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Interviewee: William Martin
OH B19.1 and B19.2
0:00:16.9 Welcome to Houston Public Library. The ______ (??) series is sponsored by Houston National Bank, by the Continuing Education Program at Rice University, and the library’s Houston Metropolitan Research Center. We’re just delighted to have all of you here today, and we hope that you’ll come back next week and hear John Davis, who’s from the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio, speak about early Texans, Texas and explorers. The program may run a little long today, so if you have to get back to work we’ll understand if you leave quietly. Our speaker today is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Rice, a frequent contributor to magazines like Esquire, The Atlantic, and Texas Monthly, and author of a forthcoming book, I believe, The Electric Preacher (laughter)—you’ll want to go out and purchase it to (laughter)—and a man of many interests, one of which he will enlighten you with today—Bill Martin. (clapping)
0:01:43.3 I’m putting a lot of trust in this machinery today. I haven’t had a chance to work with much of it, but I trust it’s going to workout just fine. I want to talk to you today about country music—not about its history or a lot of the other kinds of things about it that are interesting, but about a quality of it that I take to be really simple. Country music—I don’t know—how many of you—how many of you saw the Grand Ole Opry special on Saturday night on Channel 8? That’s fine. (laughter) Well, there was an interesting little segment of that. Justin Tubb, the son of Ernest Tubb, sang a song in which he said “Why don’t we do it like we always have? Why do we have to have people like Barbra Streisand claiming—or John Denver claiming they sing country music? Let’s do it the same as we’ve always done it.” Well, I couldn’t help but be struck by the irony of that since Justin Tubb’s father, Ernest Tubb, was one of the main people who introduced the use of electrified instruments into county music. And at the time he did it—although it obviously became quite popular—there were groups who wouldn’t use it, and there were groups who made records with an unamplified acoustic guitar because that’s the way God liked to the listen to guitars. They didn’t want people like Ernest Tubb messing with it. Country music has changed throughout its history. It has been, from the start, a commercial product, and they have tried to do the things that would sell records. And there have always been those who didn’t want to listen to what was going on. Bob Wills had a song where in Texas—where Bob Wills is still the king and he’s seen as the King of Western Swing and a great figure—but when he first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry stage, they wouldn’t let him use his drums. They made him put them behind a curtain because they were afraid it would offend the people.
When the styles of music has changed, it’s been quite eclectic, but one of the things that has not changed very much since the beginning of country music is its emphasis on the lyrics. It’s a trend that became important during its first decade of commercial success. The lyrics are usually simple and calm. They deal with topics that other kinds of music seldom touch—liquor, infidelity, divorce, work, the lost virtues of rural and small town life, and miscellaneous sorrow. I think they are—can be called with fairness—the black man’s blues. They’re not an exclusively white people’s music, but it’s been predominantly that. Above all, country music tells stories. One of the earliest commercial successes was the “Ballad of Floyd Collins,” the story of a man who was caught in a cave, by a man named Vernon Dalhart—that was actually only one of his 40 names. He sang under a number of different names because in Texas and—when that song— He named himself for that song after 2 Texas towns, Vernon and Dalhart, and when he hit, he 0:04:46.7 kept the name. (laughter) But, since Vernon Dalhart, many other masters of storytelling broached country music by their presence. Red Sovine had been a good one. I heard a song the other day that Johnny Paycheck sang. It’s “The Outlaw’s Prayer,” and it’s a wonderful song. It will bless you if you have a chance to listen to it. (laughter)
By common consent, one of the best storytellers above all—I must say he’s—he’s—he’s having a little bit of a dry spell lately, but when I go back and listen to his records, one of my favorites is still Tom T. Hall. Tom T. is quite consciously a storyteller. His band is called the Storytellers, and I think it’s a good way for us to start by listening to Tom T. Hall introduce a few of his songs. Let’s hope this works. “This story was told to me by Jerry Flower at the 1971 disk jockey convention/I told Jerry I was going to write a song about it/My brother (??) Hillman (??) is going to play the cigarette paper and comb/ I have a very good friend in Nashville, Tennessee/ Who is descending from ____ (??)/ (laughter) During one of our recent and frequent conversations/We got to talking about his religious philosophy/And as far as I could determine/This is the way he feels about it.” “Now I hear a lot of tall stories/Since my business is writing songs/And every now and then if you listen real close, a good true one comes along/And this is the story of old Bill Crump from the North Carolina Hills/Nat Winston of Nashville knew this man real well/He built a church/He built the pews/He built the cradles and the furniture for the school/Folks in Avery County say that he was better than good/Probably one of the reasons the Lord made wood.” (laughter; inaudible) move on.
