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...

Sunday, May 8, 2011

JOHNNY HORTON--Honky Tonk Man of Mystery

The strange and wonderful story of Johnny Horton, the "Honky Tonk Man." (From the Bear Family CD, 'Johnny Horton--Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight.')

Johnny Horton remains as beloved today as he was during his heyday of the late 1950s.  Almost 50 years after his death, Horton’s brand of down-home honky-tonk storytelling has become a familiar thread in America’s musical quilt.

The bizarre aspect of Johnny Horton’s fame and longevity is just how different his rise to fame was compared to other country music legends of that era, or even the stars of today.  It is safe to say that Johnny Horton is the only country music legend who was born in Los Angeles, never touched alcohol, was completely bald and wore an ill-fitting hairpiece, and had a strange obsession with spiritualism and dying violently.  Moreover, Johnny Horton had spent ten years clawing and scratching, making dozens of records in as many different styles, before he finally hit upon the style that made him so remembered today.  As quickly as he became famous, a cruel twist of fate took him in a violent car wreck, just as his career finally reached the grand successes he had dreamed of for so long.

Despite Horton’s unusual personal story, what we’re left with fifty years later is the voice—a voice so calm and reassuring, it’s hard to connect the Johnny Horton we know with the troubled Johnny Horton who walked the earth.  One thing cannot be denied, however, the voice of Johnny Horton appealed to millions of people, and continues to appeal decades after his death.  This compilation puts together a playlist of some of Johnny’s best uptempo hillbilly, honky-tonk and rockabilly music.  It is not a greatest hits compilation, if you’re looking for Battle Of New Orleans there are many collections of Horton’s biggest chart records readily available.  If you’re looking for some of the best hillbilly boogie and proto-rockabilly Johnny Horton material of the 1950s, prepare to ‘Shake This Shack Tonight.’

John LeGale Horton was born on April 30, 1925 in East Los Angeles, California, to parents John Sr. (aka ‘Lolly’) and Ella Horton.  The Hortons life was typical of many Depression-era families in the West.  The family followed work—any kind of work—anywhere they could find it.  Johnny Horton’s first ten years were spent ricocheting from California to Texas, with John Sr. working as a laborer on various fruit picking and public works projects wherever he could find a job.  About the only place that the Hortons stayed put for more than a year at a time was Tyler, Texas, and Johnny would later claim Tyler as his hometown, even though he had only spent a few formative years there as a child.

Johnny’s young adult life was spent on various endeavors with his brother Frank.  The pair worked in the mailroom at Selznick movie studios in Los Angeles, and moved to Seattle to study geology at a university.  The latter only lasted a short time, and after picking fruit in California, Johnny went to Alaska for a season’s work in construction.  Upon his return from Alaska, Johnny entered a talent show at the Reo Palm Isle in Longview, Texas, and won an ashtray on a pedestal for his performance. 

This last somewhat dubious achievement is apparently what set young Johnny Horton on the path to be a professional singer.  Members of his family were surprised at his choice, most of his closest friends and family didn’t even know he sang.  What Horton did possess was a character trait found in most successful musicians—an overwhelming desire to avoid a regular day job.

When Horton landed back in Southern California, he bought himself some Western clothes and began entering talent contests on a regular basis.  It was at one of these talent shows that Horton caught the attention of Fabor Robinson, a local character who would eventually be responsible for a dozen record labels and many hit records.  At this point in 1950, however, Robinson was just getting into the business and was looking for aspiring singers to record for the Cormac label, a tiny garage label financed by Corydon Blodgett and Les McWain (the ‘Cor’ and the ‘Mac’ in Cormac).

Los Angeles area singer and television host Sammy Masters remembers driving Johnny Horton to the small studio in Santa Ana in the Orange County region of Southern California, where they each cut their debut record on the same day.  The conditions couldn’t have been more primitive, with just a couple microphones set up for the singer and band to record live to a mono tape recorder.  Both men had their careers launched that day, but both Sammy Masters Cormac disc and Johnny Horton’s debut disappeared without a trace after the first stack of 78s sold off the stage.

The Cormac label folded as soon as it started, and Fabor Robinson obtained the rights to Horton’s masters with the express purpose of re-releasing them on his newly formed Abbott label, a labeled formed with the bankrolling of drug store owner Sid Abbott, and distributed by Bill McCall’s 4-Star empire in Pasadena.

