Country music and pop music are the sibling duo who, even though they can’t get along, are still family at the end of the day. The term, “crossover” has typically been used to describe a country recording that hits big in the wider pop market. It’s a fairly common practice that (arguably) traces its existence to Vernon Dalhart’s 1924 release of “The Prisoner’s Song”/”The Wreck Of The Old 97,” as well as multiple songs by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, Bob Wills and more.
This new feature is meant to discuss those crossover hits and their possible appeal for their respective time. I will not explore every single crossover hit, but rather the biggest ones that have made the biggest impact on the genre over time. In 1940, Billboard magazine began tracking the nation’s top popular recordings weekly, making it easier to verify which country songs were actual crossovers.
The first crossover since this tracking began is “Pistol Packin’ Mama” by Al Dexter from 1943. It’s because of Dexter that the word, “honky-tonk,” has become so ubiquitous with country music. In April 1916, Charles McCarron and Chris Smith copyrighted a piece of one-step dance music called “Honky Tonky.” Over the next 23 years, the word traveled from Ardmore to Pulizter Prize territory in the big city. It entered country music on November 28, 1936 when Vocalion released Dexter’s version of “Honky Tonk Blues.”
The very first honky-tonk songs were upbeat and fun. It would later become somewhat of a state of mind, moving from a good time on a Friday night to a world of remorse and guilt. That’s a conversation for another time, but to reiterate, Dexter was one of the first to bring country music and honky-tonk fever together.
This brings us to “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” one of the first “official” country crossover hits. The song adapts its melody from the old folk song, “Boil Them Cabbage Down.” The jazz influence evident in honky-tonk’s shuffling attitude is on display here. It also displays the fusion of the lighter and darker elements that came to shape later honky-tonk. The song itself features an upbeat, joyous arrangement, but the lyrical content speaks of a jealous spouse looking to shoot her (presumed) husband for cheating on her. Dexter, who plays the spouse on the run, gives a performance that lends itself more to the serious attitude of the track. Despite this, the song’s infectiousness (infectious for 1943) likely catapulted its broader appeal.
The song’s ultimate legacy really isn’t even tied much to country music. The closest remembrance of the track in the genre is the use of it in the 151st episode of Hee-Haw when Buck Owens and the rest of the gang perform the song.
In terms of its broader appeal, it’s also continually referenced in Spike Milligan’s Goodbye Soldier, which is part of his memoirs of World War II and just after it. In it, he states that because Mussolini did not like jazz music, after he was defeated, the Italians were getting into jazz, and considering this song was popular at the time, this was one of the songs Milligan and his group was often asked to sing. In addition, a B17-G Flying Fortress named “Pistol Packin’ Mama” was lost on July 20, 1944 on a mission to Leipzig.
When listening to “Pistol Packin’ Mama” today, it’s easy to see how it shaped modern honky-tonk music. The song also ties in with country music’s old fascination with the Gothic, showcasing a sorry man on the run and foreshadowing an early grave. If anything, it makes you wonder if the people were just dancing to it without listening to the words. At any rate, the song reached No. 1 on both the country and pop charts.