Despite the almost phenomenal broadening of country music's popularity in the last decade, its past can bring an embarrassed grin to even its current fans. Cliche'd Opry-style images of hayseeds in overalls barely reaching their knees, all straining from some unearthly adenoidal harmony, belie country's incredibly complex and variegated musical history.
When major record companies have waxed historical, the objects of their archival devotion typically have been jazz, blues or early rock 'n' roll. Now, however, Columbia Records has initiated a new historical series with the release of albums by six major country artists of the 1935-1955 period--Gene Autry, the Sons of the Pioneers, Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, Flatt and Scruggs and Lefty Frizell. With nicely illustrated covers, old photos, good liner notes and session details, these albums mark an auspicious debut for what hopefully will be a continuing series of higher caliber country reissues.
Ironically, it may be the album by the biggest of these stars, "Gene Autry" (Columbia FC 37465), that provides the least musical pleasure for contemporary listeners. Autry, who achieved incredible success as America's first and biggest singing-cowboy-cum-movie-star, is represented here by both the western songs and sentimental ballads that were his staple. All of these songs, including some of Autry's biggest hits, such as "It Makes No Difference Now," feature the simple acoustic backing and unadorned vocal style that underlie his success. Autry's singing, like his movie image, had a soothing, honest tone that, while perhaps short on dynamics or nuance, was both convincing and reassuring to his legions of fans in a period marked by economic failure and war.
A much more evocative and musically intricate approach to cowboy music can be heard on "Sons of the Pioneers" (Columbia FC 37439), a collection of some of this legendary vocal group's recordings from when Roy Rogers was still a member. Featuring the smooth harmonic interplay of Rogers, Bob Nolan and Lloyd Perryman and drawing on Nolan's exceptional songwriting skills (he penned classics like "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and "Cool Water"), the album conjures up images of a gloriously romantic West full of lonesome cowpokes heading into final sunsets. Part of the pleasure of the Pioneers' music came from the supple fiddle and guitar work of Hugh and Karl Farr, who are featured on the instrumental, "Cajon Stomp."
Along with cowboy music, the late '30s and '40s brought popularity to country-jazz hybrid called western swing, and the style's undisputed master, Bob Wills. "Bob Wills" (Columbia FC 37468) presents a number of Wills' bands from this period, most fronted by the beautifully controlled singing of Tommy Duncan. Wills' deft fiddle work is ever present, as are his characteristic comic asides ("aah haaa"), as he calls out for the sizzling jazz and blues breaks that help render this style, of all country styles, the most durable. These 10 songs feature some of Wills' most famous musicians, including Al Stricklin (piano), Leon McAuliffe and Herb Remington (steel guitar) and Jesse Ashlock (fiddle). A special treat is "I Ain't Got Nobody," Tommy Duncan's yodeling tribute to Emmett Miller, one of country music's most influential (yet obscure) pioneers. Epic's recent and excellent compilation, "Okeh Western Swing" (Epic E637324), presents Miller's startlingly original 1928 rendition of "Lovesick Blues," and that cut alone makes the album worth the price of admission.
A less noteworthy but nonetheless enjoyable collection of western swing is provided on "Spade Cooley" (Columbia FC 37467). The Los Angeles-based swing bands of Cooley were every bit as popular as Wills' bands in the '40s, often drawing 5,000-10,000 fans to the area's dance ballrooms. As befits his Hollywood image, Cooley developed a slicker, more commercial brand of western swing, led by the smooth pop balladeering of Tex Williams. The music here, including Cooley's big 1945 hit, "Shame on You," eschews much of the black and rural musical stylizations that make Bob Wills' sound so rich. Instead, Cooley's sound was dominated by the pop conventions of the mainstream jazz bands of the time.
By the late '40s, cowboy music and western swing were in decline and a new style called honky-tonk, originating largely in east Texas, was gaining popularity. "Lefty Frizell" (Columbia FC 37466) presents 10 early recordings (including several big hits) by the Texas singer-songwriter who is considered by many the finest honky-tonk singer ever and one of the most original and influential stylists in country history. On songs like "Always Late" and "I Love You a Thousand Ways," Frizell's delicate bluesy drawl and intimate phrasing don't so much deliver a song as draw the listener into Frizell's brokenhearted world. This collection is not only an excellent introduction to Frizell's art, it is strong evidence that Frizell may be the most subtle and emotive singer in country's history and surely one deserving of more extensive reissue.
Instrumentally, bluegrass music has always been country's strongest tie between its present and its origins, which lie partly with the traditional string bands of the Appalachian mountains. No group did more to popularize the music into an international phenomenon than Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Listening to the '50s recording on "Flatt and Scruggs" (Columbia FC 37469), it is still easy to marvel at flawless execution and instrumental verve, often at breakneck speed, achieved by this legendary group. And what a group of virtuosi--Scruggs' innovative three-finger banjo style, Chubby Wise or Benny Martin's soaring fiddle, Buck Graves' rapid-fire dobro playing and Flatt's bass runs on the guitar and his beautiful, high, clipped singing--all contributed to a kind of creative ensemble musicianship that transcends labels like bluegrass and country music.