‘Unbroken Circle’ is a new recurring feature where I discuss classic country songs.
Depending on the year, country music was either in its golden age or on the brink of death in the 1950s.
Before the rise of rock ‘n’ roll threatened country music’s very existence, the genre was a melting pot of different styles and sounds, all of which helped shape “hillbilly” music into what it’s known as today. The biggest names that spring to mind, of course, are Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, though there’s a fuller picture to draw: Eddy Arnold – not yet “countrypolitan” and still “The Tennessee Plowboy” – outsold both artists during this time; Ernest Tubb was in his prime and touring to packed houses; Kitty Wells became the first female artist in the genre to attain a No. 1 hit; Pee Wee King, Red Foley and the Louvin Brothers were all hailed as innovative newcomers; and jukeboxes were filled with records by Webb Pierce, Jim Reeves, Goldie Hill, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Slim Whitman, Carl Smith and more.
But the dominant sound of the era was undoubtedly “honky-tonk,” with the roots planted decades before and its foremost exponent of the then-modern day being Ernest Tubb, who had set a new pattern with “Walking The Floor Over You” and “Driving Nails In My Coffin.” One newcomer, Hank Snow, stood as an example of what this era symbolized in country music. His repertoire through the years – folk songs, jazz, blues, mambos and recitations – transcended genre, and his flatpicking guitar style made him one of the most versatile artists of the era; but he was still a traditionalist at heart, and one who vowed to “keep it country” as country music struggled to stay commercially relevant in the late ‘50s and all throughout the ‘60s.
Born Clarence Eugene Snow in Brooklyn, Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1914, Snow was the victim of a broken home and child abuse. He ran away at age 12, working as a cabin boy on an ocean freighter before finding salvation through Jimmie Rodgers records, Snow’s major inspiration for becoming a performer. In 1934, Snow sang as Hank the Yodeling Ranger on the Canadian Farm Hour over Halifax radio, and two years later signed with RCA Records as a Jimmie Rodgers sound-alike. For years, however, RCA only considered Snow as a Canadian talent, failing to market his country records in the United States. To counter this, Snow moved to Dallas, Texas, developed a strong following there and caught a break when Ernest Tubb took notice of him. Tubb offered to get Snow a performance slot on the Grand Ole Opry, though his first brush didn’t go well; and had it not been for Tubb’s backing, Snow would have likely never been invited back for a second chance.
The solution? A hit record, of course.
But this doesn’t just happen right away (at least not in every instance). Snow’s first American release for RCA Victor, “Marriage Vow,” made little impact, having only stayed on the Billboard chart for one week. Like his experience with the Grand Ole Opry, Snow was offered a second chance (if only for his strong Texas following), this time with the full backing of RCA. He suggested cutting one of his own compositions, “I’m Movin’ On,” a train song cut squarely in his idol’s tradition.
If anything, beyond the song being Snow’s literal last chance at a recording career, it symbolized his life up to that point: he had been on the move since childhood, running from a dark, abusive past, and tried to find a future where he’d finally be accepted somewhere. It was a jumpy, energetic tune filled with a raw sense of optimism, something that listeners immediately gravitated toward. It didn’t hurt, too, that it was a very fun, easy song to sing.
With the song’s official release as a single, no longer did Snow’s career hang by a thread. In fact, Snow went on to place over 80 more chart singles for RCA through 1980. He was with the label for 44 years, the longest active contract in music history. Over time, artists like Emmylou Harris, Elvis Presley, Don Gibson (and more) have recorded this traveling tune, showing how the song has literally been “movin’ on” throughout time, and will likely continue to do so.
Next time on ‘Unbroken Circle,’ we’ll take a look at Bobby Helms’ “Fraulein,” a song that became a hit at a time when it shouldn’t have been one. If there are any other songs you’d like me to discuss for this feature, let me know in the comments below.