Every generation has a handful of country singers that just don’t fit the mold. Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of the genre himself, didn’t exactly fit in to begin with, so why not those that would follow: Bob Wills, Floyd Tillman, Elvis Presley, Wanda Jackson, Charlie Rich, Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Charley Pride, Sammi Smith, Terry Allen, Lyle Lovett. That’s the shortlist of course, but freaks everyone of them. Some, like many listed above, became stars despite their weird voices, phrasing and songs. Others have been largely lost to history and collectors. Singers like Jenks “Tex” Carmen, Marvin Rainwater, Bonnie Guitar. There’s never been another quite like_____. All of them fill in the blank.
One of my favorites turned 88 years old today. Otis Whitman, a lanky stuttering kid from Tampa, Florida who might have made a pretty good big league pitcher, but instead turned to music. We know him, if we know him, as Slim.
Slim Whitman says it was the folks who attended church with him that first pointed out that particularly unique voice. It’s one of those atmospheric warbles that spin around the ozone somewhere between Project Mercury and Sputnik.
There’s a bit of a divide between authentic cowboy singers like Buck Ramsey and Tex Owens and the romanticized prairie ramblers like The Sons of the Pioneers, Gene Autry and Tex Ritter. Slim’s ethereal yodel, his falsetto, that melodramatic quaver firmly puts him out in front of the silver screened prairie ramblers. Perhaps even above them. The first cosmic cowboy.
Slim’s voice is matched perfectly to his style. Thick, wavy hair greased down with a can of pomade, a perfectly groomed pencil thin mustache, white western suits adorned with stars, two-toned wingtips, sometimes spats, a two-toned big bodied Gretsch guitar with S.W. engraved on the base and stars sparkling at the corners.
The next essential piece that made Slim Whitman was provided by someone else. Hoot Rains, Don Helms, Jerry Byrd, Sam Hodge, Tinker Fry all provided the quintessential steel guitar backdrop to Slim’s haunted records. I can no more imagine a Slim Whitman record without a high and shimmering steel guitar then I can picture him clean faced and shaved.
We’re left with the songs: Tears Can Never Drown the Flame, I’m Casting My Lasso Towards the Sky, My Heart Is Broken In Three, There’s a Rainbow In Every Teardrop, I Leave the Milky Way, At the End of Nowhere, In the Valley of the Moon, A Pedal From a Faded Rose. Yes, this happened, these songs were recorded and they’re every bit as great as you’re imagining them to be right now in your cluttered head.
End of the World, Slim Whitman
I don’t really know that there ever was a time Slim did or even could have fit it. He’s this strange singer off in the shadows from center, like Roy Orbison or Edith Piaf. We need them though, these oddballs, these Slim Whitmans.
There’s a Grateful Dead lyric from a very Slim Whitman titled song called Scarlet Begonias that goes:
Once in awhile you get shown the light,
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.
That’s Slim Whitman to me.
Danny Boy, Slim Whitman
Post Script ~Slim Whitman is still riding those ponies, still lassoing the moon. His latest record, Twilight On the Trail, came out in 2010 and it’s a wonderful nod back to those gone, gone, gone days.
Blue Shadows On the Trail, Slim Whitman