This is Deep Tracks: the show where I give you the entire history of rock music through podcast-sized chunks every week. I am your stupendous host, Doug “I Want a Different Petronus Charm” McCulloch. That’s right, my Petronus charm is a stupid trout—I did the online test and now I feel absolutely cheated!

But I don’t want to talk about Petronus charms. I want to talk about Hawaii. I wonder if Harry Potter knows any spells for clever segues. Actually, who needs spells when you have fancy segue music. Check this out: [segue music]

That’s right, two degrees in music composition at work right there…

Anyway, here we go: story time. It’s the year 1793 on the island of Hawaii, and the British are competing with several other world powers to gain a foothold in this remote little spot of dry land in the middle of the vast Pacific ocean. One way they are doing this is to try to curry favor with the brash new conqueror on the ascendency, King Kamehameha I.

So, in order to sweeten the pot for an alliance—as well as make up for some previous diplomatic blunders—Captain George Vancouver presented Kamehameha with six cows and a bull. The King was absolutely delighted. In fact, this won him over so much that a year later he would petition Captain Vancouver for permission to use the Union Jack in the Hawaiian flag.

Almost immediately, King Kamehameha created a 400 acre pasture for the cattle and placed a kapu on killing them so that they could grow in numbers. The term kapu can be loosely translated as “taboo,” or in this case, “you touch, you die.”

Without any natural predators, the cattle’s numbers grew…and grew…and grew. By the mid 1800s, there was roughly 25,000 cattle wandering around the Big Island of Hawaii. It actually started to become something of a problem. The cows were tromping through people’s properties, wandering into their homes, trampling their lawn gnomes…er, lawn menehune…? Anyway, the cows were out of control. It was like that old Star Trek episode, “Trouble with Tribbles,” except, instead of cute, fuzzy aliens, they were dealing with large, smelly bulls.

So, in 1830, during the reign of Kamehameha III, the kapu was lifted. The Hawaiian government also started bringing over a bunch of vaqueros from Mexico, as well as a few American cowboys, to help teach the local Hawaiians how to be ranchers. The birth of the Hawaiian cowboy—or paniolo—had just taken place.

But here’s what’s important to us: One of the things those vaqueros brought with them on the ships to the islands were their guitars and their songs.

When Spanish guitar was introduced to the islands, the Hawaiians slackened some of the strings from the standard guitar tuning to make a chord – this became known as "slack-key" guitar. With the "slack-key" the Hawaiians found it easy to play a three-chord song by moving a piece of metal along the fretboard and began to play the instrument across the lap. Near the end of the nineteenth century, a Hawaiian named Joseph Kekuku popularized using a steel bar against the guitar strings, and this led to the origin of the term "steel guitar". In the first half of the twentieth century, this so-called "Hawaiian guitar" style of playing spread to the US. A particularly influential Hawaiian guitarist was Sol Hoʻopiʻi, who came to the US mainland in 1919 at the age of 17. He travelled as a stow-away on a ship heading for San Francisco and within 5 years he was living in L.A. and performing at nightclubs with his own trio. Hoʻopiʻi's playing became popular in the late 1920s, which is when he did his first recording sessions. I’ll play a sample of his performance of the song “Hula Blues”: [plays clip]

Before we continue talking about slide, guitar, however, I want to insert a brief public service announcement: Something else the Hawaiians did when the guitar was brought to their islands was to create a miniature version of it, whose title is pronounced “oo-k-oo-lele,” not “yoo-koo-lele.” You can use the “yoo” sound when you shorten it to “uke,” since it sounds silly to say “ook,” but when you say the full name, say it right: “ukulele.”

Anyway, that blurb was mostly a shout-out to my daughter who plays ukulele and is constantly correcting people on how to pronounce it. And now back to your regularly scheduled program.

Slide guitar by the late 19th, early 20th century had already been something practiced within blues music for quite some time, though sources differ on when it actually started. There are traditional African stringed instruments that use various implements as a slide over the strings, so it may have come over with the slaves. What’s interesting is in W.C. Handy’s account of his first encounter with the blues in 1903, he described it this way: "As [the performer] played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable."

