All too often, country composers of the 1940s and 1950s who didn’t have a substantial string of hits of their own are forgotten even if their songs have not been. Jimmy Work is a classic example. The author of three bonafide Country classics – “Tennessee Border” (1948), “Making Believe” (a simultaneous hit for both he and Kitty Wells in March of 1955) and “That’s What Makes The Juke Box Play” (1955) – Work’s records have been a little more than a footnote to the fifties, a composer’s credit on someone else’s records. That fact is truly unfortunate, for in truth, Jimmy Work was among the most expressive composers of the era. Though Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell enjoyed greater success, Work’s best songs were among the most evocative of the period: raw, unvarnished gems with an undeniable directness and beauty.
Born in Akron, Ohio, on March 23, 1924, Jimmy Work moved to a farm his folks purchased near Dukedom, on the border of Western Kentucky and Tennessee, in 1926. “I started playing back when I was seven years old”, he says today. “My Dad had bought my mother a guitar, and she never did learn to play it, and that’s how I learned to play a guitar. Back then I listened to Gene Autry, and I liked Roy Acuff. He was one of my favorites.”
“Around this part of the country, there were some good musicians also”, Work says. “And I was going to high school and we had a band there. They used to have fiddler’s contests, and I was playin’ in all of those and I winnin’ a lot of prizes, but I just liked country music. I started writin’ songs when I was real young. And started singin’ those songs around and people seemed to like it. And that’s been more or less a hobby of mine – sittin’ down and writin’ songs and playin’ music.” Work did not only commit himself to music. He also became an accomplished millwright, a profession he pursued on and off, alternating with music., throughout the past several decades.
His first substantial musical work came at the end of World War II when he moved to Pontiac, Michigan, around 1945. Pontiac and other Detroit suburbs were a powerful wartime magnet for southerners drawn to the money they could make working in war production plants that had been adapted from Detroit’s massive auto factories. Country singers like Work gave them a taste of home, for the loneliness of displacement from the rural south to the smoky, urban Midwest, later brilliantly evoked in Mel Tillis’ classic song “Detroit City”” was very real. Work went on to work on the aptly named WCAR radio in Pontiac, had a songbook published and made his first records for the tiny Trophy label. “Detroit was a good country town, a good country record town”, he remembers.
“You know, I couldn’t get nobody to record that song, and I went, and recorded it myself,” he remembers. “That record got me started.” Hank Williams was among the major artists who covered it. Its rural overtones made it enormously appealing. He recalls: “All the major labels put it out (on their artists).” Decca signed him in 1949, and with Paul Cohen producing, Jimmy recorded in Cincinnati (backed by Jerry Byrd, Louis Innis and Tommy Jackson, among others) and Nashville. “Bluegrass Ticklin’ My Feet” did modestly well, but the Decca contract didn’t last.
Still working around Detroit, he recorded one single, “Hospitality”, for Bullet (out of Nashville), backed by his Tennessee Border Boys (# 699). By the early fifties, he was with Capitol, (and writing for Hill and Range), but still hadn’t followed up his success with a hit of his own. He made numerous guest appearances on the major live radio shows of the day and era, such as the WLS National Barn Dance out of Chicago, Illinois, the WWVA Original Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia, the KWKH Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, Louisiana, the WFAA Saturday Night Shindig out of Fort Worth, Texas.
Still, “Tennessee Border” boosted his career outside Detroit. He twice appeared on the Grand Ole Opry as well as Ernest Tubb’s “Midnight Jamboree”. He also met Hank Williams several times. “Hank wanted me to go to Acuff-Rose. Of course that was when I first appeared on the Opry and sang “Tennessee Border”. He would always kid me. I had some songs on Decca, and every time he’d see me he’d start singing one of them, “Bluegrass Ticklin’ My Feet”. That song sold a lot of copies.” Two singles for London Records (the American subsidiary of British Decca) in 1951 dit nothing, but in late 1953, Work was contracted to Acuff-Rose song publishing who tried to promote his material. Despite the company’s stature and the popularity of honkytonk, they had difficulty doing so. Even his best-known number, “Making Believe”, attracted little attention at first. “Acuff-Rose couldn’t get nobody to record it. And I cut the master because I was singin’ it everywhere and people there in Detroit, every time they’d see me playin’, that’s the first thing they’d ask me to play.”
