Country music has a remarkably long history in the state of Washington -- but just as with the genres of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, some of the earliest players brought their music to the Pacific Northwest from elsewhere. America’s geographic frontier of the “Wild West” attracted newcomers who brought their cultural traditions along with them, and the opportunities for homesteaders, miners, cattlemen, loggers -- and musicians -- abounded. Although other locales in America -- such as Tennessee and Texas -- are more closely associated with the hillbilly yodeling and “twangin’” tunes of country music, history reveals that there has also been a thriving-if-underappreciated scene based here for many decades.
Home Sweet Home
When the “string bands” who played early forms of country music first emerged in the Northwest, they were regarded as “territory” bands that typically performed at rural barn dances and grange hall hoe-downs all across the region.
The most notable of these local old-timey groups was Laam's Happy Hayseeds, who were originally based out of the rural town of John Day, Oregon. Formed by brothers -- Ivan Laam (fiddle) and Fred Laam (banjo) and joined by the latter's son, Logan Laam (guitar), Ivan Laam (fiddle), and Fred Laam (banjo) -- the group began performing in the 1920s, traveled widely on the West Coast, and when they recorded a couple tunes (“Cottonwood Reel” and “Home Sweet Home”) on March 4th, 1930, that were released nationally by Victor Records, the group became one of the earliest string bands anywhere to be documented on record.
Other bands that worked the territory over the following few decades included Wenatchee’s Dude Smith Family Band, Hoquiam’s Frank Ole’Shay and his Blue Mountain Boys, Centralia’s Ma Parker and her Western Swing Band, Chehalis’s Clyde Baker and The Boys, Olympia’s “Oakie” Armstrong and his Chamberlain Carboys and the Tex Mitchell Band, Tacoma’s Pop Avera and his Wildwood Boys and Smokie Noland and the Cactus Cutups, and Portland’s “Long Tom” Kizziah and his West Coast Ramblers and “Cowboy” Heck Harper and his Circle 8 Hoe-Down Gang. Additional early groups from Washington were: Lee Workman and the Circle Ranch Hands, Billy Oudeen and His Harmony Ranch Boys, Roger Crandall and his Barndance Boys, Shorty Holloway and His Prairie Riders, Ben Gabbard and the Ranch Hands, Bill Plummer’s Country Gentleman, the Elder Brothers, the Cascade Hillbillies, Ann Jones and her Western Sweethearts, the Western Melody Boys, the Cascade Mt. Boys, and the Western Rangers.
Hitting the Honky-Tonks
With job opportunities often booming locally, a surprising number of major country music talents came to the Northwest to find work -- and in doing so they sometimes left their musical mark here. Among the more notable visitors was the now-legendary Hank Williams (Sr.), who came out from Montgomery, Alabama in 1942 to train as a war-time welder at the Kaiser Shipyard, but reportedly spent most of his time "hitting the honky-tonks.”
In 1943 a former carnival entertainer from Missouri named Buck Ritchey arrived in Seattle, hired on as a DJ at Seattle’s KVI radio, and went on to be the most locally influential country music taste-maker around. KVI was the leading broadcaster of country music at the time and programmed such weekly shows as the Sagebrush Serenade, the Chuckwagon Jamboree, and the Ranchhouse Roundup. That same year KVI formed their own band, the K6 Wranglers, in order to promote the station at “jamborees” in ballrooms and grange halls around the state and Ritchey’s notoriety grew as he hosted those shows and occasionally sang a song or two.
In 1945, a soldier stationed at Fort Lewis dropped by a KVI Jamboree at the Century Ballroom in Fife and wowed the audience by singing a little song that he’d just written while feeling a bit homesick. The singer was Jack Guthrie – cousin of America’s folk poet laureate, Woody Guthrie – and his tune was the soon-to-be classic, “Oklahoma Hills.” Guthrie joined the K6 Wranglers and a recording they’d made of the song was aired on KVI repeatedly before he signed with Capitol Records and a new version shot to No. 1 on the national country best-seller charts.
