Country Music History – Essential Recordings of 1954
The world discovers Elvis Aron Presley.
1. “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” Elvis Presley. On July 5, 1954, a musically obsessed teenage Memphis truck driver was recording at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. At the end of what seemed to be an unproductive day, Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black began a spontaneous performance of Bill Crudup’s “That’s All Right” and Sam Phillips immediately knew he had found the sound he wanted. A few days later, Bill Black suggested cutting a cover of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” as the b-side. Like Elvis would do often in his career, he didn’t just sing “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” he completely transformed it. Sam Phillips immediately noted his approval, “Hell, that’s different. That’s a pop song now, Levi. That’s good.”
2. “I Closed My Heart’s Door,” Ray Acuff. Although he’s a legendary name in country music, Roy Acuff didn’t have significant chart success in the 1950s. In fact, after 1949’s “Tennessee Waltz,” Acuff didn’t have another country hit until 1958’s “Once More.” “I Closed My Heart’s Door” was co-written by Grand Ole Opry member Stoney Cooper, who performed in a duo with his wife Wilma Lee Cooper, and bluegrass instrumentalist Ralph Jones, who had written “Please Don’t Let Me Love You” – a Top Ten country hit for George Morgan in 1949 and a Top Ten hit for Hank Williams in 1955. On “I Closed My Heart’s Door,” Acuff sings with great effectiveness about an unfaithful woman who hurt him so deeply that he will never love again.
3. “I Don’t Hurt Anymore,” Hank Snow, The Singing Ranger and his Rainbow Ranch Boys. There were only nine #1 country hits in 1954 with “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” holding the top slots for twenty non-consecutive weeks during the year. The lyrics convey a feeling of almost disbelief that the narrator finally recovered from a heartbreaking relationship. The songwriters were Don Robertson and Jack Rollins. It was the first hit for Robertson, who would go on to co-write Hank Locklin’s “Please Help Me, I’m Falling” and “Ringo” by Lorne Greene, among many other hits. Jack Rollins co-wrote “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” and “Frosty the Snowman” with Steve Nelson. “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” was an R&B hit for Dinah Washington in 1954 and has been covered by Hank Thompson, Johnny Cash (on his final studio album, “American VI: Ain’t No Grave”), and Bob Dylan & The Band.
4. “If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’),” Faron Young. Shreveport, Louisiana native Faron Young started performing on “The Louisiana Hayride” as a teenager, with Webb Pierce facilitating his appearances on the program. Young moved to Nashville in 1952 and scored a #2 hit with “Goin’ Steady.” After serving in the military, Young reestablished himself on the country charts with the 1954 #2 hit “If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’).” The song was penned by singer Tommy Collins, who was later recognized as one of the architects of the Bakersfield sound. “If You Ain’t Lovin’” posits the theory that “coochy-coo” is more valuable than “a bucket full of money.” George Strait returned the song to the charts in 1988 with his chart topping cover version.
5. “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me),” Ray Price. Before becoming a major star, Ray Price befriended two of country music’s most important performers. He worked with Lefty Frizzell in Texas, then became friends/roommates with Hank Williams after moving to Nashville. Hank even wrote “Weary Blues” for Ray, in an effort to jump start his career, but the record wasn’t a success. Price went on to lead Hank’s former band, the Drifting Cowboys, for a short time. Hank’s influence is pronounced on “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me),” a #2 hit that Ray wrote with singer Rusty Gabbard. Price was obviously still in the process of discovering his true vocal style. The song has been covered by Eric Clapton, George Jones & Tammy Wynette, Leon Russell, and was a Top Ten country hit for Gail Davies in 1981.
6. “Loose Talk,” Carl Smith. Singer/songwriter Freddie Hart (nee Fred Segrest) and Carl Smith had opposite career projections. Hart grew up in a sharecropper family in Alabama and joined the Marines at the age of 14. After fighting in the Pacific during World War II, he started a music career and signed with Capitol Records in 1953. He released “Loose Talk” in early 1954, but his version didn’t chart. Smith sings over a rhumba beat on this tale of gossip trying to break up his relationship. It was Smith’s last #1 single, although he would continue to hit the charts, with his last Top 40 country entries occurring in 1971. Conversely, Freddie Hart had some minor hits in the 1960s, but broke through with the #1 single “Easy Loving” in 1971 and would eventually have fourteen Top Ten hits and six #1 singles during that decade.
7. “The New Green Light,” Hank Thompson. Hank Thompson hit the Top Ten in 1948 with “The Green Light,” an accordion hooked song about letting go of a cheating woman. “The New Green Light” is the same song, given a faster tempo and having Western swing fiddles/steel guitar carry the instrumental breaks. The resulting single charted even higher, peaking at #3, proving that recycling is both good for the environment and profitable.
8. “One by One,” Kitty Wells and Red Foley. The marital relationship between Kitty Wells and Johnnie Wright was also often a business relationship. “One by One” was written by Johnnie with his musical partner Jack Anglin and his brother Jim Anglin. The song is an early version of a country duet performed by major stars as though they were in a romantic relationship. Lyrically, both parties blame each other for their irreconcilable differences. Foley had been a major star since 1944 and this was his last #1 hit. After the success of “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” note who received first billing.
9. “Release Me,” Ray Price. “Release Me” was written in 1949 by Eddie Miller, Dub Williams (using the pseudonym James Pebworth), and Robert Yount. Miller recorded the track in 1950, but wasn’t a strong enough vocalist to make it a hit. The song was discovered in a big way in 1954 with Kitty Wells taking it to #8 on the charts, Jimmy Heap to #5, and Ray Price to #6. Price is still singing in hardcore honky tonk fashion here, not using the smooth countrypolitan vocal style he would later adopt. In the instrumental break, you get an early version of the Ray Price shuffle. Engelbert Humperdinck scored a #1 U.K. pop hit with his 1967 cover. By that time, a fourth “songwriter” named Robert Harris was added to the credits. This was another pseudonym of James Pebworth, in an attempt to get a bigger slice of the royalty pie.
