COUNTRY HERITAGE – FREDDIE HART

If asked in 1969, a casual country music fan likely would have been unable to identify Freddie Hart. A more knowledgeable county music fan might have identified him as a good journeyman country singer, one who had made a lot of solid country recordings without ever scoring a major hit.

In 1969, “journeyman” would have been an extremely accurate description as Hart had been knocking about Nashville for nearly 20 years, chalking up some hits as a songwriter and charting a few records himself here and there on various labels without ever achieving sustained success. During that period he recorded for Capitol, Columbia, Monument and Kapp.

Born in Loachapoka, Alabama – an early Christmas present to his parents on December 21, 1926 – Fred Segrest arrived in a world of near poverty, one of 15 children from a poor sharecropper’s family that struggled to make ends meet. While money was in short supply, however, a love of music, particularly country music ran deep in the Segrest family. Hart began playing guitar at the age of five, and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps at 12. At just 14 years of age he managed to enlist in the Marines and fought in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II, which included action at Guam and Iwo Jima. While in the military, he earned black belts in judo and jujitsu, and made his first public appearances singing at officers clubs.

After leaving the military in 1946, Hart pursued a career in country music, both as a performer and as a songwriter. In 1948, he had the opportunity to meet Hank Williams, who apparently taught him something about songwriting. As Hart himself puts it, “I try to put down in my songs what every man wants to say, and what every woman wants to hear.” One of his songs, “Every Little Thing Rolled Into One,” was recorded by George Morgan during this period.

In 1951, Hart joined Lefty Frizzell’s band. By this time Freddie Segrest had adopted the name Freddie Hart. With the help of Frizzell and Wayne Raney, he was signed to Capitol Records in 1953. At an early Capitol session he recorded a song he had written titled “Loose Talk.” While Freddie did not score a big hit with the record, Carl Smith, one of the three or four biggest stars of the time, covered the song, taking it to #1.

Hart moved to Columbia Records in 1956 and appeared regularly on the Town Hall Party, a Los Angeles television program with Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Bond, and other country stars. Unfortunately, his records did not sell especially well for Columbia, either, although he still was writing songs that other artists recorded. During the late 1950s and early 1960s modest chart success finally occurred when songs such as “The Wall,” “Chain Gang” and “The Key’s in the Mailbox” charted. “The Wall,” a self-penned number, is probably best remembered today as one of the songs sung by Johnny Cash on the classic Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison album.

During this same period, a number of Freddie Hart-penned songs became hits for other artists including “Willie the Weeper,” a #5 hit for Billy Walker; “Loose Talk,” a #4 hit for the duo of Buck Owens & Rose Maddox; “My Tears Are Overdue,” a #15 hit for George Jones; and, although not a hit, a significant copyright in “Lovin’ In Vain,” the B-side of Patsy Cline’s #1 hit “I Fall To Pieces.”

Hart moved to Monument Records in 1963 for two singles, followed by a move to Kapp Records in 1965, where he recorded some more great material, but found only modest hits with “Hank Williams’ Guitar” (1965), “Born A Fool” (1968) and “Togetherness” (1968). During this period, Porter Wagoner scored a #3 hit with Hart’s “Skid Row Joe.”

Hoping for bigger and better things, he re-signed with Capitol in 1969, where the first three singles issued showed some promise, leading Capitol to issue an album titled New Sounds. This was quickly followed by California Grapevine, with the title track being issued as the first single off the album. Unfortunately, “California Grapevine” stiffed as a single, reaching only #68 on the charts, far worse than any of three singles Capitol had previously released on Hart and worse than the singles on Kapp had performed. Consequently, Capitol dropped Freddie Hart from the label.

