Album: “Hillbilly Music . . . Thank God! Volume 1.” Bug Records/Capitol.
Artists: Merle Travis, Hank Thompson, Buck Owens, Faron Young, Louvin Brothers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Rose Maddox, others.
History: “Hillbilly music” was country music, when country wasn’t cool. Emerging in the 1920s from its folk roots in the Appalachians--largely through recordings of pioneering performers such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family--its popularity spread in subsequent decades through the South into the Southwest, and eventually throughout the world. Generally, the music referred to as hillbilly differed from the “Western” branch of country (made famous in the 1930s and ‘40s by Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and other singing cowboy movie stars) by its rural, backwoods underpinnings and frequently mournful, melancholy lyrics. It’s this brand of seminal country music that has been so successfully resuscitated in recent years by Emmylou Harris, Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and the other “new traditionalists.”
Sound: This first-rate double album is drawn from the Capitol Records vaults. The music dates from the late ‘40s into the ‘60s.(All the recording information was lost, so dates of the individual sessions are not known.) When Capitol Records opened its doors in Los Angeles in the ‘40s, a major part of the label’s prerock-era success was from hits by country artists signed right here. This retrospective spans the label’s major artists (Hank Thompson, Merle Travis, Faron Young, the Louvins) to the truly obscure (the Farmer Boys, the Milo Twins). There’s a healthy nod to Buck Owens, with two of his own performances as well as two other Owens songs, one recorded by Rose Maddox and one by the Farmer Boys. If the term hillbilly music was something of a pejorative, the songs often compensated for trivial subject matter with inventive word play, engaging harmonies or simply a healthy sense of humor. And snobs who might turn up their noses at the very idea of hillbilly musicianship should listen to “Stratosphere Boogie,” a rip-roaring exercise in dexterity by steel guitar duo Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West. The liner notes by the album’s producer, rock singer Marshall Crenshaw, are informal, spirited and informative, and the remastered sound is remarkably clean throughout.