Is it a mystery if not many people care what the answer is?
I say it’s a mystery if even one person cares—and, in this case, I’m that person.
I didn’t initially recognize it as a mystery. It started out looking like a song: “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town” (1987). It’s a pretty high-profile song, one that’s about, sung, produced and co-written by five members of the Country Music Hall of Fame: The subject, obviously, is the iconic Hank Williams; the singer was the almost-as-iconic Johnny Cash, with his outlaw partner Waylon Jennings contributing backup videos; the producer was Cowboy Jack Clement; and the writer was Bobby Braddock, who co-wrote the song with Charlie Williams, another veteran songwriter with a string of hits to his name.
Being a big fan of both Cash and Hank Williams, I learned the song and even performed it a couple of times. Somewhere along the way I stumbled across a parody version on YouTube, a video in which a singer I’d never heard of named Tabby Crabb spoofed the song as “The Night Porter Wagoner Came to Town.” And, later yet, I came across a collection of tribute songs which included “The Night the Ernest Tubb Show Came to Town,” sung by the great Stoney Edwards.
No surprises there. Hit songs tend to generate the occasional parody, answer song or alternate version. I even did one of my own back in 2019, performing at a fund raiser for a Gilbert & Sullivan company and singing “The Night that D’Oyly Carte Came to Town.”
But then the mysteries started piling up, first gradually and then in a bewildering cascade.
The first domino fell when I realized that Tabby Crabb’s spoof dated from 1985, two years before the Cash recording. How could the spoof have preceded the song it was spoofing? But I found an online source that said that “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town” had originally been written about Porter Wagoner; OK, fine, Cash had heard the earlier song and revised it to be about Hank Williams. That explained a couple of awkward lines that didn’t really fit Hank Williams.
But then I read the liner notes to that collection of tribute songs, A Girl Named Johnny Cash and Other Tribute Songs (2009), and learned that “The Night the Ernest Tubb Show Came to Town” was from 1975, a decade earlier than either of the other two.
Even more puzzling, though, was that it hadn’t been released in 1975—it was written and recorded then, but languished unheard in a Capitol Records vault from 1975 to 2009. So now the Cash song was an adaptation of Tabby Crabb’s spoof of a decade-old song that nobody had ever heard? And Bear Family Records, which released A Girl Named Johnny Cash, had done its customary excellent job with liner notes and song credits—except that there were no songwriter credits for about half the songs. One of those songs, of course, was “The Night the Ernest Tubb Show Came to Town.”
I was intrigued, out of all proportion to the significance of the song(s). I decided to look into it—and quickly ran up against a virtually impenetrable brick wall: Johnny Cash was dead, and so were Tabby Crabb and Stoney Edwards. Charlie Williams was dead. Even Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner and Ernest Tubb were dead. The smart play was to give up.
So, naturally, I pressed on, in a quest that would take me more than two years and, inevitably, leave me with some unanswered, probably unanswerable questions. But I think I’ve got the bare bones of this story right, even if certain details (why didn’t Valley of the Giants come out? why didn’t Porter Wagoner show up? what made Beulah Reisner so irresistible?) are and probably always will be destined to elude definitive answers.
One question needed to be answered right off: These songs have different lyrics and (between the first and second ones, anyway) substantially different tunes. Was there any chance that the resemblance, at least between those first two, was coincidental?
No. The giveaway is what seems to be a throwaway line, occupying the same place in each song:
Ernest signed his autograph on Beulah Reisner’s fan, (1975)
Porter signed his autograph on Beulah Reisner’s fan, (1985)
Hank signed his autograph on Beulah Reisner’s fan, (1987)
Whatever the history might be, this wouldn’t be a question of coincidence.
THE MAN WHO BROUGHT PORTER WAGONER TO TOWN
There was only one place to start, because only one of the creative people associated with any version of the song is still with us: Bobby Braddock, the legendary songwriter who is best known for co-writing (with Curly Putman) George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (1980), a song so great it won the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year award—two years in a row. At the time I started delving into this affair, I’d been working on a show (sadly still unperformed, thanks to the pandemic) called Three Chords and the Truth: Country’s Greatest Songwriters, which prominently features Braddock’s work. (He’s had multiple No. 1 hits in four different decades.)
In other words, Braddock is kind of a hero to me, and it was with trepidation that I reached out to him, via his publicist. I was delighted to hear back from him and to discover, in an e-mail conversation that spanned several days, that he’s a nice guy, very down-to-earth and, like myself, interested in some of the back alleys and dead-end streets of country history (he’s the co-author of Country Music’s Greatest Lines: Lyrics, Stories & Sketches from American Classics, published last year). That I know as much as I do about this story is due above all to his help.
Initially Braddock could offer no information on either of the earlier versions of the song, because he was completely unaware that either one existed; in fact, he confessed that he’d never heard of anyone named Tabby Crabb.