I’m working with (inaudible) right here because I can’t see my fast forward too easy, but I think its going to work out. Maybe I’m trying to adjust—oh. This probably won’t be the first time I do that. (inaudible) One of things I want to say is that country music themes often utilize religious themes rather specifically and sometimes egregiously. Here’s one with the Browns singing “Chime Bells.” (inaudible) That’s (inaudible) singing “Faith, Hope, and Charity.” Sometimes it’s more of prayerful thing. Here’s Tom T. Hall again. “Lord, can a drunk go to heaven?” And sometimes they are like this song of Porter Wagoner’s “Beyond Believing.” “If Jesus came to your house/To spend a day or two/If he came unexpectedly/I wonder what you’ll do/When you saw him coming, would you meet him at the door with arms outstretched in welcome to your heavenly wisdoms, oh Lord/Or would you need to change some things before you let him in/Like burn some magazines and put the Bible where they’ve been.” (laughter) “What would you do/What would you do/If Jesus came to spend some time with you?” Now, here’s a song that—by (??) Wayne Raney and Lefty and Brindle and Zelda (??), and I hope it will bless your heart as much as it has mine. “You can read it in the morning paper/And hear it on the radio/How crime has taken our nation/This world is about to go/We need a good ole case of salvation/To get the love of God in our souls/We need a whole lot of more of Jesus/And a lot less of rock and roll.” (laughter)
0:10:34.0 Another popular theme has been poverty. A lot of poor folk sang country music. Uncle Dave Macon used to sing the breadline blues. Bill Anderson’s had poor folks—a song called “Poor Folks.” One of my favorite all time poor songs is this one by Merle Haggard. A poor lady listening to this one day—just came in while somebody else was playing and she said, “That man sure do know about December.” (inaudible) “Poor folks living in a rich folks’ world.” Listen to this for a minute. That’s all. “Got laid off down at the factory/And their timing is not the greatest in the world/Heaven knows I’ve been working hard/Wanted Christmas to be right for daddy’s girl/I don’t mean to hate December/It’s meant to be the happiest time of year/And my little girl don’t understand/Why daddy can’t afford no Christmas gifts/If we make it through December/Every thing’s going to be all right I know/It’s the coldest time of winter/And I shiver when I see the falling snow/If we make it through December/I plan to be in a warmer town come summertime/Maybe even California/If we make it through December we’ll be fine.”
Another theme that’s been very common has been prison or jail. You have enough troubles, you’re poor enough, maybe your chances are increased for spending some time in prison. There have been a lot of songs written about prison. “I hear the train a comin’/It’s rolling around the bend/And I ain’t seen the sun shine since I don’t know when/I’m stuck in Folsom prison/And time keeps dragging om/But that train keeps a rollin’/On down to San Antone.” “I was sittin’ beside the road in Black Jack County/Not knowing the sheriff paid a bounty/For men like me who didn’t a penny to their names/So he locked my leg to 35 pounds of Black Jack County chains.” And here again—I think—I have to hand it to Merle Haggard for coming up with some awful fine songs. You may be aware that Merle himself was a prisoner at San Quinton and learned to play the guitar there, and he recognizes that all—he’d probably handle it better than most—it’s not always easy, but when you get through paying your debt to society, sometimes they won’t mark it paid. “When they let me out of prison/I held my head up high/Determined I would rise above the shame/But no matter where I’m living/The black mark follows me/I’m branded with a number on my name/I’d like to hold my head and be proud of who I am/But they won’t let my secret go untold/I paid the debt I owed ‘em/But they’re still not satisfied/Now I’m a branded man out in the cold.”
