What’s the greatest sin perpetrated by the country music monolith? Hank Williams’ dismissal from the Grand Ole Opry? Columbia Records dropping Johnny Cash? Giving Rascal Flatts a record deal at all? These are all egregious, yes, but pale in comparison to the industry’s continued ignorance of the Maddox Brothers and Rose.
“America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band” not only produced some of the best music this country has ever seen, but were also one of the progenitors of rockabilly. Yet they’ve been ignored by the Country Music Hall of Fame in favor of inducted artists like Vince Gill and Alabama. While these inductees are extremely talented, they’ve not had anywhere near the monumental influence on multiple genres (country, rockabilly, and rock ‘n’ roll) that the Maddoxes have.
In 1933 the Maddox family (two sharecropper parents and their children Cliff, Cal, Fred, Don, Rose, and Henry) migrated from their Alabama home to California, attempting to eke out a living as fruit pickers during the Depression. By 1937, the trio of Rose, Fred, and Cal had finagled a furniture store sponsorship and an early morning radio show. Rose, barely 11 years old, was the band’s requisite “girl singer”, singing that hillbilly music with a raw voice that sounded as though it belonged to a grown woman.
The majority of the Maddox men were drafted into service during World War II, putting the band on hiatus, but returned in 1946 and picked up right where they left off, performing rowdy country music dressed in retina-searing stage attire, punctuating lyrics with bits of yokel humor, laughter, and the occasionally bawdy comment. Oldest brother and mandolin player Cliff died in 1949 and was replaced by 21-year old Henry, the youngest of the Maddox children.
In addition to singing numerous covers, the Maddox Brothers and Rose recorded original songs that would be considered controversial even today. But 60 years ago, they were incredibly groundbreaking, and paved the way for outspoken female singers like Loretta Lynn. “(Pay Me) Alimony” is a delightfully catchy song about the joys of being a gold-digger, marrying a man only to leave him and lead a single girl’s “life of glory” with some extra money in her pocketbook. When Sister Rose sings “Just get yourself a handsome man and sue for alimony”, she makes divorce sound a whole lot better than the drudgery of marriage, a theme reiterated in “I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again”. When the Brothers took the lead vocals, they stuck towards goofy novelty songs such as “Ugly and Slouchy”. Maybe they didn’t raise the same gender issues as Rose, but it’s damn entertaining and miles better than those country artists calling themselves “hillbillies” on commercial radio and CMT, their clothes carefully chosen by stylists, their teeth whitened and skin spraytanned.
The band broke up in the late 1950s; Rose went solo with some help from Cal, and the remaining family members continued on with their own band that quickly disintegrated. In the 1960s, Rose turned her gaze towards the folk revival and bluegrass craze, releasing Rose Maddox Sings Bluegrass. Covering classics like “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” with the help of bluegrass big guns like Don Reno and Bill Monroe, Rose’s expressive voice was as well suited for the high lonesome as it was for proto-rockabilly. In the late 1980s, Rose fell ill, suffering a heart attack, seven bypasses, and three months in a coma. After a long rehabilitation, she returned to stage and studio full of fire. In Ken Burke’s Country Music Changed My Life, guitarist Deke Dickerson recounts the time he and partner Dave Stuckey backed solo septuagenarian Rose:
Rose, God rest her soul, man, was the meanest woman you’ve ever met! I could tell she liked us, she liked my guitar playing. But she had this thing which probably went back to the Maddox Brothers stage shows that centered around one person being [sic] the brunt of her hate. That wound up being Dave… Whenever there’d be a guitar solo, she’d walk right up to Dave and just hit him. She was really mean! It wasn’t joking around… By the end of it, Dave looked like he had just gone through World War II.”
1994’s $35 and a Dream was Maddox’s penultimate record, containing some of her most intimate work. The title recounts the Maddox Family’s impoverished roots and rise to stardom, while “Tonight I’m on Stage” is a poignant requiem as Rose remembers her deceased siblings: “When the Maddox Brothers and Rose took the stage / Everyone stopped to hear the songs that we sang / For my brothers it’s over but for me it remains / I’ll join them tomorrow / But tonight I’m on stage.” The record ends with Johnny Cash giving a brief testimonial about his time working with Rose: “She was probably the most fascinating and exciting performer I’ve ever seen in my life…she held [the audience] in the palm of her hand and made them do whatever she wanted to…there’ll never be a woman who could outperform Rose Maddox. She’s an American classic.”
Despite their monumental impact on the genre and the artists who came after them, the Maddox Brothers and Rose have been ignored by country music. Their chances of being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame dim with each passing year, and for all their influence in rockabilly and early rock, they should at least be considered for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but that’s an even longer shot. I fear that within 20 years, as artists they’ve directly influenced die off, the Maddox Family’s legacy will be lost to future lovers of quality hillbilly music (that’s not an oxymoron, believe it or not).
In 2005, New York-based singer/songwriter Laura Cantrell recorded a tribute to Rose Maddox for her album Humming by the Flowered Vine. “California Rose” is a sprightly, mandolin-heavy biography song, ending with the question, “I’m still wondering today / Where is your name in that Hall of Fame?”
You’re not the only one wondering, Laura.