As he recalled, Charlie Williams brought him an idea for a song called “The Night that Ernest Tubb Came to Town,” and it was Braddock who suggested that Porter Wagoner might be more resonant for a mid-‘80s audience than Tubb, who had died the previous year. They wrote “The Night Porter Wagoner Came to Town” and, a couple of years later, gave it a quick revision as “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town” because they were pitching it to Johnny Cash, and Cash identified more with the iconic Williams than with Wagoner, whose career was roughly contemporary to his own.
As we discussed the subject further, however, Braddock came up with a very reasonable hypothesis that answered my biggest question about the original song: Who wrote it?
The fact that the Stoney Edwards song was finished and recorded convinces Braddock that Charlie Williams must have been the original author. He knew Williams well, and he says that there’s no way Williams would have stolen someone else’s previously existing song or even gotten Braddock involved in a song with an uncredited co-author. (I would add that Williams would have been foolish to try, given that in 1985 the hypothetical original author most likely still would have been alive to sue, and Edwards and almost everyone else involved in his recording would have been available to testify. The fact that, despite the widespread airing of “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town,” nobody ever came forward to dispute its authorship strongly supports Braddock’s explanation.)
The clincher is that Braddock remembers Charlie Williams telling him that Beulah Reisner was a real person, or at least that he’d used the name of an old woman he’d known growing up. That pegs Williams as the original author or at least co-author, since the reference to her dates from 1975. (Aunt Essie, who gets her picture taken with Wagoner in the 1985 song, is a Braddock contribution: “I had an Aunt Essie (we were looking for country-sounding names).”)
One of the questions that Braddock was unable to answer is why the YouTube credit on the Tabby Crabb video lists him as the sole author of the song, omitting Williams. Those credits were likely done when the video was posted on YouTube, however, decades after it was created, and the omission is probably the result of simple human error. The record label for “The Night Porter Wagoner Came to Town” credits both men.
Unsurprisingly, given that Charlie Williams and Cash had a long personal history—they were old friends, and had collaborated on Cash’s hit “I Got Stripes” (1959), based on Leadbelly’s “On a Monday” (1939)—Braddock reports that it was Williams who pitched the song to Cash. As I had suspected, he adds that it was Cash who asked for a revision to make the song about Hank Williams instead of Porter Wagoner. (This led to a few awkward lines, notably the change of “How did they get Dolly in that gown?” to “How’d they get Miss Audrey in that gown?” Audrey Williams was a beauty, but fitting her into a gown wasn’t as challenging as it would be with Dolly Parton.)
So, while I was going at this backward, starting with the last song and working my way back toward the first one, I had at least obtained answers to most of the key questions about the best-known version of the song. This was the easy part, though, because Bobby Braddock is the only living person involved in the creation of any of these songs. To dig further, I’d need secondary sources.
A MAN NAMED TABBY CRABB.
Tabby Crabb is a hard man to get a handle on, in large part because he went by several different names in the course of his career. Bobby Braddock, for example, had never heard of Tabby Crabb, but the name T.C. Roberts did ring a bell. (In the case of “The Night that Porter Wagoner Came to Town,” the record credits the singer as T.C. Roberts, while the video credits him as Tabby Crabb.) He occasionally used other names as well.
Crabb’s online presence was patchy, with various sites covering diverse aspects of his artistic life—as a musician, yes, but also as an author, a producer, a photographer, a filmmaker and even a magician—and not always acknowledging each other. And he died in 2011, at the age of 65, and since then most websites in which he was involved have been frozen in time.
There are a million Tabby Crabbs, with a million different stories and a million different points of view, and no two are alike, because each one is an original. They do have one thing in common, though: They’re talented musicians who have proved themselves many times over but—for whatever reason—have never gotten the break that might have made them famous. If they’d found the right band, landed the right gig, been heard by the right guy at the right time, they might have ended up in the spotlight, but that one magic moment never quite happened.
Where Crabb was concerned, it certainly wasn’t an issue of talent. Listening to his rich, humorous performance of “The Night Porter Wagoner Came to Town,” it’s hard to escape the thought that there were plenty of country stars, and still are today, who were no more talented. They were luckier, that’s all.
Crabb wasn’t a star, but he wasn’t an amateur or a wannabe, either. A master of the banjo, the guitar, the steel guitar and the piano, he played in the original Urban Cowboy Band with Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee, and as a solo artist opened for the likes of Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker. He ran Flatwood Studio in Nashville for 20 years, where he recorded Naomi Judd and Keith Urban, among others.
Digging through the recesses of the internet finally put me in touch with Andy May, a friend of 35 years and a former bandmate—in the (possibly over-wordy) Andy May and Texas Tabby Crabb Band—who was happy to talk about his late friend and share some of the stories he’d heard about the making of “The Night Porter Wagoner Came to Town.”
May is a songwriter and musician—he played guitar to Crabb’s banjo—who in recent years has found a niche as a music educator, presenting performances and workshops at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, and working with young musicians for more than 30 years through Acoustic Kids Showcases (https://andymay.com/acoustic-kids), which offers noncompetitive performance opportunities at major music festivals. He met Crabb during the 1970s in western Massachusetts, where Crabb (who was born and died in Georgia but, in between, traveled extensively) happened to be working, and they remained close in the ensuing years, playing together when they found themselves in the same place at the same time.
