TERRY GROSS, host: Boogie-woogie was a piano style that started sometime in the early 20th century and by the 1930s became a huge pop-music fad. After World War II, it re-emerged in country music, where it was an important precursor to rock 'n' roll. Rock historian Ed Ward has the story.


ED WARD: We know now that starting with Western swing in the 1920s, country-music reflections of popular black music has a long history, so that claiming that Elvis Presley was the first successful fusion of the two is just silly. The hillbilly boogie fad, however, has been largely overlooked in that history, although there were hundreds of records made in that style. It started with a guy named Arthur Smith in 1945.


WARD: "Guitar Boogie" is by Arthur Smith's Hot Quintet, a band which had backing the singer and recorded it as a goof when there was some time remaining in a recording session. A straight-ahead boogie-woogie performed on guitar, it became a hit, and for the rest of his life Arthur was billed as Arthur Guitar Boogie Smith. Postwar country music must have been ripe for guitar virtuosos, because suddenly they were everywhere.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) About 12:00 gonna close the door. Can't nobody come or nobody go. I've got a boogie woogie feeling, had it all night long. When I get that feeling, my mamma won't let me come home.

WARD: One of the most influential was Merle Travis, who was from Kentucky and learned a lot of his guitar style from his barber, Ike Everly, who had a family radio show featuring his sons. Travis was not only a solo performer; he was also in demand as a studio musician.


DELMORE BROTHERS: (Singing) I love that Mobile Boogie. I like to travel when I'm heading for home, way down in Dixie where I'm never alone. I know a gal who's been a waiting around. She likes to boogie woogie when I'm in town. I'm in Mobile, down in Alabam where the breeze is blowin'. That's where I'm bound.

WARD: It's hard to tell, but it's likely Travis is the third guitar behind Alton and Rabon Delmore, the Delmore Brothers here. The Delmores recorded dozens of boogies, which revived a career they'd started in the '30s. With the addition of Travis and banjo player Grandpa Jones, they became the gospel-singing Browns Ferry Four and Travis' ability to play the bass with one finger while picking a melody at the same time, called Travis picking, came out of his boogie period and revolutionized American guitar playing. By the end of the '40s, Travis had moved to Hollywood and joined the new Capitol label, which was recording West Coast country talent, and the boogie craze was in full swing. Travis was in the studio band for the genre's biggest hits, including this one.


TENNESSEE ERNIE FORD: (Singing) There it stands in the corner with a barrel so straight. I looked out the window and over gate. The big fat rabbits are jumping in the grass; wait'll they hear my ol' shotgun blast. Shotgun boogie. I done saw your tracks. Look out, Mr. Rabbit, when I cock my hammer back. Well, over on the ridge is a scaly bark, hickory nuts so big you can see 'em in the dark.

(Singing) The big fat squirrels, they scratch and they bite. I'll be on that ridge before daylight with the shotgun boogie. All I need is one shot. Look out, bushy tail; tonight you'll be in the pot.

WARD: "Shot-Gun Boogie," sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford, was a No. 1 country hit at the end of 1950, and pretty much represented the height of the hillbilly boogie craze. But it also pointed out a growing division in country music. The war had brought lots of people from Texas and Oklahoma to California, and Capitol was only one of the labels recording a new kind of country music.

In fact, the music-business term Country and Western was accurate. This music was at least as much Western as country, which was Nashville's specialty. Capitol's studio musicians were second to none. Along with Merle Travis, they had Telecaster virtuoso Jimmy Bryant and steel guitarist Speedy West, whose instrumental albums wowed other musicians, as well as more open-minded jazz fans.


WARD: Nashville stayed more traditional and more acoustic during the early 1950s, and the gap between the two coasts just widened as time went on. By the time Elvis came along, making his first records with an acoustic guitar in Tennessee, hillbilly boogie was history, and Los Angeles was mixing country and pop, waiting for a new country generation to come along. But that's a story for another day.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the south of France.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from