During the months following his drop from Capitol, disc jockey Jim Clemens at WPLO in Atlanta started playing an album track, buried on side two of the album, which he found interesting. Soon, other disc jockeys followed suit and before long the song was receiving massive airplay in some areas. The song contained the rather daring phrase (for the time) ‘so sexy looking’ in its lyrics. Capitol hastily re-inked Hart to the label and issued the former album track “Easy Loving” as a single (#1 Country/#17 Pop) and issued an album by the same name that gathered up all of the previous recent Capitol singles and about half of the California Grapevine album. This kicked off a six year run at the top for Freddie Hart that included a dozen top-five singles (including six #1s), two CMA awards, two ACM awards and a Grammy. Concurrent with signing to Capitol, Hart signed with Buck Owens’ management and publishing companies and provided the Buck Owens-Susan Raye duet with a #12 hit in “Togetherness.”

Since Hart was already nearly 45 years old by the time he hit it big, he figured to have a relatively short shelf life at the top, although he continued to have decent sized hits throughout the 1970s, and continued charting into the 1980s. His last top twenty hit occurred with “Sure Thing” on the Sunbird label in 1980.

Freddie Hart is now 85 years old and hasn’t been an active performer in recent years. His 1970s successes set him up financially to get into other endeavors, including recording some Gospel music. Somehow, I doubt that too many of today’s performers would have the patience to persevere for the 18 years it took Freddie Hart to break through, and I doubt that many would be given the opportunity to try. While he is largely forgotten today, Freddie Hart did get to experience his day in the sun and is still remembered by some including the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 2001.

He made some truly unforgettable music.

Discography

Singles

Freddie Hart charted 48 times from 1953 to 1987. Here are some of the biggest hit singles:

•“The Wall” (1959 – #24)

•“Chain Gang (1960 – #17)

•“The Key’s In The Mailbox” (1960 – #18)

•“Hank Williams Guitar” (1965 – #23)

•“Togetherness” (1968- #24)

•“Born A Fool” (1968 – #21)

•“Easy Loving” (1971 – #1 for three weeks)

•“My Hang Up Is You” (1972 – #1 for six weeks)

•“Bless Your Heart” (1972 – #1 for two weeks)

• “Got The All Overs (For You All Over Me) ” (1972 – #1 for three weeks)

•“If You Can’t Feel It (It Ain’t There)” (1973 – #3)

•“Super Kind of Woman” (1973 – #1)

•“Trip to Heaven” (1973 – #1)

•“Hang In There Girl” (1974 – #2)

•“The Want-To’s” (1974 – #3)

•“My Woman’s Man” (1975 – #3)

•“The First Time” (1975 – #2)

•“I’d Like To Sleep Till I Get Over You” (1975 – #5)

•“The Warm Side of You” (1975- #6)

•“You Are The Song Inside Of Me” (1976 – #11)

•“That Look In Her Eyes” (1976 – #11)

•“Thank God She’s Mine” (1977 – #11)

•“The Pleasure’s Been All Mine” (1977 – #13)

•“Toe to Toe” (1978 – #21)

•“Why Lovers Turn to Strangers” (1977 – #8)

•“Sure Thing” (1980 – #15)

Albums

Freddie Hart released a number of worthwhile albums while with Kapp and Capitol, plus there are scattered albums on other labels.

Columbia issued only one album, The Spirited Freddie Hart, while Freddie was with the label, but subsequently issued several albums on the budget Harmony label

For my money, the best albums were on Kapp Records. Look for the titles Straight From The Heart, The Hart of Country Music, A Hurtin’ Man , Born A Fool, Togetherness and The Neon and The Rain.

The biggest hit recordings are on Freddie’s various Capitol albums. The Sunbird label release,

Sure Thing, contains Freddie’s last hits. The Capital albums sold well and are fairly easy to find and are generally named for the hit single contained within it. “Easy Loving” made its debut on California Grapevine, an album I liked better than the Easy Loving album.

The best single source for vinyl hunting (CDs too, for that matter) is Music Stack

www.musicstack.com

CDs

Like many 1970s County Music stars, Freddie Hart has been poorly served on CD.

