Two years after suffering a near-fatal heart attack, Rose Maddox, one of the grande dames of traditional country music, is cautiously resuming her quest for a comeback.
“I had seven bypass operations and was unconscious for three months, so I’m just now starting to get back into it,” said Maddox, who will perform Sunday night at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach.
“I miss the music business; it’s a part of me, and I love it. I’ve never done anything except music, and I can’t ever imagine doing without it--although I’ve had to, for the last couple of years, due to circumstances beyond my control.”
In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Maddox, now 65, scored more than a dozen solo hits on the national country charts, including “Gambler’s Love,” “Kissing My Pillow” and “Sing a Little Song of Heartache,” which remained in the Top 20 for 37 weeks.
She also recorded four chart-topping duets with Buck Owens and an album with Bill Monroe. In 1963, Maddox was named country music’s Top Female Vocalist by Cashbox magazine, beating out the legendary Patsy Cline.
Her commercial fortunes, however, soon waned. Maddox’s last hit was 1964’s “Bluebird, Let Me Tag Along,” and her last album, recorded in 1986 with John Jorgenson of the Desert Rose Band, was never released, due to a lack of record company interest.
“They all want this young, new stuff, and I don’t know why, I just don’t know why,” Maddox said. “There’s a lot of good talent still left in the older ones, but they just won’t give us the opportunity to do anything.”
Now that she has returned, Maddox said, things look a lot more promising. She’s got a new group, the Foggy Notion Band, featuring her 20-year-old grandson, Donnie Maddox, on bass. And she’s just finished recording an album with Merle Haggard.
“We’ve got the whole thing completed; it just hasn’t been mixed yet because Merle’s out on the road and we’re waiting for him to get back and get it mixed,” Maddox said. “He says he’s sure he can get it on the label he’s on, and hopefully he can. He’s pretty enthused about it.”
Maddox was born in Boaz, Ala., to a family of impoverished sharecroppers. In the early 1930s, the Maddox clan followed the Dust Bowl migration to California, and in 1937, 11-year-old Rose began her musical career.
“We was known as fruit tramps,” she recalled. “We had to scrub out a living some way or another, so we followed agriculture, pickin’ our way through the San Joaquin Valley--until my brother Fred decided he had had enough of pickin’ cotton. He wanted to be on radio, and he wanted us with him.”
Fred soon got his wish. The Maddox Brothers and Rose were hired by Modesto’s KTRB to play half an hour of “hillbilly music” every weekday morning. Fan mail and requests began pouring in, and KTRB added evening and weekend shows.
“We got very popular on radio, and then we started following rodeos up and down California on weekends, working for the kitty,” said Maddox, who now lives in Ashland, Ore. “After we won a hillbilly band contest in Sacramento, we got even bigger, and we started spreading out, working dance halls and things.
“But then my brothers got drafted, and that put a halt to our career, it certainly did, until the war was over--and then we started back up.”
The Maddox Brothers and Rose not only regained their earlier popularity, they exceeded it.
“We decided we needed a recording contract, so me and Mama went looking for one, down in Hollywood,” Maddox recalled. “We only had two days to do it, and all the head men of the big companies were out, so we went to this small label called Four Star, and they signed us, just like that.”
Hyped as “The Most Colorful Hillbilly Band in America,” the Maddox Brothers and Rose remained with Four Star for six years before signing with Columbia Records for another six.
They made several fine records, including a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Philadelphia Lawyers” and “Sally Let Your Bangs Hang Down.” They made their Grand Ole Opry debut in 1949 and then did a four-year stint on “Louisiana Hayride,” a Shreveport radio show whose stars used to travel together in weekly tour packages between Saturday-night broadcasts.
“We toured with Elvis Presley, Marty Robbins, Jim Reeves, Jimmy Dean and every one of the big ones,” Maddox said. “We was one of the most popular groups in the whole country.”
By the mid-1950s, however, the group was falling part. They weren’t getting along, Maddox said, and country music was shifting away from bands and toward solo artists.
She’d been recording on her own since 1950, but only after the Maddox Brothers and Rose broke up in 1957 did she really pursue a solo career. After an abortive six-month run as a Grand Ole Opry cast member--she was kicked off for sporting a bare midriff on stage--she moved out West again and married an Oceanside nightclub owner, Jimmy Brogdon, who ran the 101 Club.
For the next six years, Maddox was on top, cranking out hits for Capitol Records and touring all over the United States and Europe. Red Smiley, Don Reno and Ralph Mooney are among the respected session players who backed her in the studio; Albert Lee once backed her on a tour of England.
By the mid-1960s, however, it was all over.
“The record business wasn’t as good as it used to be; it was like it is now, everyone looking for new sounds and new faces,” Maddox said. “I wasn’t the only one--we all sort of lost. It didn’t make me feel too good, but I stood up under it.”
Today, Maddox is still standing. Her career got a big boost last year when Emmylou Harris invited her out to Nashville to tape a television special. Even so, she has yet to graduate from the out-of-the-way honky-tonks and roadhouses she’s been regularly playing for more than 20 years.
“I miss the big places; it’s much nicer to work in auditoriums, concert halls, things like that,” Maddox said. “But that’s just the way it goes.
“And after what I went through two years ago--they gave me just a 10% chance of living--I’m happy to be here, period.”