My Kind of Country

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

Country Heritage Redux: Johnny Darrell (1940-1997)

The following is an updated version of Paul W. Dennis’ article, which was previously published by The 9513.

One of life’s biggest mysteries (or at least one of country music’s biggest mysteries) is why Johnny Darrell (1940-1997) never became a star. Arguably country music’s first “outlaw,” Darrell recorded for United Artists, a major label, from 1965 to about 1973, but United was only a bit player in country music, and so Darrell’s records didn’t get the major promotional effort they deserved. Moreover, Darrell had the reputation of being difficult and somewhat unreliable because of his drinking.

Darrell had a clear, strong, and masculine voice – somewhere between tenor and baritone, but his true strength was in identifying great songs and great songwriters. Among the songs he was the first to record were (with subsequent cover artist in parenthesis):

• “Green Green Grass of Home” #12 CB (Porter Wagoner, Tom Jones)
• “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town” #7 CB / 9 BB (Kenny Rogers)
• “Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” #14 CB / 22 BB (O.C. Smith)
• “With Pen in Hand” #3 BB / 4 CB (Billy Vera, Vikki Carr)

Darrell’s biggest hit was “With Pen In Hand,” which rose to #3 on the country charts. A much inferior cover by Billy Vera was simultaneously a hit on the pop charts, and if United Artists had done a decent job of promoting and distributing Darrell’s version – which was nearly impossible to find for purchase in many parts of the country – it almost surely would have crossed over and taken the place of Vera’s.

Darrell’s most remembered record today is his rocking version of “Why You Been Gone So Long,” written by Mickey Newbury, which rose to #17 BB/20 CB with a smattering of pop airplay as well.

All told, United Artists issued seven albums on Darrell, plus a handful of budget reissues on its Sunset label:

As Long As The Winds Blow (1966, United Artists)
Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town (1967, United Artists)
The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp (1968, United Artists)
With Pen in Hand (1968, United Artists)
Why You Been Gone So Long (1969, United Artists)
California Stop-Over (1970, United Artists)
The Best Of Johnny Darrell (1970, United Artists)

His first five albums followed the usual pattern for country albums: one or two singles, a few covers, and some filler. Where Darrell’s albums differed from the norm, however, was in the fact that the filler wasn’t really filler at all, and that the covers were sometimes of lesser hits. His first album featured an early Kris Kristofferson song, “Don’t Tell My Little Girl,” as well as a Bobby Bare composition, “Passin’ Through,” and his second, Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town, featured a June Carter/Johnny Cash composition, “She’s Mighty Gone.”

The majority of Darrell’s catalogue was recorded in Nashville, but due to his inability to score the big country hit, United Artists tried recording his later work in California. It was there that Johnny uncovered gems by then-largely unknown songwriters such as Mickey Newbury, Lowell George, Jackson Browne and Ronnie Self. Unfortunately, the album California Stop-Over again failed to produce hits, but did eventually become a collector’s item, especially among fans of The Byrds, due to Clarence White’s guitar work on the album.

After the relative commercial failure of California Stop-Over, United Artists and Darrell parted company, largely marking the end of his career, but for only a few more singles and one more album of new material (Water Glass Full of Whiskey, Capricorn, 1975).

After a lengthy hiatus, Johnny Darrell returned to performing and songwriting during the late 1980s but after that he was generally out of sight and out of mind for the last decade of his life. Given how little recognition he got during his peak years, this didn’t represent much of a change for him. Among the few accolades he received were Cashbox Magazine’s “Most Promising Male Artist” for 1966, and selection, after his death, as an Achiever to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.

Darrell struggled with a deadly combination of alcohol and diabetes, leading to his untimely death at age 57. Unfortunately, very little of the singer’s material is now commercially available – the Australian label Raven issued a CD combining his greatest hits with California Stop-Over in 1999 (Singin’ It Lonesome — The Very Best… 1965-1970), a collection currently available from the Ernest Tubb Record Shop and well worth acquiring. More readily available is The Complete Gusto/Starday Recordings, an album of remakes which find Darrell in typically strong voice, although they lack the sparkle of the original recordings.

For collector of vinyl http://www.musicstack.com/ is a good clearinghouse for hundreds of record dealers. I have purchased records through them in the past with quite satisfactory results.

3 responses to “Country Heritage Redux: Johnny Darrell (1940-1997)

  1. luckyoldsun May 25, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    I’m amazed that I’ve never heard of this guy. He should have been a star.

  2. Razor X May 25, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    This is an artist that I’d definitely like to investigate further. I’m not familiar with his work at all but I know many of the cover versions you mentioned. The version of “Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” that I’m most familiar with is Merle Haggard’s.

  3. Ken Johnson May 26, 2011 at 11:07 am

    I remember when “Son Of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” first came out I thought the song was about a female hobo, so most of lyrics made little sense to me.

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