Cowboys and Wranglers
In 1946 Dallas Turner -- a Walla Walla kid raised in Yakima -- was chosen from among a dozen talented cowboy singers competing on a Portland radio station and given his own regular feature spot. Over the next few years, “Oregon’s Favorite Yodeling Cowboy” became known as “The Roving Ranger” and ended up recording at least 300 songs during his long career.
Around that same time “Cherokee Jack” Henley – whose Rhythm Ridin’ Wranglers performed regularly on Tacoma’s KMO radio -- recorded a few songs like “A Smile From My Baby” and “Don’t Just Stand There” that were likely the first country songs ever issued by a local label, Evergreen Records. While touring this area, Ernest “The Texas Troubadour” Tubb heard "Don't Just Stand There" and took it back to Nashville where Carl Smith made it a big national hit.
In about 1946 the K-6 Wranglers added a few new members including a talented couple, steel guitarist Paul Tutmarc and his wife, singer/guitarist Bonnie Tutmarc. He was one of the earliest pioneers of the electric steel guitar, and she -- under the stage name of “Bonnie Guitar” -- would go on to score many national hits (beginning in 1957 with “Dark Moon”), ultimately becoming the Northwest’s top homegrown country star.
It was around 1948 that Arkie Shibley and his Mountain Dew Boys began hosting a regular country music show on Bremerton’s KBRG -- a radio program that debuted their classic song, “Hot Rod Race,” which, when issued by the Pasadena, California-based Four Star record label, became a sizeable national hit.
Honky-Tonk Radio, Honky-Tonk TV
“Texas Jim” Lewis was a famous cowboy movie star who made a big impact on the local country scene. Lewis’s string band, the Lone Star Cowboys (which included his brother, Jack Rivers, on guitar), had been recording since 1937 and made their local debut at Seattle’s Orpheum Theatre in 1940. Falling in love with the area, Lewis settled here permanently in 1950. It was that year that KIRO took notice of his talents and offered him a live weekly radio show sponsored by Rainier Beer. The Rainier Ranch show became very popular and Lewis was instantly one of the movers and shakers on the Northwest scene. In November of that year KING-TV launched the region’s pioneering kiddie TV show -- Sheriff Tex’s Safety Junction -- where up until 1957 Lewis sang songs, demonstrated rope tricks, told hokey jokes, and hosted guests.
At the same time, Jack Rivers went from being one of the finest guitarists working local honky-tonks to being a major label recording star, an in-demand Hollywood recording session pro, and the owner of his own local record companies: J. R. Ranch, MRM, and Rivers Records.
Meanwhile, Arkie Shibley’s “Hot Rod Race” had inspired a Spokane-based band, Charlie Ryan and the Timberline Riders, who in the mid-1950s updated the song, renamed it “Hot Rod Lincoln,” and thus created a classic up-tempo “country bopper” that can be considered a direct precursor to that early form of rock ‘n’ roll known as rockabilly music -- and a song that eventually became a national Top-40 hit.
No Place for Me
Back in 1948 Pat Mason -- a former promoter with Nashville’s Grand Ol’ Opry road shows -- opened a big dancehall called Wagon Wheel Park outside of Camas, Washington, and began bringing in many of the top touring country stars. A few years later he took on a job as a radio DJ at Vancouver’s KVAN, and in 1956 another DJ joined him there after running out of luck in his home state of Texas. That frustrated new-hire was the striving singer/songwriter Willie Nelson, and besides performing at the Wagon Wheel, he also managed to cut his very first record (“No Place For Me” / “Logger Man”) in a Portland studio. Issued in February, 1957, the single sold a reported 3,500 copies, which raised Nelson’s hopes, and in 1958 he moved back to Fort Worth, Texas, and went on to great success as the composer of countless classic hits, including Patsy Cline’s immortal “Crazy.”
