Diane’s Country Music Newsletter – 16 December 2015

“For the first time in 64 years, I have no schedule–and I’m loving it.” That’s what Johnny Western told me when I called him last week at his home in Mesa, Arizona. The little boy who lived in a CCC camp in the Minnesota north woods and dreamed of being a singing cowboy has fulfilled his dreams. When his family moved to Northfield, Minnesota, he started disk jockeying and singing at a local radio station in 1949. “Billboard magazine found out I was 14 years old, and wrote me up as the youngest disc jockey in America,” he says. He wanted to be Gene Autry. Who could imagine that Gene Autry himself would later put Johnny under contract, and they would travel together until Gene stopped touring. Johnny joined the Johnny Cash show in 1958 and spent the next thirty years as part of that show; he is the only surviving member of the original entourage.

He wrote and sang the theme song “Ballad of Paladin” for the TV show, Have Gun Will Travel. Faron Young called him in 1963 to say he’d recorded the song for his album Faron Young Aims at the West. “I was just tickled pink that they took my recording, which had French horns, and duplicated that sound with guitars and fuzz tone,” Johnny recalls. “It holds up so well to this day. He was singing great, and it’s something I’m very proud of.”

I asked Johnny if he missed performing, and he said, “Everything I wanted to do, I have done. It’s not like I missed something along the way.” If he could use Walt Disney’s magic wand and suddenly appear for an hour at a particular venue and then go back home, without any travel, that would be wonderful. Although he misses it sometimes, it’s not to the point he’d want to do it again.

For his final performance, he accepted Rex Allen Jr.’s invitation to perform at Rex Allen Days in Willcox, Arizona, on October 5, 2013. “It was a great way to end it,” he says. Rex Allen Sr. first invited him to Rex Allen Days # 12 in 1963. Rex was Johnny’s mentor for fifty years, and Johnny gave the eulogy at Rex’s funeral.

What Johnny most enjoys about living in Arizona is being surrounded by family–his daughters and grandchildren. Mesa is the hometown of his wife, Jo, and her sisters are there. They had no family nearby during the 25 years he and Jo lived in Wichita, Kansas, when Johnny was a KFDI disc jockey. “I loved doing the radio show,” Johnny says. “I miss things like that.” He especially enjoyed the Christmas season. He opened every daily show for 24 years with Gene Autry’s “Here Comes Santa Claus.” He was inducted into the Country Music D.J. Hall of Fame in 2000.

Of course we had to talk about Marty Robbins. Johnny told me he had tried in the 1970s to get Grand Avenue in Glendale renamed as Marty Robbins Boulevard, but the city council said it would take too much money to change the signs and stationery.

Mesa, although it is a suburb of Phoenix, is the third largest city in Arizona, after Phoenix itself and Tucson. The Phoenix metropolitan area has 4.5 million people and no classic country radio station. There are two modern country stations, one of which is KNIX, formerly owned by Buck Owens. Johnny says whatever classic country news he gets, “it’s going to come from you. I find these things through your newsletter. We’re totally out of the loop here.”

When I asked what he’d like my newsletter readers to know about him, he said, “”I had a wonderful 64 years and four million miles, and it ended the way I wanted to end it. We are extremely happy with our life here in Arizona.”


Johnny Western with me and my daughters, April and Amanda, at the Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry Festival in California, March 2002

Don Chapel, 84, died December 6 after a long battle with heart failure and pneumonia. Born Lloyd Franklin Amburgey, he was the brother of Martha Carson and the second husband of Tammy Wynette. He served as a staff sergeant in the Air Force during the Korean War, before moving to Nashville ad becoming a prolific songwriter. His songs were recorded by more than 50 members of the Grand Ole Opry, with his biggest hit being the George Jones recording of “When the Grass Grows Over Me.”

Songwriter Don Pfrimmer, 78, died of leukemia on December 7. In the years following his move from Montana to Nashville in 1973, he saw his songs become hits for many artists. George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Steve Wariner, Tim McGraw, Doug Stone, and Jo Dee Messina recorded his songs, as did Ronnie Milsap (“She Keeps the Home Fires Burning”), Diamond Rio (“Meet in the Middle”), and Sylvia (“The Matador,” “Drifter”). He co-wrote “Mr. Mom,” a No. 1 single for Lonestar. He also co-wrote “Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey,” which was recorded by Hank Snow and Marty Robbins.

