Country Music People May 2019 - Page 61

G reil Marcus, one of those too-clever-by- half music critics of the type you often see mouthing off on some skin-deep TV documentary, once raved about Elvis Presley’s sparkly new interpretation of Kokomo Arnold’s ancient, dull as ditchwater, blues number Milk Cow Blues. Sure, The Pelv did a great job on it, but I wonder if Marcus ever heard the Maddox Brothers and Rose’s version, recorded in 1947, or any of their other recordings from around that time, like Mean and Wicked Boogie, George’s Playhouse Boogie or the instrumental Water Baby Boogie? The Maddoxes were cutting loose, showing a libertarian spirit years before, in Marcus’s words, Elvis broke things open, making music that, for cackling irreverence and cheeky spontaneity, has never been bettered. According to Marcus, a brilliant writer it must be said, but too hung up on “meaningful” narratives and grand descriptions - and his ilk, the modern age effectively started with Elvis, who led the way out of the backwoods in a way Hank Williams apparently couldn’t manage. The dire consequences of these scribes’ failure to tell the full story of popular music has ensured a whole heap of musicians in the jazz, country and popular music fields of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s have got cut out of the picture. The Maddox Brothers and Rose went to their graves (only one member still lives, fiddle player Don Maddox – “Don Juan, the wild fiddler” as brother Fred called him) pretty well forgotten, save for in roots circles, among rockabilly loyalists who appreciated they “got it” well before Elvis, and by the likes of Merle Haggard and Emmylou Harris, who never forgot what country music owed them. But if you were a youngster in the southern central or western states in the late 1940s or early 1950s and were looking for something a bit “out there,” you certainly knew who the Maddox Brothers and Rose were. Tommy Collins, a pioneering West Coast man if ever there was one, saw them in Bakersfield, and “liked ‘em, because they were exciting and sort of brazen.” Buck Owens cited their stage show as the catalyst for making him want to get into the music business. And the style of Wanda Jackson, the one female rockabilly even the clucks know about, was influenced by watching Rose Maddox. In an interview in 2003 she recalled being taken to see the Maddox’s show at an Oklahoma dance hall before she’d hit teenage, and the impression never left her. “She was so feisty, so full of spunk, and they wore all those colourful, sparkly clothes. I said, “I gotta be like her.” Merle Haggard’s Old Man From The Mountain was a tribute to Fred Maddox, whose wild bass slapping, lewd, growly vocals and comic wisecracks dovetailed so well with Rose’s tough, frontier gal wail. Rhythm guitarist Cal Maddox was the owner of the manic cackle you’ll hear on their wildest tracks, and the fast played, hard strummed mandolin was that of the family baby, Henry, (as in, “That’s Friendly Henry, the working girl’s friend.”). The music this crazy crew made was a melange of rough-edged western swing mixed with hillbilly mountain music, comedy, and forward nods to rock ‘n’ roll. Their backstory is like a cross between The Grapes of Wrath and The Beverly Hillbillies. Their origins were in the hills around Boaz, Alabama. The Maddoxes were a dirt poor sharecropping farming family, but mama Lula Maddox had dreams of making good by heading west to California “to the land of milk and honey where you could reach up and practically pick gold off the trees,” according to her daughter Rose. So in 1933, Rose, barely eight years old, along with her brothers, in a venture predating the great Okie migration by a couple of years, found themselves being herded by Lula down a dusty road where the signpost pointed west. Their insane plan was to walk or hitchhike the 2000 miles to California. It took them five days just to reach the Alabama state line (only Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to go, and we’ll soon be there!) before someone taught them the hobo art form of jumping freight trains and relying on the sympathy of brakemen. Three weeks later they arrived on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Finding that the idea of prospecting for gold had literally gone down the pan, they settled for being fruit tramps in the San Joaquin Valley, getting work as pickers by following the harvest trails. They were as poor as they had been back in ole’ Alabammy and would have stayed that way but for their incredible get up and go, and an innate hillbilly talent for music. Fred Maddox blagged them a show on the local radio, broadcasting out of Modesto, and the Maddox Brothers and Rose were born. MAY 2019 - cmp 61