What's a Muleskinner, anyway?

My name is Deke Dickerson. I'm a full-time musician, with lots of interests. One of those interests is writing. I write for guitar magazines such as Guitar Player, Fretboard Journal, and Vintage Guitar. I also write music articles, liner notes, and books that accompany box sets.

Once, a long time ago, I thought it was weird to have your own web site. Then, I thought that myspace and Facebook were immature (turns out I was right about that one, but I'm on them anyway). When I heard the word "blog," I decried I would never have one. And yet, here I am. Enjoy...

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

FARON YOUNG--Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young

FARON YOUNG --liner notes to the Bear Family CD “GONNA SHAKE THIS SHACK TONIGHT”

       When Country Music Hall of Fame singer Faron Young was asked about the rockabilly and rock & roll sides he cut in the 1950s, his answer was simple: “I was not cut out to sing that kind of music,” he told David Booth, “but when you drop $400,000 a year, you’ll try anything you can.  I’d have tried to paint myself black!  When I hear any of that stuff today, I turn fourteen flips in the air, I hate it!” 
       What makes such a statement ironic is that while the teenage-themed pop-a-billy sides he waxed in the late 1950s were forced upon him and bear the authenticity of such, the fact remains that Faron Young’s hillbilly boogie songs of the early and mid 1950s were as influential to the new crop of rockabillies as anything else, with their braggadocio lyrical content and aggressive boogie-woogie guitar-based sound.
       Songs like Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young, I’m Gonna Live Some Before I Die, and If You Ain’t Lovin (You Ain’t Livin’) preached a lifestyle that was immediately adapted by the first wave of rock and rollers as their own.  Almost as importantly, Faron Young lived the kind of life he sang about, a life that would define “rock star behavior”—women, pills, booze, and lewdness of the highest order—which would become a mainstay of the four-letter word called Rock.
       This disc encapsulates but a brief time in Faron Young’s long career, but is a perfect one to show how influential Faron was to the new music known as the Big Beat, and is the perfect compilation for those who prefer the uptempo hillbilly, rockabilly and rock & roll side of Faron Young.

Below: Faron and Patsy, in the good times.

For a better examination of Faron’s ten years on Capitol Records, check out the excellent Bear Family box set (BCD 15493) Faron Young—The Early Years 1952-1962, which takes you all the way from his early Hank Williams sound-alike recordings, to his lush countrypolitan hits of the early 1960s, and everything in between.  Faron also kept recording for Mercury well into the 1970s, recording such notable hits as Wine Me Up and It’s Four in the Morning.
One thing that can be said of Faron’s 30-plus-year recording career is that he always kept up with current trends in music—which goes a long way to explain the recordings on this compilation, which spans nearly every trend in country music from the early 50s until the early 60s.
       Faron was born on February 25, 1932 in Shreveport, Louisiana, a town that would weigh heavily on the ascent of his musical career.  While he seems to have been raised in a typical depression-era household, he also appears to have been a typical middle-class American child of the post-war boom in every other way.  He not only completed high school, but also attended college until the show business bug bit him.  Country music seemed unimportant to his early life, preferring the pop music of the day such as Patti Page to the rough and rowdy hillbilly music that would eventually become his bread and butter.
       What got Faron Young into music was his lifelong need for attention.  He began entering amateur contests at a young age, singing pop songs and picking coins off the stage for pay, but appears to have been steered into the country music world when a man offered him five dollars to sing Jambalaya, instead of the twenty-five cents he was used to receiving for a typical pop request.