So, it’s interesting that Handy’s point of reference for using guitar slides was Hawaiian guitar. But nevertheless, whatever the origins of slide guitar within the blues, Steel guitar playing quickly divided into two styles or approaches: bottleneck-style, which is performed on a normal guitar held in the usual way: flat against the body; and lap-style, performed on an instrument specifically designed or modified for the purpose of being played on the performer's lap. The bottleneck-style is the one typically associated with the blues, especially amongst Delta blues artists. Here’s a sample of my man, Robert Johnson, performing “Traveling Riverside Blues,” which showcases his use of a guitar slide: [plays clip]

Blues-based rock bands like the Rolling Stones would feature slide guitar in some of their music as well. A great example—and it may very well be the first example of slide guitar in rock—is their version of the Lennon-McCartney song “I Wanna Be Your Man,” which we’ll talk more about later. For now, I’m gonna play a sample of the slide guitar in this song. As you listen to it, Don’t listen to Keith Richards’ guitar playing, but listen to Brian Jones’s, which is initially in the background of Keith’s, and then during the guitar break, you’ll hear his playing come to the forefront of the texture. You’ll notice his notes kind of sliding around a bit both while he’s playing rhythm guitar and also while he shifts over to lead guitar: [plays clip]

But we’ve already talked quite a bit about the blues. We’re supposed to be on the other side of Rock’s family tree: the country & western side. And last episode we talked about country, which means this episode we’re supposed to be talking about western.

[play clip of “Mamas Don’t Let your babies grow up to be cowboys”:]

That was Waylon Jennings. His name will come up again when we talk about Buddy Holly, but I’m playing this 1978 release of his now because it’s not only the name of this episode but it also captures a couple things I want to highlight. One of them is the lone, free spirit associated with the cowboy persona, which I’ll be talking more about later. And the other is within the instrumentation of the song itself. This song, like so many others of its genre, features that other style of slide guitar that I mentioned earlier: the lap-style.

If you’re interested in watching some amazing performances and a fresh take on lap-style slide guitar, check out Dan Dubuque’s YouTube channel. I’ll link it in the show notes (and no, I don’t know Dan Dubuque, nor do I get any kickback for plugging his channel. I’m just a fan). Anyway, I’ll play a couple clips of his covers he’s done:

Now, The first known recording of the bottleneck style was in 1923 by Sylvester Weaver who recorded two instrumentals, "Guitar Blues" and "Guitar Rag."

But in 1935, a couple guys named Bob Wills and Leon McAuliffe adapted Sylvester Weaver's "Guitar Rag" into Western swing and renamed it the "Steel Guitar Rag".

I’m going to play clips of both songs back-to-back so you can hear the original blues version and then the western swing version right next to each other: [plays clips]

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “What is Western swing?” And even if you aren’t, you’re going to get the answer, anyway. Western swing is like big band for cowboys—it’s music designed for the dance hall. It’s a whole hodgepodge of stuff: it’s cowboy music mixed with jazz mixed with blues mixed with country, and instead of brass and woodwind instruments, like you’d see in jazz or big band ensembles, they used instruments like fiddles, piano, guitar, steel guitar, etc.. The most influential early group of this genre is Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, and just like the country artists back east, they also borrowed a page from Jimmie Rodgers’ playbook and “dressed the part”—but in this case, their part was the singing cowboy.

[play clip of "Back in the Saddle Again"]

That was Gene Autry singing “Back in the Saddle Again.” Bob Wills was always a large ensemble act—western swing is a large group of instrumentalists playing music you can dance to. Like I said earlier, it’s big band for cowboys. However, Gene Autry was a solo act—even when he was backed by a larger band. If Bob Wills was like the Glenn Miller of western music, Gene Autry was like the Frank Sinatra. And his career would open the floodgates to a whole slew of singing cowboy acts that would dominate both the recording industry and Hollywood.