10. “Slowly,” Webb Pierce. Webb Pierce owned the #1 slot on the country charts for twenty-nine weeks in 1954. “Even Tho” held the spot for two weeks, “More and More” for ten, and “Slowly” topped the charts for seventeen weeks. “Slowly,” a song about the beginning stages of a life-long relationship, was written by Texas singer/musician Tommy Hill, who later had a writing credit on Red Sovine’s saccharine 1976 #1 hit “Teddy Bear.” Although a fiddle hooked song, instrumentally “Slowly” was a turning point in country music from the lap steel to the more versatile pedal steel sound.
11. “Sparkling Brown Eyes,” Webb Pierce with the Wilburn Brothers. “Filipino Baby” songwriter Billy Cox co-wrote “Sparkling Brown Eyes” and reportedly recorded it with Cliff Hobbs in 1938, but that version can no longer be found. New Hampshire based bluegrass act Jerry and Sky (Jerry Howarth and Schuyler Snow) recorded their version in 1947 and it seems to be the blueprint for this #4 Webb Pierce hit. The Wilburn Brothers were a duo from Hardy, Arkansas who performed on the Grand Ole Opry for six months during 1940, until pesky child labor laws caused their departure (Virgil Wilburn was born in 1930, brother Teddy in 1931). The Wilburn Brothers landed twenty-eight Top 40 hits from 1954 to 1970, featuring a smooth harmony style. By contrast, “Sparkling Brown Eyes” is distinguished by its completely eccentric, high pitched Appalachian style vocals. Play it at moderate volume to awake your neighbor’s dog.
12. “That’s All Right,” Elvis Presley. Blues singer/guitarist Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup was born in rural Mississippi and, like many of his contemporaries, relocated to Chicago to begin his recording career. Crudup released singles for a number of labels, but stopped recording in 1951, due to lack of royalty payments. He eventually spent more years working as a migrant laborer and a bootlegger than he did as a musician. Crudup recorded “That’s All Right” in 1946 to little fanfare, the song was re-released in 1949 as “That’s All Right, Mama.” While the Sun Studio recording of “That’s All Right” started spontaneously, Elvis had long been a fan, “Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now and I said if I ever got to a place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.” The day “That’s All Right” was released, Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips famously played the record fourteen times on WHBQ radio. While not a national hit, the cultural reverberations of “That’s All Right” are impossible to summarize. Still, here’s one nugget: fifty years after its initial release, it was a #3 hit on the U.K. pop charts.
13. “This Ole House,” Stuart Hamblen. The common country music themes of sin and salvation were part and parcel of Stuart Hamblen’s life. The East Texas native found work in Western films and radio in the 1930s and also penned “Texas Plains,” later recast as “Montana Plains” by Patsy Montana. Hamblen’s primary hobbies during the 1940s involved booze and gambling, but he underwent a religious conversion late in the decade. After losing his radio job for refusing to announce beer ads, he focused on music and Christian broadcasting. He had four country charting singles with “This Ole House,” a #2 country hit, also crossing over to the pop charts when Rosemary Clooney scored a #1 pop hit with her version. The religion based song was inspired by a hunting trip in California’s High Sierras, where Hamblen and a hunting friend came across an old shack with a man who had passed away, presumably from natural causes, inside the structure. The following year, Hamblen had a Top Ten pop hit with “Open Up Your Heart (And Let the Sunshine In).” That was his final hit, later in life he raised horses and returned to radio broadcasting.
14. “Truck Drivin’ Man,” Terry Fell. Terry Fell was born in Alabama, but moved to California by himself when he was 16. During the mid-1940s, he worked for Western swing musician Billy Hughes and started recording as a solo artist in 1947 (his backing band was known as, what else, the Fellers). Fell’s only hit was the 1954 single “Don’t Drop It,” but it was the b-side, “Truck Drivin’ Man” that became his best known composition. Fell’s harmonica and fiddle based instrumentation wasn’t as commercial as later covers by George Hamilton IV or Buck Owens, but the sing along chorus is undeniable. By 1959, Fell was in the military and co-wrote a never recorded song titled “Mississippi River” with Elvis Presley. The lyrics to that song were sold at auction for $30,000 in 1996. Fell’s later career was primarily based in songwriting and music publishing.
15. “Two Glasses, Joe,” Ernest Tubb. Ernest Tubb was still hitting the charts consistently during the 1950s, but his star had dimmed a bit. His last #1 single as a solo artist was “Blue Christmas” in 1949, although he teamed with Ref Foley to top the charts in 1950 with “Goodnight Irene.” On the Cindy Walker composition “Two Glasses, Joe,” Tubb orders two drinks – one for himself and one for the woman he wishes was still with him. You’ll be surprised that this was only a #11 hit when you hear it and you’ll also wonder why Hank Thompson never covered it.
14. “You’re Not Mine Anymore,” Webb Pierce. Webb Pierce’s musical partnership with the Wilburn Brothers didn’t end completely with “Sparkling Brown Eyes.” Teddy Wilburn co-wrote “You’re Not Mine Anymore” with Pierce, a Top Five single about dealing with heartbreak, but wishing the best for the other party. Webb Pierce had been a major country star before Hank Williams passed away, but Pierce was also the primary benefactor of the commercial void that was left in the wake of Hank’s absence.