Friday, March 30, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Johnny Horton

At the old Twist and Shout on Pearl Street, they used to keep the boxed sets behind the counter and off to the left, and it was stuffed with Bear Family collections – Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Burl Ives, Louis Jordan, great old artists like that, all in twelve-by-twelve boxes with big, beautiful photos on the front. Inside each were multiple CDs and thick, full-color, glossy books about the artists with lots of photos and extensive, well-researched liner notes. The Johnny Horton one is what drew my attention to them. I had a friend I used to go garage sale-ing with at the time who’d play a Horton greatest hits tape in his car as we’d drive from sale to sale and I really dug his rockin’ hillbilly sound, so I set my sights on those box sets. Problem was, I was just out of college and poor and those Bear Family collections were expensive. The pricing formula was $20 per CD, and $20 for the book. And this was the mid-90s. I was lucky if I could get a temp job paying six bucks an hour. But I bit the bullet and bought it, for $120, and Horton quickly became a high-ranking lord in my pop pantheon.
            A big part of it was Horton’s story. He got his start playing on the Louisiana Hayride when Hank Williams was the star of the show. When Williams introduced Horton to his wife, Billie Jean, Williams told the young singer that he would one day marry her, too. A few months later, on New Year’s Day in 1953, Horton was in Milano, Texas, when he heard that Williams had died of a heart attack after a show at the Skyline Club in Austin. Within a year, Horton married Williams’s ex, and was on his way to becoming a rockabilly star. As his career ascended he would go on spirit journeys through the past and future, sometimes with Johnny Cash, and he was visited often by spirits who told him he would die at the hands of a drunkard. These premonitions grew stronger and stronger until he was filled with fear as he took the stage at the Skyline Club on November 5, 1960, because he was sure he’d be murdered that night. He made it through the show though, and as he was about to leave to drive through the night to Shreveport, Louisiana, he stood in the same spot and kissed Billie Jean on the same cheek where Hank had kissed her on the last night of his life. Horton thought he was home free, but he misunderstood the spirits: a drunk driver slammed into his car head-on as he was crossing a bridge in Milano, same place where he learned of Williams’s death.
            I listened to the four discs in that set a lot, each of them crammed to the full 70 minutes with what were to my ears a perfect blend of rock and roll cool and hillbilly camp. Horton’s guitarist Grady Martin was a master of twang, and the booklet had a sweet, full-page picture of him wearing a plaid jacket and holding an old double-neck guitar. Despite the dozens and dozens of songs on the collection my favorites were his big hits: “Honky Tonk Man,” “One Woman Man,” “Hole in My Pirough,” “The Battle of New Orleans,” “North to Alaska” and “Old Slew Foot.” I used to love to play this last one for my country-hating friends because it was so old-school redneck with its cooking banjo and blazing harmonica. And even when Horton was rocking out, he had a way of adding a little yodel to the end of his verses that was too corny to not be cool, especially when I was driving around Boulder with the windows down and the stereo blasting. It was like, Take that, you new-age yuppie clones!
            That box set was one of the last pieces to fall in the death of my collection in the age of the MP3. I was low on cash and I sold it on eBay for $50. When I got my turntable and started buying records again, two of my earliest purchase were a couple of greatest hits collections that are still easy to get on CD, and they’re probably enough for me, at least for the time being. Still, I regret the loss. The booklet that came with the Bear Family set remains one of the best I’ve ever seen, and it had songs you can’t find anywhere, most notably a hissy demo recording of a spooky gunslinger ballad called “Streets of Dodge.” I used to hit repeat on that one over and over again. I regret, too, that I never bought some of those other Bear Family sets that I wanted so badly, especially the Louis Jordan one, a nine-disc set that would’ve set me back over $200 at the time. But that was the better part of a week’s paycheck for me back then.

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