Music City at Night

Music City at Night
Nashville: the City Where Some Dreams Begin and Others Die...

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Day Country Music Died

The Day Country Music Died

People live, people die. It's an inescapable fact of human existence.

If  people are famous when they die, the world takes notice.

If they're famous and they die with other famous people in the same incident or at the same time, their death can become a kind of historical marker for a shift in the direction or substance of culture.

The history of pop and rock music was significantly altered in February of 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, and their pilot Roger Peterson were all killed in a small plane crash in Iowa. This event was immortalized in Don McLean's "American Pie" in 1971 as "The Day the Music Died."

Four years later, on March 5, 1963, the landscape of country music and pop music was abruptly changed as well when Lloyd Estel "Cowboy" Copas, Patsy Cline, Harold Franklin "Hawkshaw" Hawkins, and pilot Randy Hughes, who was Cline's manager and Copas' son-in-law, were killed in a plane crash near Dyersburg, Tennessee.

In years to come, Patsy Cline's legend grew, but at the time of the crash, most people in country music and its fans as well would have said Cowboy Copas was the bigger star of the three. His first big hit was in 1946 with "Filipino Baby," and he had a string of others on into the early '50s including "Signed, Sealed, and Delivered," and "'Tis So Sweet to be Remembered." Then his career went South for a few years until 1960 when his biggest hit ever, "Alabam," reached the top of the charts and stayed at No. 1 for three months. Copas was an excellent guitar player and he demonstrates his fast thumb picking style in this video of "Alabam."

Patsy Cline was a recognized and honored star in country music at the time of her death in '63, but since that time her legend has grown. The re release of her great records, the successful stage plays about her life, and the movies and TV shows about her have made her the most famous of the four who died that stormy night back in '63.

was best known for her rich tone, emotionally expressive and bold contralto voice and her role as a country music industry pioneer. Along with Kitty Wells, she helped pave the way for women as headline performers in the genre. Cline's was cited as an inspiration by singers in several genres....Her hits began in 1957 with Donn Hecht's "Walkin' After Midnight", Harlan Howard's "I Fall to Pieces", Hank Cochran's "She's Got You", Willie Nelson's "Crazy" and ended in 1963 with Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams".

In the years before she died, Cline bought her dream home in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, which is part of the Metro Nashville area. Several stars from that era made their homes in Goodlettsville and neighboring Hendersonville; today's stars seem to prefer the much more upscale area in Williamson county.

Here's Patsy Cline's last recorded song, "I'll Sail My Ship Alone." This is a nice video with lots of candid shots of Cline.

The third country star who died that fateful night was Virginia native, Hawkshaw Hawkins. Although he began his career back in the late '40s, Hawkins had only just begun to achieve the kind of success that would have more than likely propelled him to a star status comparable to that of Cline and Copas at the time.

Wiki says that

He gained his nickname as a boy after helping a neighbor track down two missing fishing rods: the neighbor dubbed him "Hawkshaw" after the title character in the comic strip, Hawkshaw the Detective. He traded five trapped rabbits for his first guitar, and first performed on WCMI-AM in Ashland, Kentucky. At 16, he won a talent competition and a job on WSAZ-AM in Huntington, where he formed Hawkshaw and Sherlock with Clarence Jack. 

The 6'5" Hawkins served in WWII and won four battle stars at the Battle of the Bulge. His first two recordings with King Records in the later '40s were "Pan American" and "Doghouse Boogie." Both were top ten country hits.

He continued to record through the '50s but didn't have a hit until he recorded "Lonesome 7-7203" in 1962. The song didn't appear on the charts until March 2, 1963, three days before his death. By March 23, the song had reached No. 1 status and it remained in that position for twenty five weeks.

Randy Hughes, pilot of ill fated Piper Comanche, was a studio guitarist and Cline's manager. He signed on with her in 1959 and was instrumental in getting her to change labels; she went from Four Star to Decca. Because of this change Hughes was able to get her records produced by "legendary female-singer country music producer" Owen Bradley. Bradley was a proponent of the more lushly produced "Nashville Sound" which Cline initially feared. But he and Hughes eventually persuaded her to accept this style change which led her to greater success with "I Fall to Pieces" and "Crazy."

Most country stars of the time toured in car caravans or in buses. But Hughes, who had hopes of managing several stars, felt the Comanche would be a more convenient way for his clients to travel. The weather was bad that Tuesday when he and his three traveling companions took off from the Kansas City airport. They stopped once in Missouri to refuel and then made it as far as Dyersburg, Tennessee, where they landed at 4:30 p.m. Hughes was not instrument rated and the owners of the Dyersburg airport urged him to wait till morning when the weather was supposed to improve. But Hughes, Cline, Copas, and Hawkins were all tired and wanted to get back to Nashville which was just 170 miles away. So, they took off into the stormy night.

The wreckage of the plane was found in a forest in Camden, Tennessee, roughly 90 miles from Nashville.

Kathy Hughes, Randy's wife, faced a double tragedy that day; she lost both her husband and her father, Cowboy Copas, in the crash.