He depicts Crabb as a diversely talented man who was fun to be with and more fun to play with. His career may not have gone where he’d dreamed it would, but he was good company and a man who gave everything he had whenever he stepped onto a stage.
Crabb had lots of stories to tell, and some of the best were about “The Night Porter Wagoner Came to Town.” May doesn’t know how Crabb found out about the song or who might have pitched it to him. Songwriters Bobby Braddock and Charlie Williams occupied a higher level on the Nashville food chain, but Crabb’s work as a producer, studio owner and side man had made him a lot of friends who had a lot of friends, and it seems likely that he and Charlie Williams ran into each other and Williams told him about the song he was working on.
That Crabb would end up recording the song was by no means a given. Braddock already had recorded a demo (you can listen to it here), while Crabb’s label was the quirky indie Doctor Bob Records, run by a music-loving radiologist in western Massachusetts who acted as a patron for musicians whose work appealed to him, including Tabby Crabb. Crabb was involved in running the label, as well as releasing records both as Tabby Crabb and as T.C. Roberts; but, as far as I can determine, “The Night Porter Wagoner Came to Town” was the label’s biggest release, and none of its other artists (including The Brickers, Bill Filder and Mercedes) ever got any further than Crabb did. A release on Doctor Bob Records wasn’t what Braddock and Williams had in mind, in short, and it’s fair to assume that Williams had pitched it unsuccessfully to numerous other artists and labels before he OKed a recording by Crabb on Doctor Bob Records.
The clincher that won them the rights may have been their plans for an ambitious video. In 1985 Nashville had only barely begun to see the marketing potential in videos, and many of its biggest stars weren’t releasing videos or, if they were, were essentially making filmed performances, sometimes with Western scenery or rural imagery spliced in.
That wasn’t what Crabb had in mind. He and fellow producers Richie Albright and Bob Jaros (the eponymous Doctor Bob, who underwrote the costs of production) envisioned a two-and-a-half-minute movie that would lightheartedly recreate the events of the song—a visit by Grand Ole Opry star Porter Wagoner to a small Texas town in the 1970s.
This was ambitious enough, but they wanted to get Wagoner and his band to participate. (All along, they’d realized that his 1970s girl singer, Dolly Parton, would have to be played by a stand-in—by 1985 she was arguably the biggest star in Nashville, and wouldn’t be cameoing in a video to promote a release by Doctor Bob Records.)
Who talked Wagoner and his band into participating isn’t known and probably will never be, but—against all odds—Wagoner agreed to do a cameo. It would involve only a few onstage shots, but it would be enough to kick the video’s appeal to a whole new level.
On shooting day everything seemed to be going smoothly. Two longtime members of the Wagonmasters band—banjo player Buck Trent and bassist Gilbert “Speck” Rhodes, both of whom are name-checked in the song, along with fiddler Mack Magaha—appeared, along with a set of 1960s-era Wagonmasters costumes loaned by Wagoner. John Hartford had loaned a vintage tour bus. The only thing missing was Wagoner himself.
And then came crushing news: Wagoner wasn’t coming. No explanation, he simply wouldn’t be there. It was one of the most devastating moments Crabb had faced.
“He was very disappointed,” May said, “but he kept it private.”
He had to, because there was still a film to be shot. The space and equipment had already been rented, and there was little chance that Crabb, Rhodes, Trent, the bus and the costumes would ever be in the same place again. Lee Dresser, singer for the rockabilly band the Krazy Kats, stepped in to play Wagoner, shot from behind (as was the actress playing Parton) or from the waist down. The shooting script had to be redone on the fly, but, by the end of that day in Nashville, the film was in the can.
Even without Wagoner, their video was and is entertaining. It made it into the Top 5 on Country Music Television, and has racked up more than 60,000 views on YouTube. The song never made it onto the Billboard charts, but it was popular on radio and made it as high as No. 89 on the Cashbox list. There’s no way to know what it might have meant for the video to have Wagoner in it, and for the song to have his implicit endorsement, but it surely would have made some difference.
May has no insights as to why Wagoner initially agreed to participate, only to pass at the last moment; it’s not clear that Crabb ever had, either.
Here, however, Braddock again has some useful information to offer.
The songwriter reports that the line “then Mavis got acquainted with the Wagonmaster band” (contributed by Braddock) offended Wagoner, who saw it as a reference to his notorious womanizing. There’s no way to be sure, but my guess is that Wagoner agreed to participate in the video shoot without actually listening to the song, but did so immediately before he was due there. When he heard it and discovered what he thought was a dig at him (it probably isn’t, because the reference is to his band, not Wagoner personally), he decided to skip the filming.
Be that as it may, the song is long relegated to obscurity (though May did provide a photo of his copy of the single, complete with Doctor Bob Records’ delightful slogan: “RX: Listen twice and call me in the morning!”), but the video remains as a joyful tribute to this phase in the song’s evolution: You can see it right here.
THE MAN WHO BROUGHT ERNEST TUBB TO TOWN.
