Boogie-woogie was a piano style that began sometime in the early 20th century — and, by the 1930s, became a huge pop-music fad. Here, rock historian Ed Ward explains how the genre re-emerged in country music after WWII, when it was an important precursor to rock 'n' roll. Most of the tracks in this piece are from Hillbilly Boogie (Proper UK) and Frettin' Fingers: The Lightning Guitar of Jimmy Bryant.
We know now that, starting with Western swing in the 1920s, country-music reflections of popular black music has a long history, so 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.
"Guitar Boogie" is by Arthur Smith's Hot Quintet, which 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, Smith was billed as Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith. Postwar country music must have been ripe for guitar virtuosos, because suddenly they were everywhere.
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, but also in demand as a studio musician.
It's hard to tell, but it's likely Travis is the third guitar behind Alton and Rabon Delmore, the Delmore Brothers, in the track "Mobile Boogie." 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 "Shot-Gun Boogie."
"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 & 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.
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.