June 8, 2009
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Hank Williams recorded under the guise of Luke the Drifter in the early 1950s, Garth Brooks was Chris Gaines, and George Jones as a rockabilly singing duck. These are just a few of the alter egos country music has created. An alter ego is a second self – ‘the other I’. So what drives a recording artist to create an entirely new persona to market themselves?
A young singer, just out of the marines, migrated from Missouri to California in the early 1950s and began recording under the name Terry Preston. Ferlin Husky had created the stage name because he thought his given name was too rural-sounding. While he never had any success with the Preston alias, Husky would go on to create a comic foil in the form of Simon Crum. Crum was even signed a separate contract and had several hits of his own.
Likewise, George Jones began his career in 1955 with a string of hits for the small Starday label. After a move to Mercury in 1956, George began experiementing with a rockabilly sound (which was wildly popular at the time) as Thumper Jones. And though he had no real hits to speak of as a rockabilly artist, this chapter is still a necessary footnote in George Jones’ catalog. During his crazier, no-show years, Jones was also known to create characters for himself too. Legend has it that he performed an entire show in the voice of a duck character that sounded a lot like Donald Duck. Later, Jones referred to him as Dee-Doodle Duck. The duck didn’t score any hits for Jones either.
Luke the Drifter was born as a stage name for Hank Williams to release gospel recordings without hurting his popularity on the honky tonk – and therefore mainstream – circuit of the time. So it’s not as glamorous a tale as one would imagine. (Or as sad a southern heartbreaking tragedy, however you think the name should have evolved.) Unlike Husky, and even Jones at the time, Hank Williams was a giant figure in country music. His legend was already in place and that gave him the creative leeway to create another side of himself to market to the fans. This other side of Hank Williams, a soft-spoken singer recording mostly recitations and spiritual numbers, was in stark contrast to the tortured soul depicted in Hank’s country numbers. As a defining figure in the genre, Williams was at liberty to present more of the other side of his character in this new man, Luke the Drifter.
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