Stoney Edwards is one of country’s underrated masters. He’s little known today, though, and by the time I found my way to Ken Edwards, keeper of the flame for his father, I’d learned a great deal about him that I hadn’t known before.
The key thing you need to understand about Stoney Edwards (1929-1997) is that he wanted to be country’s Sidney Poitier, and might have been, but was doomed to be its Ossie Davis—recognized for his talent, to be sure, but forever one step down from real stardom.
Things were changing in America in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Black Americans were allowed to do things that had been off limits before—in the mainstream culture, that is, since all along they’d been doing those things on the far side of the color line. Jackie Robinson made it to the big leagues, Sidney Poitier became a movie star, Bill Cosby became arguably America’s most popular television comedian.
This felt like progress to white liberals, and to Blacks as well, but it wasn’t as much of a step forward as it appeared, because there were invisible-but-powerful constraints. Robinson, like Jim Brown and Bill Russell, proved that Blacks could be star athletes—but it was easier for them to be great than to be merely good. The bench players on Robinson’s, Brown’s and Russell’s teams were overwhelmingly white: Being as good as a white player wasn’t good enough for a Black man—he had to be better if he wanted to make the team.
There were no roster caps for entertainers, and in principle any number of Black men could be movie stars, comedians or country singers—but in reality that number tended to be one. Poitier was the only Black leading man in Hollywood (and often the only Black man in his movies), and Cosby the only Black comedian who played the big clubs or the national television programs. Other Black actors and comedians might be great … but the job was already filled. There could be only one at a time.
That made life hard for an up-and-comer like Ossie Davis, a handsome, sexy, diversely talented actor with a great voice and proven skills at both comedy and drama. Like many young actors, he got to see scripts only after other, bigger names had passed on them, which in his case meant that he saw a lot of scripts that Sidney Poitier had rejected … but movies that Paul Newman had turned down got made with other white actors; if a movie called for a Black star and Poitier passed, it didn’t get produced. Davis made his name on stage as an actor and as a writer, and made it onto the screen on a regular basis only in the 1980s and 1990s, when times had changed and he’d become a grizzled veteran.
Stoney Edwards was a sensational country singer and a gifted songwriter, with an old-school style resembling that of Merle Haggard. He was as good at soulful ballads as he was at comedy songs and party stompers, and had everything that it should take to be a top country star. The trouble was, he was too late to be country’s Sidney Poitier: That was Charley Pride, so the job was filled. Edwards, like any number of other gifted Black singers, would have to scramble to be No. 2 among Black country artists—a job which essentially didn’t exist. Edwards was going to be country’s Ossie Davis, whether he liked it or not.
Edwards didn’t like it, and did everything he could to break through the invisible barriers. Signed by Capitol Records in the wake of Pride’s breakthrough, Edwards produced a series of strong records, most of which failed to sell as he and the label had hoped. Like many other second-tier stars, he saw his biggest hits re-recorded by top stars with much better results. After his recording of Sharon K. Dobbins’ “She’s My Rock” (1973) peaked at No. 20 on the country charts, for example, it was covered by Brenda Lee in 1975 and George Jones in 1984—making it to No. 6 and No. 2 respectively.
Edwards toured indefatigably and kept his eye out for every window of opportunity he could find. One of them came in 1973, when he recorded “Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul,” a song by Dallas Frazier and A.L. “Doodle” Owens which celebrated the lasting impact of 1950s country icons Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. The song made it to No. 39 on the charts, and Edwards saw an opening.
If one tribute song had proven popular, he reasoned, why not an album of tribute songs? He and producer Biff Colley sketched out an album to be called Valley of the Giants that would celebrate a pantheon of country stars from the 1920s into the 1960s, the likes of Roy Acuff, the Carter Family, Johnny Cash, Red Foley, Merle Haggard, Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills.
These would not be any old tribute songs, though. Colley recruited numerous backing musicians who had played with the iconic stars celebrated in the songs: Guitarist Billy Byrd, a longtime member of Tubb’s Texas Troubadours, played—and got a Tubb-style mid-song shout-out from Edwards—on “The Night the Ernest Tubb Show Came to Town.” Maybelle Carter, the last surviving member of the original Carter family and (with her daughters) a regular in Johnny Cash’s touring band, brought her autoharp to “The Carter Family” and “Cash.” (And also to “The Jimmie Rodgers Blues,” honoring the Father of Country Music—with whom the Carters had recorded two songs in 1931.) Fiddler Howdy Forrester, a veteran of Roy Acuff’s Smoky Mountain Boys, sat in on “Roy Acuff, the King of Country Music.” Guitarist Leon McAuliffe, of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, was the bandleader for “Bob Wills the Fiddlin’ Man.” Gordon Terry, longtime fiddler for Merle Haggard’s Strangers, played on “Hag Sang a Song.”
All of the songs were sung by Edwards, in short, but each evoked the style of the artist to whom it was dedicated. By the time the sessions were finished, on August 29, 1973, they had produced an album like no other.
It would not be heard, however, for another 37 years.
