Growing up where I grew up, when I grew up, I had no understanding or appreciation for country and western music. That may seem strange to a lot of younger music fans, who think of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard as “Americana,” along with the Carter Family, and bluegrass, and blues, and Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty and Los Lobos and heaven knows what else. But in the 1960s and into the 1970s, a lot of folk and blues fans had minimal appreciation for anything coming out of Nashville.
In part, that was a matter of politics. Our news of the South was of the civil rights movement and, by and large, the country audience was not on our side. Obviously that was an oversimplification — there were white southerners who supported civil rights, and black southerners who liked country music, and people on the folk scene who were more broadminded, or less political: the Newport Folk Festival invited Cash in 1964, and shortly had Dave Dudley, Roy Acuff, and George Hamilton IV. But to take an example close to home, Dave Van Ronk drew a sharp distinction between black rural southern music and groups like Gid Tanner and the Skillet Likkers — I remember him growling, “That’s the soundtrack to the lynch mobs, and I want nothing to do with it.” (That wasn’t just Dave’s northern urban prejudice; there’s a notable photograph of Fiddlin’ John Carson and other participants at a 1925 Tennessee fiddlers convention sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan.)
Aside from politics, there were musical issues. For people who didn’t like electric instruments, there was the electric guitar and pedal steel, and by the time I was hearing country there were also string sections, and choirs, and basically it sounded to me like pop-schlock.
So I don’t remember how or why I ended up with an album called 18 King Size Country Hits — my guess is that it was in a cut-out bin at a price so low I couldn’t pass it up — nor do I remember listening to it more than once or twice, though in retrospect it has some great tracks, all from Cincinnati’s King record label. But a lot of people on the folk scene had one or two country songs that we learned as jokes, because we thought they were so bad they were funny (Van Ronk’s was “Hit Parade of Love”), and I found one on that album: Hawkshaw Hawkins singing “Lonesome 7-7203.”
Again, some younger folks may not understand that title, since it’s been a while since we had telephone exchanges. When I was growing up, the dial of a rotary telephone still started with the exchange, a word whose first two letters were part of the number: BEechwood 4-5789 (a hit for the Marvelettes), TIdewater 4-1009 (the number Chuck Berry asks to speak with in “Promised Land”), UNiversity 8-7748 (my parents’ number), or, in the case of Hawkshaw Hawkins’s number one country hit from 1963, the evocative LOnesome 7-7203.
So anyway, I learned that song and played it on the street, as a joke, singing in my most comically doleful tones. And then the MBTA started giving out permits for musicians to perform in particular subway stations on particular days during morning rush hour, and Rob and I snagged a few mornings at the Harvard Square station, and we were playing down there at maybe 6:30 a.m. on a workday, and a guy came by and asked if I could do any country music… so I sang this one, and he not only took it seriously, he appreciated me singing it for him, and gave us a dollar (which was a good tip in those days), and reminisced for a while about growing up on a farm down south and how much he missed that kind of music in Boston.
It was not exactly a revelation, but it was an important lesson for me. I had to learn that lesson a few more times before it really sank in and I developed a serious repertoire of country hits, and recognized the fact that a lot of the musicians I loved, like Woody Guthrie, were closer to country singers than to folk singers (whatever that means) in a lot of ways — one of which was that they learned the current hits because that was what regular working folks tended to want to hear: when Woody and Pete Seeger hitched out west in the late 1930s, Pete remembered Woody teaching him “It Makes No Difference Now,” the current jukebox favorite, so he’d have something to play in bars. And I won’t claim “Lonesome 7-7203” remained a very active part of my repertoire, but every once in a while I’d pull it out in a crowd of older country fans and they’d get nostalgic, remembering where they were and what they were doing back in 1963, when music was still good.
(To wrap this up, the song was written by Justin Tubb, son of Ernest, and was a huge posthumous hit for Hawkins, who died in the plane crash that also killed Cowboy Copas and Patsy Cline.)