Willis Brothers: Giants of Diesel

When you think of truck-driving country classics, the names of four artists should come readily to mind:  Dave Dudley, Red Sovine, Red Simpson … and The Willis Brothers!  Brotherly harmonies + offbeat humor + trucker tales = a winning sound and track record.

“Give Me Forty Acres (To Turn This Rig Around)” would put The Willis Brothers on the musical map in 1964 with a Top 10 Country hit that would go all the way to #1 in Canada.

Willis Brothers 45-bAn album of the same name with a pronounced truck-driving theme would follow in 1965, as well as another in 1967 Travelin’ & Truck Driver Hits (recycled + new tracks) plus one last stellar effort Hey Mister Truck Driver! in 1968.

   Essential truck driving LP #1                    Essential truck driving LP #2

Willis Brothers LP-aaWillis Brothers LP-bb           1967 LP = old + new tracks               Willis Brothers in blue suits – LP cover

Willis Brothers LP-ccWillis Brothers LP-dd

Nathan D. Gibson would note in The Starday Story: The House That Country Music Built:

“[Suzanne] Mathis [graphic designer co-responsible for Starday truck driving covers], like many others, got her job at Starday through her neighbor and accordionist, Vic Willis.  The youngest of the Grand Ole Opry’s Willis Brothers trio, John ‘Vic’ Willis was both a recording artist and a song scout for Starday throughout the mid-sixties.  He was also a career counselor on the side.  He convinced [Starday head, Don] Pierce to employ several of his friends and at one point he even had Shot Jackson’s daughter, Arlene, and three of the Willis Brothers’ wives working at Starday.

The Willis Brothers — Charles ‘Skeeter,’ James ‘Guy’ and John ‘Viv’ — began playing professionally in 1932 and already had an impressive resume before joining Starday in 1960.  Aside from making their own recordings for Mercury, Coral, Sterling, and RCA Victor (as the Oklahoma Wranglers), they also backed the immortal Hank Williams on his first recordings for the Sterling label (as the Original Drifting Cowboys), as well as Eddy Arnold for eight years at the peak of his career (1948-57).  By the time they joined the Opry in 1960, they were again known as the Willis Brothers and that same year began a relationship with Starday.”

The Willis Brothers would release an impressive number of classic truck-driving 45s on Starday going all the way back to 1961 (i.e., pre-“Six Days on the Road”):

Two Willis Brothers “non-truck driving” albums would yield a pair of classic diesel tracks – “Soft Shoulders, Dangerous Curves” from 1966’s Goin’ South and “Drivin’s In My Blood” from (previously-mentioned) 1968 LP Bob.

Note:  B-side “When I Come Driving Through” not yet available for preview on YouTube

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle to hear “When I Come Driving Through” by The Willis Bros.]

check out the Peter Max-inspired cover for 1973 MGM single “Truck Stop”

Willis Brothers 45-aThanks to “outlaw” voices in country music on “renegade” labels, such as Starday and Shelby Singleton’s Plantation Records, the “new social awareness” would begin to inform the country rockin’ scene by the late 1960s.  1970 would see the release of wry 45 “Women’s Liberation”:

Willis Brothers 45-cSurprise!   Live rendition of “Women’s Liberation” on TV’s Porter Wagoner Show – 1974:

Leon’s “Steel Guitar Chimes”

Zero to 180 couldn’t take it any more, so it added a new category – steel guitar – and instantly populated a set of 25 pieces from the past three years that feature many of the world’s foremost steel guitarists, including today’s post, which is the first to highlight the work of Leon McAuliffe, one of the first players to use multi-neck steel guitars (as well as different tunings on each neck, according to Brad’s Pages of Steel).

Nice to see that the Texas State Historical Association has a biographical profile of the famed steel guitarist bandleader and one-time Bob Wills sideman, Leon McAuliffe, for whom Wills coined the famous phrase, “Take it away, Leon!”  Good ol’ PragueFrank confirms that the gently rockin’ “Steel Guitar Chimes” was recorded in either 1958 or 1960, possibly in Dallas, TX:

“Steel Guitar Chimes”     Leon McAuliff(e)     1958?

“Steel Guitar Chimes” would actually be included on a different Starday LP – Mister Western Swing, released 1962 – than the one pictured in the video clip above

Leon McAuliff Starday LP-aaBillboard would review Mister Western Swing in its June 23, 1962 “Music Week” column:

“Leon McAuliff and His Cimarron Boys turn in a fine flock of performances here on such Western classics as ‘Steel Guitar Rag,’ ‘Panhandle Rag,’ ‘Waterbaby Boogie,’ ‘Steel Guitar Chimes,’ and ‘Cimarron Rag.’  McAuliff infuses them with his inimitable Western dance band beat. featuring sock steel guitar work.  A solid set for Western fans and one that could grab plenty of pop action as well.”