Valley of the Giants was completed just in time for the oil crisis of 1973 and 1974. A consortium of Arab nations had imposed an oil embargo on the United States, in retribution for America’s support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War of October 6-25, 1973. The crisis produced gasoline rationing, long lines at filling stations and much collateral damage affecting companies which used petroleum in their manufacturing process—including the makers of records. Most record production was sharply curtailed, and among the records whose release was postponed was Valley of the Giants.
The oil crisis eased with the end of the embargo in March 1974, and record companies began releasing their backlogged albums. By this time, however, Edwards was fighting with Capitol Records on a variety of fronts.
As Ken Edwards recounts the story, there were several different issues involved. For one thing, Capitol was undergoing significant turnover: The executives running the label in 1974 were not the ones who had signed Stoney Edwards in 1970, and they didn’t believe in his artistic or commercial potential. What the label wanted from him changed frequently, and often pushed Edwards away from the honky-tonk sound that came naturally to him and toward the lush Nashville Sound style of, yes, Charley Pride.
Ken Edwards recalls, as a 14-year-old, going with his father to Capitol’s headquarters in Los Angeles, walking down halls that were lined with records by the label’s most iconic artists, the Beatles. There the latest crop of Capitol executives sat Stoney Edwards down and told him that, now that he’d gotten a taste of success with “She’s My Rock” and “Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul,” it was time to take it to the next level. They wanted him to go for a more mainstream sound and to be on the road almost constantly—more than the months at a time he was already spending away from home.
Edwards thanked them, but said no—to his son’s astonishment, when his father told him on their way home.
“He said, ‘No, I’m good,’” the younger Edwards said. “And he explained to me what his contract with the label was like: ‘Boy, you don’t know what they’re going to ask: 320 days a year on the road, two albums a year, pretty much constant work, but very little money.’ He said they wanted him to sell his soul, giving it up to stay on Capitol.”
The money was a longtime sore point, as it was (and is) for most recording artists. Capitol charged recording and promotional costs against Edwards’ royalties, which ate into his income and left him dependent on live performances to support his family. It was hard to tell whether this was the result of a routinely exploitative contract or actual accounting fraud, but the upshot was that even his hits didn’t produce the kind of money that he thought they should.
It would be another four years before Edwards and Capitol parted ways, but the handwriting was already on the wall in 1974. Valley of the Giants, already recorded and boasting a squad of celebrity side men, wasn’t the only Edwards album that Capitol never released. After four Capitol releases in slightly more than two years between 1971 and 1973, he would have only two more between 1973 and 1978; neither got much promotional push from the company.
Ken Edwards has continued to lobby Capitol to release his father’s withheld music (and his withheld money), but without success. It was not until 2009 that the songs that would have made up Valley of the Giants saw the light of day, and Edwards says that much more remains, untapped, in Capitol’s vaults.
When the songs did surface, it was not on Capitol and not as a Stoney Edwards album. Instead Capitol licensed the recordings to the German company Bear Family Records—and Bear Family, despite its history of reviving the catalogues of under-appreciated country artists, wasn’t really interested in making a Stoney Edwards album.
Bear Family had successfully released a series of novelty compilation albums such as Sounds Like Jimmie Rodgers (2008), featuring a legion of Jimmie Rodgers imitators from the 1920s and 1930s; And the Answer Is: Great Country Answer Discs From the 50s (and their original versions) (2006); and And the Answer Is: Great Country Answer Discs From the 60s (and Their Original Versions) (2006). The label’s executives figured that, if compilations of imitation songs and answer songs sold well, tribute songs might be the next big thing.
A Girl Named Johnny Cash: and Other Tribute Songs lives up to its title, but it’s unlike its predecessors in that it’s not really a collection of tribute songs by a wide range of artists. The album includes 18 songs, and 10 of them are by Stoney Edwards— 10 songs from Valley of the Giants. (It’s unclear whether that represents the entirety of the album or if others remain unreleased, perhaps because their choice of honorees overlapped with other songs on the compilation.) Other than two songs by Merle Haggard, no artist other than Edwards has more than one song on the album. That includes Jane Morgan, who provided the title song and whose photo adorns the album cover.
Ken Edwards reports that Bear Family’s license to his father’s songs was only a short-term one, and that rights to the songs have reverted to Capitol. He’s glad that the world has gotten to hear nine more of his father’s songs, but would like to see them released in the format for which they were intended: as Valley of the Giants, a concept album by the great country singer Stoney Edwards.
I agree whole-heartedly. Stoney Edwards wasn’t Hank Williams or Johnny Cash, for whom every scrap of music ever recorded—good, bad or indifferent–sooner or later gets a commercial release. We don’t need to have every surviving alternate take of every song Edwards ever recorded. But he was a great country singer whose work deserves more attention than it’s gotten, in his day or in ours, and that there are finished studio recordings from his prime years languishing unheard in Capitol’s vaults is unconscionable.
Lately a “Black Music Matters” movement has directed some long-overdue attention to underappreciated Black artists of the past. Understandably its attention has focused largely on such Black-dominated genres as jazz and the blues, but there are many Black country artists whose work could use a reassessment—none more so than Stoney Edwards. I hope he gets it.
