Jimmy Work & the Border Boys: Tennessee Border and Making Believe (1945-1959)

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.

In 1948 Work recorded an original composition, “Tennessee Border”, for the local Alben label .alben work border

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.

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.

“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.

Cash Box April 30, 1955

Cash Box Sept. 17, 1955

“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”, or “Don’t Knock, Just Come On In” a bluesy novelty number in the Hank Williams style, the only Dot number never issued (until now). (…) was “Puttin’ The Dog”.

“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.Sources: for the most part, a huge 78rpm collection, label scans from 78worlds.

Article first published in 2011, completely revised July 2019.

Jimmie Logsdon: the early years (1951-1958)

Jimmie Lloyd Logsdon was born on April 1, 1922 in Panther, Kentucky. His father was a self-taught man who made it through a Methodist seminary. He was a circuit rider in Kentucky during his early years as a preacher and was then posted to several towns while Jimmie was growing up.

The beginnings

Music for the first 15 years of Jimmie’s life was gospel, the only music he had heard around his gospel surroundings. He and his sister sang in the choir. They put on shows and entered amateur contests. When the family lived in southeastern Kentucky, he heard blues singers and secular country music at ice cream parties and other social events. Later, he was impressed by rhythm & blues and especially remembers Erskine Hawkins’ “After Hours” as a record that made a deep impression on him. Glenn Miller, Gershwin and the popular music of the day also had an impact but not as much as blues and country.

The 1940s

In 1940, he was graduated from high school in Ludlow, Kentucky, and in the fall he married his first wife. He started working in Cincinnati installing public address systems. In 1944 he went to the service in the Air Corps, but never got further than technical training school in Madison, Wisconsin and an air base near San Antonio where he repaired the wiring on B-17s. Down in Texas, he heard Ernest Tubb and other Texas honky tonk singers. Locked up in the stockade for a few days, he remembers singing to a fellow inmate who was facing a term in Leavenworth. “That is where it all began, “Jimmie said.”

In 1946 Jimmie and the service parted ways. He then started a record and radio shop in La Grange, Kentucky, 25 miles northeast of Louisville. He picked up records from the Jimmie Skinner Record Center in Cincinnati to re-sell in his own store, and, after two years, decided that he would get into the music business. In 1948, he borrowed a guitar from some friends for a while and finally broke down and bought one from a pawn shop for 12 dollars. He learned a few basic chords, then cut some demos on an old recording machine he had in the back of the shop.

The first record

He got together a band and went to Cincinnati and cut his first record for Harvest Records, his own label : « It’s All Over Now (Harvest 401B) is a good uptempo bopper, well in the manner of the era (fiddle prominent, steel solo over a thudding bass). The flipside « Road of regret » is a real weeper. He did the recording at Herzogs which was the same studio where Hank Williams Sr. had cut “Lovesick Blues” about two years earlier.

The Decca years

He eventually wound up performing on a show in Louisville where the great Hank Williams was headlining. Hank told Jimmie that he would speak to someone in Nashville about getting Jimmie a contract. Meanwhile, Jimmie, in addition to doing shows and nightclub appearances, had a daily radio show. He interviewed lots of stars including Jim Reeves, Porter Waggoner, Merle Travis, Elvis Presley, Boyd Bennett, Les Paul and Mary Ford among others.

His career received a boost in 1953, when he became the host of a live country show on WHAS-TV, which also featured his backup group, the Golden Harvest Boys. Logsdon’s work for Decca was predominantly composed of country songs, but some of them verged on rockabilly. After Decca had dropped him in late 1954, Logsdon’s career took a dive, when the aftermath of a messy divorce drove him to drugs and a six-month stay in hospital. Vic McAlpin, his agent (also a prolific songwriter), got him onto Dot Records where he cut four songs in September 1955, the best being the bluesy « Cold Cold Rain »(Dot # 1274). He then went to Starday for one release : »I Can’t Make Up My Mind » is a rockabilly in essence, because the hiccups of Logsdon and the prominent steel (# 286, released March 1957).

