Sheb Wooley: White Lightnin’

Boogie, swing and honky-tonk from 1945 to 1959

To those weaned on Wooley’s 1958 chart-topping rock ‘n’ roll novelty, “Purple People Eater,” his acting roles in High Noon, Giant and Rio Bravo, or his tenure in a featured slot on television’s Rawhide, the totality of his recording career may come as something of a surprise. Starting in the mid-40s on the Nashville-based Bullet label, moving on to the Fort Worth-based Blue Bonnet, and settling in with the coastal MGM label, Wooley recorded a wealth of country, boogie, swing and honky-tonk sides, both under his own name, and as a parodist, under the name of Ben Colder. He topped the charts a second time – the country chart, this time – with 1962’s “That’s My Pa,” and continued to score with singles throughout the rest of the decade.

Wooley’s acting career sustained him financially, but it was his move to Hollywood – ostensibly to break in to the movies as a singing cowboy – that shaped the sound of his records. Recording in California, he was backed by many of the same West Coast musicians (including Speedy West, Jimmy Bryant and Cliffie Stone) that played on Capitol sessions for Merle Travis, Tex Ritter and Tennessee Ernie Ford. But even before he got to California, Wooley was recording dance tunes like his steel-swing “Oklahoma Honky Tonk Girl” and the fiddle-led “Peepin’ Through the Keyhole (Watching Jole Blon).” He sang his upbeat tunes with a smile, stringing together clever wordplay on “Lazy Mazy” that echoes the hipster jazz sides of the late ‘30s. And even when he wasn’t writing parodies, he often wrote with humor, such as the troubled date of “Wha’ Hoppen to Me, Baby” and doghouse lodgings of “Rover Scoot Over.”

The two 1959 sides that close the set showcase different sides of Wooley. The driller-themed “Roughneck” has a rockabilly beat, while the hit single “That’s My Pa” is a talking blues novelty that anticipates “A Boy Named Sue.” The all-mono audio shows only minimal surface noise on some of the earliest sides, and noise reduction is so discreet as to be inaudible. The digipack is decorated with vibrant graphics, and the 31-page booklet includes photos, poster and label reproductions, a detailed discography (including label, recording dates and personnel) and liner notes by Todd Everett. This is a great look at Wooley’s boogie sides, and compliments Bear Family volumes that focus on western tunes and rockin’ sides, as well as their 4-CD box set. But for an introduction to Wooley’s country and honky-tonk sides, this is a great place to start. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

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