There is an excellent Bear Family CD covering his early Capitol and Columbia years (1953-1962) titled Juke Joint Boogie. The CD is expensive (roughly $24) but it does contain 33 tracks and Bear’s product is always terrific.

For the Capitol years, in 1995 the Dutch label Disky issued a CD of the Capitol albums Easy Loving and its follow-up My Hang-Up Is You. There is also a self-produced CD (the “label” is Richard Davis Management) of the Capitol hits (original recordings) titled Hart to Hearts, containing 25 tracks including eleven of Freddie’s Capitol era hits, plus 14 other tracks. Hart to Hearts has tracks that sound as if they were dubbed from vinyl albums

Various EMI/Capitol labels have issued smaller hit collections containing ten songs (Ten Best, Best Of…, etc).

(Memo to Richard Weitze at Bear Family: a Freddie Hart box-set is needed!)

The Sunbird years at the end of Freddie’s career are represented by a Best of Freddie Hart collection issued by CEMA Special Markets in 1994.

Nothing is available for Freddie specifically covering the Kapp years.

Freddie does have an official website http://mreasylovin.com/ where he does have an online store which sells a small selection of CDS. The most recent CD is titled I Wouldn’t Trade America For the World. Despite the title, this album contains only two patriotically themed songs. The remaining tracks are remakes of some of his hits plus a few covers.

COUNTRY HERITAGE – BOXCAR WILLIE

Country Heritage: Lecil Martin, King of the Hobos (1931 – 1999)

It is unlikely that any modern country performer will ever have a career quite like that of Lecil Travis “Boxcar Willie” Martin (1931-1999). Dressed in the attire of a railroad hobo and blessed with a unique ability to imitate the sounds of train whistles, Boxcar Willie carried on the grand tradition of country music on the Grand Ole Opry without ever having a hit record. While comedians, such as Mike Snider, occasionally became Opry members without having hit records on their resume, the induction of Boxcar Willie as an Opry member in 1981 marked the last time a singer was inducted without a hit (excluding the later induction of Beecher Ray “Bashful Brother Oswald” Kirby, who had been performing on the Opry stage for over 50 years as part of Roy Acuff’s Smoky Mountain Boys).

Born near Ovilla, Texas, Boxcar Willie had a career behind him before finding real success as a country music star–this after turning 50 years old. Although he adopted a railroad persona for his stage act, unlike Jimmie “The Singing Brakeman” Rodgers, one of his idols, Boxcar Willie never worked on the railroads, although his father had been a railroad man, for whom Jimmie Rodgers had worked. Like many of his generation, Willie loved the railroads and ran away from home to ride the trains as a lad and like many from small towns and rural settings, he loved country music, particularly the then-current songs of Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Merle Travis. As a teenager, he would perform under his given name, eventually becoming a regular on the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, Texas. In 1949 he served in the the United States Air Force and became a pilot and flight engineer for the B-29 Super Fortress during the Korean War. Both during his Air Force Career (which, according to some sources, lasted in some capacity until 1976) and after he left the service, he performed in clubs and on local radio shows. In the late 1950s, he began performing as Marty Martin. During this period he issued an album titled Marty Martin Sings Country Music and Stuff Like That, which he sold at live performances.

In 1962, Willie met his life-long love, Lloene. They married shortly thereafter and had four children.

The name Boxcar Willie apparently has its origins in a comment he made about an employee named Willie Wilson. According to one version of the story, the singer was sitting at a railroad crossing when a freight train passed by with a fellow who resembled Wilson sitting down in an open boxcar. Willie wrote a song titled “Boxcar Willie” and over time, adopted the song title as his stage name.

