The above Hatch Print of Webb Pierce, bought in the Nashville showroom, hangs in our hallway. My son thinks he’s a lost great Uncle or third cousin or some such thing. My wife allows it because the man had style.
“In The Jailhouse Now”
I like him because, well, yes he had style, but he also was a mighty fine country singer. They say he was an asshole and drank too much, and sold what there was to sell, and put his name on other people’s songs, and annoyed his neighbors, and yes, he did all of those things. None of these were unique sins, mind you, just convenient when relegating someone to the footnotes of history. As Otto Kitsinger points out in his lengthy essay, “The Wondering Boy,” Pierce had more number one hits in the 1950s than any other country singer, including Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Snow, and Eddy Arnold. A gaudy and long life, though, rarely does anyone favors. Had he wrecked one of his silver dollar studded Pontiacs, say, in 1959, he would probably have his own line of collectors ceramic plates. Instead, he’s remembered more for his guitar shaped swimming pool than anything else.
What Pierce is, though, in many ways, is a missing link. He was a pure country singer who looked back to the songs of his youth and re-imagined them into hits, like the Jimmie Rodgers classics, “In The Jailhouse Now” and “California Blues,” The Tune Wranglers’ “Texas Sand,” and Darby & Tarlton’s “Birmingham Jail.” His high tenor cut to the quick of these honkytonk songs and remains a vital connection between founders like Rodgers and Roy Acuff and modern day high tenor honkytonkers like the wonderful Paul Burch. Pierce also had the unique ability to see what was coming and was able to surround himself with the best musicians and songwriters, like The Wilburn Brothers, Red Sovine, Mel Tillis, Merle Kilgore, and Faron Young who provided back up for him. Other members of his bands would make huge marks on country music, like Floyd Cramer, whose slip note piano style would come to define Nashville stylists, and Bud Isaacs, whose innovation of the pedal steel guitar, first heard on Pierce’s 1953 hit song “Slowly,” would become so indelibly linked to country music almost to the point of exclusion of any other genre.
I also love Webb Pierce because I think, if he had wanted to, he could have crossed over, like Eddy Arnold did, into croonville. His tenor could certainly have smoothed out, his Nudie suits could have been carefully switched for dinner jackets and string-ties for bow-ties, and finding the right songs would not have been a problem. Had he done that, he could have cruised easily into the 1960s countrypolitan sound. He didn’t, though. He stayed with his pure hard sound and didn’t make many friends, but he gave inspiration for an entire generation of singers, like Willie Nelson and Ricky Skaggs, and remains the honkytonker to beat.
Today marks the anniversary of his passing of pancreatic cancer in 1991.
Postscript ~ The glass mosaic frame around the Hatch print, like Webb Pierce, is a Leana de la Torre original. While it wasn’t made for the print, we think it has found its proper home.