HOW THEY GOT TO TOWN
The preceding pages of this irresponsibly long essay have summarized what I know, how I know what I know and my best guesses as to some of the missing pieces. What does it all add up to? Well, here’s how I think this whole thing went down.
The starting point was “Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul,” written by Dallas Frazier and A.L. “Doodle” Owens. First recorded by Stoney Edwards and released as a single on July 7, 1973, it made it to No. 39 on the country charts. That wouldn’t have been much for Hank Williams or Lefty Frizzell, but for Edwards it constituted a hit, the third-best showing of his entire career. (“She’s My Rock” (1972) and “Mississippi, You’re on My Mind” (1975) each made it to No. 20.)
It was obvious that the song should headline Edwards’ next album, but Edwards and Capitol both saw the potential for more than that. “Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul” was a perfect match of sound and subject, with Edwards’ old-school honky-tonk sound (by then decades out of date) ideally suited to a song saluting 1950s country singers. Why not do another one? Or two? Or an entire album’s worth? Surely this would go down well with the classic-country market, older record buyers who had cherished such artists as Williams, Frizzell, Roy Acuff, Red Foley and Ernest Tubb. These people were Edwards’ natural audience, but perhaps were reluctant to try a Black singer; if he could reach them through tribute songs, maybe they’d stick with him.
We don’t have songwriter credits for Valley of the Giants, and it’s quite possible that Edwards wrote one or two of the songs himself, but it’s virtually impossible that he wrote all of the nine new songs we know of. The recording sessions began less than seven weeks after the release of “Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul,” and Edwards had a busy touring schedule. He also faced an obstacle that, by the 1970s, was rare among country artists: Edwards not only couldn’t read or write music (which was and is common), but couldn’t read or write at all—he was functionally illiterate. One of the reasons he didn’t record many of his own songs was that the process of writing songs was slow and time-consuming for him, because it required him to memorize everything as he went along. There’s no way he could have cranked out nine new tribute songs in the space of seven weeks or less. (Probably much less, because the various celebrity side men can’t have been booked on the spur of the moment; almost certainly, Edwards and Colley had a song list no later than the beginning of August.)
Presumably they put out a call for tribute songs. Nashville songwriters spend their lives trying to convince major-label artists to record their songs, and when it becomes known that such an artist is actively looking for songs in a particular style, in a particular genre or on a particular subject, the response is always substantial.
Edwards may well have reached out to Charlie Williams personally. Williams and Gordon Terry had co-written “Something New and Different,” which Edwards had recorded in 1971, and Williams was a champion networker who knew everybody and kept his ear to the ground. In 1973 he was newly arrived in Nashville, having moved from Los Angeles and abandoned a prosperous career as a disk jockey to become a full-time songwriter, and surely he was even more eager to place songs than usual.
The most likely scenario is that Edwards commissioned “The Night the Ernest Tubb Show Came to Town” from Williams. He may well have commissioned all the songs on the album, probably from as many different writers, because the obvious hazard to a call for tribute songs is that you may get 40 songs honoring Red Foley and none paying tribute to Ernest Tubb. The 10 songs that would have made up the album (there may have been another couple that didn’t make it onto A Girl Named Johnny Cash) honor 11 different legendary artists, with no overlap.
It’s quite possible that Williams had already written “The Night the Ernest Tubb Show Came to Town.” Besides being an excellent song, the best on what we know of the album, and showing no signs of being written in haste, it’s also strikingly unlike the others, all of which are straightforward songs lauding the honoree. Williams’ song is not actually a tribute to Ernest Tubb at all: It doesn’t name-check any of his songs or any of his sidemen, and it doesn’t talk about how great he was, let alone what made him so great—the only thing the song mentions him doing is signing an autograph.
Instead the song is about the impact of the visit of a nationally known singer to a small Texas town, sometime between the 1940s and the 1960s (see below for a note on dating these songs). It’s significant that the title is not “The Night that Ernest Tubb Came to Town,” but “The Night the Ernest Tubb Show Came to Town.” The person we learn the most about isn’t Tubb at all, but rather “little E.T. Thompson,” who presumably is named after the singer—not because his parents loved Tubb, but because he happens to have been born the night of Tubb’s visit. That visit came in the year of a devastating drought and on the night of a local murder, but to the townsfolk it was not “the year of the drought” or “the night of the murder,” but “the year the Ernest Tubb Show came to town” and “the night the Ernest Tubb Show came to town.” That’s the kind of impact Tubb’s visit had.
It’s a terrific song, and might well have been a hit if it had been released as a single—or, indeed, if it had been released at all. It wasn’t to be, for reasons that had nothing to do with the quality of either the song or the album. Valley of the Giants disappeared, essentially never to be heard from again, and with it went “The Night the Ernest Tubb Show Came to Town.”
Twelve years later, Stoney Edwards was in failing health, and had severed his ties with Capitol Records. The rights to the recordings stayed with Capitol, and there’s no indication that Edwards had shown any further interest in that particular song or that Capitol had ever given serious consideration to releasing either the song or the album. Ernest Tubb, who probably never knew the song existed, was dead. The only person in the world who still remembered it, apparently, was Charlie Williams.