In 1976, Willie became a full-time entertainer. His big break came while he was playing at the Silver Saddle in Grand Prairie Texas. The agent for George Jones saw him and invited him to perform at George’s club in Nashville, The Possum Hollow. During a performance in Nashville, Willie was spotted by Drew Taylor, a Scottish booking agent who thought that the singer’s very traditional approach to country music would be well received by British audiences. This proved quite true, with Willie appearing at venues in Britain throughout the late 1970s, culminating in a performance at the Wembley International Country Music Festival in 1979. This performance, seen live by thousands and by many more on British television, established Boxcar Willie as the “King of the Hobos.” His album, King of the Road, became a huge success in England, reaching number five on the album charts aided by a clever television ad campaign which sold the record through the mail.

A similar advertising campaign was run in the United States for a double album set, with similar results (similarly successful telemarketing campaigns also worked for Zamfir and Slim Whitman). The end result was that Boxcar Willie became a successful recording artist selling millions of albums but without any real hit singles. Although he charted 10 singles, only his cover of “Bad News” cracked the top forty, reaching #36 in 1982.

The success of the television advertising campaign propelled Boxcar Willie to Grand Old Opry membership, where he became enormously popular with Opry patrons and fellow artists alike. After Roy Acuff’s death in November 1992, Boxcar Willie became the standard-bearer for traditional country music at the Opry, frequently performing classic Acuff songs such as “Wabash Cannonball” and “Night Train to Memphis.”

In 1985, Willie moved to Branson (while still remaining a member of the Grand Old Opry) where he purchased Highway 76 (a/k/a Country Music Boulevard) which he renamed the Boxcar Willie Theater. Willie operated successfully from his theater for the next thirteen-plus years. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with leukemia in late 1996. He continued to perform at his theater on a limited basis until his death on April 12, 1999 at the age of 67.

The Boxcar Willie Inn built by Boxcar Willie in Branson, Missouri still bears his name today.

Discography

For a fellow without any substantial radio airplay, Boxcar Willie issued quite a few albums in his lifetime and made guest appearances on numerous albums of other artists, most notably on the Hank Williams Jr. album The Pressure Is On. Hank referenced Boxcar Willie by name in the song lyrics of “Rambling In My Shoes.” Willie contributes vocals and train whistle sounds to the track.

Vinyl

Column One Records issued four LPs from 1977-1980. These were Boxcar Willie (1977), Daddy Was A Railroad Man (1978), Sings Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers (1979), and Take Me Home (1980). Other than the Hank/Jimmie tribute, these albums are mostly original material, much of it written by the artist himself.

The album that started the good times rolling for Boxcar Willie was King of The Road (1980), issued in Great Britain on Warwick Records. In the United States, the over-the-counter version issued on the Main Street label sold enough copies to reach #54 on the country charts but this does not include the estimated 2 million copies sold via television. If Billboard had possessed the ability then to track mail order sales, this particular album might have reached #1 on both the pop and country charts. Main Street issued several other albums, some of which reached album chart mid-levels. Unlike King of The Road (1980), which was all cover material, Last Train To Heaven (1982, BB #27), Best of Boxcar (1982, BB #34), and Not The Man I Used To Be (1984, BB #35) contained more original material.

CD

Much of Box’s vinyl product has been reissued on CD. His only major label recording was for Dot Records, titled simply Boxcar Willie. It is all original material, including two duets with Willie Nelson and one with Carol Lee Cooper and has been reissued on the MCA label.

Probably the most interesting CD was Rocky Box, a 1993 CD recorded with the roots-rock group the Skeletons (who sometimes called themselves the Morrells). This album features a mix of 50s rockabilly and rock ‘n roll hits, plus an interesting take on “Achy Breaky Heart,” a recent (very minor) hit for the Marcy Brothers and then a monster for Billy Ray Cyrus.

A wide range of products can be purchased at his website www.boxcarwillie.com which features 18 album titles available on CD & Cassette, plus videos and souvenirs. New for 2015 is a CD featuring Gunter Gabriel, Roy Acuff and Willie Nelson on some previously unreleased recordings