[26 May 2004]
Johnny Horton was born in 1925 and died in 1960. Over that period of time, his brand of music endeared him to future legends of country, rock, and especially rockabilly. If there was no Johnny Horton, you might not have the likes of Brian Setzer, the Stray Cats, or others of that ilk. Not to mention that he was a touring buddy and mentor to the likes of George Jones and the late Johnny Cash. A stretch? Well, maybe, but the fact is Horton’s music still resonates just as well as it did nearly four decades ago. This collection from the famous Lousiana Hayride is a mixed blessing. The recordings are taken from the radio show and as a result are a valuable way of showing Horton in his prime and at his best. However, like some recordings from this time period, you might find yourself asking what tin can or walkie talkie they used to record the concert. Thankfully, from the first few seconds of the recording, which features the host introducing Horton, the sound is crisp and quite clear for a radio broadcast of its time.
Introducing him and talking about fishing, the crowd at the venue is basically mute while a large echo can be heard throughout the intro. Opening with “Honky Tonk Man”, Horton’s mix of influences like Hank Williams bridged the gap between Luke the Drifter (even marrying his widow, Billie Jean!) and the likes of early rockabilly heroes like Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly. As his voice works in tandem with the simple but catchy guitar riff, fans begin to get a tad rowdy. The tune itself rarely gets rowdy, relying instead on an arrangement that guitar players like Duane Eddy would later use to great success. “Rock Island Line”, which the announcer says is more of a folk tune, starts off with a waltz-like sound as Horton gently nestles into the number. “I got pigs, I got horses, I got cows, I got sheep”, he sings, before continuing in a vein that Bob Dylan would amplify a decade or two later. It also might be the earliest version of rap known to those wearing cowboy hats. Again, he’s met with grand applause. “One Woman Man” is done by “the singin’ fisherman” as Mr. Logan hosts the show. Hoots and hollers greet the simple, toe-tapping tune that ambles along with a great melody.
The first true rumbling tune is “John Henry”, which Horton nails alongside his standup bass player and guitarist. It’s as close to a rave-up as you could get for that era, and Horton gives a fantastic performance. “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor”, despite steeped in country honky tonk, is on par with early recordings on the Sun label—country meets this new fangled rock and roll. A cover of Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya” from 1958 is rather tame by comparison, relying more on the blueprint Williams lay down before. It’s perhaps the first run-of-the-mill song Horton offers on this collection. The biggest audience response is on “All for the Love of a Girl”, which sounds like something George Jones or Roy Orbison would’ve taken to heart. The somber ballad has Horton almost crooning the tune as the guitar notes work up and down the neck.
The second half of the 16-track album opens with “Johnny Reb”, one of Horton’s signature tunes. Again, the tone and style Horton brings to the song is an early precursor to the minimal guitar and vocal abilities Johnny Cash would take to the next level. Just as solid is “Same Old Tale the Crow Told Me” and the “Battle of New Orleans”, which Horton is perhaps best known for. Here he lets loose more than usual, and the result is all the better for it. Another highlight is his “When It’s Springtime in Alaska”, a song that brings to mind Elvis (Presley, not Costello). But the rollicking sleeper has to be “Sal’s Got a Sugar Lip”, which would have most people clapping along throughout.
Although there is one bonus track, one of the last recordings Horton would do for the Louisiana Hayride in April 1960, the Celtic-tinged “Sink the Bismarck” is perhaps one of the better and more infectious songs despite being about the Second World War. Johnny Horton deserved a better fate than being killed by a drunk driver in November 1960, but judging by this album, he certainly maximized his time and, more importantly, his talent.