Styles & Forms | West Coast Scene | Country
Like the USA itself, country music in California was built upon migrant forces, in relation to both musicians and audiences. Unlike Nashville, whose growth was mainly dependent upon local musicians, the Golden State scarcely produced any homegrown talent but, rather, was dependent upon the influx of migrant workers from other states.
The greater number of these arrived from Oklahoma’s poverty-stricken Dust Bowl region and all settled in California in search of a better life, many finding work in the munitions plants during the war years. Hot on their heels came the artists, assured of an audience ready for their stylings of hillbilly, honky-tonk and western swing. So, while Tennessee and the Southeast had their own brand of country music, so did the West Coast. To many it became known as ‘Okie’ music.
Californian country was very different from the music coming out of Nashville, and was uninhibited in content and presentation. It tackled subjects that would have been scorned in the Southeast’s Bible Belt and presented it in a louder, looser and, often, rowdier fashion. Although old-time Appalachian fiddlers played at dances, much of the music of the Southeast was a ‘listening’ music, performed in family circles, churches and other, generally more refined, establishments, the West Coast’s music originated from bands used to playing dancehalls, where the music had to compete with noise from raucous crowds.
California had never been completely devoid of country music, though. In common with the eastern regions, it grew out of the fiddle music of the earliest settlers and was complemented by instruments such as the guitar (and its variants, the steel guitar and the dobro), banjo, mandolin and accordion – all from diverse sources. The material of the early country performers was similarly widespread, with traditional folk songs and vaudeville just two of its early sources.
The Crockett Family and The Beverly Hill Billies are credited as being among California’s first country-music acts. The first, a genuine family act originally from West Virginia, performed western songs and popular hillbilly fare during the 1930s, moving from local Fresno radio to top status in Los Angeles and New York. Son Johnny Crockett also enjoyed great success as a songwriter. The better-known Beverley Hill Billies were the creation of radio-station (KMPC) manager Glen Rice, who took professional entertainers Leo (‘Zeke Craddock’) Mannes, Tom Murray and Cyprian (‘Ezra Longnecker’) Paulette – quickly joined by Henry (‘Hank Skillet’) Blaeholder and Aleth (‘Lem H. Giles, H.D. [Horse Doctor]’) Hansen – and attired them as a novelty hillbilly act. The success of the venture made them one of the most popular acts of the 1930s and ensured that the group (with changing personnel, among them Stuart Hamblen, Elton Britt and Wesley Tuttle) remained in business for a further 30 years. The last-known incarnation successfully won a lawsuit against the producers of the television series The Beverley Hillbillies for infringement of their name in 1963.
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