Country Music News for the Country Music Enthusiast
Martina McBride's band, like many others, includes a piano.
Today, digital pianos and electronic keyboards have become an integral part of country recordings, some well-played, others used to excess. From the beginning of country music, pianos have been a integral part of its sound. When available, pianos would play with rural stringbands performing for dances. Its percussive rhythms made the dance beat more definable. One early country piano recording was done in 1927, when Virginia's Shelor Family String Band was recorded by Ralph Peer at the legendary Bristol Sessions (which also saw the first records by Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Stonemena and The Carter Family). However, many early country performers thought little of using the piano. Charlie Poole was once ejected from a recording session when he wanted to use one;
|his New York producers felt it wasn't country- sounding. But this was
not the case with early Opry star Sam McGee, who learned some of his
instrumentals from a player piano roll. Pianist LIllian Armstrong even
backed Jimmie Rodgers on the session where her husband, Louis, played
When a young Bob Wills was playing fiddle for dances in Texas, pianos were a common part of the accompaniment. After Milton Brown left the Light Crust Doughboys to form his Musical Brownies in 1932, he hired a jazz pianist named Fred "Papa" Calhoun, the first pianist in Western swing. When Bob Wills started the Playboys in 1933, he went through several pianists before he found Al Stricklin. The Western swing scene in Texas spawned other pianists, including Moon Mullican, who worked with Cliff Bruner, and the crazed, stomping, pot-smoking singer-pianist John, "Smokey" Wood, who worked with The Modern Mountaineers and his own band, Smokey Wood and His Wood Chips. On the West Coast in the 1940s, pianist were a common part of most groups. The talented Vic Davis, blind pianist Jimmy Pruett and Billy Liebert worked with various country and Western swing acts.
During World War II, the influence of black boogie-woogie piano became substantial on country acts. Moon Mullican signed with King Records in 1946, and became the first singer-pianist to become a major star, with hit recordings like "New Pretty Blonde (Jole Blon)" and in the early 50s, "Cherokee Boogie." In Nashville, Owen Bradley did extensive piano work on country records, as he did with his Nashville-based dance band. Bradley sometimes played behind Ernest Tubb, who referred to him as "Half Moon" Bradley (because he only played halfway like Moon Mullican). Fred Rose played piano on some Hank Williams sessions (he can be heard briefly at the end of Hank's 1952 "Half as Much"). Del Wood's 1951 hit, "Down Yonder," made her a part of the Opry until her death in 1989. In California, San Diego pianist Merrill Moore did an excellent series of country boogie recordings for Capitol, while Roy Hall did likewise from the late forties on. Hall and Mullican were both influential on Jerry Lee Lewis' style, which was based so indelibly on his piano-pounding. (Though bluegrass king Bill Monroe didn't use a piano on the road, for a time he had Sally Ann Forrester playing accordion with The Blue Grass Boys during World War II.)
Floyd Cramer, who began as a pianist on the Louisville Hayride and later became a Nashville studio musician (his spooky piano licks on Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" remain classic today) began making successful instrumental recordings in 1958 with "Flip, Flop and Bop." In 1959 Chet Atkins played him a demo of a song titled "Please Help Me, I'm Falling." The next day, Atkins planned to have Hank Locklin record it. Chet liked songwriter Don Robertson's style on the song's demo, using chromatic grace notes to recreate the changing pitches of a pedal steel, so he told Cramer to learn what later became known as the "slipnote" style for the Locklin session. Cramer's piano figures became a integral part of the song and led to his own composition in that same slipnote style: "Last Date." Cramer, and later blind pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins, became the top keyboard players in the Nashville studios. Jerry Lee Lewis, of course, had a profound influence with his over-the-top piano playing; though when he became a successful country singer in the late 60s, he showed restraint, taste and grace when playing on his ballads. Charlie Rich's piano work, understated on his big hits of the 1970s, always reflected the influence of jazz. Even a hardcore traditionalist like Roy Acuff routinely featured the piano in The Smokey Mountain Boys, with Jimmie Riddle doing the honors. Jim Reeves would cancel a show if his pianist, Dean Manuel, wasn't provided a decent instrument. Other singers, like Ronnie Milsap, Mickey Gilley, Becky Hobbs and Gary Stewart all use piano as their primary instruments.