“Steel Guitar Chimes” originally began life as a 78 released in 1938 by Roy Acuff And His Crazy Tennesseans, featuring the dobro work of Cousin Jody (née, James Clell Summey).

Link to 7-minute video documentary, The Steel Guitar Rag Story with Leon McAuliffe. about the origins of Leon’s classic steel guitar instrumental.

One question that will likely never get settled:  is Leon’s surname spelled “McAuliff” (as it says on the album cover for Starday LP Swingin’ Western Strings of Leon McAuliff) or “McAuliffe” like it says most everywhere else?

“Ode to Big Joe”: Big Joe Talbot, That’s Who

Thanks to the contributor of YouTube’s only audio clip of “Ode to Big Joe,” I now know which country singers are being affectionately parodied by The Willis Brothers in this song. Question:  Can you close your eyes and identify the four country legends being spoofed?

Answer:   Hank Snow (the song’s narrator), Johnny Cash (the hummer), Ernest Tubb (Texan who sings a little flat) & Tex Ritter (the goofy one who falls asleep by line’s end).

Written by Jack Clement (with truck driving classic, “Drivin’s in My Blood” on the flip side), “Ode to Big Joe” was released as a 45 at the top of 1968, a banner year – as noted earlier – for the musical trucking genre.

“Ode to Big Joe” is a tongue-in-cheek tip of the hat to steel guitarist, Big Joe Talbot, who we last encountered at a 1955 overdubbing session for a 1930 Jimmie Rodgers flip-side.

Key Question:  Did Big Joe really – as The Willis Brothers sing – put the soap suds in the fountain at the Country Music Association in Music City USA?

Hank Snow Music Center, Once Managed by Talbot – closest thing to a photo of Joe

Big Joe Talbot

This piece by Robert K. Oermann – “Country Music Advocate Dies” – was posted on Steel Guitar Forum March 25, 2000, the day after Joe Talbot’s passing:

Joe Talbot, one of the Nashville entertainment industry’s last remaining champions of traditional country music, died yesterday at age 72.

As a record manufacturer, song publisher, SESAC performance-rights executive and musician, Mr. Talbot contributed to the development of Music Row for more than 50 years.  He was lifetime director, past board chairman and past president of the Country Music Association.  He was also a past Board Chairman of the Country Music Foundation, which operates the Country Music Hall of Fame.  Joe Talbot would have turned 73 today.

Mr. Talbot also served on the boards of the Recording Academy, the Gospel Music Association, the Nashville Better Business Bureau and SunTrust Bank.  “You won’t find anybody who doesn’t love Joe Talbot,” said legendary session guitarist Ray Edenton yesterday.  His forthright opinions were invariably delivered in his booming country baritone, rich with humor and warmth.  He was particularly outspoken about the roots of country music and his dislike of Music City’s pop-crossover record making.  “Country music is like a religion to me,” he elaborated during a 1995 interview.  “I get very emotional about it, to the point of tears; it stirs me that deeply.”

Born in 1927, the Nashville native served in the Army in 1945-46. In 1950 he realized his youthful ambition by becoming the steel guitarist in the band of future Country Music Hall of Fame member Hank Snow.  He performed on the Grand Ole Opry with Snow in 1951-52 and continued to tour and record with the superstar until 1954.

“Back then — the ’40s and the ’50s — there was no money.  Those of us who were in the business were in it because we loved it, and because we had to do it.   It was an obsession.  As I recall, to go on the road and play was $10 a day and out of that we had to buy our food and clothes.  Lordy, record sessions paid $41.45, and I’ll have to say this:  There never has been a pill that would give anybody a high like I used to get playing on those record sessions.  I would actually get chill bumps.  It didn’t make any difference about the money. I was getting to do what I wanted to do and best of all, I could turn the radio on and hear myself played back.”

During this same time, Mr. Talbot attended Vanderbilt University Law School, from which he graduated in 1952.  He floundered in business for a number of years before establishing United Record Pressing in 1967.  The company boomed as the manufacturer of vinyl discs for Elvis Presley and the million-selling Motown Records acts.  In 1967 Mr. Talbot also became the manager of SESAC’s Nashville operations.  SESAC is a performance rights organization similar to BMI and ASCAP.   He remained there until 1971.

Mr. Talbot’s other ventures have included Harbot Music in 1965-67.  This company published the songs of Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Ted Harris.  He also owned a prominent Music Row office building.  In 1991, Joe Talbot was recognized by the Nashville Entertainment Association with its Master Award.  The honor represented the deep affection that the music community had for him, as well as his contributions to the creation of the Nashville show-business industry.  Joe Talbot is the second of the CMA Lifetime Board members who has died, after Wesley Rose — the original five were Mr. Talbot, Mr. Rose, Bill Denny, Frances Preston and Ralph Peer Jr.