By this point Williams was solidly entrenched as a Nashville songwriter, and he still thought “The Night the Ernest Tubb Show Came to Town” was a song worth hearing. However, at this point his biggest hits lay more than a decade behind him, and in 1985 his name on a song wasn’t a selling point. He turned to Bobby Braddock, a friend who was also enduring a cold spell, but who had been as hot in the 1970s as Williams had been cold. He told Braddock that he had a song called “The Night the Ernest Tubb Show Came to Town,” one that he liked, but which needed some work. Could they sit down and take a look at it?
Braddock was agreeable, and the two set to work. It’s impossible to say for sure who contributed each element of the song, so many years later, but most likely the changes came primarily from Braddock, a more experienced songwriter who was taking his first crack at the subject matter.
Regardless of who wrote what, they ended up with what was essentially a new song. The melody is substantially different, but it’s the lyrics that have been most drastically altered. The switch from Ernest Tubb to Porter Wagoner, at Braddock’s suggestion, is only the tip of the iceberg. Of the original song’s 12 lines, only five remain in the new song: the closing line of each verse, the line about Beulah Reisner’s fan and the reference to having pictures taken with the band. The other seven lines, more than half of the original song, have vanished without a trace—particularly surprising, given that the new song is more than twice as long, at 28 lines.
“The Night Porter Wagoner Came to Town” is a story song, with a beginning, a middle and a twist ending of sorts. Little E.T. Thompson is out of the picture, the crop failure is history and so is the murder. The new song’s seven verses tell the story of a young man in a small Texas town who takes his girl to see Porter Wagoner one night in 1973; the song recounts in some detail Wagoner’s show (including mention of four other performers in the act), and ends with a kicker, as the boy loses the girl, who apparently goes off with the band. (Nicely set up, at the beginning, with the establishing lines “and I was still in love with Mavis Brown, the night Porter Wagoner came to town.”)
In every sense it’s a much more conventional country song. Where the original song was painted in broad strokes, the new one’s added length allows for plenty of detail: The young man’s shirt is ironed by his mother, and his father lends the lad his truck; the young couple stops for a drink on the far side of the county line; the show is in a sweltering gym; the band hangs around afterward, signing autographs, posing for pictures and chatting up the local girls. Most important, though, it’s a first-person song about love, which is far more mainstream than the third-person-omniscient, community-centered “The Night the Ernest Tubb Show Came to Town.”
Presumably both Braddock and Williams spent time trying to place the song—as also did the song pluggers from Tree International, Braddock’s publishers. The fact that the song wound up being released by Tabby Crabb on Doctor Bob Records suggests that their efforts were not successful, since neither the unknown Crabb nor the fringe indie Doctor Bob could reasonably expect to get substantial promotion, radio play or placement in record stores. If there were any likelihood of the song getting its initial recording by an established singer or a major label, surely Crabb and Doctor Bob would never have gotten anywhere near it.
In any case, since Braddock professes himself previously unaware of any commercial recording of “The Night Porter Wagoner Came to Town,” it stands to reason that it was Charlie Williams who negotiated the placement. Probably the prospect of a video—and the possibility of Porter Wagoner’s appearing in it—was central to the deal, because it’s the only obvious way that a song by an unknown singer on a fringe label could hope to make any money for the songwriters.
The video shoot then took place. Given that Wagoner reneged on his agreement to participate (probably because, on listening to the song, he found it insulting), the fact that the video got fairly substantial play on CMT and the song got significant radio play represents a good outcome. Certainly the fact that the video is still being watched, 36 years later, is more than Williams could have expected. Its longevity is well deserved, however, because it’s a funny performance treated with low-budget charm and remains entertaining to this day.
Nonetheless, Williams clearly didn’t regard the song’s potential as having been exhausted, and more than a year later he brought it to the attention of Johnny Cash, his longtime friend and occasional collaborator. Braddock believes that the song was changed from being about Porter Wagoner to being about Hank Williams at Cash’s request; it’s equally possible, however, that Williams changed it so that he could pitch it to Cash as a new song, rather than a cover of a Tabby Crabb song.
In either case, Braddock and Cash made some hasty revisions—mostly to put it back in time by a couple of decades—and Cash recorded the song, with Waylon Jennings providing backup vocals, Cowboy Jack Clement producing and Charlie Williams cameoing as the hard-sell DJ at the end of the recording.
“Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul” had hit No. 39 for Stoney Edwards, and been one of his biggest hits. To Johnny Cash, a man with 13 No. 1 country hits, “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town” ranked as a flop when it topped out at No. 43 (a number Edwards surpassed only four times in his career). Cash sang the song in concert occasionally, but—as far as he was concerned, anyway—its potential was exhausted. Charlie Williams seemed to agree, because he made no further efforts to extend its lifespan.