Singer, guitarist, yodeler and TV personality Bonnie Lou passed away in Cincinnati, Ohio, on December 8, at age 91. Born Mary Joan Kath in Towanda, Illinois, she began playing the violin at age 6, switched to guitar at age 11, and debuted on radio at age 13. Her first stage name was “Mary Jo, The Yodeling Sweetheart.” In early 1945, she joined Midwestern Hayride and became Bonnie Lou. She had two top-10 country hits in 1953, “Seven Lonely Days” and “Tennessee Wig Walk,” before transitioning to rockabilly with “Daddy-O.” In the 1980s, she became an Ohio country radio disc jockey. Bonnie Lou is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

Due to pneumonia, Merle Haggard canceled his December shows and checked into a California hospital. The dates have been rescheduled for late January through February. Merle posted this photo of himself on Facebook:


Country singer Wade Hayes is 2½ years cancer-free. He was diagnosed in September 2011 with stage four colon cancer and a tumor the size of an orange on his large intestine. Given a 12-percent chance of survival, he underwent surgery to remove 70 percent of his liver, his gall bladder, 20 inches of large intestine, and part of his diaphragm. A year later, the cancer came back. He recovered a second time, and his oncologist is thrilled with his progress. Wade still plays gigs around the country, and he gives motivational talks to help others battling colon cancer.

The trial of the accused murderer of Courtney Cash, granddaughter of Tommy Cash, is scheduled for February 8-9, 2016. Courtney was stabbed to death and stuffed inside a large wooden box in her home near Nashville in March 2014. “The person who murdered my Grand Daughter is in jail with no bond,” Tommy told me. “We are hoping and praying for justice to be served.”

Alana Young, daughter of Faron Young, has purchased a home once owned by Brenda Lee and similar in style to the house the Young family lived in at the time. “I closed on my new home today,” Alana reported on Facebook on December 10. “Now I can have a positive memory on the date my dad died.”

Thirteen million viewers tuned into NBC-TV to see Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors last Thursday night. It was the most-watched TV movie on the major four networks in nearly four years. The film is set in the Tennessee Great Smoky Mountains in 1955, when Dolly was nine years old. If you missed it, you can see it on NBC.com. Dolly and her sister Stella watched the movie in private the day before its official screening. “It’s too emotional to watch with a bunch of people because we lose our eyelashes–we wear a lot of makeup,” Dolly told People. “We cried our eyes out.”

The tabloids are calling Blake Shelton “heroic” for pulling someone out of the mud. While driving near the Washita River in Ardmore, Oklahoma, he saw two young men walking down the road. He asked if they needed help, and they said they were at the river when their truck slid into a mud hole. Blake tried to pull them out with his truck and then went home to get his tractor. “He came back and got us out and chatted for a minute and talked to us about hunting,” one of them told E! News. “If it wasn’t for Blake, I would have been out there for countless hours. And yeah I would say he is a hero.”

The family of John Hartford has donated the late singer’s collection of books to the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the Tennessean reports. The 2,500-book collection includes biographies of musicians, histories of Southern music, and collections of fiddle tunes. Some items will be will be available for check-out and others will be for research use only.

Joe Morrison of KXRB Radio in Sioux Falls informs us, “Donna, Don Chapel’s daughter, lived in Bridgewater, South Dakota, in the mid-to-late ’90s and visited on my Legends show a number of times. She had many interesting stories of her step-mom and having sung harmony on Tammy’s early recordings. ‘When The Grass Grows Over Me,’ written by Don, was the 2nd or 3rd song we ever played on KXRB the day we came on the air, Feb.26, 1969. Don came from an influential family of performers in country music, Martha Carson & Jean Chapel, and Donna shared many of those first hand stories with our listeners.”

Les Leverett writes from Nashville, “Thanks for keeping us up on what’s happening in the world of country music. You have news that we just don’t get anywhere else.”

Rose Frisbee says, “It’s about time Glendale honored Marty Robbins one of the nicest people I have ever met and to say the least a great singer, songwriter and entertainer. I hope to visit Arizona this winter and hope I can see a street named after Marty.”

Dean Mann in Sioux Falls says, “Another great newsletter. Thank you for what you do for traditional country music.”

Stuart Weiss asks, “Any idea when the Hank Williams movie is being released? I saw the light!
Diane: The new scheduled release date is March 25, 2016.

