Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
Last time on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ we discussed the advent of “saga songs” in the country music format. In short, they were story songs that stretched the limits of imagination, or, in some instances, put a new spin on an actual historical tale.
Despite the artist in question today performing under Stonewall Jackson (his real name) and achieving crossover success with a song called “Waterloo,” this is not an instance of a song putting a spin on a historical tale.
No, instead, there really isn’t much to say for this volume of this series other than properly asserting the song’s place as one of country music’s biggest hits. Jackson himself was born in Tabor City, North Carolina in 1932, and moved to Georgia at age two after his father’s death. As a young boy, he traded his bicycle for a guitar so he could learn to play country music.
In a sense, it’s fitting that these next volumes focus on mythological songs, as Jackson’s own story reflects that same sense of appeal. He drove his pickup truck from rural Georgia into Nashville on Halloween in 1956 hoping to chase down his country music dream. His uncanny self-confidence made him certain he’d be quickly discovered without having to endure the traditional hardships of paying dues or playing night after night for nothing at Tootsie’s.
Defying conventional wisdom, he taped three songs at Acuff-Rose Publications, impressing Wesley Rose enough to where he arranged a Grand Ole Opry audition for Jackson. He signed his Columbia contract in January 1957.
As is the case with most success stories in country music, Jackson couldn’t have better timed his arrival. Remember, by 1956, the rock ‘n’ roll boom had essentially paralyzed Nashville. Proudly country, Jackson was a reassurance that the Opry, under its new manager, the rock-hating “D” Kilpatrick, would welcome young talent, but never become a rockabilly showcase as the Louisiana Hayride and Town Hall Party had. Jackson made history with the Opry, becoming the first singer to join without the benefit of a hit record or a recording contract (before 1957, of course). He was also the first artist to record a live album at the sacred venue.
It was Ernest Tubb who helped Jackson establish himself onstage, as Jackson had a tendency to mimic Hank Williams. Jackson found himself by embracing his own style – a breathless baritone absent of vibrato, with a trademark delivery including chopped-off lyrics at the end of each line.
That came in handy for the focus of today’s feature, “Waterloo.” Truthfully, there’s not much of a story to tell regarding the formation of “Waterloo,” nor is there really much to say about the song itself. It’s goofy and gimmicky, and yes, it does manage to tell an outrageous story in the time allotted. The song follows three well-known characters in history – Adam, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the folk figure, Tom Dooley, all meeting their “waterloo” – or, in other words, their final defeat. Again, it’s charmingly goofy and managed to knock Johnny Horton’s monster hit, “The Battle Of New Orleans” from its top spot.
Jackson and his team tried to capitalize on “Waterloo” with a follow-up, “Uncle Sam And Big John Bull,” but it was essentially dead on arrival. Join me next time on ‘Pop Goes The Country’ where we’ll discuss the saga song that catapulted this trend, Johnny Horton’s “The Battle Of New Orleans.”
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
- Information regarding Jackson’s life was taken from The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music by Rick Marschall and The Encyclopedia of Country Music, with Jackson’s biography written by Walt Trott.
- Additional helpful information was taken from this article from No Depression.