“Baby Rocked Her Dolly”: Frankie (Miller) & Johnny (Horton)

Merle Kilgore really brings the pathos on an original composition that absolutely could have come from the canon of Johnny Cash:

“Baby Rocked Her Dolly” was also covered by Starday labelmates, Frankie Miller (1960) and Red Sovine (1967).  However, for his own version, Kilgore wisely decides to begin — just as George Martin did on “She Loves You” — with the chorus, and to great effect.

Baby Rocked Her Dolly 45Thanks to Nathan D. Gibson, author of The Starday Story:  The House That Country Music Built for the back story on this song:

“[Starday co-founder, Don] Pierce and [singer, Frankie] Miller had found success with a clean, wholesome image, and Miller continued to record down-home, earthy songs.  With his second release after “Family Man,” Miller again found himself in the national charts, this time with ‘Baby Rocked Her Dolly’ reaching Billboard’s #15 spot.  According to Miller, “We definitely tried to keep a family image.  ‘Black Land Farmer.’  ‘Family Man.’  The next one we had was ‘Reunion.’  And then ‘Baby Rocked Her Dolly’ which was a good chart song for me, one that Merle Kilgore wrote.  He originally wrote it for Johnny Horton.  Well, I was gonna record next week, and we was doing the Louisiana Hayride one Saturday.  Johnny was in the restroom and I went in and asked him, ‘Johnny, you got any songs, boy?  I need some material.  I’m fixin’ to record next week.’  He said, ‘I got a good song here for you.  Merle Kilgore wrote it for me but I’m not going to be able to cut it anytime soon.’  So he taught it to me backstage at the Louisiana Hayride and I recorded it the next week.  That was another Bradley’s [Owen Bradley’s Quonset hut] cut.”

“Baby Rocked Her Dolly” was included on Merle Kilgore’s 1963 Starday LP, There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills.

“Bob”: The Willis Brothers, Not Weird Al

“Bob” is the title track of a Willis Brothers album released on the Starday label in 1967:

Bob - Willis Brothers LPThe song is written from the perspective of Bob’s wayward pal, who playfully chides him for choosing the path of domesticity rather than remaining carefree and unencumbered:

“Remember the good ol’ days ’round the ‘Frisco yards, Bob?   For you, they’re gone,” the song taunts.  Bob’s friend, the song’s protagonist, is staying with Bob for a short visit – telling stories of the past, stoking the fires of wanderlust and making Bob’s wife nervous.  But then, in a nice ironic twist, the friend surprises us by informing Bob:

“Just forget all the talk, Bob, about the good ol’ days.  ‘Cause your wife is a little bit scared, Bob, you want to be free.  But you and me both know, Bob, you’re better off than me.  Remember those cold nights out in the ‘Frisco yards, Bob – and the hard cold ground?”

Album produced by Jack Clement, who also wrote “Bob” – along with Vincent Matthews.   Is it really true that “Bob” would serve double duty as both title track and B-side?

Bob - Willis Brothers 45Song title would be commandeered 36 years later by Weird Al for his brilliant Dylan spoof.

“Gibson Girl”: Actually, Billy Byrd’s a Gibson Guy

Guitarist Billy Byrd – according to Ernest Tubbs‘ biographer, Ronnie Pugh – ”came from a pop and jazz background, and there were some people who were leery of the notion that he could play country with Tubb.  [But] he did it and did it well.  The ten years Billy was in the [Texas Troubadours] band, (1949-59) he did practically all of the instrumental breaks.”

Billy Byrd

Sometime in October 1961, Billy Byrd recorded six songs at the Starday Sound Studio in Nashville – including “Gibson Girl“:

“Gibson Girl”     Billy Byrd    1961

Billy Byrd + Hank Garland = Gibson Byrdland

With the input of guitar greats, Billy Byrd and Hank Garland, Gibson’s then-President, Ted McCarty, developed and debuted the Gibson Byrdland electric archtop guitar in 1955, three years before the better-known ES-335.  Gibson.com points out that the Byrdland was reintroduced as a limited run in 1977, 1978 & 1992 – primarily as a result of the popularity of Ted Nugent, who himself wielded a Byrdland in tribute to Jimmy McCarty of Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels.

Gibson Byrdland

“Springfield Guitar Social”: Who’s Who of Guitar Wizardry

If you’re pressed for time but curious to know more about the stringed instrument masters who inspired and laid the groundwork for the the classic rock generation to come, here is a two-and-a-half minute Cliffs Notes guide that demonstrates Thumbs Carllile‘s uncanny ability to play in the style of such guitarists as Grady Martin, Jimmy Bryant, Les Paul, George Barnes, Chet Atkins, Hank Garland, Speedy West, Billy Byrd – and himself:

This musical roll call of fleet-fingered axe-pickers was recorded in 1958 and released on Starday in 7-inch as well as 12-inch form.

