ON 19TH SEPTEMBER 1964, in the middle of their tour, The Beatles needed a rest. After their appearance at the Dallas Convention Center during their 25 date US tour, they celebrated Brian Epstein’s 30th birthday on Reed Pigman’s ranch in Alton, Missouri. They landed at the little Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, airport.
Reed Pigman’s Ranch
The Beatles spent the weekend at Reed Pigman’s ranch, riding on horseback and playing at being cowboys.
Young Reed Pigman, 14 years old, remembers the time well. “They dressed up in their very best cowboy outfits,” Pigman said. Ringo also had a tooled western belt with his name on the back, a gift from Elvis Presley. They also went swimming and drove go-karts. “They went nuts with all the freedom they had,” Pigman said.
When I visited Walnut Ridge in 2017, I met many lovely people, one of whom was Carrie Mae Snapp, older sister of mayor Charles Snapp. Like all the locals, they made us so welcome. Carrie Mae was a witness to The Beatles short time in Walnut Ridge and took some incredible photographs.
They then returned to the airport and left Walnut Ridge behind.
The little town of Walnut Ridge has an annual Beatles festival – Beatles At The Ridge – which I visited in 2017. What a fantastic festival, when the whole town shuts down and celebrates The Beatles.
The famous country artists were Hank Walters & The Dusty Road Ramblers, The Hillsiders and Phil Brady & The Ranchers. However, there were so many country groups and artists around the Liverpool and Merseyside country music scene.
Is this a complete list? I am still compiling it and hopefully can add to it too.
Trying to record all of the country groups on Merseyside is no easy task. The following is the list as it stands so far. Aberlene Arcadian Ladies, The Black Cats, The Blue Country Boys, The Blue Mountain Boys, The Blue Mountain Express, The Boleros, The Boot Hill Billies, The Carl Fenton Four Carol Western Carolina Travellers, The Charlie Lansborough Cheap Seats, The Cimmaron Country Boys, The Country Comfort Country Cousins Country Five, The Country Sounds, Carl Goldby’s Countryside Doreen and the Wranglers Drifting Cowboys, The Everglades, The Fair Enough Foggy Mountain Ramblers, The Georgie Cash Georgie Collins and the Sundowners Hank & The Drifters Hank Walters & The Dusty Road Ramblers Harvey Hillsiders, The Hobo Rick Idle Hours Irene & The Sante Fes Jerry Devine Jo and Gerry Clark Joey Rogers and Harry Chambers Johnny Gold and the Country Cousins Kansas City Five, The Kelvin Henderson Kenny Johnson & Northwind Kentuckians, The Kevin Daniels Band, The Lawmen, The Lee Brennan Little Bernie & The Drifting Cowboys Little Ginny Band Liverpool Country Lonesome Travellers, The Miller Brothers, The Neal Brothers, The Outlaws, The Paddy Kelly Band, The Patsy Foley Band Phil Brady & The Ranchers Poacher Quintones, The Rainbow County Ranchers, The Ramblers, The Ray Mac’s Trio Redwoods, The Saddlers, The San Antones, The Sarah Jory Schooners, The State Liners, The Stringdusters, The Sundowners, The Stu Page Tennessee Three, The Tennessee Five, The UK Country Val Sutton Wells Fargo Western Union Westerners, The Westerns, The West Virginia Whisky River
Do you know anybody who is missing from this list? Please message me.
The list will appear in the book, “The Country of Liverpool”, which covers the country roots of The Beatles and Liverpool. Pre-Order yours now.
You only have to look at the early line up of The Quarrymen/ Quarry Men to see their country influences. Dressed in their string ties like cowboy gamblers, the repertoire of The Quarrymen was not just rock ‘n’ roll, but country & western and skiffle too.
1956: Spasm and Skiffle
Skiffle became hugely popular in Britain in 1956 with Lonnie Donegan’s “Rock Island Line” starting a musical craze that would change the British music scene forever. Another hit, Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group’s “Freight Train”, featuring Nancy Whiskey sold in its thousands. McDevitt, often overlooked for his contribution to the skiffle craze, became so huge in the US for this song that he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957; seven years before The Beatles. However, it would be Donegan that most credit with inspiring them to become professional musicians.
Overnight, guitars that had sold in a few thousand per year were suddenly selling 250,000 per year. People joined skiffle clubs. Even the BBC, not knowing for keeping up with “the youth of the day” broadcast the World Skiffle Championship on television before launching a weekly radio show called Saturday Skiffle Club on the BBC Light Programme.