Larry Cohn writes, “So pleased to read the news about Bob Luman. I was the Head of CBS/Epic Records when he was on the label. He and David Houston were the two artists on the country roster that I was closest to. Both terrific people who were taken from us far, far too soon. Bob took me to Ryman for my first visit, shortly after I joined CBS. He was ever so gracious, showing me around backstage & introducing me to most of the folks who were there. Glad that Texas has seen fit to honor him! So very much deserved.”

Steve Clark writes from Fort Mill, South Carolina, “Thanks again for a great newsletter and keep them comin’. Your newsletter is one of the few ways I keep up with the greats of Country music. I no longer listen to the country stations on commercial radio. WSM via the internet is true to country music but after them the pickings are thin. Used to listen to WWVA while growing up in the hills of Virginia.”

Marilynne Caswell reminisces, “I just had to tell a cute story about a bus tour from my home in London Ontario, Canada. I had conducted numerous of these tours, but on one occasion was told that of the four bus loads going down, only mine did not have a tour guide in Nashville. I was told that as I knew where so many artists lived, I could do it on my own. Well that was not to be, so when we got there, I phoned my dear, longtime friend, Charlie Louvin and asked for the biggest favor ever….would he conduct a tour for our bus. Being Charlie of course he said YES. You can’t imagine the fun we had….went down roads no tour bus had ever gone. He stopped at a tiny Bar-b-que.. about the size of our bus and told the owner to expect about 50 hungry Canadians for lunch in an hour. Charlie’s wife Betty, Charlie, and I helped serve the food. Then that night Charlie gave a shout out to everyone from the Opry Stage. He made 50 new fans that day. Just one of my memories of a dear, dear friend, Charlie Louvin.”

Jean and Alan Earle send these wishes from England: “You have had a very busy year…some good news and sadly some sad. Country music has its ups and downs. Thank you very much for all of your newsletters…always much appreciated. Best wishes for Christmas and a Happy, healthy New Year.”

Alan Towncar says, “Even though it’s been 33 years since Marty passed away, I can honestly say the heartbreak has never healed and nobody can take his place. Marty was and always will be the Greatest.”

Kate Davis of Bear Creek Productions in Medford, Oregon, writes, “Sherwin Linton sent us a copy of your newsletter. We would like to be added to your email list, please. Marty Davis performs at many of the fairs in South Dakota so perhaps we will be able to meet you next summer.”

At his recent Christmas concert in Flandreau, South Dakota, Sherwin Linton reminisced about being a teenager in Watertown and hitchhiking to Redfield on a winter night in 1956 to see Marty Robbins. That was the night Marty introduced a new song, “Singing the Blues,” which is still Sherwin’s favorite song. It was written by 20-year-old Melvin Endsley at the Crippled Children’s Hospital in Memphis; he’d been holding his guitar and gazing out a window when the words “I never felt more like singing the blues” popped into his mind. He then went to WSM’s Friday Night Frolic in Nashville, where he introduced himself to Marty Robbins and said, “I have four songs I want you to listen to. Can you stay after the show and hear them?” Marty answered, “Sure, I’ll be glad to.” Marty’s recording of “Singing the Blues” spent thirteen weeks at number one and was his biggest hit, in spite of being sabotaged by his own record company. Mitch Miller, head of Artists and Repertory for Columbia Records, covered it with Guy Mitchell, whose version spent nine weeks at number one on the pop charts. With the much larger pop music audience, Mitchell sold approximately two million copies to Marty’s half a million.

What country music movies have you seen and how realistic were they?

I have two books about Dolly Parton, with almost the same title. Dolly was written by Alanna Nash in 1978, and Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business is Dolly’s autobiography, published in 1994. Nash writes her book in past tense when she talks about history and in present tense as she conducts her research and interviews. For example, she describes how Dolly’s mother and preacher grandfather refused to be interviewed. She visited at Dolly’s house and went on tour with her. At the time, Dolly was 32 years old. “This is a wonderful time to be looking at Dolly Parton’s life,” Nash writes, “as she stands on the brink of all that she has worked and planned for.” In her autobiography 16 years later, Dolly says, “There have been other books written about me, and much of what I have done or achieved in life is a matter of record (pun intended), so in this book I will try to outline the events in my life that shaped, touched, or warped me or otherwise made me who I am.”

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