The earlier iterations of Appalachian-influenced country music that we saw in artists like the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers gained their fame during the roaring ‘20s (thus the reason why, if you look at pictures of the Carter Family, Sara and Maybelle are often dressed like flappers). Like I mentioned before, however, the industry followed the Jimmie Rodgers approach and most country artists dressed in homespun cloth, gingham skirts, straw hats, that sort of thing. Like I said, they were dressing the part. However, when the stock market crashed in 1929, there was a shift in interest. The hillbilly persona waned and the singing cowboy was suddenly all the rage. If you think about it, the 1930s was a tough time to be alive. This was during the Great Depression, and images of the working man like Jimmie Rodgers’ Singing Brakeman or other similar artists who dressed like farmers or laborers wasn’t something that really interested people who were already hurting and struggling. Suddenly the freedom of the open range and the heroic figure of the cowboy on his horse saving the town and getting the girl—that became very appealing :

This was why Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys (who at one time had been called the “Light Crust Dough Boys” because their radio spot was sponsored by Light Crust Flour), made a conscious decision early on in their act to dress up in cowboy clothes and milk the whole Western persona for all it was worth. And I’m not saying this because I’m insinuating that they were being disingenuous. I think for many of them it was probably what they normally wore, anyway. I’ll use Kurt Cobain as an example again: as a grunge artist, fans expected to see him in ripped jeans and an old flannel shirt tied around his waist—but just because it was “the look” for that genre of music doesn’t mean it also wasn’t what the dude wore on a regular basis anyway. So, when I say these artists were “dressing the part,” for some of them, yeah, it really was a persona that they were donning, but for others, it was just an extension of who they already were.

The singing cowboy act created a lot of major icons at the time, including Roy Rogers, who’d follow almost immediately in Gene Autry’s footsteps as an actor and musician cowboy:

[play clip of "Blue Shadows on the Trail"]

That was him singing “Blue Shadows on the Trail,” which, some of you may recognize as the basis for Elmer Bernstein’s arrangement that was featured in one of my favorite movies of all time: The Three Amigos, starring Martin Short, Chevy Chase, and Steve Martin: [plays clip]

This is where we’ll start looking at how country music and other genres like western swing and the singing cowboy would all merge into the umbrella term of “country western.”

While the cowboy dominated Hollywood, back east in Nashville, Tennessee you still had a holdout for the hillbilly vibe in a weekly radio show called “the Grand Ole Opry.” The Grand Ole Opry began in 1925 and still continues to this day. It would sort of be the “womb of nations” for some of country’s biggest stars. Broadcasting from Nashville, Tennessee, it is the reason Nashville today is synonymous with, and serves as the mothership for, country music. In the 1930s, one of the big stars the Grand Ole Opry would spew forth was Roy Acuff. Roy Acuff, I think, has been largely forgotten about outside the country music world, but in his day, he was a pretty big deal—especially during WWII. His recordings were so well known that, according to the legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle, as Japanese pilots flew kamikaze missions over Okinawa, they would yell, “To hell with Roosevelt! To hell with Babe Ruth! To hell with Roy Acuff!” Now, I’m sure none of that is true, but like with most myths and legends, the point here isn’t the truthfulness of the story but the perceptions it illuminates. When Ernie Pyle wanted to list off famous Americans that would be known and hated by the nation’s enemies, he included Roy Acuff with the names of FDR and Babe Ruth.

Like the singing cowboys, Acuff would also foray into Tinseltown—though it would be brief and somewhat unsuccessful. He landed a few roles in some B movies, including one called “The Grand Ole Opry,” though the film’s only connection to the actual Grand Ole Opry would be the fact that a bunch of its cast members—like Roy Acuff—were regulars on the radio show for which it was supposedly named.

However, most importantly, Roy Acuff began a music publishing company with a songwriter named Fred Rose, in 1942. Four years later, in 1946, the Rose-Acuff Music Publishing firm made what was probably its most crucial business decision and signed an artist who would arguably be the most important in their catalogue: Hank Williams.

Now, Hank Williams was kind of a “fanboy” of Roy Acuff, so I can only imagine how excited he was to land this deal. The two of them had actually met prior to this, a few years before, backstage at one of Hank’s shows. At that time, Hank was still very much a B-lister, with a few radio shows under his belt, but also a reputation as an unreliable drunk. There’s actually an account in which Acuff warned Hank of the dangers of alcohol, saying, "You've got a million-dollar talent, son, but a ten-cent brain.” The alcoholism would be something that would follow Hank Williams his whole life. The reason for it was, He had injured his back in a rodeo when he was younger and this perpetual pain would lead him to self-medicate…a lot. Being someone myself who’s suffered for a number of years from chronic back and neck pains, I can empathize with Hank. In fact, I am recording this podcast right now laying on my back and using a special neck pillow because it still hurts to sit upright for too long on some days. But chronic pain affects more than just your physical body—there’s a mental toll as well. That was something I never understood until going through it myself. So, when I read about poor Hank’s alcoholism and prescription drug abuse, man, my heart goes out to the guy.

