Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
If you’ve kept up with this series, you know that we’re currently discussing the rage of saga songs on ‘Pop Goes The Country.’ Thus far, we’ve discussed how they came to be and their popularity, but we haven’t discussed their relationship with country music.
Yes, they recalled country music’s earlier affiliation with event songs (which are, in fact, two different categories despite the numerous similarities), but they also represented a hard turn back to what Bill C. Malone calls, “hard country music.”
We may not be discussing any more rockabilly songs for this feature, but that doesn’t mean the war of rock ‘n’ roll and the Nashville Sound wasn’t still permeating Nashville. Remember, all the Nashville Sound really was, at its core, was a business move. As Steve Sholes once said to Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley and Don Law, their jobs didn’t depend on records that cultists would reissue a half century later, but on crossover hits. Despite the criticisms all men took, especially Atkins, this was pure business.
Atkins, of course, was a journeyman country guitarist, taking over RCA’s country music division in 1957, where his initial signee, Don Gibson, issued the first country single where anyone could remember the drums being miked. Bradley, on the other hand, who had taken over Decca’s country division in 1958, brought his experience with big bands and WSM’s studio orchestra to country music. Like Atkins, his personal tastes fell more in line with music outside of country, yet he also helped guide artists like Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe and Webb Pierce into a new age of country music where they could fit in while still making records true to themselves.
To further the country and pop paradox, Law was the first person most responsible for the saga song craze. In fact, he spared no expense in promoting country songs for pop airplay. Some songs, such as Stonewall Jackson’s “Waterloo” and today’s focus, Johnny Horton’s “The Battle Of New Orleans,” were classic Law productions – full, adventurous and crammed with hooks.
But remember, for as much as these producers were pushing the limits of country music, they also helped country music regain a part of itself in their own special ways. We’ll discuss this more as we move into the ‘60s, but songs devoted to storytelling, even if fictional, were important to the reinvigoration of (then) modern country music, and it all started with “The Battle Of New Orleans.”
Jimmy Driftwood, the author of “The Battle Of New Orleans,” was an Arkansas high school principal who sometimes wrote songs to help get his students excited to learn about history. Driftwood would go on to write thousands of songs, but his most popular song was this one, a song about an 1814 encounter between General Andrew Jackson’s American troops and a much larger British naval force. Like with all saga songs, while this does tell a story relating to a part of history (in this case, an actual part of history), it still comes with a fictional fantasy to it. After all, while it might’ve been a great American victory, it likely wasn’t the good time Driftwood depicted. Then again, one has to remember this was made for students, so it’s not surprising to hear the events and language sanitized or “toned down,” for lack of a better term.
By now, many artists have recorded this song, but Horton’s version was the first (and definitive) version. Horton, a Los Angeles native who’d been a collegiate basketball player and a gold prospector in Alaska before falling into a musical career, had, like all artists at the time, tried to bridge the gap between country, rockabilly, and pop. His first single, the dance-hall classic, “Honky Tonk Man,” catapulted him right into stardom. Like Marty Robbins, another star of this series, Horton was a very versatile artist, another sign of the times. As such, it wasn’t surprising to hear him record his own version of Driftwood’s song in 1959, reaching the number one position in country and pop by June of that year.
Again, the tune itself is quite silly, not unlike “Waterloo” from last week. The song is set to an old fiddle tune, “Eighth Of January,” which also commemorated the event in discussion. A banjo plays “Dixie,” and the lyrics laud Andrew Jackson, two decisions that haven’t aged especially well. Basically, it’s a big joke of a song, which once again ties into the paradox of trying to be a country song about life and a pop song that people would find appealing.
Just one year later on November 5, 1960, Horton was killed in an automobile collision near the small town of Milano, Texas. In a twist of irony, Horton’s wife was Billie Jean Horton, the second wife of Hank Williams. Oddly enough, Horton had strong premonitions of his death for awhile. He always believed he would be killed by a drunk driver. As he became more popular, Horton grew more paranoid. He cancelled an appearance at the premiere of the movie, North To Alaska and tried to get out of his gig at the Skyline Club that fateful night, but to no avail. He stayed in his dressing room at the Skyline, convinced a drunk person would kill him if he stayed at the bar. As it turns out, staying would have been better.
Join me next time on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ where we’ll discuss Jim Reeves and “He’ll Have To Go.”
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
- Information regarding Johnny Horton’s life was taken from The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music by Rick Marschall and The Encyclopedia of Country Music, with Horton’s biography written by Colin Escott.
- Information about the formation and popularity of saga songs and “hard country music” was taken from Bill C. Malone’s Country Music U.S.A., particularly the chapter, “The Reinvigoration of Modern Country Music.”
- Information about Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley and Don Law was taken from Will The Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music In America by the Country Music Hall of Fame, with the specific information coming from the chapter, “All Shook Up,” by Colin Escott.
- Information about Johnny Horton’s passing was taken from here.