My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Country Heritage: Hawkshaw Hawkins

In Rock & Roll, February 3, 1959, is known as “The Day The Music Died.” On that date a small plane crash in Iowa claimed the lives of Charles Hardin “Buddy Holly” Holley, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Richard “Richie Valens” Valenzuela. Holly was already a superstar, The Big Bopper was a songwriter with a few hits of his own, and Valens was a rising star, en route to becoming the first Latino Rock & Roll star.

If country music can be said to have a “Day The Music Died,” that date surely is March 5, 1963, when a plane crash claimed the lives of Virgina Hensley (aka Patsy Cline), Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas and Harold Franklin “Hawkshaw” Hawkins.” At the time of the crash Cline had arrived as a major country star with huge pop success on the horizon and Cowboy Copas was a major star in the late 1940s and early 1950s, who had experienced a late career renaissance in 1960 with “Alabam.” The third victim, Hawkshaw Hawkins, was a veteran artist who had been recording for 15 years but was on the verge of a major breakthrough at the age of 41.

Hawkshaw Hawkins was born in 1921, in Huntington, West Virginia.  The nickname ‘Hawkshaw’ dates to his childhood when he successfully helped a friend track down a pair of missing fishing poles. The friend dubbed him Hawkshaw the Detective based on a comic strip. The nickname was to stick with him throughout his life (he was also sometimes called “The Hawk”). At the age of 13, he is alleged to have traded five rabbits for a homemade guitar and taught himself to play it. Within a few years he had become sufficiently proficient with the guitar that he won a talent contest at local radio station WSAZ. Following his win, he began working at the station, eventually moving to WCHS in Charleston by the end of the 1930s.

In 1940 he married Reva Barbour, a 16 year old beauty from Huntington; the marriage lasted until 1958. During 1941, he traveled the United States with a wild west revue, but in late 1942 Hawkins entered the army and served as an engineer, stationed near Paris, Texas where he and friends would sneak out on Friday and Saturday nights to perform at local clubs. Later stationed in Europe, by now attaining the rank of Staff Sergeant, he participated in the Battle of the Bulge, winning four battle stars during his 15 months of combat duty. Afterward he spent time in Manila in the Philippines and had a radio show on WVTM.

Discharged from the military in late 1945, he returned to West Virginia and gained a spot on the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree, where he remained for over eight years. A large man (6’6″) with a deep voice, Hawkins became a popular performer due to his engaging personality. In fact, he became a huge star without becoming a recording star, although his recording career started shortly after joining the Jamboree in 1946. Hawkshaw and Reva adopted a daughter, Susan Marlene, in 1947, but, to the best of my knowledge, had no other children.

Hawkshaw had a few chart hits on King from 1948-51, then disappeared from the charts. The hits were “Pan American” (#9), “Dog House Boogie” (#6), “I Wasted A Nickel” (#15), “I Love You A Thousand Ways” (#8), “I’m Waiting Just For You” (#8) and “Slow Poke” (#7). Although his chart success was small, his records sold well and many were regional hits that did not chart nationally, including his signature song “Sunny Side of The Mountain.”

In 1953 he signed with RCA Victor, and by 1955 Hawkins had become a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry. He made some great recordings while with RCA but scored no hit records. A switch to Columbia in 1959 found “Soldiers Joy” reach #15 but there was no further action on the Billboard charts, although four of his other Columbia singles charted on Cash Box, most notably “Darkness On The Face of The Earth,” which reached #11 on the Cash Box country chart. He married future Country Music Hall of Fame member  Jean Shepard in 1960. In mid-1962, after an absence of nine years, he re-signed with King Records. The first two singles “Silver Threads And Golden Needles” and “Bad News Travels Fast (In Our Town)” received considerable acclaim, although neither charted on Billboard (“Bad New Travels Fast” did crack the Cash Box Top 40). On March 2, 1963, King released a Justin Tubb-penned song, “Lonesome 7-7203,” that they had high hopes would be Hawkins’ breakthrough single, just as “Alabam” had been for Cowboy Copas in 1960.

Unfortunately, that’s the end of the story as on March 5, 1963 Hawkshaw Hawkins died in the crash that took the lives of Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas and Randy Hughes (pilot, Patsy’s manager, and Copas’ son-in-law). At the time of his death Jean Shepard was pregnant with son Harold “Hawkshaw Jr,” who would be born a few weeks after the crash. The couple also had a son born the year before they named Don Robbin Hawkins after Don Gibson and Marty Robbins.