0:15:35.0 Another problem, even for those who stay out of prison, is physical illness. “I met him in a hospital/About a year ago/And why I still remember him/I guess I’ll never know/He’d lie there and cry out in a medicated fog/’Here I am in this dang bed, and who’s going to feed those hogs’/Four hundred hogs/They just standin' out there/My wife can't feed 'epiretinal membrane/And my neighbors don't care/They can't get out and roam around like my old huntin' dogs/Here I am in this dang bed/and who's gonna feed them hogs?” (laughter) There is also mental illness. “I guess you know Jethro went crazy/We’ve all been crazy some time/They fixed up his lungs and his fever/But they could not fix up his mind.” Part of the problem is that—a lot of the problems people have is caused by liquor—by drinking, and there are a lot of songs about—a lot of good, wonderful drinking songs. (laughter). This should be the other way. “Pour me sorrow on the rocks/Bartender, sorrow on the rocks will do/I'm tryin' to drown my troubles/So make it a double, hmm, hmm, hmm/The seat of my pants is slick from the barstool and my hands in the shape of a glass/My eyes looked like a roadmap of Georgia/And it’s a shame I’ve lost my class/One broken heart can do strange things to a man who can’t take the pain/But in this hundred proof condition/I ain’t in no position to take her back again/So pour me sorrow on the rocks/Bartender, sorrow on the rocks will do/I'm tryin' to drown my troubles/So make it a double.” Here is another. We’ll listen to a little bit of this one. “So hello to my friend/ Yes, I let her go/Would you please bring me a tall one for my troubles/___ (??). Thank the Lord for giving me taverns/Tto cry your heart out in the same ole vigil/(??) I hope you enjoyed it to a teardrop (??).” Hope you enjoyed it to (??) to a teardrop. (laughter)
All right—now, another constant component—or frequent component in country songs is discussion of work. Some of the early songs were cowboy songs—about work as a cowboy—that’s (coughing; inaudible) with love songs about the—the rodeo cowboy particularly. There have been a lot of songs about the—working on the railroad. We are going to pop into one here. I’m not exactly sure—probably looks like the tail end of Hank Snow with “I’m Movin On.” Hank Snow had a lot of good railroad songs. (inaudible) This is the one I really wanted. This is Roy Acuff and the “Wabash Cannonball.” (laughter). “Handsome and known quite well by all/She's the combination on the Wabash Cannonball/She came down from Birmingham one cold December day/As she rolled into the station/You could hear all the people say/‘There's a girl from Tennessee/She's long and she's tall’/She came down from Birmingham on the Wabash Cannonball.”
0:20:36.8 Several years ago when Opryland opened up, President Nixon showed up to the opening, and he spoke to the people there about how county music represented from all the great values of American—what—I was glad he wanted to be associated with it, but I couldn’t help but think of this song. It’s a working song by (laughing) Dave Dudley called “Six Days On the Road.” “Well I pulled outta Pittsburgh a rollin' down that Eastern Seaboard/I got my diesel wound up and she's a runnin' like a never before/There's a speed zone ahead alright/I don't see a cop in sight/Six days on the road and I'm a gonna make it home tonight/I got my ten forward gears and a Georgia overdrive/I'm takin' little white pills and my eyes are open wide/I just passed a Jimmy and a White/I been a passin' everything in sight/Six days on the road and I'm a gonna make it home tonight.”
One of the occupations country singers give a lot of attention to is country singers, and there’s an awful lot of songs—a lot of incest in the songs. There’s mentioning other singers, mentioning other songs, answer songs—and here’s a song by Tom T. Hall which is—happened to be about—in my opinion—about the time he quit writing many good songs, (laughter) but its rather important evocation of some of the problems of county music singers. “Joe don’t let your music kill you/It’s a thing that’s supposed to fill you/It’s a thing that’s supposed to make you happy/Taking pills and drinking whisky/Pickin’ can be mighty risky/Joe, don’t let your music kill you/Nobody cares.” “They came to see the people that they thought we were and never changed their minds/They explained away the difference ‘cause the folks who love a picker can be blind/They misunderstood the words but understood that our intentions were the best/The thing that keeps us goin'/Is the good folks in the last hard town we met/What a picker does for others is the thing he’s mainly doing for himself/There were friends and there were neighbors/But the good homes that we came from didn’t help/If there’s anything you’d like to say about us after we have gone to rest/We would like someone to mention all the good folks in the last hard town we met.”
