My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Pete Kennedy

Country Heritage: Patsy Montana

Patsy MontanaAs we enter the holiday season, I thought it might be worthwhile to remember one of the true female pioneers of country music.

The recently departed Kitty Wells may have had the first number one single for a solo female country artist, and she undoubtedly deserved her crown as the “Queen of Country Music,” but she was not the first country female to sell a million copies of a single release. That honor belongs to Patsy Montana, who in 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression, recorded a song that sold well over a million copies in “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” A steady seller for years, the song even became a top ten pop hit in 1936 (there were no country charts until January 1944).

Patsy Montana was born with the name Ruby Rebecca Blevins on October 30, 1908, in Hot Springs, Arkansas (there is some controversy about the year of birth) the only girl of eleven children born to Augustus Blevins and Amanda Meeks. Growing up with 10 brothers, Montana inevitably grew up a tomboy, but a tomboy with musical inclinations. Later famous for her yodeling abilities, she listened to her parents’ Jimmie Rodgers records, learned and absorbed his yodels, and also learned to play the fiddle.

A year after graduating from high school in 1928, Montana moved to Los Angeles and began music studies at the University of the West (later the UCLA). In addition to the “highbrow” music taught in college, she associated with hillbilly musicians and after winning first place in a singing contest, performed on radio station KTMR as Rubye Blevins, “the Yodeling Cowgirl from San Antone.”

Eventually Montana came to the attention of future gospel great Stuart Hamblen, who invited her to sing for more money on a rival radio station. She joined Lorraine McIntire and Ruthy DeMondrum as the Montana Cowgirls. This is the point at which the name change to Patsy Montana occurred, given to her by Hamblen upon learning that she was of Irish descent, and not wanting a “Ruthie” and a “Rubye” in the same group.

In the summer of 1932, she returned home for a vacation, and received a week’s booking on KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana. Following these performances, Jimmie Davis (future two-time Governor of Louisiana and also a future Country Music Hall of Fame member) called her and invited her to travel to New York to record. Initially skeptical, she changed her mind when one of her brothers advised her that Davis was an important Victor recording artist. During the next two years, Montana sang backup for Davis on some recordings and recorded her first single, “When the Flowers of Montana Were Blooming.” She eventually returned to California and rejoined the Montana Cowgirls. When the group dissolved in 1933, she returned home to Arkansas.

Montana stayed home only briefly, as her brothers Kenneth and Claude decided to enter a huge watermelon into competition at the Chicago World’s Fair. She tagged along and upon arrival she sought out Dolly Good of the Girls of the Golden West, who tipped her off to a band looking for a new lead singer. She auditioned and began an eight-year relationship with the (soon to be named) Prairie Ramblers. During this period, Montana and the band would record dozens of songs and make hundreds of personal appearances. Although based in Chicago at WLS’s National Barn Dance, the band also performed for a year on WOR in New York. In 1934 she married Paul Rose, an organizer of the traveling portion of the WLS program. With Rose, she would have two daughters: Beverly and Judy.

Although record sales during this period plunged precipitously, the American Record Company (ARC) decided to record Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers in New York during August of 1935. They recorded “Nobody’s Darling but Mine,” which became one of the biggest hits of the decade. Future Columbia A&R director “Uncle” Art Satherly, suggested that she record a song she had written titled “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” The rest is history. While not a hit right out of the box, the recording slowly built momentum eventually becoming an intrinsic part of the American culture. The song, a paean of love and independence, is still loved and performed to this day.

While Montana never again had another huge hit recording, she stayed busy as an entertainer for another 60 years, appearing in a Gene Autry movie in 1939, recording with groups such as the Sons of the Pioneers and the Light Crust Doughboys, and hosting an ABC network radio show in 1946-47, Wake Up and Smile (which featured her trademark greeting, “Hi, pardner! It’s Patsy Montana,” accompanied by the thunder of horses’ hooves). She continued to make personal appearances and occasionally recorded new material. She became an influence on many cowgirl wannabes and an idol to many female singers during the ensuing years. Montana received the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award in 1970. Her signature song “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” has been recorded many times in recent years, most notably by Suzy Bogguss in 1988 and by Montana herself, during her last recording sessions in 1995. In fact the song is played over the end credits of John Sayles’s 1996 film Lone Star, which was released just weeks after Montana’s death.