At No Extra Cost

If you’ve never seen Thumbs Carllile play, then you’re really in for a treat.  As it turns out, Stanley Jordan wasn’t the first person to approach playing the guitar like a piano.  Check out this exhilarating version of “Li’l Liza Jane” from Bill Wemberly & His Country Rhythm Boys, featuring the dual guitar wizardry of Thumbs Carllile and Curly Chalker from Red Foley’s “Ozark Jubilee” TV show.

“Western Limited Boogie”: Boogie Woogie Western-Style

Found a hot Texas swing instrumental called “Western Limited Boogie” on a Starday cassette about which little to no information exists.  The front cover indicates this is part of a series called “Best of the Instrumentals,” and the volume that I own is called Texas Style Instruments. The featured artist on this blazing instrumental cannot be the twin vocalists, Pee Wee King & Redd Stewart (as it says on the label) but rather Pee Wee’s ace ensemble, The Golden West Cowboys:

Western Limited Boogie – Pee Wee King & Golden West Cowboys

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to hear “Western Limited Boogie” by Pee Wee King & The Golden West Cowboys.]

I am reading a fascinating history of the storied Starday label – The Starday Story:  The House That Country Built – by Nathan Gibson in collaboration with one of Starday’s founders, Don Pierce.  The book includes a selected discography of Starday recordings, and I had hoped that I would find out something about this obscure instrumental by the Golden West Cowboys so that I could say, “See kids – it still pays to read books!”   But alas, the book simply states that Pee Wee King was “among the new crop of country music legends to appear on Starday LPs in the mid-sixties.”Texas-Style Instruments - Starday

To find a live western swing recording, especially of this high fidelity, on a 1960s Starday compilation is a bit unusual.   I would love to know if other instrumentals by The Golden West Cowboys are in the Starday vaults somewhere or have enjoyed release on other vinyl/tape offerings.

Postscript:

As Starday historian, Nathan Gibson, points out, not only was it not unusual for Starday to release live recordings, Starday was, in fact, “one of the pioneering country labels releasing live recordings (from the Big D Jamboree, from K.C. benefit shows, from the Nashville Disc Jockey convention Starday shows, as well as many in-studio live albums). They are fun to find and hear, though due to their success, Starday in later years began issuing a lot of ‘live’ albums with studio tracks and added applause. Be wary of some of those. The only way to know, though, is to buy it and find out.”

It would appear I have a gaping hole in my Starday record collection.

Also important to point out that this cassette was released sometime in the 1970s/80s after the Starday-King catalog had been sold to Moe Lytle’s Gusto Records.  Lytle and his team would be the ones who could help identify the source of this live recording by Pee Wee King’s Golden West Cowboys.

Starday-King’s Shared History

King Records [upon Syd Nathan’s death] was sold in October, 1968, to Starday Records. The Starday-King catalog was almost immediately sold to Lin Broadcasting in Nashville, who ran the company without changing much.  In July, 1971, Lin sold James Brown’s contract to Polydor, then sold the label to a company that [famed songwriting duo] Lieber and Stoller had set up called Tennessee Recording and Publishing.  From 1971 to 1974, not much happened at King except the designs of the labels changed. Very few albums were being released and even fewer hits emerged. In one move, the sale of James Brown’s contract, the label went from a chart force to a shell of its former self.   In 1975, Tennessee Recording and Publishing, still running under the Starday-King name, sold the masters to another Nashville concern, GML, Inc., [owned by Moe Lytle] who operated the Gusto label.”              The King/Federal/DeLuxe Story by David Edwards & Mike Callahan

“Wildcat Run”: World’s Fastest Key Change?

It is practically a law in country music that a tune must change keys at least once before song’s end.  And the key change must modulate upward, never downward.  Which raises the obvious question, and it’s a big one:

Q:  Which country song changes keys quickest starting from 0:00?

That’s right, get out your stopwatches.   In the meantime, I think I might have a contender:  “Wildcat Run” – a truck driving song from Red Sovine

Wildcat Run – Red Sovine

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to hear “Wildcat Run” by Red Sovine.]

Note that the song starts in G Major – but only 27 seconds later the song has already shifted up to G-sharp Major.  But wait, don’t get too comfortable just yet – only 25 more seconds will transpire and we will have modulated upward yet again to A Major.  That’s two key changes in just 52 seconds.   Even better – the entire song clocks in at a lean 80 seconds.

Can anyone beat 27 seconds?

Red-Sovine

“Wildcat Run” appears to have initially been released on the 1966 Starday truck driving album, Thunder on the Road.