Sunday, May 23, 2010

Cowboy Copas Discovered

Recently I came home and discovered that my son, Nicholas, the co-editor of this blog, had been listening to my Cowboy Copas album. Particularly, he was focusing on Copas' incredible guitar picking in his great hit "Alabam.'

My interest in Copas was re-awakened last summer when I read John Roger Simon's book Cowboy Copas and the Golden Age of Country Music. The beginnings of my interest must go back to around 1969 when I bought a record album of Copas' music. Before that, I knew of him through a song called "Sunny Tennessee" that he sang on one of those many country combination albums, which introduced me to many singers.
I was around 13 years old at the time. The kids I knew did not usually listen to country music, and when I did come across someone who liked country music, they were listening to the more popular and current artists of that time, such as Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, or Charlie Pride.

I had no one to tell me that there was something wrong with a kid listening to Cowboy Copas, who had died in 1963. I was marching to a different drummer, or to be more exact, listening to a different style of guitar playing. John Lennon, Jimmy Hendrix, and Simon & Garfunkel did not appeal to me. (In later years, I have learned to appreciate the last duo mentioned, but still don't generally choose on my own to listen to them.) Copas' music was always calling me back (and he was not alone) to an older era in music and to a type of country music that was not being manufactured in recording studios to "appeal to a wider audience." Copas and others knew that there were enough farmers and factory workers and housewives and even goofy 13 year old boys out there listening to the music that had grown out of the southern, rural, and country experiences. (In Lloyd Estel Copas' case, southern meant southern Ohio.)

He epitomized the country singer of that era. He was tall and lanky, and he wore an oversized white cowboy hat and highly decorated suits. The clothes were part of the entertainment, a sign that the singer was there to give the fans something they were not used to seeing on the farm or assembly line.

I often wonder what would have happened to Copas if he had not died in that airplane crash that was so devastating to the world of country music. He had been a popular singer in the early fifties, and then with the advent of Elvis, he had faded. Then in the early sixties, his hit "Alabam" gave country fans a driving beat with lyrics and melody to dance to. He was a major comeback star.

What if Copas had not died in 1963?

With his resonate baritone voice, would he have been transformed into one of those dinner club singers with violins and a chorus of voices behind him? Ray Price certainly excelled in his older country music, but did many great songs after his mid-1960s transition. (So did Eddy Arnold.) Or would Copas have stuck to his style, like Porter Waggoner, and simply held on to his fame by his unchanging methods? I tend to think that he might have had a third come-back as a star. The Outlaws might have adopted him as one of their own, or the revival of pure country sounds, such as that of Randy Travis and George Strait, might have called attention to his music.

Of course, many country singers faded from the greater prominence and have been ignored by most radio stations, but they continued on through their days appearing on the Opry--and maybe a few small shows across the land--singing their big hits from decades ago.

With Copas, we will never know. But I will call again for the powers that be to put this legend in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

[The album pictured below is not the one I own. But the cover is almost exactly the same. My album is titled "Alabam," but it has the same picture of Copas standing in front of the grand WSM microphone. I have yet to discover--and perhaps it does not exist--a good two to four compact disk set of the essential or greatest songs of Cowboy Copas.]

John Roger Simon's biography of Copas fills in many details of his life, such as the fact that he was from Ohio and not Oklahoma as was often claimed. The book is published by the Jesse Stuart Foundation in Ashland, Kentucky.


  1. Nick: It's spelled Jimi, not Jimmy. Common mistake. I don't recall John Lennon being known for his guitar style- George Harrison played lead for the Beatles. Maybe you should have mentioned someone like Eric Clapton.
    Anyway, Alabam is a flat out awesome song that was country's answer to early 60s rock, except that early 60s rock was played by city slickers and British art school students, and Alabam was played by the real deal.

  2. Ben writes in answer to Nick: I actually was not referring to guitar players themselves when the reference was made to Lennon. I was simply trying to work off the twist of "marching to a different...." Maybe I should have said "marching to a steel guitar."
    I had a hunch that Gimmie Hen Dricks spelled his name in some wrongful manner, but in an article about country music, only one spelling of Jimmy is allowed by the Wagonmaster.

  3. I have that same album of Cowboy Copas that you have, I think Bear Family records should release a set of his Starday recordings, I'd definately buy it.