Patsy Montana passed away on May 3, 1996 in San Jacinto, CA and was elected that same year into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Her autobiography The Cowboy’s Sweetheart was published posthumously. Read more of this post

Album Review: Nanci Griffith – ‘Intersection’

Much of Nanci Griffith’s work has tended to fall closer to the contemporary folk side of the border with country music, but regardless of genre, her music has been of consistently high quality.  Her 20th album is out now in the UK and Ireland where she is currently touring, and is set for release next month in the US on her own Hell No Records, distributed by Sony.  She has had a tough time in her personal life in the past few years, and the album is reportedly very personal.  Production was a joint effort by Nanci, Pete and Maura Kennedy, and Pat McInerney, with very few outside musicians being involved.

The catchy but abrasive ‘Hell No (I’m Not Alright)’ is angry handclapping protest-folk, and is the first single. Supposedly it is inspired by the Occupy protest movement, but while the official video portrays the latter, I cant detect any overt polical aspects at all in the lyrics. When the song stands on its own merits, it appears to be about a thoughtless man who has let the protagonist down in a personal relationship. Nanci’s personal views about the socio-political situation may have informed her sense of malaise, but standing on its own merits I don’t hear this as a political song at all. The seething anger she expresses at the man’s patronising response to her is universally relateable on a personal level:

Hell no, I’m not alright
You can talk all day and ask all night
Nothing’s gonna change, no end in sight
Hell no, I’m not alright

Did you really think it would be okay
To leave me stranded alone that day?
Did you really think you could wait so long
To call me up to see if you’re alright?

You’re on the bow and I’m alone
And when you’re alone you’re all alone
I’m still gone, it’s all the same
But I’m takin’ notes and I’m namin’ names

Am I the one to get you to forget
That the one is gone, is gone, is gone?
Am I supposed to say you’re okay?
Cause you’re not okay and you’re not okay

The insistently bluesy ‘Come On Up Mississippi’ is more political in the widest sense. It is very short, closking in just under twwo minutes and uses a small children’s choir with unusual restraint. Perhaps the most political song here, it’s an angry response to the poverty of the state of that name and a stirring call for solidarity from other Americans:

Come on up Mississippi
Come on up
I’m coming on up to you
And if only America knew
Of your poverty, your dirty streets, your children with their barefoot feet
They’d all be coming on up to you Missisippi…

Come on up Mississippi
America’s for you

The opening ‘Bethlehem Steel’ laments the closing of a Pennsylvania steelworks in the 1990s and its effect on the town that relied on the jobs it had provided.  She paints a detailed and atmospheric picture of “an American icon”, and a sympathetic portrait of a woman remembering childhood memories of the area’s past prosperity gives it a human face.  Ethereal backing vocals add to the elegaic mood.

The catchy but repetitive ‘Stranded In The High Ground’ was co-written by all four producers, and has a bright feel but doesn’t really go anywhere lyrically. Nanci also revives her own 20-year-old ‘Just Another Morning here’, with Eric Brace and Peter Cooper on harmony; it is on the folkier side of her repertoire and not one of her more interesting songs.

I enjoyed the surprisingly upbeat defiance of ‘Bad Seed’, written by Nanci and Maura about a deeply troubled father-daughter relationship. This is one of the overtly personal songs, with a scorching indictment of the man who has rejected her, with a twist of humor to leaven the soul searing honesty:

I look like him without the mustache
I’ll have that too if I live that long…

When I’m winning he knows me
When I lose I’m his bad seed
After all he told me
Nothing good would become of me
Now that I’ve gone crazy
With no love from my father
Am I the bad seed he always said I would be?

The title track’s mellow laidback sound underpins the resigned lyric about facing failure and having to move on:

It’s time to walk away though I’ll live to curse this day
Sometimes making the best is doing the worst to yourself
And I will not complain
It’s all still the same
I’ve had a hard life and I write it down
I’m at this intersection here between my hopes and dreams and fears
Traveling love boulevard on a green light

Hitting similar notes thematically, the pensive mid-tempo ‘Never Going Back’, written by Mark Seliger, reminisces gently about moving on from a restrictive neighbourhood. Nanci has always been willing to include other writers’ material alongside her own, and the songs selected from outside writers fit in well with her own material here. Blaze Foley’s mournfully beautiful ‘If I Could Only Fly’ is impeccably done. The gentle ‘Davey’s Last Picture’ (written by Robbin Bach and Betty Reeves) is a sensitive and touching tribute to a young firefighter killed on 9/11. Bach sings harmony on this track.

I particularly enjoyed an unexpected and very charming version of ‘Waiting On A Dark Eyed Gal’, written by Ron Davies (brother of Gail) and recorded some years ago by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Nanci’s wistful version changes the song to make it a third person narration, and gives it an attractive acoustic arrangement. There is also a delightful hillbilly cover of a lesser known Loretta Lynn song, the joyful ‘High On A Mountain Top’, with the Steel Drivers’ Richard Bailey contributing rhythmic jangling banjo. This ends the album on a high note.

Grade: A