Faron Young – Hi-Tone Poppa – Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight

Apr 10, 2021

Liner notes for Faron Young: Hi-Tone Poppa: Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight, Bear Family Records

Originally published in 2006, with thanks to Colin Escott

When Country Music Hall of Fame singer Faron Young was asked about the rockabilly and rock and roll sides he cut in the 1950s, his answer was simple. “I was not cut out to sing that kind of music,” he told David Booth, “but when you drop $400,000 a year, you’ll try anything you can. I’d have tried to paint myself black! When I hear any of that stuff today, I turn fourteen flips in the air, I hate it!”

What makes such a statement ironic is that while the teenage-themed pop-a-billy sides he waxed in the late 1950s were forced upon him and bear the authenticity of such, the fact remains that Young’s hillbilly boogie songs of the early and mid-1950s, with their braggadocio-laden lyrical content and aggressive boogie-woogie guitar-based sound, were highly influential to the new crop of rockabillies.

Songs such as “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young,” “I’m Gonna Live Some Before I Die,” and “If You Ain’t Lovin (You Ain’t Livin’)” preached a lifestyle that was immediately adapted by the first wave of rock and rollers as their own. Almost as importantly, Faron Young lived the kind of life he sang about, a life that would define rock-star behavior—women, pills, booze, and lewdness of the highest order—which would become a mainstay of the four-letter word Rock.

This disc encapsulates but a brief time in Young’s long career, but is a perfect one to show how influential he was to the new music known as the big beat, and it is the perfect compilation for those who prefer his up-tempo hillbilly, rockabilly, and rock and roll side. For a better examination of Young’s ten years on Capitol Records, check out the excellent Bear Family box set Faron Young: The Early Years 1952-1962 (BCD 15493), which takes you all the way from his early Hank Williams soundalike recordings to his lush countrypolitan hits of the early 1960s. Young also kept recording for Mercury well into the 1970s, with such notable hits as “Wine Me Up” and “It’s Four in the Morning.”

One thing that can be said of Young’s thirty-plus-year recording career is that he always kept up with current trends in music, which goes a long way to explain the recordings on this compilation, which spans nearly every trend in country from the early 1950s through the early ‘60s.

Young was born on February 25, 1932, in Shreveport, Louisiana, a town that would weigh heavily on the ascent of his musical career. While he seems to have been raised in a typical Depression-era household, he also appears to have been a typical middle-class American child in every other way. He not only completed high school, but also attended college until the show-business bug bit him. Country music seemed unimportant to his early life; he preferred the pop artists of the day such as Patti Page to the rough and rowdy hillbilly music that would eventually become his bread and butter.

What got Faron Young into music was his lifelong need for attention. He began entering amateur contests at a young age, singing pop songs and picking coins off the stage for pay, but appears to have been steered into the country music world when a man offered him five dollars to sing “Jambalaya” instead of the twenty-five cents he was used to receiving for a typical pop request.

Young’s quick rise to fame in the country music world can be explained quite simply: He was a good-looking young man in the right place (Shreveport, home of the Louisiana Hayride syndicated radio show) at the right time (the peak of Hank Williams’s popularity) with an unquenchable thirst to be somebody. As a detective might characterize it, he had means, motive, and opportunity, of which he took full advantage.

As legend has it, Young had a small bit of experience playing the clubs around Shreveport but had great aspirations even from the start. His first break came when he auditioned songs for local star Webb Pierce. Rather than buying the compositions, Pierce instead liked Young’s singing voice and began paying him to warm up his shows and sing in his place when he got too drunk or tired. (This is a time-honored tradition in the country music world. The position is called “front man” and is as ubiquitous as a rapper’s posse is in the realm of hip-hop).

Young stayed with Pierce for about a year as his front man, long enough for Pierce to get him on the Louisiana Hayride show and to get Young his first recording contract with the tiny, Philadelphia-based Pacemaker-Gotham label (the same label that Pierce’s initial releases were on).

The first release with Young’s own vocals was oddly credited to Tillman Franks, who played bass for Pierce and Young. We’ve included both sides here, and both are great examples of primitive hillbilly boogie: “Hi-Tone Poppa” and “Hot Rod Shotgun Boogie No. 2,” which were originally released at Gotham 412.

Young’s three releases on Pacemaker-Gotham didn’t sell at all outside of the local area, but again luck seemed to be on his side. Capitol Records’s A&R man Ken Nelson (a legendary figure responsible for signing the Louvin Brothers, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Gene Vincent, and many others to the label) heard a live broadcast by Pierce and Young as he was driving to Dallas. Knowing that Pierce was signed to Decca but sensing that the other singer might be available, Nelson turned his car around and drove back to Shreveport, where he offered Young a Capitol recording contract on the spot. He would record with Capitol for the next ten years.

Young liked to say that he had a hit with his first record on Capitol, but the truth is that it took three singles before he had his first bona fide hit, “Goin’ Steady.” “Goin’ Steady” was much plagiarism at anything else. Recorded just months before Hank Williams died and hitting its peak on the charts as the nation mourned his passing, the record could have been an unreleased Hank performance, so close was Young’s vocal imitation. As Young himself admitted, “Everybody’s an imitator when they start, and believe me I had no style at all when I started.”

One thing that can be said of Young’s thirty-plus-year recording career is that he always kept up with current trends in music, which goes a long way to explain the recordings on this compilation, which spans nearly every trend in country from the early 1950s through the early ‘60s.

