My Kind of Country

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

Country music’s fellow travelers: Burl Ives

burl ivesThis is the first in a series of short articles about artists who, although not country artists, were of some importance to country music. In a sense, a previous article I wrote about Patti Page would logically belong in this category. First up, America’s troubadour Burl Ives.

Burl Ives (1909-1995) was the Renaissance Man among folk singers. Not only was he a folk balladeer but he also had success on Broadway, television and movies. Mostly though, he was a folk singer and anthologist , publishing several books of folk songs and recording dozens of albums of folk music, sometimes by themes (Folk Songs of Ireland, Folk Songs of Australia, Women: Songs About The Fair Sex, Down To The Sea In Ships) and other albums that were simply collections of songs. The warm friendly voice of Burl Ives could sell any song, without faking accents or use of any artifice. So wildly popular was he that Queen Elizabeth II requested that he perform at her Coronation Concert in 1953.

In the days before folk became too politically left-wing, many radio stations billed themselves as paying country and folk music, so his records got some airplay on country radio stations. Also he often recorded some country songs on his albums, placing on Billboard’s country charts in 1949 and 1952 and recording country material on some of his 1950s albums. In the early 1960s, his records were produced by noted producer Owen Bradley, who marketed Burl’s records to the country music market with some success as the 52 year old Ives hit Cashbox’s top slot (#2 Billboard) with Hank Cochran’s “A Little Bitty Tear Let Me Down”. This was followed by two more top ten country singles “Funny Way of Laughing” and “Mr. In Between” and several more charting singles, including the amusing “Evil Off My Mind”, an ‘answer’ song to Jan Howard’s biggest solo hit “Evil On Your Mind”. His otherwise 1964 country album, Pearly Shells and Other Favorites, produced a surprise pop hit with the title track, a Hawaiian song written by Webley Edwards and Leon Pober.

Since Ives never stayed anchored too long in any one realm, Burl drifted off into other areas of folk music, recording albums of children’s music, seasonal music and yes, another album or two of country music.

5 responses to “Country music’s fellow travelers: Burl Ives

  1. Ken Johnson May 28, 2013 at 10:40 am

    Thanks for the memories. Always been a fan of Burl’s music. His early ’60’s country-pop hits remain favorites. Remember playing them on the jukebox when I was a kid. He was one of my dad’s favorite singers and I always think of him whenever I hear a Burl Ives song. Most folks only know Burl today for his “Holly Jolly Christmas” which is too bad because as you pointed out his music encompassed a very wide area.

    To expand on one point – I believe that the disappearance of folk music from country playlists during the 1950’s had more to do with changes to the texture and nature of the music than political content. In the 1940’s and early 50’s some vestiges of the old string bands still existed in the country genre. Folk based acts such the The Weavers and Burl Ives scored hits because their core sounds were accepted by country audiences of that era. But by the early 1950’s the Hank Williams inspired fiddle & steel guitar honky tonk style became the pervasive mainstream sound of country music. When bluegrass firmly established it’s niche as a distinct genre within country music it essentially pushed folk music off to the sidelines. Yes folk music became more politically active but that was after it had ceased to be considered an active part of country music. It just sounded out of place. Same could be said about the cowboy/western songs by stars like Tex Ritter & Gene Autry or Western Swing that both lost favor due to changing tastes as the 1950’s wore on.

    I suppose that you can make that same correlation to country music today. Traditional country music that features fiddles, steel guitar and twangy telecasters and was popular for decades has been replaced with hard rock guitars, excessively loud rhythm sections and overproccessed vocals & audio effects. Except that the only thing that is country about today’s music is the name used to describe it.

  2. J.R. Journey June 1, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    I really like this article, and the idea behind it. I had toyed with the idea of writing some pieces very much like this about artists who had success in the country format, but weren’t primarily country artists. LInda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons, Elvis Presley, etc. could be contenders for future installments.

    I know nothing about Burl Ives except that he looked like a big burly (pun) lumberjack guy with a beard and plaid shirts. I’m listening to his Nashville Years box set right now.

    • Luckyoldsun June 1, 2013 at 3:56 pm

      If you really know nothing about Burl Ives, that box set will give you only a small part of what he was about.
      Ives was a significant, post-War American public figure. He made numerous TV appearances, he got rave reviews as an actor in the film of “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof’ and won an Academy Award for another movie. And he was a huge children’s entertainer, doing records and concerts and being the main adult voice in the “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” TV special. A lot of us grew up on Burl Ives!

  3. Erik North June 1, 2013 at 9:23 pm

    The Oscar that Ives won was for Best Supporting Actor as one of the two warring land barons in director William Wyler’s epic 1958 western THE BIG COUNTRY–justifiably so, in my humble opinion.

  4. luckyoldsun June 2, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    Ives would definitely belong in any Americana hall of fame (and I’m using the term as it was understood before it became an alt music genre.)

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