But his troubles didn’t end, or even begin, with his back pain. He had a difficult childhood with an absent father and his marriage at 21 to Audrey Sheppard was very tumultuous, to say the least. It even had a less-than-auspicious beginning: they were married by a justice of the peace at a Texaco station in Alabama, only to find out the marriage was illegal because Audrey’s divorce from her previous marriage wasn’t completely finalized. But all of this turmoil would create fuel for his songs. His songs sing about many of the age-old tropes about love and loss, but they’re deeply personal—and completely autobiographical. If you ever want to get to know Hank Williams, you don’t need to read a book—just listen to his songs. They’re all true.

[play “I’m So Lonesome I could cry”]

He was one of the biggest stars to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, but he had a complicated relationship with them. They actually rejected him the first time he auditioned for them, which was in September 1946—like, literally just a few months before he signed on with Roy Acuff’s music publishing firm.

In 1947, he signed a record deal with MGM Records and released one of his biggest early hits, "Move It on Over", which is considered by some to be an early example of rock and roll music. I’ll play a clip of it:

In 1948, he moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, and he joined the Louisiana Hayride, one of the Grand Ole Opry’s biggest competitors. Like the Opry, The Hayride was a radio show, though it didn’t have the same audience size or broadcast range as the Opry, but it was able to broadcast him into living rooms all throughout the southeast. He continued touring and doing other radio shows while maintaining his weekly spot on the Hayride. He released a few more recordings that were decent hits, but in 1949 he released his version of the song "Lovesick Blues", which became a huge country hit. It was at number one on the Billboard charts for four consecutive months, and finally gained him a place in the Grand Ole Opry. On June 11, 1949, Hank Williams made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry, where he became the first performer to receive six encores.

In 1950 he began doing a series of recordings that were religious-themed in which he did more of a talk-singing (or sprechstimme for you Arnold Schoenberg fans). Stylistically and even contextually it was so different from the rest of his “brand” that he decided to do these recordings under the stage name of “Luke the Drifter.” I bring this up because we will see later artists in rock music do a similar thing. When the Beatles wanted to take their music in a different direction, we saw the creation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; David Bowie likewise took on a number of different personas to capture his various musical phases, such as Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke. There’s something liberating, artistically speaking, in using another persona. Most artists have at least one other vision for their craft, or another passion project, but often feel constrained by the expectations of their fan base or clientele or whatever you want to call it. So, taking on a different persona can open up new possibilities without “muddying your brand.”

In 1951 his career peaked: he did a U.S. tour with Bob Hope and some other celebrities, signed a motion picture deal with MGM, and continued to release more hits. Unfortunately, in November of that year, he had a fall that reactivated his back pain—which had become somewhat manageable by that time—and this led a renewed spike in his drinking and pill-popping. And even this wouldn’t have been so bad except that Hank Williams was receiving his meds from a fraud doctor who was out on parole from Oklahoma State Penitentiary after serving time for being convicted of forgery.

1952 would see him sink as low as he’d soared in 1951: he fathered a daughter from an extramarital affair, which of course led to Audrey divorcing him. Interestingly enough, that daughter wouldn’t learn that she was the daughter of Hank Williams until the 1980s. One bright spot for him was He got remarried later that same year, but his career had started to flounder.

After only a 3-year relationship with the Grand Ole Opry, he was dismissed from the show in 1952 for drunkenness and for also just not showing up for performances. He died due to heart failure on New Year’s Day, 1953, in the backseat of a car while being driven between shows. He was 29 years old—the constant mixture of alcohol and tons of pain meds (or what that quack had told him were pain meds) had finally taken their toll. On the seat next to him was a set of unfinished lyrics for a new song he’d been working on. These lyrics disappeared for a while, popping up again in 2006 after being found rediscovered by a janitor at Sony publishing. In 2008, Bob Dylan was commissioned to finish writing the song and a tribute album to Hank Williams was released shortly thereafter, featuring performances by both country and rock artists.

