“Countrypolitan” – 1st Sightings

Paul Hemphill‘s The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music — published in 1970 during a particularly vibrant musical era — includes this passage about the pushback against attempts to de-emphasize country’s less “polished” elements in order to increase the music’s appeal in the (more lucrative) “pop” marketplace:

It isn’t really liberalism, of course, that has brought about the recent changes in what used to be country music. Call it free enterprise. Hell, call it money. Galloping capitalism overcame country music during the Sixties, and many examples have already been given (See Singleton, Shelby S. and Owens, Alvis Edgar “Buck”). Good old country boys just flat got tired of watching Eddy Arnold and Dean Martin and Jimmy Dean and Patti Page fancying up country songs and making big money doing it, so they started doing the same thing and demanding their writers give them songs that weren’t so country — “so damned nasal, whiny and scratchy and corny,” said Jack Stapp [of Big Tree Publishing] — and then they started angling for their own network television shows.

And pop stars started going to Nashville to record. And the Nashville sidemen started getting the hang of this pseudo-country music. And the younger guys in Nashville started talking dirty about anybody who still turned out hard-country songs. And business was so good that the music industry was worth almost $100 million a year to Nashville. And somebody started calling it “Countrypolitan” music. And the nation decided that “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” rather than the Grand Ole Opry, was the real mirror of country music. And then the people in Nashville started becoming very concerned about their image. We got to get out of this firetrap, they said about the Grand Ole Opry House; which is roughly equivalent to demolishing the Tower of Pisa because it leans funny. Don’t say the fans ride in on buses, Opry management admonished the press, they own their own cars and they average making $10,000 a year.

Maybe country music started in places like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, but now they don’t want to admit the place exists. Image.

Earliest commercial release that includes the term “countrypolitan:

1967 Warner Bros. LP

The Countrypolitan Sound of Hank Thompson’s Brazos Valley Boys

Nashville’s Crystal Corporation (previously celebrated here and here) issued this undated “countrypolitan” hits collection that was probably released — based on the catalog number, as well as release dates of the tracks within — in 1969:

Two of the least “countrypolitan” instruments — fiddle and banjo

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This 1971 compilation with the striking cover photo includes a dozen lesser-known songs (1966’s “Pablo Diablo” by Dick Hammonds the only one available in streaming audio).

The big city

The dictionary definition on the rear cover of this album performs a valuable public service:

Countrypolitan (adj.) = Belonging to all the world; not confined to local enjoyment; at home in any country. And so it goes with country music today. It is no longer provincial in scope, nor limited to a particular region.

This educational audio clip helps flesh out the concept in a down-home digital way:

A simple “countrypolitan” search of the Discogs database — a mere 39 items, as of February, 2021 — reveals the sad fact that this term never caught on with the public. An analysis of the music trade literature further supports this view. A “countrypolitan” scan of Billboard‘s back issues, for instance, yields only 49 “hits” (likewise, 19 for Cash Box and 18 for Record World), although a few items reveal some key historical details:

  • Birmingham, Alabama’s WYDE celebrated its third anniversary as a countrypolitan radio station with broad community support, reported Cash Box in its December 21, 1968 edition, as “260 business, civic and governmental leaders” turned out for the event.
  • Four months earlier, WIKI in Chester, Virginia (outside of Richmond) had changed its format from Top 40 to Countrypolitan, as noted in Cash Box‘s August 31, 1968 issue. How come? “WIKI is making the switch because listener surveys, personal interviews and response to the station’s present two and one-half hours daily country programming have indicated an overwhelming preference for C&W music.”
  • Orlando’s WHOO 990 AM went “Countrypolitan” in 1968, says the Ken Burns Team. Zero to 180’s own fact-finding team has even pinned down the launch date, thanks to Billboard, who took photos of some of the 250 clients, agency executives, city officials, record company personnel, and country music artists — including Skeeter Davis and Willie Nelson — who joined Orlando’s 50,000-watt station in celebration of the new music format for Saturday night’s “Shower of Stars” on August 10, 1968.
  • That same year at the National Association of Recording Merchandisers annual convention, Starday promoted its latest releases as the “Starday Countrypolitan Hot Line” [while generously dispensing gift baskets that consisted of “a pouch of stereo flavored Country Cream tobacco raised at Starday’s Five Coves Farm, corncob pipes, and a bottle of Jack Daniels Sippin’ Whiskey”], as reported in Cash Box‘s April 20, 1968 edition. One month prior, Starday’s Don Pierce had told both Cash Box (per the March 9, 1968 issue) and Record World (per the March 9, 1968 issue) that the label will be focusing efforts on the growing “modern Countrypolitan Nashville sound.”
  • A year earlier, Cash Box had noted in its October 28, 1967 “Country Roundup” column that “the need to change the name of country music has already been recognized by a great many individuals in the business, particularly those in radio — the area which is perhaps closest in recognizing public tastes.” Furthermore, “phrases such as ‘Countrypolitan Music’ and [thanks to DC television host, Connie B. Gay] ‘Town & Country Music’ have been springing up with more and more regularity, pointing the way to more modern identification of this particular field.”
  • 1967 would also bear witness to Memphis’s “Chet Atkins Festival of Music” — hosted by ‘The Countrypolitan Gentlemen’ at radio’s WMQM — with live musical entertainment provided by Boots Randolph, Floyd Cramer, and Mr. Guitar himself, Cash Box reported in its May 13, 1967 issue.
  • One of the earlier references to country music’s commercially-oriented “uptown” strain appeared in this news item from Cash Box‘s January 8, 1966 issue:

New York Building Strong C&W Audience

NEW YORK — Yes, Virginia there is country music in New York, and from all early indications, it’s here to stay for quite a while.

Continuing in the successful trend that began a short while back, WJRZ-Newark defied the time-honored theory that sophisticated urbanites, securely entrenched in the concrete-and-steel homestead of New York, automatically rejected the nasal, twangy hillbilly sound as inferior musical product. On Sept. 15, contrary to the odds, the New Jersey station took a gamble and switched to country programming. Aiming at the toughest and largest of urban bastions, the station presented a dignified, “countrypolitan” format that shattered the association of country music with corncob pipes and Hatfield-McCoy-type characterizations. The response that followed was far beyond the station’s expectations. Flooded switch-boards and overworked mailroom personnel became the order of the day at the outlet.”

  • One year later, WJRZ made the news again in Cash Box‘s January 7, 1967 issue when the station’s “Avenue of Tears” countrypolitan show host, Bob Lockwood, appeared on The Joe Franklin Show (one of television’s longest-running programs).
  • This ad from the May 12, 1969 issue of Broadcasting spells out the demographics of the Grand Rapids-area countrypolitan listening audience — note the ways in which the messaging drives home the “counterintuitive” notion that country music fans can be young, urban, and flush with spending money. WJEF’s similar-themed ad from the previous year shows a family with three children unloading picnic supplies from a station wagon (while the ad from the year prior shows a young couple who are said to be, in the parlance of the times, “turned-on“).
  • Cincinnati’s WUBE – noted Record World in their September 30, 1969 issue – took the big countrypolitan plunge, making it the city’s only 24-hour country music station.
  • Stringer Clamps Down on the Use of Countrypolitan” screamed the title in Billboard‘s September 6, 1969 edition — a report on Lou Stringer’s cease-and-desist order to radio stations.
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This likely explains why the term is under-represented in the music history in favor of similar verbiage, such as “modern country” and “the Nashville Sound.” Stringer claims to have copyrighted “countrypolitan” in 1966, says Billboard, who pointedly assert that radio station owner, Country Music Association director and philanthropist, Connie B. Gay “has owned the copyright to the name ‘Town and Country,’ but has allowed widespread use of the same.” Stringer is also the publisher behind “tabloid” newsletter/radio tip sheet, The Countrypolitan, whose launch was noted in Billboard‘s April 22, 1967 issue.

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Earliest Appearance of the Term “Countrypolitan”?

Billboard ad – November 2, 1963

NoNope — need to go back at least ten years:

Broadcasting ad – January 19, 1953

[Same ad can be seen as early as November 1952]

Featured song:

“Blues Stay Away From Me” by The Willis Brothers

Written by Alton Delmore, Rabon Delmore, Henry Glover & Wayne Raney

.Included on Best of The Willis Brothers although never issued as a single release

.

Essay

Modern Country Radio — Friend or Foe?” by Paul W. Soelberg

Billboard — October 17, 1970

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:


“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.

“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:

“Bob”     The Willis Brothers     1967

“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.

Is it too much of a stretch to tag this piece as “Latin Soul” due to the use of mariachi horns throughout the song?