made with Don Pierce and Frankie himself doesn’t seem to believe he was taken advantage of. Don Pierce was absolutely a business-minded, budget-conscious hustler but I do feel it’s important to draw a distinction between characters like him and characters like his old boss, Bill McCall at 4 Star. Looking back on this industry, there will always be outdated practices and philosophies which seem predatory from a modern perspective but were accepted at the time. That’s different from people engaging in behavior that was viewed as unethical even at the time they were doing it. Most of the stories people tell about getting mad at Bill McCall end with them staying mad at Bill McCall. Most stories people tell about getting mad at Don Pierce end with them not being mad at him anymore, either because Don made it right or because, at the end of the day, you just had to accept and laugh about where his priorities were.
There’s a pretty great story in a 1965 issue of The Tennesseean newspaper where an unnamed musician says Don Pierce invited a bunch of industry people out to a lake in the Nashville area for a BBQ. Everyone gets out there, the grill’s goin’, people are drinking beer… Someone eventually says something to Don about how nice it is to be out there by the lake and Don mentions they just so happen to be hanging out near some lots of land he owns and is trying to sell. So, if they’d like to have a reason to come out to the lake more often, then maybe they should talk business. That’s just Don Pierce.
Okay, Season 2 uses information from the same group of reference books I’ve collected on The Library page of the Cocaine & Rhinestones website in order to not have to talk about the same 15 or so books in every episode’s Liner Notes. However, there is also going to be a separate Season 2 Library page on the website for the same reason. Those of you who want to avoid spoilers for the entire season should probably steer clear of that Season 2 Library page until you’ve read another four or five episodes but I will be discussing my sources from that page as they become relevant in the Liner Notes of each episode.
Naturally, one of my main sources for this episode was a book I mentioned last season, titled The Starday Story: The House That Country Music Built, by Nathan D. Gibson. My opinion of this book has not changed. It is still a phenomenal resource. As much information was in this episode, there’s still so much more in that book for anyone interested in the history of Starday. This label existed for decades. There are Starday artists and many stories I didn’t even mention. For example, a guy named Peck Touchton had his only song released on Starday accidentally placed on the mislabeled b-side of a George Jones single. Apparently Jack Starnes tried to warn Don Pierce about the mistake in a letter but, due to some kind of car accident, the letter didn’t make it to Don in time. There are dozens more pieces like this in Nathan’s book. If you liked a lot of the clips in this episode, there were quite a few more songs on the list of things I thought I may possibly use and Nathan’s book is really one of those where you’re gonna want to take it, sit down on YouTube and just listen to all the songs he mentions. You’re probably gonna find something you haven’t heard before that you really like.
The other primary source for this episode is the Bear Family box set of George Jones’ Complete Starday and Mercury Recordings. George Jones is the biggest artist who was associated with Starday for the longest period of time, so a lot of people who write about his Starday years will often throw in little tidbits of info that become relevant to other artists or musicians who were involved. There are a lot of times where that stuff completes pieces of a puzzle I’ve been trying to put together. Bear Family box sets usually come with pretty informative booklets but this one comes with an actual hardcover book by Kevin Coffey and this book was a truly great resource. Even just the data on George Jones’ recording sessions in the back of the book was something I went back to dozens of times to make sure about the dates things happened and which people were involved but there were also many little facts about other artists which plugged right into other threads I wanted to follow. Kevin’s book from that box set definitely made this episode easier to put together.
As mentioned, Neil Rosenberg’s book Bluegrass: A History was one of my main sources for the bluegrass segment and is the definitive work on the genre. If you enjoyed the clips during that segment or the stories about bluegrass becoming a huge fad, that book is highly recommended reading material. As always, there is so much more to the story. Neil’s book will continue to be a source frequently used on this podcast.
Lastly, one of the reasons Season 2 took longer than I expected and became larger than I expected is because I was invited to research in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s archives. This is not a thing I knew existed when I made Season 1 of the show. The volume and quality of information available in those archives is far beyond anything I could have expected. However many hours I spent in there taking notes as quickly as I could before closing time, it took probably ten times as many hours at home to unpack those notes, research the additional avenues they opened up and plug everything in to the stories I’m trying to tell. As such, there’s really no way for me to distinguish between information which should and shouldn’t be attributed to the time I spent in those archives. While this podcast is not officially associated or partnered with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, it’s only right for me to mention them as a source for every episode going forward. If you’ve never been to the museum, please do visit them when you come to Nashville. If you are a writer or researcher, I cannot stress how important it is for you to use those archives.
Okay, that’s it. Get ready for Owen Bradley because telling his story requires upending a huge portion of the written history on the entire genre of country music. Long story short, I’m about to start a whole lot of arguments everyone should have had quite some time ago.