Of course there are songs not just about women who are causing men trouble, but there’s songs about the occupation of women and their domestic situation. I’m going to play you Sarah Lynn. This is a song that shows you some of the realism in—country music has always had a lot of realism. As a matter of fact—a little interesting story, a number of years ago, I guess in the early ‘30s when the WSM Barn Dance out of Nashville were coming over right after the NBC Music Appreciation Hour with Dr. Walter Damrosch, there was a symphony playing, or another playing, and Dr. Damrosch says, “Where there is no place for realism in the classics, we’re going to have—you will hear a train song—I mean a train whistle in this next piece we’re going to play”—and went with it and apologizing for it. At the end of the program and Judge George Hay started the WSM Barn Dance, he said, “For the last 90 minutes you’ve been listening to grand opera. There’s no place for realism in grand opera, but all you’re going to hear for the next 90 minutes is realism, so I want to welcome you to Grand Old Opry.” (laughter) That was the first time the phrase was ever used and it stuck, and it started out the a—a train song. We always feel a lot—we feel a lot of realism in a number of country songs, and here’s one that does it in a rather an interesting way called, “New York Calling Miami.” “The time is 4:34/This is a recording/I’m sorry, we are unable to complete your call as dialed/New York calling Miami and Nashville calling LA/Tired country goes to bed as she starts her day/Pittsburgh ringing Atlanta/And Dallas trying to reach Rome/And an operator works all night and waits to be alone/Fifteen years on a switchboard job/Half the woman’s life/She worked hard on the graveyard shift, never been a wife/Flashing lights from the telephone call ring another line/An angry old lady in a phone booth complains she’s lost her dime/New York calling Miami—” (laughter). Here’s a song about a secretary. “(inaudible) with her ticket (inaudible)/I type 80 words a minute/So your corporation let me go to work/I ____ (??) and coffee, even helped you dial your domineering wife/Mr. ____ (??) it’s all over/I don’t like to keep your secretary lies.” We start back right here. Some women, of course, just have to stay home, and Loretta Lynn sings wonderfully about them. “The girls in New York City they all march for women's lib/And Better Homes and Gardens shows the modern way to live/And the pill may change the world tomorrow but meanwhile today/Here in Topeka the flies are a buzzin'/The dog is a barkin/And the floor needs a scrubbin'/One needs a spanking/And one needs a huggin'/Lord one's on the way/Oh gee, I hope it ain't twins again.” (laughter) Now, Loretta is modern, and she’s looking forward to a—to better time. “You wined me and dined me when I was your girl/Promised if I’d be your wife/You’d show me the world/But all I’ve seen of this old world is a bed and a doctor bill/I’m tearing down your brooder house ‘cause now I’ve got the pill/. All these years I’ve stayed at home while you had all your fun/And every year that’s gone by/Another baby’s come/There’s gonna be some changes made right here on Nursery Hill/You’ve set this chicken your last time ‘cause now I’ve got the pill/This old maternity dress I’ve got is going in the garbage/The clothes I’m wearing from now on won’t take up so much yardage/Miniskirts, hot pants, and a few little fancy frills/Yeah, I’m making up for all those years/Since I’ve got the pill.”
There’s a basic longing in country music to back to one’s roots. The city has an ambivalent effect on country people. They seek the advantages of package values. They long for the rural life that they can extol, but can’t return to. And a lot of songs expose this whole steam of rural values like Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City.” “I’m tired of all your crowing/How you and your hens play/While holding a couple in my arms/Another’s on the way/This chicken’s done tore up her nest/And I’m ready to make a deal/And you can’t afford to turn it down/‘Cause you know I’ve got the pill.” All right, go on home Loretta. (laughter) “I want to go home/I want to go home/Oh, how I want to go home/Last night I went to sleep in Detroit City/and I dreamed about those cotton fields and home/I dreamed about my mother, dear old papa, sister, and brother/I dreamed about that girl who's been waiting for so long/I want to go home/I want to go home.”
0:31:58.6 (end of audio 1)
0:00:00.5 (start of audio 2)
This is by Elton Britt. “Star Spangled Banner waving somewhere/In a distant land so many miles away/Only Uncle Sam’s great heroes get to go there/Where I wished that I could also live someday/I’d seen Lincoln, Custard, Washington and Perry/And Nathan Hale and Collin Kelly too/There’s a Star Spangled Banner waving somewhere/Waving o’er the land of heroes brave and true.” The Vietnam War, of course, confused country singers just like it confused everybody else. People like Merle Haggard sang “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and Johnny Cash had this song about protests in general reflecting the spirit of time. “There once was a musical troupe/A pickin’, singing folk group/They sang the mountain ballads/And the folk songs of our land/They were long on musical ability/Folks thought they would go far/But political incompatibility/Led to their downfall/Well, the one on the right was on the left/And the one in the middle was on the right/And the one on the left was in the middle/And the guy in the rear was a Methodist.” (laughing)