“Lonesome 7-7203” did everything King Records and Hawkins had hoped it would do, flying to #1 on both Billboard and Cashbox for four weeks. Unfortunately, King did not have much unreleased material in the vaults and so there were no further chart singles for Hawkshaw Hawkins.

Discography

Vinyl

Relatively few Hawkshaw Hawkins albums were issued during his lifetime; most of his recorded output before 1963 was in the form of 45 rpm and 78 rpm singles. In 1958 and 1959, King finally issued a pair of albums collecting old singles, Volume 1 (1958) and Volume 2 (1959). After Hawkins re-signed with King in 1962, the label released All New (1962), which included “Lonesome 7-7203,” the third single to be released from the album. After his death, King, RCA and Columbia emptied their vaults, releasing whatever material they had.

CD

Hawkshaw Hawkins received the usual neglect during the digital era, although King issued a few budget-line CDs with 10 songs, and threw his material on various anthologies with other artists. Finally in 1991, Bear Family released a comprehensive, three-disc overview of his RCA and Columbia Records called Hawk that sells for around $80.

If $80 is too rich for your budget, Collectibles has issued a set titled Country Gentleman: Hawkshaw Hawkins Sings that collects two old RCA Camden albums. Also, Bear Family has finally relented and started issuing smaller sets. Car Hoppin’ Mama, part of their “Gonna Shake This Shack” series has 16 older King tracks and 17 RCA tracks.

Other than that there isn’t much except for the miscellaneous Gusto/King/Starday/Federal/TeeVee/Cindy Lou/Nashville reissues that generally contain 9-12 tracks and overlap each other considerably–and are variously in and out of print. The Collectibles and Bear Family set are highly recommended. The other sets are variable in terms of digital remastering but worth picking up if you can find them cheaply enough.

If you don’t mind high quality CD-R recordings the British Archive of Country Music, an obsessive bunch who carry much otherwise unavailable country / roots music from the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have two Hawkshaw Hawkins recordings available. Their product can obtained from their website – look around a little – you’ll be astounded at what can be obtained from them.

Hawkshaw’s widow, Jean Shepard, eventually remarried and continues to perform, mostly at the Grand Old Opry, although at 78 years old she is not as active as once was the case. Sometimes she performs with her son Hawkshaw Hawkins, Jr., who strongly resembles his father facially, although he is about six inches shorter. He’s a fine singer and has recorded several CDs which you may be able to find at the Ernest Tubb record shop.

4 responses to “Country Heritage: Hawkshaw Hawkins

  1. Danny Barker January 4, 2012 at 12:18 am

    It was a very sad day for everyone when that happen. When the music die.

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  3. Ken Johnson January 9, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    Nice overview of an artist who is better known for how he died rather than for the music that he made. Especially sad that his end came just as his career was beginning a resurgence.

    I know that you usually don’t list out-of-print CD’s for your profiles but due to the scarcity of quality Hawkshaw Hawkins reissues I want to mention the 1999 release “I’m A Rattlesnakin’ Daddy – The King Anthology 1946-1963″ from the British Westside label (WESA 822). This CD has about the best audio quality I’ve heard yet for most of Hawkhaw’s early King sides though “Slow Poke” was copied from a very badly worn 78. Most tracks are from master tapes that include the producer’s voice calling out the master & cut numbers. Among the 24 tracks are every charted Billboard King single EXCEPT “I Wasted A Nickel” from 1949 and it is missing the single hit version of “Lonesome 7-7203.” Though two alternate versions are included neither is the single release. The label lists one as the “single master” but it is not.

    Oddly most CD versions of “Lonesome 7-7203″ lack the vocal chorus overdub evident on the single release. So far the only CD that I’ve found to contain the correct version is the 1963 volume of Time/Life’s “Country U.S.A.” series. It’s possible that other Time/Life collections that contain this song may also have the correct version as they tend to reuse their digital copies of recordings for other Time/Life collections once they’ve licensed them. Bear Family has included that song on their new 1963 volume of their “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke & Hillbilly Music – Country Music Hit Parade” series. I have not purchased my copy yet but I would bet that they probably have the correct version there too.

    • Paul W Dennis January 9, 2012 at 8:04 pm

      That Westside CD is terrific and I wish it were still in print.

      One of these days someone should do a detailed review of that Time-Life COUNTRY USA series that covered the period 1950-1972 inclusive. I still find myself wishing that they had extended it about six years back (to 1944) and five years forward (to 1977). The other Time-Life series are good , but that one was special.

      I have obtained a few of the Bear “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Hillbilly Music series, but I’m afraid if I buy the whole set , the boss will be angry

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