Throughout 1951 and 1952 Horton recorded 16 sides for Abbott, which were originally released as singles that must have flopped dramatically, based on their rarity today.  The recordings themselves would wind up being released several different times after Horton’s hits started coming, overdubbed at least twice by different labels to ‘dress up’ the primitive recordings.  Some of the overdubbed versions are dreadful, yet some of them are more enjoyable than the earlier undubbed versions.  On this compilation, we have included the original undubbed versions of Shadows Of The Old Bayou, On The Banks Of The Beautiful Nile, and Smokey Joe’s Barbecue, and the overdubbed versions of Talk, Gobbler, Talk, It’s A Long Rocky Road, and In My Home In Shelby County.  In addition, we’ve included the excellent unreleased cover of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Shotgun Boogie from this Abbott period.

Horton’s last four sides for Abbott in 1952 were duets with an obscure singer on the Abbott roster named William ‘Hill-Billy’ Barton.  Barton was best known as a songwriter, and in fact wrote the hit song A Dear John Letter, which he sold to Bakersfield stalwarts Fuzzy Owen and Louis Talley before it became a monster hit for Ferlin Husky and Jean Shepard.  The two sides we’ve included here, Bawlin’ Baby and Rhythm In My Baby’s Walk, are excellent examples of the type of proto-rockabilly that would come to typify the Johnny Horton honky-tonk sound over the next few years.

Fabor Robinson worked out a deal to get Horton on the ‘Louisiana Hayride,’ and the newly married Horton moved to Shreveport, where he began appearing on the weekly show in the summer of 1952.  Robinson also secured Horton his first major recording contract, with the new country & western branch of Mercury Records based in Nashville.

Below: Johnny Horton, live on stage at the Louisiana Hayride.

Horton recorded a passel of discs for Mercury over the next three years, some of which were extraordinary, and some of which were downright abysmal.  Thankfully we’ve spared you the histrionics of such dogs as A Child’s Side Of Life on this collection and concentrated on such solid hillbilly boppers as the excellent First Train Headin’ South, a truly fine record never fully given its due.

Horton found his first taste of success on the ‘Louisiana Hayride,’ and his star ascended on the weekly radio broadcast despite the fact that his Mercury Records sold poorly.  In retrospect, it is hard to ascertain why such excellent records as The Train With A Rhumba Beat, Tennessee Jive, The Devil Made A Masterpiece, You You You, Broken Hearted Gypsy, Move Down The Line, No True Love, Ridin’ The Sunshine Special, Hey Sweet Thing, S.S. Lureline, Two Red Lips And Warm Red Wine, Ha Ha and Moonface, Big Wheels Rollin’, and You Don’t Move Me Baby Anymore didn’t become hits, but we’ve included them all here in an attempt to rectify this injustice.

One possible explanation for Johnny’s lack of success for Mercury is the lack of an individual style on any of the recordings.  Though the above-mentioned Mercury titles are appreciated by fans today, the fact is that musically they were all over the map, and the duds we’ve left off this compilation were even more so.

The three years that Horton spent traveling the South and making records for Mercury were spent under Fabor Robinson’s tight management, with little financial reward and no hits to show for it.  The strain ended Horton’s first marriage, but Johnny Horton pulled a hat trick for bald men everywhere when he snagged Hank Williams’ bombshell widow Billie Jean shortly after Hank’s death at the end of 1952.  By September 1953 Johnny and Billie Jean were married and Horton had ended his relationship with Fabor Robinson.  Horton continued his label relationship with Mercury until the contract ran out in 1955, with some fine records under his belt, but no hits to show for it.

Below: A later picture sleeve from Billie Jean Horton's ill-fated recording career.
This juncture might have been the end of Johnny Horton’s singing career.  No one would fault Horton for quitting at this point, he had certainly given show business a fair try, and the chances that a bald thirty-year old never-was could hit the big time were slim to none.  Thankfully Horton found the strength to ask local Shreveport impresario Tillman Franks to manage him, knocking on Franks’ door one evening out of the blue.  Horton had no where else to turn at this point—Tillman replied that he didn’t really care for the way that Johnny sang, and Horton replied he would sing any way that Tillman wanted.  It was the start of Johnny Horton’s second act, and a fruitful relationship between Franks and Horton that would last until both crashed in the car that ended Horton’s life.

Below: Johnny, center, with manager Tillman Franks on bass and Tommy Tomlinson on guitar.

The details of how Johnny Horton began recording for Columbia Records are ridiculous, but they make for a great show business story.  Tillman Franks managed to get a bottom-of-the-barrel deal with Columbia Records in Nashville by giving up half of the publishing on each session to Gene Autry’s publishing company Golden West, and half the publishing to Webb Pierce’s and Jim Denny’s Cedarwood publishing firm.  Both parties had taken publishing on Horton in exchange for recommending him to the label.  If that injustice weren’t enough, the royalty rate promised to Horton was so low that he probably would have made more money as a mechanic.  Still, it was a recording contract, and the records would be made at the strictly big-time Owen Bradley Studios in Nashville, Tennessee.  Johnny Horton’s only other alternative was a day job, so he took the offer, as inglorious as it was.