By far the most common topic, however, is love—mostly unrequited. Sometimes love turns out right. Charlie Pride has a wife who’s just too good to be true, but she is, and Charlie Rich enjoys his wife behind closed doors, but mainly, men and women give each other a lot of trouble (laughing). In “Blue Yodel #1”, Jimmie Rodgers sang about wanting to shoot poor Thelma just to see her jump and fall. (laughing) Ernest Tubb sang, just the other night—as he sung just about every other night, I guess, for the last 30 years—about walking the floor over of faithless love. Hank Williams would probably have lived years, years longer if it hadn’t been for all those women with cold, cold hearts. (laughing) Ed ____ (??) sent a woman a room full of roses every time she broke his heart, and Hawkshaw Hawkins had—the late Hawkshaw Hawkins—had his phone number changed to Lonesome 7703. (laughing) Now, sometimes the women had an excuse for acting the way they do as Mel Tillis and roaming Ruby. “You painted up your lips and rolled and curled your tinted hair/Ruby, are you contemplating going out somewhere/The shadows on the wall tell me the sun is going down/Oh Ruby, don't take your love to town/For it wasn't me that started that old crazy Asian war/But I was proud to go and do my patriotic chore/And I know, Ruby, that I'm not the man I used to be/But Ruby I still need some company/It’s hard to love a man whose legs are bent and paralyzed/And the wants and the needs of a woman your age, Ruby I realize/But it won't be long, I've heard them say, until I’m not around/Oh Ruby, don't take your love to town.” That’s what I call a heart-wrenching song. (laughing) I guess you all heard about Jethro, that he went crazy. Well, I didn’t—I want to finish that story before I let you see what happened to Jethro’s wife. “He married a beautiful redhead/Of women they say, she's a pearl/She gave her heart to Jethro/And her body to the whole damn world.” (inaudible; laughing) Sometimes I think that cheating makes some wonderful adultery songs. (laughing) I heard Conway Twitty “I can tell that you’ve never been this far before.” (laughing) And here’s one with Charlie Pride that indicates that that wife of his isn’t perfect all the time. Come on Charlie, get back—get back to work. (laughing) “Does my ring hurt your finger when you go out at night/When I bought it for you darlin’/It seemed to be just right/Should I take it to the jeweler so it won’t fit so tight/Does my ring hurt your finger when 0:06:39.4 you go out at night?” Porter Wagoner’s also had a little trouble. “I got back in town a day before I planned to/I smiled and said, ‘I’ll sure surprise my wife/I don’t think I’ll phone/I’ll just head on home,’/For I didn’t know the cold, hard facts of life.” You can sort of figure out what happened to ____ (??). (laughing) I had breakfast one morning by Porter Wagoner just at the International House of Pancakes in Nashville, so I’m just really one pancake away from greatness (laughing). I told a pretty lady that I seen there that I didn’t know Porter ate food. (laughing) Here’s—here’s a song with what happens when the cold, hard facts of life catch up with you. (laughing) This might make you cry. I got about 2 more minutes. “Our little boy is 4 years old/And quite the little man/So we spell out the words we don’t want him to understand/like T-O-Y or maybe S-U-R-P-R-I-S-E/But the words we’re hiding from him now tear the heart right out of me/Our D-I-V-O-R-C-E becomes final today.” In 1972 the #1 song for the whole year at College Station was “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” (laughing) And you see from the variety of these, and these are just—just samples and it’s kind of frustrating here. I want to play for you “Drop Kick Me, Jesus Through the Goalpost of Life”(laughing)—things like that, but there are some—some wonderful things here, but they all have this characteristic.
Sometimes it’s kind of hard to know, when a person like Justin Tubb says let’s sing it like we used to, exactly what it is he’s talking about. Sometimes people have mistaken ideas about what country music is or isn’t. Sometimes it’s difficult to explain. I’ve talked to Tom T. Hall at some length once and he said, “People come to me and say, well what is—what is country music? I like what you do, but I don’t like country music.” He says, “You know, I do country music.” What they mean is they don’t like some kinds of it. In terms of like love or faith, it’s hard to know exactly how to explain it, but when you got it, you know it. (laughing) And I think, along those lines, perhaps, Kris Kristofferson gives you the best definition of a country song. “Okay this song is country man—that’s the way it is ____ (??). (laughing) “Okay. 1, 2, 3, 4. 1,2,3,4/Busted flat in Baton Rouge and heading for the train/Feelin' nearly faded as my jeans/Bobby thumbed a diesel down/Just before it rained/Took us all the way to New Orleans/I took my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana/I was playin' sad while Bobby sang the blues/With them windshield wipers slappin' time and Bobby clappin' hands/We finally sang up ever song that driver knew/Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose/Nothin' ain't worth nothin' but it's free/Feeling good was easy Lord when Bobby sang the blues/Feeling it was good enough for me/Ggood enough for me and Bobby McGee.” Thank you very much for coming. It’s a pleasure being with you. (clapping)
0:12:05.6 (end of audio 2)