Thus he was then ready for the next skip: his friend in Nashville, Vic McAlpin, called and said he had a possible recording deal for Jimmie with Roulette Records. By this time Rockabilly was coming into full swing and hardly any label wanted a country singer on their roster. Jimmie had gotten an idea for a song called “Where The Rio De Rosa Flows” when he was in San Antonio during the war. In August 1957 he recorded this rockabilly song for Roulette ( # 7001 in the short-lived Roulette C&W serie) and it was a big hit in several markets including Memphis where Carl Perkins heard it and covered it on a Columbia album («  Whole Lotta Shakin’ », Columbia 1234) shortly after Jimmie’s version was released.

Jimmie and Vic McAlpin also wrote “I’ve Got a Rocket in My Pocket.” To some, this might seem like a dirty song, but Jimmie insists that it was just a nonsense thing. It is still a standard and was used in the sound track of the movie, “the Right Stuff.” The reason Vic McAlpin and Jimmie decided to use the pseudonym “Jimmie Lloyd” when recording for Roulette Records was that Jimmie knew that country fans are loyal and maybe would not forgive him for singing rock and roll if they knew it was really him singing. Hardly any of his country fans knew that Jimmie Lloyd was in reality, Jimmie Logsdon.
He was released from his Roulette contract after the 2nd record and he realized that at this age, he might be a little old to be rocking and rolling.

Sources : my own archives ; HBR for Selective ; 45worlds for Tommy Sargent, Ray Whitley and Tommy Magness label scans.

Cashbox, sept. 14, 1957

Please see the follow-up to this story in: Jimmie Logsdon, the later years (1962-1982)

“No Shoes Boogie”, the underrated CHARLIE HARRIS (1951-1964)

Not to be confused with Nat King Cole’s bass player in the ’50s, this Charlie Harris is a Texas music legend who has been active in genres such as Western swing and country & western for at least half a century. One of Harris’ biggest fans is country icon Willie Nelson. The red-headed stranger took time in a 1974 written tribute to Bob Wills to also lavish praise on a group known as the Texas Top Hands. This is one of at least two legendary Texas music outfits that this guitarist has played with; another is Ray Price & the Cherokee Cowboys Band. This Charlie Harris has nothing to do with the one on King (early ’60s) or Golden Eagle label, neither more with Bob Tucker, who cut for State # 4002 the great bopper « Quit Draggin’ Your Feet ».

With Ray Price, Harris took on the important responsibility as frontman, stepping forward at the start of the show to warm up the audience and set the stage for the arrival of the headliner. He also took on this role with country star Stonewall Jackson. Fiddlers Johnny Bush and Buck Buchanan were also members of the Texas Top Hands who continued to be Harris’ associates in the Price outfit. The magnificent Johnny Bush — one of the only people with this surname that Texans are really enthusiastic about — actually played drums in the Texas Top Hands before he switched to fiddle. (Bush and Jimmy Day played together in 1997 in the Offenders, a Texas superband project that also involved Nelson and many others.) In the much dimmer past, Harris also worked in Western swing combos led by Adolph Hofner.

No biographical statistics on Harris are available, except he was a Texas native, and must have been in his early ’20s at the beginning of the 1950’s.

First record which Charlie Harris appears on is a R. D. Hendon’s Western Jamboree Cowboys disc in 1950, on the Freedom label. The origins of the Western Jamboree Cowboys, one of Houston’s most popular and prolific post-war country groups, can be traced to 1947, when some young musicians formed a group to appear at a small downtown nitery called the Sphinx Club, which was run by R.D. Hendon, an ex-oilfield roughneck and Navy veteran from Marquez, Texas. By 1949, the band who called themselves the South Texas Cowboys, were proving so popular that Hendon realized he needed a much bigger club to accommodate the crowds. So he purchased the Old main Street dance Hall – better known by his street address, 105 ½ Main – gave it a ‘western’ theme and rechristened it the Western Jamboree Night Club. The band’s name change followed suit and, by 1950, the club was drawing huge crowds six nights a week. In addition, the band broadcast live over KLEE, where Hendon also worked as a disc jockey. Hendon insisted on putting his name up front as the band’s leader, although his complete lack of musical talent prevented him, for the most part, from being much more than an announcer.