Johnny and Tillman had two Aces up their sleeve before they arrived at the studio in Nashville to record their first session.  The first Ace was a song called Honky Tonk Man, written by a hopeful named Howard Hausey aka ‘Howard Crockett,’ who pitched the song to Johnny backstage at the ‘Louisiana Hayride.’  Johnny and Tillman loved the song and knew it had hit potential, and in fact it was the first song that they recorded for Columbia.

The second Ace that Johnny and Tillman brought to the studio was a musician who would give their sparse trio a hit sound.  By studying session sheets it can be revealed that Elvis Presley was recording his first RCA session in Nashville on January 11, 1956.  Presley recorded until 7 pm that evening, at which point Tillman Franks brought Elvis’ bass player Bill Black over to Owen Bradley’s studio for a session beginning at 8 pm, where Black’s slap bass prowess can be heard on Honky Tonk Man and the others recorded that evening.  Tillman and Johnny knew Bill Black from Elvis’ many appearances at the Hayride, and it seems that they had made a deal to spirit Bill Black away for the evening to help out Johnny’s first Columbia session.

As with all moments of greatness, what transpired in the studio that day was a combination of many things that equaled a sum greater than its individual parts.  Tillman and Johnny had the drive and the hunger, Johnny had the voice, Howard Hausey had supplied the song, Bill Black’s slapping bass added an element of sound that Tillman could not, and the glue that held it all together was the highly-stylized and steady lead guitar of session man (and de facto producer) Grady Martin.

Grady Martin was Nashville’s top session guitarist for decades.  While there were undoubtedly other guitarists that could out-flash Grady, or venture off into jazz or blues, the fact was that Grady Martin could listen to a singer demo a song and come up with the individual licks that would turn that song into a hit.  Other guitarists in Nashville could come close, but none had that hit-making ability that Grady innately possessed.

Below: Grady Martin, holding his 1952 Bigsby doubleneck guitar, as heard on the Johnny Horton recordings.  The amp is a Magnatone, in case you're wondering.

It’s hard to imagine Johnny Horton’s magical Columbia records like Honky Tonk Man, I’m Coming Home, One Woman Man or any of the others without that signature guitar sound Grady Martin supplied.  Almost immediately, Grady realized that Johnny Horton’s voice and a lead guitar treatment with a heavy emphasis on the bass strings was a winning combination.  No noodling or needless improvisation was required—musically, Grady and Johnny Horton gelled like beans and cornbread, and Honky Tonk Man became the smash hit that Johnny and Tillman had been praying for.

Honky Tonk Man started a string of songs over the next two years that have stood the test of time for country and rockabilly fans.  Johnny Horton’s style on songs like Take Me Like I Am, She Knows Why, You’re My Baby, and I’ll Do It Everytime, all included here, is as unique and distinctive as his friend Johnny Cash’s was.  Johnny Horton’s style wasn’t rock and roll, but it was darn close at times, with songs like Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor featuring Grady Martin playing lead guitar lines that sounded like rock and roll to country ears. 

Johnny Horton’s honky-tonk streamlined productions in 1956 and 1957 left a body of work forever worshipped by rockabilly and country fans, but the reality was that by 1958 Horton was broke again, and the well ran dry for his latest string of hitless Columbia singles.  For some quick cash, Horton cut an album for the fledgling SESAC publishing and recording firm in Nashville with his road band, including Tommy Tomlinson on guitar (a fine guitarist in his own right, he was forced to play rhythm guitar on the Columbia sides and learn Grady Martin’s leads for Johnny’s personal appearances).  We have included Seven Come Eleven and Out In New Mexico from the SESAC recordings on this disc.

Johnny and Billie Jean had a way of going through money even before it was made, and the lean times after the initial flush of Honky Tonk Man found Johnny, Billie Jean and Tillman engaging in a number of petty scams and cons to stay above water.  Such hijinks as selling tickets to a fake benefit for crippled children and gambling rent money on overnight pinball marathons were almost everyday occurrences during this time.

The Honky Tonk Man formula had been a hit-making sound, but by 1958 the newest trend was for folk music, and songs with historical subjects and lyrical content.  It might be difficult for rockabillies to stomach the thought, but The Kingston Trio’s Tom Dooley was one of the most popular songs in America in the late 1950s.  Johnny was still cutting fun honky-tonk, like Mister Moonlight from 1958 included here, but the hit streak appeared to be at a standstill until Tillman and Johnny found another goldmine by mining the folk music boom.

