Vernon Oxford was so poor that, well you’ve all heard this one before haven’t you? I mean c’mon, if I have to hear one more story about how poor some half forgotten country singer was…
Okay, we won’t go there. Just take what you think of as poor and halve it. That’s how this guy grew up. Electricity and water? You’ve gotta be kiddin’? These days, it seems hardly nobody’s that poor anymore. There’s at least an entire generational buffer between most of us and that kind if poverty. It becomes mythical, abstract. We’re unable to really feel what that life was really like. So let’s talk about things we know about. Vernon’s ears stuck out kind of funny and he was a bit hard of hearing, so he had to sit way up in the front of his classrooms. His clothes were always out of style. You know, like when you had to wear Toughskins when all the other kids were wearing Bugle Boys. Vernon wore flour bags sewn into shirts and pants, but pretty much the same thing, right?
Somehow he outlived those years. Somehow most of us do, I suppose. He would never be an insider though, never the popular guy. The funny thing about that though is Vernon Oxford is an amazing artist. He is truly gifted and clearly worked extremely hard at taking that gift and doing the most with it as he possible could.
Historian, Colin Escott, captured Vernon’s problem when he came to Nashville in 1961 when he told of Chet Atkins saying “he’s too country for country.” Don’t we all feel that way sometimes? Most of the time? Too something for something.
It’s hard to say Chet was wrong. In fact he seemed to almost always be right. Yes, now the hard country singers of the 1960s like Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash fare better than their countrypolitan contemporaries, but at the time it was hard to argue with the sales. Countrypolitan records sold.
It wasn’t just the hard country production of Vernon’s records that set them apart. Sure, there was plenty of steel guitar, but that was just the jumping off point. Listen to a song like Woman, Let Me Sing You a Song from 1966. It’s a simple thing really, mostly repeated chorus over steel, bass and drums, but it plays with the stereotypes and cliches of C&W recordings where someone is generally right and the other one in the relationship is wrong. Here there’s enough guilt to go around as the singer is clearly no angel. His point isn’t that he’s a good man, so much as his wife’s a worse girl. The song was written and given to Vernon by one of his biggest fans, and possible the greatest country songwriter of them all, Harlan Howard.
Woman, Let Me Sing You A Song,Vernon Oxford
Perhaps his greatest song is the 1966 heartbreaker written by Jeff Clay, Move To Town In The Fall. Cut in the mold of Harlan Howard’s Streets of Baltimore or Ben Peter’s classic song that Charlie Rich definitively covered, San Francisco Is A Lonely Town, the song tells of a rural working man’s struggle to move his family to town, better themselves, maybe get a color t.v., only to lose it all to creditors (the t.v.) and other men (his wife). The song is utterly wrenching in Vernon Oxford’s dry twang.
Move To Town In the Fall, Vernon Oxford
Streets of Baltimore, Gram Parsons
San Francisco Is A Lonely Town, Charlie Rich
The brilliant follow-up to this maudlin number is another penned by Harlan Howard in 1973, Treat Yourself Right. Here, it’s all instruction on how to forget all those life troubles – not to mention a perfect example on how to use back-up singers.
Treat Yourself Right, Vernon Oxford
When a community radio deejay looks to the east he prays to Vernon Oxford. There should be his picture on the wall, fancy kneeling rug, or burning candles or some such pagan thing. That’s because what he was, community radio is. Too something for something. That is to say, the way I feel most of the time during a broadcast. After eleven years I can’t seem to figure out quite what the problem is with community radio. Are we too country for country? Too bebop for bop? Too honest for the news? Too cool for school? I suppose the answer is yes.
Do we have time for the half forgotten in our busy lives? It’s hard enough answering all that email while posting on Facebook. So forget it then. Forget your neighbors voice, and the old timer down the road, the kid with the big ears, the weird girl who wears too much eyeshadow.
That’s not how it really is though, is it? If you’re still reading this, that’s not what you think. You think, forget those that don’t like all that cool stuff. And you know you’re right. You stand on the pedestal of righteousness and throw metaphorical lye into your eyes and preach the word that there’s no such thing as too country for country.
Vernon turns 71 today. I believe that he still performs occasionally and he put out a solid country record just a few years ago.