       Faron’s quick rise to fame in the country music world can be explained quite simply—he was a good looking young man in the right place (Shreveport, home to the Louisiana Hayride) at the right time (the peak of Hank Williams popularity), with an unquenchable thirst to be somebody.  As a detective might characterize it, Faron had means, motive and opportunity—of which he took full advantage.
       As legend has it, Faron had a small bit of experience playing the clubs around Shreveport, but had great aspirations even from the start.  His first break came when he auditioned songs for local star Webb Pierce.  Rather than buying the compositions, Pierce instead liked Faron’s singing voice and began paying Faron to warm up his shows and sing for him when he got too drunk or tired (This is a time-honored tradition in the country music world.  The position is called “front man” and is as ubiquitous in the country music world as a rapper’s “posse” is in the realm of hip-hop).
       Faron stayed with Pierce for about a year as his front man, long enough for Pierce to get him on the Louisiana Hayride show, and to get Faron his first recording contract, with the tiny Pacemaker-Gotham label of Philadelphia (the same label that Pierce’s initial releases were on).
       The first release with Faron’s own vocals was oddly credited to Tillman Franks, who played bass for Pierce and Faron.  We’ve included both sides here, both great examples of primitive hillbilly boogie, Hi-Tone Poppa and Hot Rod Shotgun Boogie No. 2, which were originally released at Gotham 412.
       Faron’s three releases on the Pacemaker-Gotham label didn’t sell at all outside of the local area, but again luck seemed to be on Faron’s side.  Capitol Records A&R man Ken Nelson (a legendary figure responsible for signing the Louvin Brothers, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Gene Vincent and others to the label) heard a live broadcast by Pierce and Faron as he was driving to Dallas.  Knowing that Pierce was signed to Decca, but sensing that the young singer might be available, Nelson turned his car around and drove back to Shreveport, where he offered Faron a Capitol recording contract on the spot.  Faron Young would record with Capitol for the next ten years.
       Faron liked to say that he had a hit with his first record on Capitol, but the truth is that it took three singles before he had his first bona fide hit, Goin’ Steady.

       Goin’ Steady was much plagarism at it was creation.  Recorded just months before Hank Williams died, and hitting its peak on the charts as the nation mourned his passing, the record could have been an unreleased Hank performance, such was Faron’s vocal imitation.  As Faron himself admitted, “Everybody’s an imitator when they start, and believe me I had no style at all when I started.”
       The Hank Williams parallel was based on real-life experience, too.  Faron holds the dubious distinction of introducing Hank to Billie Jean Jones, on a trip to the Grand Ol’ Opry in the summer of 1952 (where Faron was invited to join the cast as a semi-regular guest).  Billie Jean came to Nashville as Faron’s date and wound up marrying Hank Williams.  Billie Jean would marry Johnny Horton after Hank’s death and became known in the country music world as “The Black Widow” after Horton’s tragic death in 1960.  Asked if he had any bitter feelings about losing Billie Jean to Hank, Faron would state “I sure am glad ol’ Hank took her away from me because she’d have cost me a damn million dollars by now.”
       Goin’ Steady was breaking on the charts just as Faron got inducted into the Army, in November of 1952.  He went from making $500 a night to making $87.50 a month, however, although it seemed like a career killer at first, eventually Faron discovered it was another great opportunity for him.
       With his status as a well-known singer, Faron was given the cushiest life a “soldier” could get.  With a fan who was a Third Army General, Faron was allowed to continue appearing on the Opry, he was able to play small clubs near his Army base (in Fort McPherson, Georgia), he could still record new sessions for Capitol, and perhaps best of all, he was given the special assignment of recording transcriptions that were sent out to 2000 radio stations a week.  It was great publicity he couldn’t buy as a civilian, but as a soldier he was getting more exposure than ever.  Then, as now, a singing soldier dressed in fatigues was a powerful image and the country music fans ate it up.
       Timed almost perfectly with his release from the Army, Faron’s next big hit was the one to define the rest of his 1950s style—If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’).  Written by Bakersfield songsmith (and fellow Capitol recording artist) Tommy Collins, the mixture of hillbilly boogie musical backing, lyrics about honky-tonk wild living, and Faron’s plaintive vocals were a magical mixture.
       Faron would continue this trend with a series of fantastic sides, all of which are included here—Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young, I’ve Got Five Dollars (And It’s Saturday Night), It’s A Great Life If You Don’t Weaken (And Who Wants To Be Strong), and I’m Gonna Live Some Before I Die, all of which were nearly identical in lyrical content and musical performance.  Faron was clearly mining a winning formula, with fantastic results.