It is still somewhat of a mystery how Johnny and Tillman struck on their next hit formula, but they came up with a song called When It’s Springtime In Alaska, It’s Forty Below, which proved popular at shows and pointed the direction of the folk trend for them.

When It’s Springtime proved to be an even bigger hit than Honky Tonk Man, and in vaunted show business tradition, Johnny and Tillman set out to milk the historical song formula for all it was worth.  When Porter Wagoner’s steel guitarist Don Warden pitched a song that he owned publishing on to Johnny and Tillman backstage somewhere on tour, Johnny was mildly interested and Tillman was unimpressed.  The song was an obscure number by an even more obscure folk singer from Arkansas named Jimmy Driftwood—The Battle Of New Orleans.

Not long after Warden pitched the song, Tillman heard the song on a late night radio show and then dreamt about Johnny recording it.  Johnny became passionate about the song, and brought Jimmy Driftwood to appear on the ‘Louisiana Hayride’ and spend a weekend rewriting the lyrics to fit within the realm of a radio-friendly pop song.

The result was Johnny Horton’s signature song, and his biggest career hit.  The drum introduction and stomping tempo was Grady Martin’s idea, and undoubtedly contributed to the songs crossover appeal to the singalong Tom Dooley crowd.  The Battle Of New Orleans was an outright smash, finishing 1959 as the year’s second most popular song, propelling Johnny Horton to household name status.

The record buying public couldn’t get enough Johnny Horton history-themed discs after New Orleans.  More hits followed throughout 1959 and 1960, including North To Alaska, Johnny Reb, and Sink The Bismarck.  These memorable songs were padded on albums with such stinkers as Young Abe Lincoln and O’Leary’s Cow.  None of these historical songs are included on this compilation, but it’s important to know that the biggest successes of Johnny Horton’s career came with these historical ‘folk’ numbers.

Throughout Johnny Horton’s career, he harbored a fascination with spiritualism and the supernatural, and in particular he began having premonitions that a drunk driver would kill him in a violent car accident.  Johnny Horton and his close fishing pal Johnny Cash shared this belief in the great unknown, and there are legendary stories of the pair hypnotizing each other or trying to reach Hank Williams’ spirit at a séance.  

Below: Johnnys Horton and Cash in Arkansas, after fishing, before hypnotizing, wearing two-tone shoes.

These comical stories are tempered by the fact that Horton was so sure he would die in a car accident that he began practicing driving his car into a ditch, preparing for the inevitable, hoping to cheat death.

Below: One of the most bizarre photos in entertainment history.  Johnny Horton serenades 116-year old Walter Williams, the last surviving campaigner of the Civil War.  His daughter, Willie Mae Bowles is holding the hearing aid.

The eerie legend of Johnny Horton’s death is supported by a number of undeniable facts.  Johnny Horton was married to Hank Williams’ widow Billie Jean at the time of his death; both Johnny Horton and Hank Williams would perform the last performances of their careers at the Skyline Club in Austin, Texas.  Some of Johnny’s old band members claimed that they and Johnny Horton were driving through Milano, Texas, at the beginning of 1953 when Hank Williams’ death was announced on the radio.  Nearly eight years later Horton’s tragic car accident occurred on the same stretch of highway near Milano.

Johnny upset his wife and his relatives with his talk of an early death, spiritualism, and premonitions.  Undoubtedly, most of them merely thought he was crazy, or just occupying his brain with morbid thoughts.  All of this conjecture would prove moot when the car carrying Johnny, Tillman Franks, and Tommy Tomlinson entered a bridge overpass in the early morning of November 5, 1960.  A drunk driver named James E. Davis careened off the sides of the bridge overpass, and sliced apart the car carrying the musicians.  James E. Davis escaped with a broken rib, but Tommy Tomlinson lost a leg, Tillman Franks suffered head lacerations, and the great honky-tonk singing star Johnny Horton lay dead on a lonesome stretch of Texas highway.

Below: Johnny Horton's grave, just 
outside of Shreveport, Louisiana.

Ironically, as with Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, and Jim Reeves, Johnny Horton’s fame and fortune multiplied exponentially after his tragic death.  North To Alaska, which had only been released a short time before the accident, went to the top of the charts, and rushed-to-market Johnny Horton cash-in albums sold like hotcakes.  Though he would not be around to enjoy it, Johnny Horton had become what he always wanted—a timeless, beloved, and legendary country star.

