Country Music People May 2019 - Page 62

They may have been too late for the California Gold Rush, but they were at the coal face as far as the West Coast country music scene was concerned, just ahead of the Western Swing boom of the 1940s, though apart from some radio broadcasts their recording legacy dates from immediately after the Second World War. Don’t let that put you off exploring. The thing about some early country music from the 1940s is that the sound quality is so poor, or the performances so stolid, it sometimes feels more duty than pleasure listening. Not so with the Maddoxes. The thing about them was they never rehearsed. So used to harmonizing together as a family unit, they didn’t feel the need, but it created a beautiful, unforced spontaneity across all their material the like of which has never been matched. Check out their go at Mule Train for instance. In any other hands this anarchic offering would have careered off the tracks and down the side of the hill, or sounded totally contrived. Don’t imagine them turning up on stage dressed in overalls. They rolled up to shows in big swanky Cadillacs – and made sure locals knew they were in town by driving them up and down the streets ahead of the performance. They looked great too – not for nothing were they dubbed “America’s Most Colourful Hillbilly Band” – decked out in costumes by California designer Nathan Turk, who also designed for Gene Autry, Spade Cooley and Ernest Tubb, years before Nudie Cohn got going with his Nudie suits. They were fantastically mobile on stage – though sadly only one very short clip survives of the ensemble in action. When they finally got round to recording their naughty early favourite Sally Let Your Bangs Hang Down in 1950, it got one Bakersfield DJ fired when he played it on the radio. They breathed life into Woody Guthrie’s Philadelphia Lawyer (deadly tough going as sung by Guthrie himself ) complete with gunshot sound effect. They managed to combine a feel for hillbilly and folk songs while souping them up, producing something more groove orientated, that you could dance or tap your feet to. It suited the looser California honky tonk scene of the post-war period 62 cmp - MAY 2019 which Rose would recall as “more fun and raunchy, not quite so professional and after perfection as Nashville. A little more kickin’ ass, let’s put it that way.” The Maddoxes’s first record label was 4-Star, and one of the first songs to capture their style – “loud, rude, and very funny” as Rose Maddox’s biographer Jonny Whiteside has put it – was Whoa Sailor, a Hank Thompson song. They also did a raucous, irreverent and, once again, very very amusing version of Hank Williams’s Honky Tonkin’ around this time (classy guitar from Jimmy Winkle, one of the “hired hands”), along with their own compositions like Mean and Wild Boogie and George’s Playhouse Boogie – cut in 1949 note – which was flat out rock ‘n’ roll country style, and a couple of years later, Step It Up And Go. And yet they could also pare it all back and do harmony stuff as sublime as Dark As The Dungeon. Although they didn’t score any national hits they were a big draw, and by 1952 were on a label to match, Columbia Records. There’s a feeling that the sound got a little cleaned up after that, but they remained pretty well madcap as ever to these ears, while Rose’s untameable frontierswoman voice, as she prepared to go and eventually went solo, grew more astonishing than ever, from her rousing, frankly superior, take on Ruth Brown’s Wild Wild Young Men to her own Looky There Over There, Tall Men, and rockers like Hey Little Dreamboat, though the softer pop-rocker My Little Baby, and her biggest hit Sing A Little Song Of Heartache watered down her style. Conventional readings of females in country music tend to recite Kitty Wells followed by Loretta Lynn as the leaders, but really Rose Maddox was light years ahead of them. If you want to sample the music of the Maddox Brothers and Rose without splashing out on the expensive Bear Family box sets, I recommend getting hold of Arhoolie’s America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band Volume 1, which focuses on the 4-Star years between 1946 and 1951, and Ugly and Slouchy, in Bear’s Gonna Shake This Shack series, which has highlights from the Columbia period, both with the entire band, and Rose as a solo singer. cmp