Johnny Horton - "Whispering Pines" (The Ballads of Johnny Horton)
In recent years, chroniclers and analyzers of American pop and rock have made icons of a few figures from 1950s country music. But there are other voices that deserve some attention. The personas of Carl Smith or Johnny Horton did not exude the danger and dark legend of, say, Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, or Johnny Cash, but both were important artists — and hit-makers — ignoring spurious borders between styles and genres, holding to artistic integrity and identity allmost all the while.
Carl Smith possessed a supple rhythmic ease as a singer, and his voice was an engaging blend of Hank Williams’ lonesome and swing-bander’s croon. He honed his skills on the road with hillbilly music legends Molly O’Day and Archie Campbell, and by the early 1950s was a confident, energetic performer and recording artist on his own. His best records from the 1950s sizzle somewhere between honky tonk and small-band jump rhythm and blues; he was helped in no small part by back-up band, theTunesmiths, with their sonic trademarks of sock-rhythm guitar from Velma Williams, brash and jazz-flavored electric take-off guitar from Sammy Pruett, and Johhny Sibert’s sleek, streamlined modern take on old-school steel guitar. Records like “Hey, Joe," with its tinge of Cajun rhythm, and "Go, Boy, Go,” with its swinging and bopping energy, still sound fresh today. (It should be noted that this collection, curated — and beautifully annotated — by guitarist/historian/archivist Deke Dickerson, eschews by design most of the honky-tonk balladry that helped earn Smith his reputation as “the gentleman.”)
Johnny Horton, also a hit maker through the 1950s, was a different kind of smooth. His low-notes were heartfelt and resonant, his high range clear and open. Horton was to gain huge cross-over success with his saga-and-story songs, often rooted in American history and legend. “Jim Bridger” and “When It’s Springtime in Alaska” showcase his evocative way of setting a mood and getting a story across.
But Horton was also stellar as a hard honky-tonker, and this collection shows how effective his voice, and its evocative honesty, could be at slower tempos. “Everytime I’m Kissing You” is smoky-hued, emotionally raw cheating song, and his slow, brooding take on Leon Payne’s “Lost Highway” is utterly masterful, conjuring at storm clouds and dark regrets. A record like “Whispering Pines” combines all of Horton’s strengths. A wordless, ghostly female vocal chorus sets the mood; Horton’s chills-inducing performance is resonant and bereft at once, while the sparse accompaniment lets the words — and Horton’s voice — blow through the branches like a fresh, clean wind.