The Hank Williams parallel was based on real-life experience, too. Young holds the dubious distinction of introducing Hank to Billie Jean Jones on a trip to the Grand Ole Opry in the summer of 1952 (where Young was invited to join the cast as a semiregular guest). Billie Jean came to Nashville as Young’s date and wound up marrying Hank Williams. She would marry Johnny Horton after Hank’s death and became known in the country music world as the Black Widow after Horton’s tragic death in 1960. Asked if he had any bitter feelings about losing Billie Jean to Hank, Young would state “I sure am glad ol’ Hank took her away from me because she’d have cost me a damn million dollars by now.”

“Goin’ Steady” was breaking on the charts just as Young got inducted into the Army in November of 1952. He went from making $500 a night to making $87.50 a month, but although it seemed like a career killer at first, eventually he discovered it was another great opportunity. His status as a well-known singer got him the cushiest life a soldier could get. With a fan who was a Third Army general, he was allowed to continue appearing on the Opry, he was able to play small clubs near his army base (in Fort McPherson, Georgia), he could still record new sessions for Capitol, and perhaps best of all he was given the special assignment of recording transcriptions that were sent out to two thousand radio stations a week. It was great publicity he couldn’t buy as a civilian—as a soldier he was getting more exposure than ever. Then, as now, a singing soldier dressed in fatigues was a powerful image and country music fans ate it up.

Timed almost perfectly with his release from the Army, his next big hit was the one to define the rest of his 1950s style: “If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’).” Written by Bakersfield songsmith (and fellow Capitol recording artist) Tommy Collins, the mixture of hillbilly-boogie musical backing, lyrics about honky-tonk wild living, and Young’s plaintive vocals were a magical mixture.

Young would continue this trend with a series of fantastic sides, all of which are included here: “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young,” “I’ve Got Five Dollars (and It’s Saturday Night),” “It’s a Great Life if You Don’t Weaken (and Who Wants to Be Strong),” and “I’m Gonna Live Some Before I Die,” all of which were nearly identical in lyrical content and musical performance. Young was clearly mining a winning formula, with fantastic results.

The strongest criticism that may be leveled on Faron Young’s career is that he was willing to do anything, follow any direction, to be successful in the music business. When hillbilly boogie was the fashion, he cut great records such as the ones mentioned above. When pop music appeared to be the new trend, he made horrific records like “The Shrine of Saint Cecilia,” which thankfully bombed or we wouldn’t speak of him in such glowing terms today!

All of which goes a long way to explain why Young was dragged kicking and screaming into the world of rock and roll. Ken Nelson, the A&R man for Capitol who had signed him, showed him how well singers such as Elvis Presley and Capitol’s new star Gene Vincent were selling in comparison to the country roster. Young’s fortunes had been dwindling since rock and roll had reared its head, and, in his words, he would rather sing rock and roll than be poor.

His rockabilly sides, most notably “Honey Stop!” and “I Can’t Dance,” are enjoyable but easily dismissed. The instrumental backing on these and his other forays into rockabilly and rock and roll are simply superb—the Nashville A-team at their rocking best. However, the vocals sound exactly like what they are: a country singer being forced to step into Presley territory and not liking it one bit. At least these sides can still be enjoyed for their musicianship and great sound quality (courtesy of producer Owen Bradley). They are certainly not bad, especially compared with some of the real honest-to-goodness clunkers that Young cut through the years, but you can just tell the man’s heart was not in it.

By the late 1950s Young seemed to be back on track. Perhaps rekindled by the chart success of Ray Price, he began recording hard honky-tonk numbers such as “Alone with You” and “That’s the Way I Feel.” Such records kept an almost rockabillyesque delivery but featured a return to the twin fiddles and steel guitar. Much of the excellent material he recorded around this time came from the members of his road band, which included future superstars Roger Miller on drums and Johnny Paycheck (then known as Donny Young) on bass.

Young also brought along a host of new and inexperienced front men, many of whom would later become stars. From the Wilburn Brothers to Jimmy & Johnny to Gordon Terry and others, he had a knack for picking out young, super talents, and many of these aforementioned stars got their first break touring as Young’s front men. Another of his discoveries was a young Texas songwriter by the name of Willie Nelson. Nelson was another knockabout who spent time touring with Young, Ray Price, and others, all the while composing songs that he would pitch to those who would listen and toiling in near obscurity as a writer for Pamper Music in Nashville.

Young was most certainly listening when he heard “Hello Walls,” a new Nelson composition from a Pamper Music demo. His firm belief in the song (even as the studio musicians poked fun at it during the recording session, and as Willie tried to sell him the song outright for a few hundred dollars) paid off when it became the biggest hit and defining song of his career.

One part Ray Price shuffle, one part classic Willie Nelson introspection, and one part pop, “Hello Walls” could be considered the definitive example of where Nashville was headed in the early 1960s. Lush orchestration and smooth backing vocals took the place of steel guitars and twin fiddles. The rural edges were sanded off and smoothed down for mass consumption. Young was there and ready to cash in on it, and again he milked this new style for all it was worth, recording several other Willie Nelson compositions in an attempt to score a follow-up hit. He even re-recorded his first hit, “Goin’ Steady,” with the new uptown country style, and that version is included here. As it happened, he would not have another massive hit until “Wine Me Up” charted in the late 1960s. He switched to the Mercury label in 1962 and spent most of the ‘60s searching for a new direction before eventually returning to the honky-tonk style that he had started with years before.

Faron Young is most certainly one of the great singers of country music. His place in the Hall of Fame cements that fact. He left behind a vast library of unforgettable music, but in the end it cannot be said that he was an innovator. His desire to be on top of the charts made him a follower, not a leader, but this does not diminish the power of the discography he left us.

Unfortunately, Young’s need to be in the spotlight ultimately led to his demise. When he was no longer drawing the crowds, when the phone stopped ringing, and when the records quit charting, he made the decision to take his own life on December 10, 1996. It was a very sad end for one of the greats of country music.