Graded on a Curve: Boppin’ Hillbilly Vol. 1

Apparently there are 30 whopping volumes in the compilation series Boppin’ Hillbilly, all of them released between ’88 and ‘94 by a shadowy Dutch company appropriately named White Label. Trying to collect vinyl copies of the entire set at this juncture is surely a foolhardy endeavor, but anyone desiring a fix of Country Swing in their life should attempt to hear at least a smattering of the music included across these insanely diligent sets. Unsurprisingly, some of the best selections, including a pair of stellar workouts from country guitar great Joe Maphis, are found on Vol. 1.

While many continue to associate them with the muffled audio from stadium concerts or the misbegotten demos of various rock stars, it’s impossible to deny that a considerable amount of vastly important cultural documentation has entered into common currency due to the undeniably ambiguous actions of bootleggers. Even better though is when the sheer impulse to collect and the undying need to document rise to the point of pure mania.

Not to be confused with an equally exhaustive and no doubt just as illicit ten volume batch of compact disc comps titled Rockin’ Hillbilly that were issued by the even more aptly monikered imprint Cactus, the obviously bootleg (though perhaps in this case the more suitable term is “grey market”) Boppin’ Hillbilly LPs do such a staggering job of corralling so much truly juiced-up white-boy boogie that listening to just a fraction can feel like being submerged inside a huge ceramic jug brimming with pure white lightnin’.

Certainly the impetus for all of this stuff is none other than the gang of Milton Brown (and His Musical Brownies), Spade Cooley (and His Orchestra), and of course Bob Wills (and His Texas Playboys), but one can also hear the influence of later greats like Merle Travis and Moon Mullican, assorted purveyors of high boogie-woogie piano, the breakneck guitar tandem of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, and the inescapable presence of Hank Williams, as well as hints of R&B, rockabilly and even pure early rock and roll.

But sources of inspiration aside, this is largely the sound of struggling working bands that were making a living on a nightly basis and striving for further success by recording some hot sides in the hopes of an ever-elusive hit. The fact that the majority of these names are absent from most music history books does little to erase the impact these songs had on a local level, where they inspired house parties, dives and dances into all sorts of spectacular abandon.

And one of the standouts from Vol. 1 is opener “Flying Saucer Boogie” by Eddie Cletro & His Roundup Boys. Quickly establishing the compatibility of steel guitar with the era’s prevalent sci-fi themes, the track offers a zonked yet agreeably smooth atmosphere enhanced by a few overwrought female screams forecasting the ’57 Sun Records rockabilly nugget “Flyin’ Saucers Rock & Roll” from Billy Lee Riley and His Little Green Men.

Though he had an impressive career that included movie and television work along with stints backing up noted country vocalists Rose Maddox and Eddie Dean, Cletro (real name Eddie O’Clethero) had basically slipped into obscurity until around ten years ago when in a cool turn of events the reliable and laudable Bear Family label issued a nice compilation of his ‘50s recordings.

Country Boy Eddie & His Show Band step up next with a pair of curious tracks, the first one strongly R&B tinged (“Hang in There Like a Rusty Fish Hook”), the other stuffed with absolutely bizarre donkey-call corn (“Fodder Fossil’s Blues”). From there the proceedings take a wide turn into flashy ‘50’s professionalism thanks to the highly fleet hands of Joe Maphis.

Like Cletro, Maphis also chalked up an impressive career leading his own bands and working in tandem with wife Rose Lee Maphis. Additionally, he was an in-demand sessioneer; at the height of his productivity he was sporting a double-necked Semie Moseley-designed Mosrite guitar and exuding the confident swagger said instrument demanded.

Where most of the participants on this volume (and the series overall) recorded for smaller, often regional labels, Maphis hit big in ’53 with the honky-tonk themed “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music)” before landing on Columbia for the high-profile full-length Fire on the Strings and eventually collaborating on LP with Merle Travis. Maphis’ “Square Dance Boogie” and “Lonesome Train Boogie” both ooze the precise swing that is Boppin’ Hillbilly’s raison d’être.

From there “I’m Building a ??? on the Moon” from Weldon Rogers reinforces just how deeply extraterrestrial themes impacted the larger culture of the 1950s, “Real Rockin’ Daddy” by Hoyle Nix & His West Texas Cowboys illuminates the timelessness and cross-genre appeal of pure braggadocio, and “Jukebox Boogie” by Casey Simmons & His Night Riders hits upon the very bedrock of this particular style hybrid; complete with a beefy sax solo, it should hit any Wills fan right in their sweet spot.

As leader of the Mountain Dew Boys, Arkie Shibley is probably best known for the original 1950 version of “Hot Rod Race” (the one revamped much later by Commander Cody as “Hot Rod Lincoln”). On Vol. 1 he and the band contribute a pair of flashy and intense instrumentals to the end of each side, the rapid-fire Walter Lantz-damaged “Hot Woodpecker Rag” and the rollicking, decidedly bluesy “Dusty Blossom Boogie.” Both are loaded to the gills with action from the 88s.

Amongst the flip’s highlights is the jaunty, keyboard-sprinkled “I’m Back in the Army” from Tani Allen & His Tennessee Pals, two examples of unabashed loaf-shilling in “Hardin’s Bread Boogie” by Dreamy Joe and “Hart’s Bread Boogie” courtesy of Curley Hickson, and the sprightly, spongy “Catfish Boogie” via Reese Shipley.

Vocalist Tommy Mooney recalls Hank Williams on his two scrappy ’49 sides, though the first, “Bingo Boogie” wields a heavy and at times almost John Lee Hooker-ish blues orientation. While just as loose, its flipside “That’s My Baby” is more trad in its hints of abstraction. Both feature his brother Bobby Mooney and his band, the nicely named Automobile Babies.

Yes, as these tracks wiz by there are stylistic tropes that really start to get entrenched, but that’s in no way a bad thing. It’s really no different than any random obscure blues comp from the same era; in a manner similar to surveys of ‘60s garage, ‘70s punk, ‘80s rap, and ‘90s indie rock, as one listens the subtleties and individuality begin to surface.

But hell, if you’re worried about things getting monochromatic just follow this simple instruction; every time someone says the word “boogie” just take a big snort of the hard stuff. You’ll be flailing around and flopping down and then crawling sideways across the carpet for that copy of Vol. 6  you scored so suavely in that internet auction (hey, suddenly there’re two of them!), so no problem.

Again, attempting to own the entire Boppin’ Hillbilly run is likely a recipe for insanity, but it shouldn’t be all that maddening a task to locate good-playing copies of a few choice entries.  And much of the stuff that’s not available can at least be heard by investigating the web; no way would I have heard the entire series without aid from the blogosphere.

These sets bookend really well with the equally obsessive 20 CD volumes in the A Million Dollars worth of Doo-Wop collection, and it all sheds needed light upon just how much routine but highly worthwhile recording was occurring in a decade that so many obnoxiously persist in writing off as conformist and square. Joe McCarthy and Pat Boone aside, that’s a ridiculous notion. Assessing history is never as simple as it might seem, and the tracks found on Boppin’ Hillbilly Vol. 1 still deliver a fine kick.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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