Unbroken Circle is a recurring feature where I discuss classic country songs.
I said in the first edition of this series that, “depending on the year, country music was either in its golden age or on the brink of death in the 1950s.” In 1957, country music was most certainly on the brink of death.
Rock ‘n’ roll’s emergence was inevitable; the preferred music of ‘50s youth, borne of an ironic fusion of rhythm and blues and country influences (among others), threatened Nashville and what country music stood for; well, at least at the time. Even then, this wasn’t a new phenomenon for the genre. Country and pop music had mixed before, and country entertainers had never been resistant to popular recognition. But there had never been such an insistent quest for pop identification as that which came in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Some artists – like a young Johnny Cash and Eddy Arnold – adjusted well in their own ways; others did not. Nevertheless, the country music industry responded by trying to create a sound that would appeal to the broadest audience possible. They’d also look to capitalize on the crossover potential set by Hank Williams in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, especially when previous crossovers of country hits would only happen when recorded by pop artists like Dean Martin or Frankie Laine. In other words, the wheels were already in motion; rock ‘n’ roll just sped up the process quicker than expected.
The marketing of the singer became just as important as the song itself. Out went fiddles, steel guitars and a “hillbilly” demeanor in favor of something more sophisticated and appealing to youth; acoustic and bass guitars, background vocalists, strings and a clean-cut image would do just fine. The peak period of the country-pop fusion came in 1957 and continued through 1958, with songs like Sonny James’ “Young Love,” Ferlin Husky’s “Gone,” Marty Robbins’ “A White Sport Coat” and more all geared to appeal to teenage tastes. Nashville journalist Charles Lamb, in response to this recent crossover success, dropped the word “country” from the Country Music Reporter and began running one big chart that lumped songs together according to popularity, regardless of genre identification.
In 1957, there was only major exception to all of this – Bobby Helms’ “Fraulein,” written by Lawton Williams. Helms’ story is fairly average to what rising country artists of the time experienced; he grew up with country music (his father hosted the Monroe County Jamboree in Bloomington, Indiana) and made his first recordings for Nashville-based Speed Records in 1955. He was brought to Nashville the next year by Ernest Tubb, another familiar tale. Helms’ voice worked in the same range as Webb Pierce, hence the initial insistence for a push in a hard country direction. “Fraulein” was a hit, albeit one that fought to claim its rightful place at the top of the charts. Released in February 1957, “Fraulein,” a song initially intended for Tubb eight years earlier, stayed on the charts for 52 weeks, with four of those spent at No. 1. With a rousing fiddle introduction by Tommy Jackson, it was, in fact, the only song in the top ten during that period to feature a fiddle; it even managed to hit reach No. 36 on the pop charts in spite of its sound.
But this isn’t a story of a hardened traditionalist fighting against the system (in other words, Jon Pardi’s “Heartache Medication” is only kinda-sorta a modern day example of the fiddle’s return). If anything, that might extend more to Williams, who, in addition to writing “Fraulein,” also wrote several other notable country songs, including “Farewell Party” in 1962, a 1979 hit for Gene Watson. No, as previously mentioned, artists adapted in their own ways to remain commercially relevant. Helms’ next hit, “My Special Angel,” featured no fiddle and was a bigger crossover hit than “Fraulein.” And to further strengthen Helms’ connection to pop music, he ended the year with another hit – “Jingle Bell Rock,” Helms’ biggest hit, depending on how one crunches the numbers. His fame is forever welded to those three 1957 hits, but “Fraulein” still stands as the most “interesting” story of the three, even if it’s the smallest one.
Next time on Unbroken Circle, we’ll talk about Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” the first No. 1 country hit by a female artist.