It would take a new century and a German record company to bring the song back into the public eye, at least indirectly, and to open the door to a broader understanding of its origins. When Bear Family Records released A Girl Named Johnny Cash: and Other Tribute Songs, it represented the closest thing to date to the release of Valley of the Giants, and the first-ever release of “The Night the Ernest Tubb Show Came to Town.”
(The new century also brought Glenn Douglas Tubb’s apparently unrelated song “The Day that Ernest Tubb Came to Town.” This song, written and performed by Ernest Tubb’s nephew but apparently not commercially recorded, jumps off from a supposed quote by the legendary producer Owen Bradley, to the effect that Nashville became Music City U.S.A. “the day that Ernest Tubb came to town.” This quote, supposedly from an interview, may well be accurate—Bradley was Tubb’s producer for decades and clearly loved the Texas Troubadour—but I’ve been unable to track down a source for it.)
Courtesy of the internet, all three “The Night … “ songs are now readily available to listeners, and they offer three contrasting musical styles (and levels of stardom), from the reckless party-song performance of the unknown Tabby Crabb through the shambling-but-assured honky-tonk of Stoney Edwards to the polished, consciously retro style of superstar Johnny Cash. They include two entirely different types of songs, pressing the same basic idea into first a third-person social commentary and then a first-person story song, and along the way involve many of country music’s abiding themes: the underlying racial aspects of an art form that was, after all, based in large part on Black music; the tensions between songwriters and record labels, and between songwriters and singers; the meaning of stardom; the veneration of country’s past; the significance of country music in the small towns and rural backwaters far from the bright lights of New York, Los Angeles or even Nashville; and more.
My personal favorite is “The Night the Ernest Tubb Show Came to Town,” but I like all three. I’d like them even if they weren’t pieces of a bigger, more interesting puzzle, but I like them better because they are.
MORE ANSWERS TO COME? GIVE ME A HAND …
I’m very grateful to Bobby Braddock, Ken Edwards and Andy May for sharing their recollections with me, and to the many people who have obsessively posted vast quantities of useful information—the online archives of Billboard and Cashbox, to cite only two examples, are treasure troves of names and dates.
There are still things I wish I knew about this story, however, and some people that I’ve been unable to track down in an effort to answer those questions.
* Diane Dickerson, formerly Diane Williams, widow of Charlie Williams.
* Charlie McCoy, the great harmonica player, who played on several songs for Valley of the Giants, but not “The Night the Ernest Tubb Show Came to Town”—but, nonetheless, Ken Edwards thinks he “had a lot to do with that.”
* Buck Trent, longtime member of Porter Wagoner’s Wagonmasters Band and last surviving major participant in the video version of “The Night Porter Wagoner Came to Town.”
If anybody out there can help me get in touch with them, or if anybody else knows anything useful about any of the three versions of this classic song (or about Valley of the Giants and, particularly, its songwriting credits), I’d certainly appreciate a hand.
Which Night Was That?
* It’s impossible to date “The Night the Ernest Tubb Show Came to Town,” due to its lack of specific events as reference points. It surely takes place after World War II, because Tubb didn’t start touring with a full “Ernest Tubb Show” until 1946—previously he simply toured with a band. However, it could take place anywhere between 1946 and 1973. The most likely period is the late 1940s or early 1950s, judging by the apparent isolation of the small town the song is about. By the 1960s, television and interstate highways had brought even small towns more closely into the American mainstream.
* “The Night Porter Wagoner Came to Town” dates the show as the night that “Foreman knocked out Frazier on TV.” The night Porter Wagoner came to town is most likely Monday, January 22, 1973, the date of the first fight between George Foreman and Joe Frazier, which ended with Frazier being knocked out in the second round. (The video explicitly dates it to January 22, but the song does not.) Less of a “big event” was the second match between the two, on Saturday, June 15, 1976. Frazier was again knocked out, this time in the fifth round. (Small-town shows were more likely to be on weeknights, with Saturday nights reserved for big-city shows with big audiences—or, of course, The Grand Ole Opry’s live broadcasts.)
* “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town” most likely takes place on Monday, October 15, 1951, when “I Love Lucy debuted on TV”; less likely, but still possible, is the date of the second-season premiere, on Monday, September 15, 1952. Hank Williams was dead by the time the third season premiered. In any case, Braddock and Williams are sloppy here, because, of the three songs they cite Williams as singing in the show, only “I Saw the Light” (1947) could have been sung in a 1951 concert. “Jambalaya” (1952) was released on July 19, 1952, and couldn’t have been performed live in 1951—though it was a No. 1 country hit that would surely have featured prominently in a September 1952 concert. “Your Cheating Heart,” however, wouldn’t have been performed on either date: It was a posthumous release in January 1953, and wasn’t even recorded until September 23, 1952, a week after the I Love Lucy second-season premiere.
And in case you haven’t heard …
One more time, here are the links to:
* “The Night the Ernest Tubb Show Came to Town” (Stoney Edwards version);
* “The Night Porter Wagoner Came to Town” (Bobby Braddock version);
* “The Night Porter Wagoner Came to Town” (Tabby Crabb version);
* “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town” (Johnny Cash version).