Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Hawkshaw Hawkins, Car Hoppin' Mama.
Carl Smith with the Tunesmiths, Baby I'm Ready.
Webb Pierce and Red Sovine, Why Baby Why.

For a brief moment in the mid-1950s, country music was up for grabs. The past success of harder-edged honky-tonk records and the growing, inescapable presence of Elvis Presley meant that for many country musicians, the way forward was to stomp out even wilder music. But that proved to be an illusion, because in the next few years Nashville execs and producers realized there was a lot more money to be found in crafting ornate, heavily-produced pop/country ballads; thus the rock & rollers were hived off from country "purists", with only the likes of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard left in the next decade to keep things a little frayed.

So enjoy some remnants of a time when "rock & roll" and "hillbilly bop" and even "country/western" were almost interchangeable categories.

First, Hawkshaw Hawkins' take on Hank Thompson's "Car Hoppin' Mama" (maybe it's my sordid mind, but doesn't this sound like an ode to a prostitute? (a rock & roll tradition, if so). The lyrics are weirdly vague about what exactly the singer's girl is up to, besides having a smile that "gets her tips", but hell, he plans to marry her and get her off the beat in any case). While the track is fairly traditional in tone-- dominated by fiddle and steel guitar--Hawkins' smooth delivery gives it a more modern feel.

Harold "Hawkshaw" Hawkins was born in Huntington, West Va., in 1921 and began recording for King Records in the late 1940s. After a dry spell, he signed with RCA, where he served as a utility player--applying his rich voice to whatever they threw at him, ranging from ballads to honky-tonk tunes to R&B covers. Sadly, just as he was enjoying the biggest hit in his career, "Lonesome 7-7203", he was killed in 1963 in the same plane crash that took the lives of Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas.

"Car Hoppin' Mama" was recorded in Nashville on May 27, 1955, with Chet Atkins on guitar, Walter Haynes on steel and Tommy Jackson and Grady Martin on fiddle. It was released in August as RCA 6211. You used to be able to find it on the now out-of-print Legends of Honky Tonk; now Hawkins, like a lot of 1940s and 1950s country stars, is represented on CD either by massively expensive boxed sets or inferior cut-rate compliations. In any case, "Car Hoppin' Mama" appears to be available nowhere legitimately, so enjoy.

We've already met Carl Smith, the not-quite-heir apparent to Hank Williams, back in the 1953 survey. Smith had movie star looks and a deep, full-throated voice (at this time, he was married to June Carter) but his popularity ebbed with the decade. Still, here's a rocking track, recorded with the Tunesmiths (who included Sammy Pruett, Johnny Sibert and Jimmy Smith on guitars, Dale Potter on fiddle, Bill Simmons on piano and Buddy Harman on drums).

This is the rarer first take of "Baby I'm Ready", recorded in Dallas on Feb. 2, 1955, and released as Columbia 21411 in July. A remade version became a hit a year later. The only place this track is on CD currently is on the colossal Satisfaction Guaranteed set.

And here's Webb Pierce, who's a little cornier than the other singers but still delivers the goods. "Why Baby Why" was written by George Jones and his friend Darrell Edwards; weirdly, the track is basically a Red Sovine recording, as Webb comes in only on harmony vocals on the chorus, yet Webb received top credit and the song is generally remembered as a Pierce hit. In any case, it's a fine song--recorded on October 27, 1955 and released as Decca 29480. On King of the Honky Tonk. Sovine has a bunch of CDs available here.

This post is dedicated to the Rev. Frost, who's been enduring a string of bad luck so far this year. Hang in there, Rev.

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