I like to think of myself as someone who is reasonably knowledgeable about the music of the past, but for a long time I didn't realize how popular country music was in the first half of the 20th century. I always knew that both jazz and blues were vital parts of the musical landscape in those days, but I figured that country music was mostly just heard at barn dances. I was wrong.
Early troubadours such as Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, and Jimmie Davis, along with groups like the Carter family, helped popularize the music of rural America. Along the way, they often became radio stars and best-selling recording artists, and some went on to even more varied careers. For example, Gene Autry was a very popular country singer who later became a movie star — and ended up a millionaire businessman.
In the years before and during World War II, a period that's usually considered the heyday of the big bands, Bob Wills wowed crowds with his Western swing, which sort of combined country and swing music. Meanwhile, Nashville began turning a few honky-tonk singers into pop stars.
One of those was Al Dexter, who was not only a honky-tonk veteran, but helped define the term — although he didn't invent it as some believe. However, he owned his own honky-tonk joint in the 1930s and also had some success in 1937 with his recording "Honky Tonk Blues," which helped popularize the term.
But even though Dexter sold a lot of records in those days, his transformation into a pop star happened a few years later, when he wrote and recorded a song called "Pistol Packin' Mama." It might sound silly to us now, but the song was a huge hit, selling three million records in an era when million-sellers were not common. It was so popular that it was later recorded by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and even Glenn Miller.
Al Dexter continued to dominate the charts through the war years, with songs like "So Long Pal," "I'm Losing My Mind Over You," and "Triflin' Gal." In the post-war years he also had huge hits with "Guitar Polka," and "Wine, Women and Song," along with countless others. By the time he finally began slowing down — retiring to his own club in Dallas — he'd earned 12 gold records, and had even performed on Broadway. A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, he died in 1984.