Hank Williams is important for a number of reasons. The one that concerns us the most right now is the fact that, before Hank Williams you had country and you had western…but after Hank, it was all country western. In 1949, record companies jettisoned the term “hillbilly records” and began officially using the term “country records” for this genre of music. Country had officially become an umbrella term. Hank Williams embodied both the sound and persona of the southeast and the southwest—he had elements of both the cowboy and the hillbilly. He looked like one of those singing cowboy acts that were being popularized in Hollywood at the time, but his sound blended the “good ol’ boy”.

A song that I think does a great job of showing this combination of styles is “Lovesick Blues”, which has the yodeling, the fiddle, the cowboy-style guitar—all of it:

And because I can’t help myself, I’m going to play a clip of Tom Hiddleston performing the same song:

That clip came from the 2016 movie entitled “I Saw the Light,” in which Tom Hiddleston—better known as Loki from the Marvel movies—plays the part of Hank Williams, and Elizabeth Olson—a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch from those same Marvel movies—plays his first wife, Audrey Sheppard. It’s a great movie, but the most impressive part is hearing a Brit mimic Hank Williams’s country twang, not only in his talking, but also in his singing. Tom Hiddleston has a phenomenal voice and did all his own singing in the movie, though he did receive coaching to help him imitate Williams’s style.

I’m spending a lot of time on Hank Williams for a reason. Among the artists who were influenced by him you have, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, George Jones, George Strait, Charley Pride, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, among others. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961, the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and the Native American Music Awards Hall of Fame in 1999. He was even awarded a posthumous special citation by The Pulitzer Prize jury in 2010 for his "craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life".

And now, at last, we have finished our journey through the roots of country, and western, and finally the creation of country western. We’re almost ready to talk about the actual birth of rock, but we’re not quite there. We need to lay a little more groundwork. So, next episode we’ll spend some time talking about popular mainstream music pre-1945, Tin Pan Alley, radio and regionalism, the invention of the television, and record charts. It’s going to be a bit of a potpourri of topics, but it will help us flesh out picture of the world at the time of rock’s birth.

Until then, you can access a transcript of this episode on my website,, where you can also sign up for my newsletter and gain access to the show notes, more resources for any rabbit holes you’d like to go down in your own research, as well as some fun merchandise designed by yours truly.

Show Notes

  • An excellent resource to access some of the earliest known recordings of Hawaiian traditional and steel guitar music is at the University of Hawaii's digital Hawaiian music collection.  
  • The song "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys" actually features the singing of both Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, but I omitted poor Willie's name in the recording to bring more focus to Waylon (since we'll be revisiting him later).
  • As I said in the episode, the slide guitarist I reference who did the covers of "Heart-Shaped Box" and "Where is my Mind?" is Dan Dubuque and his YouTube channel is filled with tons of other amazing covers.
  • As of the publishing of these show notes, the only place I can find to stream the Hank Williams biopic, "I Saw the Light," starring Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olson, is through the StarzPlay add-on (via Hulu or Amazon Prime).  It's also available for purchase or rent through Amazon Prime.  You can watch a clip of Tom Hiddleston singing "Lovesick Blues" on Youtube, and the official trailer can also be viewed on Youtube.
  • I briefly referenced the German term sprechstimme (or "speech-voice" in English) which was a type of speech-song technique utilized by various 20th-century composers but most notably by Arnold Schoenberg (also spelled Schönberg).  Schoenberg was a 20th-century, German composer (often referred to as the "founder" of the "Second Vienese School") known for his pioneering compositional techniques in atonal music (or "free atonality") and also developing "12-tone" or "serial" music.  Honestly, it has nothing to do with Hank Williams and was a punch line that will only be appreciated by fellow composers and hardcore music theory nerds.  But if you are curious to learn more about Schoenberg--who was the mentor/teacher to famous composers like Anton Webern, Alban Berg, and even John Cage (who we'll definitely be revisiting when we talk about both the Beatles and the Velvet Underground)--some great representative pieces are Verklarte Nacht, Pierrot Lunaire (which is probably the most famous example of his use of sprechstimme), and his Piano Suite, Op. 25.  
  • There are a lot of great books out there about Hank Williams (probably his most ardent and thorough biographer is Colin Escott, who's written several books on Hank Williams and all of which I recommend as great reads) but for a quick snapshot of the man's life without investing the time and money into a book, I was actually very impressed with the Wikipedia page on Hank Williams, which is surprisingly exhaustive and well-sourced.