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Remembering Rose Maddox

Country Standard Time Editorial, May 1998

Though I had heard of them for years, I didn't actually hear the music of the Maddox Brothers and Rose, who died on Tax Day at 72, until perhaps four years ago when I picked up two Arhoolie CD collections, which cover their 1947-51 recordings on 4 Star. I was simply curious if they were as good as I'd always heard and, if anything, they were better than I could ever have imagined!

I'd never heard anything remotely like their music: the speed, the power, the humor, the giggling in the background and the sheer joy of making music that existed for no other reason than it was fun.

At their best they were making music so far ahead of its time that it was very nearly rockabilly a good five or six years before it should have existed. They planted the seeds that would sprout fully realized in the Fifties and Sixties as the great Bakersfield Sound (partly defined in the work of Merle Haggard by guitarist Roy Nichols, who had gotten his start with the Maddoxes).

No other country in the world could have produced the Maddox Brothers and Rose. Of that I have no doubt whatsoever.

At a time when Europe, Asia and Russia were slipping deeper and deeper into despair and under a jackboot of totalitarianism, it was nothing less than American grit and determination that drove the Maddox family from a bleak existence as Alabama sharecroppers to the promised land of California in 1933.

For a time they scraped by picking peaches in the same way that thousands of other migrant families did, but a combination of musical talent and fast talking (mainly from Rose's bass-playing brother Fred, who died in 1992) landed them a radio job and increasing live appearances until the brothers were drafted to serve in World War II. And after the war was over, the Maddoxes were there to entertain people who had spent four years liberating much of the world and now wanted to have as much fun as possible.

In 1947, the group landed a recording contract with the Pasadena-based 4 Star label. The money wasn't great (the group was generally paid with their own records, which they sold at their shows), but the group quickly became a staple of jukeboxes across the American southwest and their showmanship was legendary, in spite of the fact that they never enjoyed a national hit and only made one appearance on the Grand Ole Opry (1949).

In 1952, the group moved to Columbia Records where they stayed before disbanding four years later, though they occasionally reunited well into the Sixties when the mood hit them.

Rose's peak years of success as a solo artist were with Capitol between 1959 and 1964, where she placed 13 singles on the country charts, the best-remembered today being "Loose Talk" and "Mental Cruelty" (both duets with Buck Owens) and "Sing a Little Song of Heartache."

After the hits dried up Rose continued performing and recording, frequently assisted by famous friends and admirers such as Merle Haggard (who backed Rose with his band the Strangers on 1983's "Queen of the West" for Varrick) and the Desert Rose Band, members of which performed on the Grammy-nominated "$35 and a Dream" on Arhoolie and "The Moon Is Rising," an album of duets with guitarist John Jorgenson on Country-Town. "The Moon Is Rising," released in 1996 (though recorded mainly in 1987) was also Rose's last release before her death, not counting the February release of a four-disc boxed set on Germany's Bear Family label of the Maddox Brothers and Rose's Fifties Columbia recordings.

It's hard to say why Rose Maddox never became a bigger star, with or without her brothers, though being based in California instead ofNashville couldn't have helped. She also tended to speak her mind in anera when female country singers were still encouraged to be as demure as possible.

In my mind, though, she was simply the best. Like a new Christian who is so caught up in the sudden realization of pure, unyielding Truth with a capital "T" that he'll evangelize to anyone who will listen, I've constantly championed Rose Maddox over the past few years, have written about her and her brothers in several reviews, bought as many of her albums as I could find and recommended those records to dozens of friends and acquaintances.

A year or so back Deke Dickerson (former lead guitarist for the Dave and Deke Combo, who had once backed Rose at a folk music festival) posted her address on the rockabilly mailing list with the suggestion that list members send her get-well cards because she was feeling poorly at the time (and was, in fact, in bad health for much of her later years). I went out right away, bought a card, wrote her a short letter telling her how much her music meant to me and wished her a quick recovery. She never responded, and I didn't really expect her to, but I'm glad that I got a chance to tell her how great I thought she was.

As I write this I'm sitting at home listening to a Maddox Brothers and Rose CD, just having listened to George Jones' stunning new album." It's a stark reminder of the way Nashville works that Rose fought for recognition for her entire life and that George Jones, country's greatest living male singer bar none, has to now fight, beg, and cajole for airplay wherever he can get it.

If there's a lesson to be learned, it's that Rose never gave up, in spite of the fact that vocalists far less talented than her became more successful. George has put out a great album - probably one of his very best - and it will probably be ignored by radio for no other reason than his age. And this will be decided by people half his age who aren't fit to carry his jockstrap, much less pass judgment on his music, and who know as much about country music as they know about industrial turbines.

Yet Rose Maddox spent most of her career in much the same position and still found it in herself to give it her best right up until the very end. She never quit, and she gave as good as she got.

God bless you, Rose Maddox. You've earned your rest. I had almost forgotten how fun playing music could really be for a while there until you, Fred, and the others reminded me.

And, if nothing else, I'd like to think that the Maddox Brothers and Rose are together again somewhere, singing "There's a real hot spot on the Waterloo Road, got a hillbilly band called Maddox and Rose..."