After Horton’s death, the vaults were raided, and unreleased songs would continue to be released for years to come.  A stash of home recorded demos turned up, and several of these were overdubbed by the Nashville A-Team and released on album.

Although Johnny Horton’s personal life was filled with huge successes, hard times, and a tragic early death, fifty years later we are left with the voice—that magical voice that has calmed and soothed and entertained millions over the years.  Magic like that can’t be manufactured—something that today’s flash in the pan singers should take note of. 

We hope you have enjoyed this compilation of Johnny Horton’s best hillbilly boogie and proto-rockabilly material.  If this is your introduction to the music of Johnny Horton, we would like to recommend the two excellent Johnny Horton box sets on Bear Family (‘The Early Years’ BFX 15289 and ‘The Columbia Years’ BFX 15470), an exhaustive but completely rewarding look at Johnny Horton’s career from start to finish.  You can trust this author when he states that one Johnny Horton compilation simply isn’t enough.

Deke Dickerson


  1. Hi Deke
    Great writing! I love the part about the common strait amongst musicians is to avoid a dayjob:) Please post more.

    All the best
    Lars Ole

  2. My Uncle told me a story he had heard that Merle Kilgore had spent some time with Horton, and said that he was very superstitious and believe that the dead could talk to the living. He told Kilgore a sentence to remember and he would speak to him from the other side. Supposedly Kilgore blew it off and dismissed it at Johnny being odd. Horton died a few years later. Then out of the blue, a person from the Northeast talked to Kilgore and said they had a dream about Horton and mention the same odd sentence.... Maybe you can shed some light on this story. I can't remember the sentence that Johnny had told him. Have you heard this same story?

  3. I enjoyed reading this a lot. Regarding Johnny's business relationship with Fabor Robinson. In Maxine Brown's (The Browns) memoirs, she calls Robinson "the devil". Maxine says the trio never made a dime on any of the songs they recorded for him. In fact, they tried for years to get out of the restrictive contract they signed with him. She goes on to say that Robinson once tried to sexually assault her sister Bonnie at his home in So. Cal... telling her that women can only sing well after they lose their virginity. Maxine recalls Johnny as a talented guy who would rather fish than sing. She says Johnny once came to her home in Arkansas. Her mother thought by his disheveled appearance that he was a bum.

  4. This was a great read Deke. Thank you for posting it. My love of Johnny Horton doesn't go unnoticed around town, so this post was especially enjoyable to me. Keep 'em coming!


  5. I have a tape of the Merle Kilgore interview and the message was "The drummer is a rummer and can not hold a beat".

  6. Hey Deke..I have a recording from on a ship of a bunch of sailors in the South China Sea during Vietnam. It was me and 4 other guys..singing "All For The Love Of A Girl." A guy from Odessa texas provided the high notes...and we were all floored when we listened to the playback. Must have been the spirit of John himself in us, as we recorded a bunch of songs out there in that God forsaken ocean...but never one that sounded so beautiful. Just a story from the war...many years gone by...and I still listen to it to this day..had to be John with us there that night..

  7. Cheryl is correct. When he was alive, Merle had repeated this story on a number of Tv interviews. The info is also found in the 4 disc set by Columbia: "Johnny Horton 1956 -1960-- it has all his recorded material, and a thorough biography book included, as well as the demos found in a NYC apartment he left with a cartoonist-(odd)-- and details of his last day. Very interesting.

  8. Alrite Deke you hit another Home Run with this Johnny Horton article,By the way one of my favorite songs of alltime is Lovers Rock which is stoned cold rockabilly for sure Thanx

  9. Since.you.have so.much history, do.you.have any.information.on.the recording session.on.North To Alaska? Trying.to.confirm.bass singer.Rusty.Goodman on.that project.

  10. Thanks for the article. Very interesting. Johnny Horton was always one of my favorites. Another of the greats who's life ended too soon.

  11. He will always be one of the greats of country music he was one of the early pioneers of country music his music will live on forever he was great

  12. Johnny visited me September 21, 2014. He showed up with my deceased mom. We sat on the sofa. Then he asked my mom to walk him to the car. I turned to him and told him I loved him. Johnny's mother and my grandmother were sisters "Robinsons". A very spiritual family, full of ministers and musicians. Several of us commune with the dead. Not sure the meaning of Johnny's visit, but I'm going to ask him. Thanks for this informative piece of writing Julia Robinson Blessing.

  13. I have an Autographed photo of Johnny Horton from the late 1950's that belonged to my late father,and I'm wondering if this photo would have any value to it?