« No shoes boogie » (Freedom 5033), probably the Cowboys’ earliest recording, was virtually an advertisement for the Western Jamboree Club and is unquestionably one of the best Freedom records, an excellent example of the hard-rocking, shuffle-beat swing that was common in Texas before rock and roll. Recorded at Gold Star and released in March 1951, « No shoes boogie » features one of the best of Hendon’s ever-changing lineups. In addition to the excellent vocal and hot electric guitar work of Charlie Harris, the group included Theron Poteet (piano), Johnny Cooper (rhythm guitar), Tiny Smith(bass) and Don Brewer (drums). As often was the case on Freedom sessions, the band’s regular steel man (Joe Brewer) was replaced on this date by former Texas Playboy Herb Remington. Remington’s fills behind Harris’ vocal and his dazzinly fast single-string solo rate among his finest, most exciting performances. Flipside by comparison is a tame weepy ballad, « Those Tears In Your Eyes »

After the Freedom session, the Western Jamboree Cowboys recorded numerous sides for Four Star (Charlie Harris vocal), Gilt Edge, Blue Ribbon, Shamrock and Starday and featured such musicians as singer-guitarist Eddie Noack, the underrated Harold Sharp and trumpeteer-vocalist Bill Taylor.

The Four Star recordings were inaugurated by another coupling, yet under the name « R. D. Henden »[sic] that featured Charlie Harris on vocal, who was soon to leave the group. « Oh ! Mr. President » (4* X-20) was a rush-job in the spring of 1951, a rare, overtly political song dealing with the firing of General MacArthur by President Truman. «The flipside « Don’t Say No » was a real weeper, again sung by Harris, and musically forgettable.

After leaving the Cowboys, Charlie Harris went on to work with Gabe Tucker in Houston, Walt Kleypas and Adolph Hofner in San Antonio, and later played and recorded with Ray Price, among others. The almost ten-years tenure of the Western Jamboree Cowboys came to an abrupt end when R. D. Hendon, who’d always suffered from bouts of depression, committed suicide on September 8, 1956. The Western Jamboree Club remained vacant for several years after his death and was eventually demolished around 1960, symbolizing the end of an era.

While largely a sideman, Harris also stepped forward to host his own television show out of Corpus Christi, an endeavor that managed a secure broadcast spot for a surprisingly long time.

Bass player Gabe Tucker was a familiar band leader and promoter frequently seen in the Nashville area: indeed he had been a part of the original Nashville edition of Eddy Arnold’s Tennessee Plowboys. He recorded at least one Texas session himself which he sent in to Dot (located in Gallatin, Tennessee). Randy Wood (Dot’s owner) created a short-lived 200 serie for bought material and released Gabe’s (& His Musical Ramblers) fine bluesy « It’d surprise you » (Dot 201), which became a popular song for others : Red Sovine had his own version on M-G-M (# 11214) ; the Tucker labelmate Margie Day, fronting the Griffin Brothers, cut her own, R&B style (Dot 1094). It was actually covered by female singers like Rosalie Allen (on RCA-Victor), who found it an ideal song to air the woman’s point of view. The Gabe Tucker sides represent the only truly authentic (Texas) Western swing on Dot Records. The trumpet had been popular for a good amount of years but was going out of style by the time this record appeared. Charlie Harris takes all the vocals but is not credited on the labels, including the interesting novelty « Cracker barrel farmer » (# 201), with the unusually clever lyrics and the songs clicked despite their old-fashioned sound.

Red Sovine

From a different session and better recorded, « You better do better baby » (# 204) is another classy performance by Harris which could just possibly originate fom a Nashville session. It’s backed by the fine uptempo ballad « Rainyday Sweetheart ».
From various Dot sessions came also the fast « Jive Around Old Joe Clark » and the excellent shuffler « Streamline Country Girl » (# 1097).

Harris was apparently Tucker’s front man, this time credited, for another performance on the Gaylord [real forname to Tucker] Music label (# 4926), two nice ballads and again classy performances : « I’m Reaping Heartaches Over You » and « You’re The Only Love ».

We only find Harris again on vocal for « Sing A Sad Song », cut during a Ray Price session in December 1964 for Columbia, again a ballad, a genre in which he’d excel.

One can come across two more 45s by Harris on the Mega label in the early ’70s (untraced).

Sources : From Andrew Brown & Kevin Coffey notes to « Heading back to Houston » Krazy Kat 12 ; YouTube’s « Hillbilly Boogie1 » chain ; my own archives ; 78-worlds (Gaylord and Dot label scans) ; Ronald Keppner for Gaylord sound and Freedom B-side ; Steve Hathaway for 4* X-20 soundfiles ; Eugene Chadbourne, All Music Guide.