(The Tennessean's Peter Cooper has a long and interesting article about the crash, the events leading up to it, and its aftermath if you'd like to do more reading about these performers.)

The contributions these stars might have made had they not been killed that night in March fifty years ago are obviously unknown, but judging from their prior accomplishments, it's my opinion that whatever they might have done had they lived would have altered the shape, culture, and direction of country music.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Country Rain Songs

I know there's a big snow slamming into the midwest today and the Chicago Tribune says the Windy City will get up to ten inches.

Winter in Tennessee, however, usually means rain.

The last couple of days have been sunny, but, as I said, it's winter and it's Tennessee, so the rain is about an hour actually. From midnight tonight and all day Tuesday, the cold rain will be falling.

Be patient with me now, I'm fixin' to ramble a bit.

That weather forecast started me thinking about rain songs and wondering how many of those water soaked lyrics have been written over the years. I'm not talking here about using the word "rain" in a line or two, I'm talking about rain all through the song, or a verse, or, at least, as a major motif or theme or image.

There have been lots of them. Many memorable ones. All of those on the list below except the last two popped into my head as I was writing. I suspect Goggling would turn up quite a few more. You who are reading this right now are probably thinking of a couple I didn't mention.

Singin' in the Rain
Hard Rain's Gonna Fall
In the Early Mornin' Rain
Have You Ever Seen the Rain?
Who'll Stop the Rain?
Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head
Kentucky Rain
I Love a Rainy Night
Listen to the Rain
November Rain

Rain falls in Bluegrass Music too. Some of the truly classic bluegrass songs have used rain as a major theme.

This first song is my favorite country/bluegrass song. Really I suppose it's my favorite song period. "I Wonder Where You Are Tonight." It was written by the great Johnny Bond, but it's become a part of our family's history, part of my history.

I remember those Christmases in the '70s when Joyce's whole family (all six siblings and their kids) would come home to her parents' house. Her younger brother Mark was in his late teens and early 20s then and had learned to play the guitar. We practiced a couple of songs over and over and almost drove the other family members crazy. One of the songs was CCR's "Lodi" (for a future post) and the other was "I Wonder Where You Are Tonight." Mark and I would sing and sometimes Joyce would join it harmonizing. We had such great fun doing that. Great fun. Even though it was usually raining outside, we had a roaring fire and there was cake and pie and coffee. And music. Lots of music.

Mark's gone now, he passed away unexpectedly in 1999 in his forties. But I still remember those great times and our duets on "I Wonder Where You Are Tonight." If there is heaven and a Deity, especially One who digs old bluegrass songs, I know where Mark is tonight.

I enjoy "I Wonder Where You Are Tonight" so much I'm posting two versions of it. The first is in the true up tempo bluegrass style and it's sung by a great group called the Cluster Pluckers. They've been around since the early '80s, and three original members of the group are still playing: Margaret Bailey, Kris Ballinger, and Dale Ballinger. The video isn't dated, but I would guess late '80s - early '90s.

Like in most bluegrass songs, the fast tempo becomes an emotional counterpoint to the heartache. In this song the cold, slowly falling rain underscores the loneliness of the singer and reminds her of how cold hearted the bastard was who left her. He treated her mean but she can't get him our of her mind.

This time, the rain falls in the chorus and it's used as a metaphor for her ex's cold heart and even colder love. In the fast versions of this song, I love that split second between the last line of the verse and the beginning line of the chorus. This is a crude comparison, but if the musicians do it right (and the Cluster Pluckers do it mighty fine), the guitars and other instruments sound almost like an automatic hemi shifting into what we used to call "passing gear." Like I said, crude. But I hope you get the point. What I feel the music say at that precise point is, "listen up, this is about to get damn serious here."
The rain is cold and slowly falling
Upon my window pane tonight.
And though your love is even colder
I wonder where you are tonight.

Here's another great version of the song that I found while foraging on Youtube. It's by the great Johnny Rodriguez, who slows the song down and turns it into a ballad, complete with a verse in Spanish. This is from a Hee Haw show in '73.

Okay, last rain song coming up. If you like Bluegrass, you've heard of Rhonda Vincent. I believe this is one of her first recorded songs; it's "I'm Not Over You." The rain in the first verse is an intensifier, it adds to the speaker's heartache. The falling rain is compared to the tears she's crying and then becomes a storm of emotion which blows full force into the chorus.
Tonight the rain that's falling
only adds to my heartache
It runs quietly down my window
Like the tears upon my face
And each time the lightning flashes
And I hear the thunder roar
I'm reminded of the closing of the door
I'm not over you
the storm still rages
The waves of pain remind me
That we're through
I'm slowly drowning
In a sea of endless heartbreak
I'm going under
'Cause I'm not over you
Guess it's time to sign off now and climb in bed for an afternoon nap. Our bedroom is on the second floor and the ceiling angles up with the roof line so I can hear the muffled raindrops falling as I go to sleep. Keep dry y'all.