Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits
For the past several volumes of this series, we’ve explored the rockabilly movement in great detail. From country artists needing to adapt for survival purposes to artists moving in from the outside, while the crossover hits happened, country music, much like its artists, was still in survival mode.
The last few volumes have focused heavily the “outsiders,” and now it’s time to once again shift our focus toward artists needing to adapt to survive. We’ve already discussed Ferlin Husky once in this series, even if the focus went mostly toward Jean Shepard. By the time Husky’s breakthrough smash hit, “Gone,” appeared, that hillbilly hit seemed almost like a distant memory for him.
And while artists adapted, Nashville was fixing to become the next big thing in pop music. Yet we haven’t called it what it’s traditionally known as today – the “Nashville sound.” This was the result of two men – Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins. Early in his career, Bradley supervised recording sessions from Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce and Kitty Wells. Yet he also produced Brenda Lee’s biggest pop hits and produced Patsy Cline’s Decca sessions, redefining country music.
Atkins was one of Nashville’s best session musicians. When RCA built its studio in Nashville, Atkins became its manager, eventually moving on to run RCA’s country music department. When rock ‘n’ roll entered, Atkins had to find a way to keep listeners from disappearing.
In 1957, someone coined the term “Nashville sound,” with its name first appearing in print in the Music Reporter in 1958. At first, the term was complimentary, simply describing the “Nashville way” of making music. Later, it would be defined by what we know it as today – a style of production that deemphazied traditional country music instruments like fiddle and banjo in favor of strings, vocal group arrangements, and (sometimes) horns.
Yet while the sound and instrumentation is what’s often discussed, it’s the voice behind it all that is the unsung hero of the movement.
Well, I guess I should say “voices” behind it all. These “voices” went as the Jordanaires. The group was comprised of four men, sometimes bringing in Millie Kirkman to sing high, haunting wails that added flavor to Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas,” George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and the topic of today’s discussion, Husky’s “Gone.” There have been years where it’s easier to list the hits without the help of the Jordanaires. Early on, they had a career as a pop/country/gospel group, but their association with Presley in the ’50s helped launch them as America’s top backing group.
With the exception of one song, the country-pop fusion was all over the charts from 1957-58. The exception was Bobby Helms’ “Fraulein,” written by Texas singer-songwriter Lawton Williams, beginning with a fiddle introduction and, in fact, the only song in the top ten during this period to even feature a fiddle. But Helms’ next hit was “My Special Angel,” a poppish, teenage-oriented song fit for the times. There was no escape.
Going back to Husky, however, his new material was quite a switch from “A Dear John Letter,” a song where he went under the name Terry Preston anyway. Prior to “Gone,” Husky had recorded “Hank’s Song,” a tribute to the recently deceased Hank Williams. At the time, Husky was promoted as the next Williams, but then again, so was every male singer in country music. Ironically, Husky even had a hit called “Country Music Is Here To Stay” in 1958 amidst the rockabilly movement under the name Simon Crum.
But Husky is ultimately known as an artist who ushered in and pioneered pop sounds in country music. His voice was still pure country, with a twang and exaggerated vibrato, but his arrangements were lush. He even made the drum a prominent component of the country band for the first time.
And again, the Jordanaires certainly helped. The earliest work they did on Music Row was in a little basement that Bradley and his brother Harold built before they added the Quonset Hut. One of the founding members of the Jordanaires, Gordon Stoker, says, “Among the first sessions we did there was ‘Young Love’ with Sonny James. We did ‘Gone’ with Ferlin Husky, which was a huge record, about five million. ‘Gone’ was the first recording that we used echo. Mort Thomasson set it up, he put speaker under the steps comin’ down, and it was closed in. He had like a concrete floor. They wall-boarded it down and all that kind of carryin’ on, but he had a speaker and a microphone, and he fed it back through the board.”
As you may recall, this calls back to the advanced recording techniques of Husky’s other big hit, “A Dear John Letter,” where Shepard’s voice haunted and echoed in his mind as he read the terrible news. Join me next time on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ where we’ll wrap up our discussion of the rockabilly movement with a triple feature on the Everly Brothers.
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
- Information regarding the Jordanaires and quote attributions are credited toward How Nashville Became Music City U.S.A by Michael Kosser, specifically the chapter, “Oohs and Aahs.”
- Information regarding Ferlin Husky was mostly taken from his biography in The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music by Rick Marschall.
- Further information was taken from Country Music U.S.A. by Bill C. Malone, specifically the chapter, “The Development of Country-Pop Music and the Nashville Sound.”