Work had landed a contract with Capitol in 1953, but again two singles went nowhere, and by 1954 he was signed to Randy Wood’s Dot Records of Gallatin, Tennessee. He produced his own sessions in Detroit and shipped off the master tapes to Dot for pressing and release. From that first session came not only “Making Believe”, his first Dot release, but “That’s What Makes The Juke Box Play”, along with “Don’t give Me A Reason To Wonder Why.” All the backing tracks feature austere, straight accompaniment that is strictly supportive. The lead guitarist, for example, does little more than play a pulsating dead-string accompaniment in the style of Zeke Turner or Luther Perkins with the steel guitar and fiddle the most prominent instruments.
“Making Believe”, issued in early 1955, surprised everyone by reaching the Number 11 position on Billboard’s country charts in March of that year. The song nobody wanted, that Work himself knew had potential, was vindicated by its success. Suddenly Work’s stature in the industry rose considerably. The fact that at virtually the same time Decca’s Kitty Wells covered the song and took it to Number 2 position proved the durability of the number, and Work’s songwriting as well.
“That’s What Makes The Juke Box Play”, the second Dot single, did not become a huge hit for Work but this quintessential honkytonk ballad, like “Making Believe”, has had a long and sustained life with honkytonk singers ever since, its sorrowful and powerful imagery being among the finest of the idiom.
“Just Like Downtown” has much of the rollicking feel of Hank Williams’ numbers like “Settin’ The Woods On Fire”, an idealized, sanitized portrait of a southern house party. “That Cold, Cold look In Your Eye” and “Blind Heart” were typical unrequited love ballads. He recorded “Blind Heart” twice. The first recording, recorded at his second session, wound up on a Dot album, the second (done at his final session) was one side of his last Dot single in 1956.
Thirty years have dimmed his memories of specific details of the records themselves, though Jimmy does remember some basic data. “The Dot sides were cut in Detroit. I used United Sound studio, and I used Casey Clark and his band; Casey played fiddle, and Buddy Emmons played with me on some of those (Emmons was working in Detroit, before joining Little Jimmy Dickens in July 1955). Casey, his boys kind of switched around with him, you know. He had different ones here and there. The band had lead guitar, bass fiddle and a piano on some of them. I don’t know if there were drums in there or not. We recorded about four songs at a time. I’d cut ‘em in Detroit and send ‘em to Randy Wood at Dot.” The band sounded at times as if they were consciously patterning their accompaniments after those of Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboys (note the high-register Don Helms-styled steel guitar licks on “That Cold, Cold Look In Your Eye”.)
As a vocalist, Work was among the least polished, most overtly rural of the era aside from Hank and Lefty. His phrasing was understated, and his voice quavered in places. None of it was affectation, his voice was nasal (he could have done well had he pursued a bluegrass career) and his delivery was relaxed and easygoing, putting the lyrics up front.
Virtually all his Dot recordings were original numbers and the majority were ballads in the late 40s/early 50s style. Yet he also did some fine uptempo novelties like “When She Said You All” and “Puttin’ On The Dog, And Tom Cattin’ Around”, a bluesy novelty number in the Hank Williams style, the only Dot number never issued (until now). (…)
“Making Believe’s” popularity expanded his horizons. After a stay in Nashville, he headed south to WVOK in Birmingham, Alabama, which became his new home base for a time. It also got him some substantial tours, including a string of bookings handled by the popular Memphis C&W disc jockey Bob Neal, then booking Elvis Presley around the South. “Elvis was a good entertainer,” he says. “That’s when he was on the Sun label. When his first records came out, a lot of disc jockeys thought it was Rhythm and Blues, you know. I took ‘em back to Detroit and the (country) disc jockeys wouldn’t play ‘em. And I told ‘em, “Well, someday you’ll play them, and I don’t think it’s gonna be too long.” And those same disc jockeys remembered. Later they said “Jimmy, you was right.”
He stayed in Alabama until 1957, then played around the country music parks in the northeast, including some in Pennsylvania. Dot continued releasing records during 1956, none of them, however, had the impact of “Making Believe”, good as they were. “Digging My Own Grave” was particularly interesting. Much in the style of Hank’s “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive”, it had the same easygoing fatalism.
However, Work’s performing and recording career effectively ended by the late fifties.(…) Some tried recording rock and roll; others were forced into it by producers. But Work never tried to do that. “I was just a few years too late, maybe four or five”, he reflects. (…) For a while, he moved to Southern California, where he sold real estate, and made his final two singles (one a cover of “Tennessee Border”) for the Whittier, CA based “All” label. In the end, he returned to Dukedom and millwrighting, apparently without bitterness or rancor. He does not performing, even locally these days. “But I still write songs for Acuff-Rose”.
Rick Kienzle, notes to “Jimmy Work – Making Believe” LP (Bear Family 15177), 1985.