Friday, October 15, 2010

Country, Folk, Harlan Howard, And "Everglades"

A long time ago, back in the early days when radio and records were getting their nearly simultaneous starts as mass media, marketing categories and their accompanying labels didn't really exist as we know them today. Basically, all music was divided into "serious" (what we today would call classical or orchestral) and "popular" (encompassing everything else).

Radio and records in the 1920s helped to create a national audience for popular music that initially had had viable markets only in fairly well-defined regional and racial communities. Ragtime had enjoyed a pre-radio burst of popularity in the very early 1900s thanks to sheet music, but it was not until the 1920s that originally regional music like Dixieland, other forms of jazz, pop Hawaiian, and "hillbilly music" began to reach gradually into the national consciousness.

That last category was the radio station and record company name for what later came to be called country, western, and folk music. In 1940, no great distinction was made among these, though with hindsight we can see the different origins of each - and recognize that the "western" music of, say, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys was a different breed of cat than the "country" music of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Both may have had some points in common with Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family, but a lot of people today might find it odd that in 1950, Pete Seeger and the Weavers and Burl Ives were pigeonholed for marketing purposes into the selfsame category. A glance at old issues of Billboard from the late 1940s includes frequent references to both those artists as "hillbilly singers." It also explains why the National Association of Recording Arts conflated "country" with "western" music to award its first Grammy in that category to a group that would next year win the association's first award for "Best Ethnic Or Traditional Recording," the Kingston Trio.

Country music and folk music have always been somewhat like cousins who look alike but really don't get along. As much as the two related forms of music have cross-pollinated with each other over the decades, there has also been a fair amount of public antagonism between them. Some country artists were among the most scathing critics of the instrumental simplicity of the early pop folk groups, and I imagine most of us of a certain age remember country singer Charlie Rich burning the envelope on stage and on national television that awarded the 1975 Country Music Association's "Entertainer of the Year" trophy to folk-oriented John Denver.

And yet - given contemporary country music's nearly total abandonment of its roots (with exceptions like Ricky Skaggs) and the morphing of what record and Grammy people call folk into an unrecognizable hybrid or mishmash - is it any wonder that the now-wide umbrella of "roots music" should include artists like Johnny Cash (always more folk than country), the Carters, Pete Seeger, Willie Nelson, Woody Guthrie, and it seems nearly anyone else who ever played an acoustic guitar?

At the height of the folk revival, the artists borrowed frequently across genre lines. Jimmy Driftwood was country, but "The Battle of New Orleans" could have been done by any pop folk singer and his "Very Unfortunate Man" was, by both Burl Ives and the Chad Mitchell Trio. Billy Edd Wheeler and Danny Dill both wrote songs performed across those genre lines as well.

So it cannot be much of a surprise that one of Nashville's most prolific and successful country composers, Harlan Howard[pictured above] (1927-2002), contributed this week's chestnut, "Everglades," to the folk repertoire. Howard was just getting his start in Music City in 1960 when the Kingston Trio included this composition on String Along, their fifth consecutive studio album to hit #1 on the national charts and earn a gold record. Howard had already had two recorded hits, but in 1961, fifteen Howard-composed songs hit the country charts - eventually in his long career, more than 100 of his songs became hits, including such standards as "I Fall To Pieces" and "Busted." He is in the Country Music and Nashville Songwriters Halls of Fame - which he well could be simply for his pithy description of what songwriting should be - "Three chords and the truth."

The delightful "Everglades" has a couple more than three chords, and I'm not sure how much "truth" there is to it - but then again, it's an early Howard composition, just for fun, and not fraught with the heartbreak and hard times themes that characterized his best-known songs and helped to shape country music writing ever since. So our first version ought by rights to be from a country singer, and I know of none better than Waylon Jennings, who recorded an entire album called Waylon Sings Ol' Harlan:

This would seem to be the way Howard conceived of the song; he played along with Jennings on the recording. But he couldn't have been unhappy when the Kingstons sold about three quarter of a million albums with his song on it, however they adapted it to their own style. He would have made well into the six figures in today's dollars in royalties for this version:

A minor note on the recording: trio member Dave Guard is playing a jumbo Gibson 12 string guitar here, perhaps for the first time on a KT recording, a special order of his inspired by seeing the jumbo Gibsons played by the Everly Brothers (see below) referenced in the joking last line of the song.

Roots music pioneer Willis David Hoover gave the song a go (I think I have to thank Dave Long or Curt Dalton for posting this one - gentlemen?) late in his career. He seems to mock the KT a bit in the intro but without any genuine malice, and he does point out Howard's good-natured joshing at the end of the song:

We also have one delightful non-pro version inspired by the KT. John Dennis Dickey is a YouTube friend of mine who is a long-time trio fan, a member of the his own South Coast Trio, and creator of a goodly number of solo multi-track recordings. I'm happy to be able to include his take on the song:

My own upload of the KT version of the song presented above has generated more nostalgic and positive comments than any other single song of theirs of the 70 or so I've uploaded for this series. The general tenor of the comments is - "I'd forgotten this gem and why don't they make music like this any more?" Amen to that.


Here is Howard himself performing the song in an upload appearing a few years after this article first appeared:

Further....Howard's "I Fall To Pieces" that became a monster hit for Patsy Cline:

Finally, the Everlys with their jumbo Gibsons and "Bird Dog," whose guitar riff figures in the KT and Hoover videos above:

And Howard's official website and bio are certainly worth a look here:

Harlan Howard's Official Website

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