Country music — then called “mountain” or “hillbilly” music — must have been nearly unknown to the readers of The Saturday Evening Post in 1944. Maurice Zolotow, who usually covered Broadway and Hollywood, wrote about this new genre as if he was introducing a strange, incomprehensible new style to Post readers.
In “Hillbilly Boom,”[PDF download] Zolotow reports on the efforts of Art Satherley, who scouted country music for Columbia Records. In March of 1942, Satherley was auditioning potential recording artists in a Dallas hotel when he met Albert Poindexter.
On that historic morning in March, Satherley, a scholarly and dignified man who speaks with a British accent and looks somewhat like an Oxford professor of Greek history, placed his pince-nez on his nose and patiently listened as Poindexter and his companions dreamily strummed and thrummed and twanged their way through the thirty-five lays of despair. Finally, Satherley selected twelve to be recorded. The best of the twelve, thought Satherley, was a lilting love song called Rosalita. Another of the twelve was a ballad having to do with a husband who is having a wild time in a night club in the company of a blonde when his wife catches him in flagrante delicto, she forthwith drawing a revolver, shooting out the lights and beating him gently about the face. Although he was not particularly impressed by this saga of marital infidelity, Satherley recorded it because he liked its steady, insistent rhythm. He was otherwise unimpressed, however, because he says that in hillbilly circles it is very common to hear songs about men and women who are unfaithful to each other, and who are always shooting it out with guns.
“To be honest about it,” Satherley recently confided, “I never dreamed it would be the hit it turned out. We only released it because we needed a contrast to put on the other side of Rosalita.”
Released in March, 1943, Rosalita was promptly forgotten. Instead, millions of Americans began to walk around advising pistol-packin’ mama to lay that pistol down. By June it became one of the biggest selling records in the history of American recording and by December, 1943, it had sold 1,600,000 copies, and the manufacturer had orders on hand for 500,000 more which he could not fill because of the wartime shortages of labor and shellac…
The Hit Parade for a long time refused to recognize the existence of “Pistol-Packin’ Mama” because the opening line went “Drinkin’ beer in a cabaret,” and the radio networks are not permitted to publicize people who look upon the malt when it is amber. This is a ruling of the Federal Communications Commission. The publishers of Pistol-Packin’ Mama haled the Hit Parade into court, and finally the lyric was altered to read “Singin’ songs in a cabaret,” and Pistol-Packin’ Mama became No. 1 on the Hit Parade…
Satherley has a gloating air of triumph as he recites these and other statistics which prove that hillbilly music has come into its own. After “Pistol-Packin’ Mama,” among the biggest recordings of the past twelvemonth have been “There’s a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere,” by Elton Britt and his band, and “No Letter Today,” by Ted Daffan and his Texans, both of which have gone over the million mark. Six large radio stations now have gigantic programs devoted solely to hillbilly music, and WLS broadcasts five solid hours of the National Barn Dance every Saturday, In Nashville, Tennessee, the Grand Ole Op’ry [sic] is aired over WSM for four hours. NBC broadcasts portions of these two programs on a national hookup, and has a third sorghum show entitled The Hook ‘n’ Ladder Follies.
Almost as remarkable are the grosses amassed by hillbilly units which play one-night stands all over the country in county auditoriums, schools, barns and theaters. Obscure performers playing in hamlets like Reeds Ferry, New Hampshire, will draw $5600 in a single night. On the road, hillbilly troupes will consistently outdraw legitimate Broadway plays, symphony concerts, sophisticated comedians and beautiful dancing girls. When a unit, say, like Roy Acuff and his Smoky Mountain Boys is scheduled to hit a town like Albany, Georgia, farmers will pour into Albany from a 200-mile radius, and night after night Acuff will play to audiences of 4000 in places where Betty Grable or Tommy Dorsey or Bob Hope would only succeed in drawing boll weevils…
It is no mystery to Satherley, who, for some twenty-five years, has been crusading for hillbilly music among his cynical Broadway friends, Satherley dislikes the term “hillbilly,” and he keeps talking about ” folk music,” “country rustic” or “mountain music.” He says that the explanation of the hillbilly phenomenon is quite simple. He explains that most Americans either live on farms today or came from farms, and that the strains of a hoedown fiddle or a cowboy plaint are their own native folk music and the one they will always respond to, no matter how far they have gone from the farm. He also believes that the congregation of groups of young men in Army camps has much to do with the boom in hillbilly music.
Because much of the hillbilly talent is employed in farming or ranching, Satherley must seek out his talent in the bayous, the canebrakes, the cotton plantations, the tobacco regions…
Although all hillbilly music sounds monotonously alike to the urban eardrum, it includes many types of music.
The qualities Satherley says must always be present in fine hillbilly music are simplicity of language, an emotional depth in the music, sincerity in the rendition, and an indigenous genuineness of dialect and twang, “I would never think of hiring a Mississippi boy to play in a Texas band,” he says, “Any Texan would know right off it was wrong.”
But, above all, sincerity, even if it is awkward unpolished sincerity, is the criterion used to judge the performer. “A true folk singer who is not synthetic can be recognized because he doesn’t ‘do’ a song; he cries it out with his heart and soul,” Satherley says.
After sincerity, Satherley strives to project the meaning of the lyrics. “The person who listens to mountain music wants to hear a story,” Satherley explains. “My singers must get the picture of the words. I’ve got to instill into them a picture of what they are singing about. If they’re singing about a dead person, I impress on them that their best friend is lying dead and ‘you’ll never see him again.’ I tell them, ‘Sing It in the extreme.’ In folk music, we don’t care about trick ways of phrasing or hot licks; we concentrate on the emotions. The country people — these so-called hillbillies — are tremendously sensitive people, with deep emotions. Whereas the sophisticated city person likes these humbug boy-girl love songs, with everything pretty-pretty, the mountaineer is a realist. His songs deal with loneliness, misery, death, murder.”
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now