       The strongest criticism that may be leveled of Faron Young’s musical career is that he was willing to do anything, follow any direction, to be successful in the music business.  When hillbilly boogie was the fashion, he cut great records like the ones mentioned above.  When pop music appeared to be the new trend, he made horrific records like The Shrine Of St. Cecilia, which thankfully bombed or we wouldn’t speak of Faron in such glowing terms today!
       All of which goes a long way to explain why Faron was dragged kicking and screaming into the world of rock & roll.  Ken Nelson, the A&R man for Capitol who had signed Faron, showed Faron how well singers like Elvis Presley and Capitol’s new star Gene Vincent were selling in comparison to the country roster.  Faron’s fortunes had been dwindling since rock & roll had reared its head, and in his words, he would rather sing rock & roll than be poor.
       Faron’s rockabilly sides, most notably Honey Stop! And I Can’t Dance, are records that while enjoyable, are easily dismissed.  The instrumental backing on these and his other forays into rockabilly and rock & roll are simply superb—the Nashville A-Team at their rocking best.  However, Faron’s vocals sound exactly like what they are—a country singer being forced to step into Presley territory and not liking it one bit.
       At least these sides can still be enjoyed for their musicianship and great sound quality (courtesy of producer Owen Bradley).  They are certainly not bad, especially compared with some of the real honest-to-goodness clunkers that Faron cut through the years, but you can just tell the man’s heart was not in it.
       By the late 1950s, Faron seemed to be back on track. Perhaps rekindled by the chart success of Ray Price, Faron began recording hard honky-tonk numbers like Alone With You and That’s the Way I Feel.  Such records kept an almost rockabilly-esque delivery, but which featured a return to the twin fiddles and steel guitar sound. 
       Much of the excellent material Faron recorded around this time came from the members of his road band, which included future superstars Roger Miller on drums and Johnny Paycheck (then known as Donny Young) on bass.
       Faron also brought along a host of new and inexperienced “front men,” many of whom would later become stars.  From the Wilburn Brothers to Jimmy & Johnny to Gordon Terry and others, Faron had a knack for picking out young, super talents, and many of these afore-mentioned stars got their first break touring as Faron’s front men. 
       Another one of Faron’s unknown discoveries was a young Texas songwriter by the name of Willie Nelson.  Willie was another knockabout who spent time touring with Faron, Ray Price, and others, all the while composing songs that he would pitch to those who would listen, and toiling in near obscurity as a writer for Pamper Music in Nashville.
       Faron was most certainly listening when he heard a new Willie composition from a Pamper Music demo, entitled Hello Walls.  His firm belief in the song (even as the studio musicians poked fun at it during the recording session, and as Willie tried to sell the song outright to Faron for a few hundred dollars) paid off when Hello Walls became the biggest hit, and defining song of his career.
       One part Ray Price shuffle, one part classic Willie introspection, and one part pop music, Hello Walls could be considered the definitive example of where Nashville was headed in the early 1960s.  Lush orchestration and smooth backing vocals took the place of steel guitars and twin fiddles.  The rural edges were sanded off and smoothed down for mass consumption.  Faron was there, and ready to cash in on it, and again he milked this new style for all it was worth, recording several other Willie Nelson compositions in an attempt to cash in on a follow-up.  He even re-recorded his first hit Goin’ Steady with the new uptown country style, included here.

       As it happened, Faron would not have another massive hit until Wine Me Up charted in the late 1960s.  He switched to the Mercury label in 1962 and spent most of the 60s searching for a new direction, before eventually returning to the honky-tonk style that he had started with years before.
       Faron Young is most certainly one of the great singers of Country Music.  His place in the Hall of Fame cements that fact.  He left behind a vast library of unforgettable music, however in the end, it cannot be said that Faron was an innovator.  His desire to be on top of the charts made him a follower, not a leader, but this does not diminish the power of the impactful discography he left us.

       Unfortunately, Faron’s need to be in the spotlight ultimately led to his demise.  When he was no longer drawing the crowds, when the phone stopped ringing, and when the records quit charting, Faron made the decision to take his own life, on December 10, 1996.  It was a very sad end to one of the greats of Country Music.

Deke Dickerson, with thanks to Colin Escott


  1. Great article on Faron Wine me Up is one of my favorite honky tonk shuffles.This is the best writing I've seen on Faron Young,keep it up

  2. I quite agree with most of Deke's observations. I like that ol' Deke makes note of the strong undercurrent of Rockabilly in Faron's mid-1950's recordings. I do think Deke is a bit hard on Faron regarding his tragic end. While I have no doubt that Faron was disappointed with his declining popularity (by 1996 this was nothing new to the former "Hillbilly Heart-throb"), we must remember that Faron was very ill with cancer and in great pain. I suspect this had more to do with the suicide.
    Fine job, Deke and RIP dear Faron. You are missed.


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  4. Well, shucks. I bet if ol' Faron had the good Doc Ogumen around the "Young Sheriff" would still be belting out Goin' Steady for us today. For that matter where was Doc Ogumen when Ol' Hank need him back in '52?
    This here Doc sounds like a sure fix for them old Lovesick Blues.