Over time the Northwest’s country scene had become so vibrant that local labels like Rainier, Timber, Mountain Dew, Greenwood, Crossroads, Virgelle, Wasp, Ripcord, and Teepee Records were formed. Meanwhile, weekly dances were being held in rooms like Yakima’s Stockman’s Club, Renton’s Cottonwood Grove, Shelton’s Tropics Ballroom, Snohomish’s Kinney’s Barn, Olympia’s Evergreen Ballroom, Tacoma’s Midland Hall -- and Seattle’s Aqua Barn, Circle Tavern, Queen of Hearts, Silver Dollar Dance Hall, Coe’s Tavern, Last Frontier Tavern, the Golden Apple, and the Flame Tavern. Such robust employment opportunities began to attract even more national country stars -- including Rusty Draper, Rose Maddox, Jimmy Patton, and Bud Isaacs -- who relocated here in order to further their careers.
In the 1950s a number of country music variety shows popped up on various local TV stations including KTVW’s Western Jamboree and KTNT’s Bill and Grover Show, which was hosted by Bill Wiley and Grover Jackson and provided exposure to many a budding country musician. Both co-hosts were accomplished musicians and Wiley was also the co-owner (along with another country guitarist, Big Bill Griffith, who later had his own Country Jamboree show on KTNT) of Tacoma’s country-oriented recording facility, Wiley Griffith Studio.
Trail Blazin' Jamborees
It was in 1958 that another down-on-his-luck musician came to the area in order to find steady work. That Bakersfield, California-based player named Buck Owens had come to take up an opportunity to work at a tiny Puyallup radio station, KAYE. After he arrived Owens soon scored his own KTNT show (The Bar-K Jamboree), formed a band (the Bar-K Gang), which included such local talents as Don Rich (fiddle), “Shot Gun” Red Hildreth (upright bass), Dusty Rhodes (steel guitar), and Nokie Edwards (a guitarist later with The Ventures), and recorded a number of records locally. One song that he wrote while based here, “Under Your Spell Again,” broke out as a big national hit and in 1960 he packed up and moved on.
That same year another locally based singer made her TV debut on both the Bar-K Jamboree and the Bill and Grover Show. The teenaged Loretta Lynn had moved to Custer, Washington, from Kentucky in 1947 when her husband came here looking for work. For her 18th birthday he bought her a cheap Harmony guitar and after teaching herself to play, he took her down to the Delta Grange Hall dance where they listened to a band called the Westerners. The band auditioned Lynn, asked her to join them, and they soon became known as Loretta’s Trail Blazers. One night a local businessman heard her on Buck Owens’s radio show, was impressed enough to form a new company, Zero Records, and Lynn’s first 45, the classic “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl,” was released in March, 1960, rose to No. 14 on the national country charts by June, and successfully kick-started her career.
From Country/Western to Country Rock
In April 1962, Jack Roberts and the Evergreen Drifters -- who had been building up a following since 1954 by playing weekly dances at Heiser’s Shadow Lake Ballroom just outside of Renton -- began hosting KOMO-TV’s Evergreen Jubilee show. In time, Roberts became the region’s top country concert promoter and around 1964 the Evergreen Drifters switched home-bases over to the Spanish Castle Ballroom at Midway.
The 1950s and 1960s saw a steady increase in the popularity of country/western music and other recording stars emerged locally including: Judy Lynn, Johnny O’Keefe, George Richey, Bobby Wayne, Gary Williams, and R. C. Bannon. The 1970s saw a resurgence of interest in this music with the rise of popular local country-rock bands including the Skyboys, Lance Romance, and the Cement City Cowboys.
Even though the Northwest’s country scene never produced it own distinctive sound, the spirit of the music has lived on. Live country/western music can still be heard regularly in honky-tonks and taverns in cities and burgs throughout the region. Organizations like Seattle’s Western Swing Music Society, the Pioneers of Western Swing, and the Pacific Northwest Country Music Hall of Fame have formed. The recent alternative country -- or “alt.country” -- movement’s main periodical, No Depression, was founded locally, and in recent years numerous successful twangin’ talents have emerged from the area including Dusty, Washington’s Wylie (Gustafson) & the Wild West, Seattle’s Ranch Romance, and Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, Cougar, Washington’s, Gary Bennett (singer with Nashville’s popular BR5-49), Ravensdale, Washington’s Brandi Carlisle, Tacoma’s Neko Case and her Boyfriends, and Lila McCann, and Buckley, Washington's Blaine Larsen whose 2004 single, "How Do You Get That Lonely," became a big radio and CMT video hit.