By Whitney Allison Leonard
The Country Music Association was created to save country music on radio as television emerged and took over as a top medium for entertainment during the late 1950s. But some experts such as Clifford Murphy, author of the book “Yankee Twang: Country and Western Music In New England,” feel it unintentionally disenfranchised other regions of the U.S. from having what is considered true country music.
Murphy, an ethnomusicologist, and director of Maryland Traditions at the Maryland State Arts Council teaches at the University of Maryland. But his roots are in New England.
Murphy grew up in New Hampshire and later moved to Massachusetts until he left for Maryland in 2008. He was always interested in music and eventually played in his own alternative rock bands for several years before getting his master’s degree in ethnomusicology.
Murphy offered insight on the rise and fall of a country music powerhouse tradition. “The book provides a historical narrative of how the tradition evolved in New England and who the major participants were,” Murphy said. “Then trying to understand why this went from being a robust tradition that seemed perfectly in place in New England to becoming a diminishing tradition that seems out of place in New England.”
Much of the music considered country today is mainly from the south or so it is branded that way, Murphy said.
But in a recent interview he said, “I think that at a certain point there is an avalanche of evidence that makes it difficult to claim that this is inherently southern music.”
In the 1920s Maine hosted square dances and fiddling competitions. Fiddler Alanson Mellen Dunham (“Mellie”) won many of those and became well known in the national spotlight.
A documentary by The Maine Public Broadcasting Network (MPBN) and publicized on Facebook explained Dunham’s fiddling legacy. Maine Experience Producer Frank Ferrel talked about Dunham’s past and how he became well known. “He had entered a local fiddle contest. Won it. Came to the attention of Henry Ford, who had an interest in reviving country music” Ferrel says. “[Ford] Paid Mellie and his wife’s way to go out to Dearborn and to play with his orchestra. Henry Ford’s orchestra. Teach him some of his tunes and this became a huge media attraction.”
It can be listened to by clicking on Frank Ferrel’s take on Dunham
But country music’s popularity in New England during the 1950s faded out by the 1970s due to branding, DJs being pressured to play “Top 40” music and other genres, like variations of rock and roll taking over the region. The branding that occurred caused New England to become culturally disenfranchised and not considered “country” any longer.
But it was during the 1920s that local singers such as Georgia Mae Harp found their calling in country music.
Georgia Mae Harp
Harp was another country singer/yodeler born in Dedham, Massachusetts. Harp quickly became a household name thanks to radio in 1926. Murphy wrote that she performed on a daily morning broadcast show on Boston’s WBZ Radio. She had a unique way of yodeling called a “triple yodel”.
“-A Wilf Carter-inspired technique of “breaking” one’s yodels into triplets ” Murphy wrote. “Georgia Mae performed extensively throughout all six New England states, returning each morning in Boston for her daily broadcast on the New England Radio Farm Hour.”
To hear Georgia May Harp and her yodeling go to: http://www.massfolkarts.org/audio/GeorgiaMaeHarp_Yodeling.mp3
One of the best known local country artists who became very famous, Murphy said, was Dick Curless of Bangor, Maine. He wrote a hit song that topped the charts in 1964, about Maine called “A Tombstone Every Mile.” This song was about potato truckers traveling from Maine to Boston and dangers they faced on Route 2A running through Haynesville Woods. That road is said to be haunted now due to so many fatalities.
The Hayloft Jamboree
In 1952, most country singers had Boston’s radio show the Hayloft Jamboree, founded by Eddy Zack and His Dude Ranchers, on their schedule. This included Johnny Cash and Hawkshaw Hawkins, two major names in country music at that time.
Hillbillymusic.com stated that WCOP General Manager Roy V. Whisnand wrote that at one time they had three daily Hayloft Jamboree radio shows, plus a Hayloft Jamboree Network that reached all of New England. “The afternoon show was held in their main studio and was open to audiences,” according to Whisnand’s folio notes. “On weekends, they had special shows throughout the greater Boston area.”
Country western musicians such as Kenny Roberts, famous for a hit called, “I Never See Maggie Alone” as well as Bobby Bobo and his Western Rhytmaires performed at the Jamboree. One of his songs, “Stamps” can be heard on YouTube.
Neither of these singers were Boston natives. Roberts was a musician from Lenox, Tenn. and Bobo a native of Brookfield, Ohio. But the popularity of the Jamboree pulled both of these singers to Boston where their Jamboree appearances advanced their careers.
By 1967, it had caught the attention of music industry executives who thought the Jamboree could benefit from having a program centered around national acts. But Murphy in his history noted that this ultimately led to the downfall of the Jamboree because it lost all of its money trying to buy national singers.
Murphy wrote, “Performers were asked to take a pay cut so that the station could divert greater funds toward securing performance contracts with national stars…”
The Decline of the New England Country Era
The emergence of television as well as DJs who played music from the “Top 40” format (in order to compete with the new television medium) and the creation of the Country Music Association, precipitated the decline in the popularity of homegrown New England country music.
Matt Casey, head of New England to Nashville, an organization that promotes country singers who are from New England and co-founder of North East of Nashville (NEON) Publishing Company, said some country singers coming to Boston from the South feels that parts of New England are even more rural and “country” than down south.
The Academy of Country Music
Singers from western states began to feel “boxed out of the equation” Murphy said. He also argues that the Academy of Country Music was created in California to compete with the more southern-oriented CMA.
“In 1964 western musicians and promoters accused the CMA of geo-industrial favoritism and organized a separate trade union (the Country and Western Music Academy) geared toward the promotion of Western based artists…”
In the end, they dropped the “Western” part of the name and named it the Academy of Country Music. This ultimately all led to the idea, by current day standards, that what was originally “country-western” wasn’t “western,” it was “country” and it was inherently “southern”.
Murphy and Casey indicated that they think modern country is influenced by classic rock. During the 1990s when rock went through its darker, grunge phase, they said, country artists seemed to incorporate what used to be hard and classic rock into their songs.
“One thing that happened is in the 1990s, rock music became very dark…with the grunge,” Casey said. “And country always used to be a much darker form of music, with the crying in your beer, and usually the alcohol songs would be about pain, like drinking your sorrows away…when rock shifted to be darker I feel like country saw an opportunity…”
Murphy said he feels that modern, popular country is mostly comprised of music influenced by classic rock. “In particular it has to do with the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Really those two than it does with Hank Williams Senior or Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson.”
It’s the style of country music that has adapted with the times and that new style is attracting a new generation of fans ranging from people in their late teens to those in their 30s seeking their favorite genres of pop, rock, and country.