Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing feature where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
When I said in volume four of this feature that I wouldn’t have a lot to say about every single crossover hit, little did I know what awaited me in volume six.
After weeks of researching this particular volume and putting it off, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no way to spin “Slow Poke” by Frank “Pee Wee” King in an interesting direction as far as the song itself is concerned. “Slow Poke,” despite being his biggest hit country song, isn’t even King’s most recognized song. That honor would go to “Tennessee Waltz,” and just like last time, we’re going to focus on Acuff-Rose Publications.
As previously mentioned, country music’s rise as a legitimate genre is largely a post World War II narrative, and for Acuff-Rose, their ticket to stardom was “Tennessee Waltz.” Recognized today as an international pop standard and one of Tennessee’s state songs, “Tennessee Waltz” was first released in 1948 as “hillbilly” via King’s and Cowboy Copas’ recordings. Suffice to say, they didn’t take off. In Nov. 1950, Patti Page recorded a version released as the “B” side of her record, and it would become a nation favorite by the end of the year. Written by King and Redd Stewart, the song was inspired by the popularity of Bill Monroe’s “Kentucky Waltz” in 1948.
That particular song was an important factor for country music’s commercial surge, as by May 1951, 4,800,000 records of the song had been sold. Acuff-Rose earned $330,000 from it alone, launching them on the road to publishing success. With the way the song battered down the walls between popular and country music, it’s a wonder why this edition of this series isn’t focused on that particular song. Alas, because this feature focuses on country songs that made it big in pop rather than the way around, we’re left with “Slow Poke.” It did, however, pave the way for many more crossover hits to come, including that aforementioned song.
There isn’t much story to the creation of “Slow Poke,” but as evidenced already, the factors leading up to its creation are important elements of country music history. With one listen to “Slow Poke,” it appears to owe more to its popular elements than to its country elements. The song is bolstered mainly by accordion, pedal steel and clock-like percussion, and as ever with these crossover hits, the vocalist behind the microphone is smooth as butter. It’s a polka tune that found a home in country music through a history of ethnic and cultural fusions.
While not necessarily a “dance” tune as we may think of it in the traditional sense, it’s the influence of dancing on country music that helped paved the way for something like “Slow Poke.” It’s common knowledge that a number of dance styles co-existed with the string band and fiddle music that was common Saturday night entertainment for southern families in the early twentieth century. From these traditions, both in the form of radio shows (there’s a reason why they were called “barn dances”) and commercial recordings, dancing started to influence country music. The emergence of western swing centered in the Southwest in the 1930s further defined what country dancing would become in the following decades. The broad regional distinctions were perceptible, which were the results of different immigrant populations housing ethnic and culturally specific dance practices in different environments. For example, Slavic and German immigrants in Texas contributed folk styles of dance including schottische and, ding-ding, polka, which as evidenced already were both embedded onto the emergent country music culture. Lastly, the economically-driven migration patterns within the United States during the ’30s and ’40s gave rise to honky tonks in the Southwest that catered nicely to a market of wild-eyed, younger people who looked forward to a night’s worth of entertainment.
King was one of many artists during his time to help introduce waltzes, polkas and cowboy music into mainstream country music. Growing up, King grew up in Wisconsin’s polka-and-waltz culture, making his musical debut playing the accordion at the age of 15 in his father’s polka band. In 1934, King met with promoter J.L. Frank who helped King get a gig backing Gene Autry for a time. In 1937, King formed the Golden West Cowboys and moved to Nashville to begin a decade at the Grand Ole Opry, helping to introduce instruments such as trumpets, drums, and electric guitar into the fold (“helping” does not equate to “being the first,” however). With a successful film career as well, there’s many elements of King’s career that stand out more than “Slow Poke,” and through this edition of ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ we spent more time discussing external factors that helped set the foundation for country music. There’s nothing wrong with that though, as it’s important to know where your roots are before you look on ahead.
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
- Excerpts from Pee Wee King’s biography, written by Wade Hall, were taken from “The Encyclopedia of Country Music.”
- Excerpts regarding the important of dancing in country music were taken from the chapter, “Whiter the Two-Step: Country Dance Rewrites Its Musical Lineage,” written by Jocelyn R. Neal, from “The Oxford Handbook of Country Music.”
- Excerpts from the history of “Tennessee Waltz” were taken from “Country Music U.S.A.”