But where did skiffle come from?
This strange sounding musical group was one from the late 19th Century, where groups in New Orleans played a variety of dixieland, blues, traditional jazz, jug bands and, later, skiffle. A “Spasm” band was made up of musicians with often home-made or basic instruments. It was from these groups that skiffle groups appeared.
The earliest band to play under the name “spasm band” in New Orleans was formed in 1895, known informally as “Stale Bread’s Spasm Band” and billed as the “Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band” at semi-professional engagements, such as outside the West End Opera House. They played, amongst other things, a length of gas pipe, a kettle and a fiddle made from a cigar box. The spasm band style was one ingredient in the development of instrumental New Orleans jazz.
Skiffle then came from the African-American culture that was developing in the 1920s from New Orleans jazz, though there were improvised “jug bands” who were mixing blues and jazz in the southern states. These jug bands were often put together by a family looking to make the money to pay the rent.
The etymology of the word skiffle is unknown, though in a remote part of England, there was a word “skiffle” meaning to make a mess of any business. In America, the term was simply used to refer to these “jug bands” or “spasm bands” where the family were raising the money for the rent. It is most likely that the music progressed north via the migrant corridor that head away from New Orleans, up the Mississippi towards Chicago.
The first time the word was used in relation to records was in 1925 for a group called Jimmy O’Bryant and his Chicago Skifflers. They were playing a mix of country and blues, with songs such as “Hometown Skiffle” from 1929, and “Skiffle Blues” in 1946 by Dan Burley & his Skiffle Boys.
Rock Island Line
When the Chris Barber Jazz Band were making their first album, New Orleans Joys, in 1954, they didn’t have enough songs, so they recorded a couple of extra songs. They decided to do “Rock Island Line”, as recorded by blues singer Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. Nothing much happened for a year or so when Bill Haley had “Rock Around the Clock” topping the charts, so Decca records needed something to compete with it. They decided to release “Rock Island Line” as the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group, and it became a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
Rod Davis, banjo player with The Quarrymen, explained more about the skiffle craze from a musical perspective. Was it jazz, country, blues, bluegrass?
“Donegan’s skiffle really started when he was with Ken Colyer’s Jazz Band. They played blues – essentially black man’s music – but later they got into more oldtime/ country music (the problem with the term ‘country music’ is that it has become too associated with Nashville and rhinestones). Donegan, of course, was speeding stuff up, just as Bill Black sped up Bill Monroe’s ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’.
“Lonnie never ever used a tea-chest bass, always an upright bass, and the only time he ever used a washboard in his group was on Rock Island Line/John Henry and that was jazz singer Beryl Bryden who wasn’t really a part of the Barber band anyway. The problem with getting closer to bluegrass and country is that there were no musicians in the UK who could play the style properly. The nearest you get is Johnny Duncan and the Bluegrass Boys. They were all stuck with using jazz musicians.
“Donegan had Denny Wright who was a great guitarist, but never country in a million years. Johnny Duncan, who was American and could play mandolin and is supposed to have actually played in Bill Monroe’s band at one time, was forced to use jazz fiddler Danny Levan, a great fiddler but not a country stylist; he also used Denny Wright. Johnny himself had a high tenor voice and sounded very bluegrass. ‘Footprints in the Snow’ would be bluegrass, if it wasn’t for the jazz musicians. It was originally a Bill Monroe number.” Monroe is seen as the originator of bluegrass music.
What Lonnie Donegan was playing, although called skiffle, was effectively British musicians playing their interpretation of American folk/ blues/ country and bluegrass. He was a huge fan of Woody Guthrie, the famous American folk singer. When you listen to Guthrie, you can hear where Donegan got a lot of his inspiration for the skiffle style.
What Donegan did, without realising it at the time, was to create a new musical craze that would revolutionise British music forever. John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison were all inspired by Donegan to pick up guitars and seek a career in music.
As George Harrison said; “Without Lead Belly, no Lonnie Donegan; without Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles.”
It was a frontier town in the West, affected by the American Civil War. There were cowboys in saloons singing songs of the lives of those men on the railroads and the prairies. It saw Buffalo Bill, Sioux Indians and Annie Oakley; Gene Autrey, Roy Rogers and Trigger, and was at the heart of country music. This was Nashville: not in Tennessee, but the Nashville of England; the Nashville of the North: Liverpool.
The Beatles and Merseybeat
Everybody knows that The Beatles came from Liverpool and that there was a beat music scene known as “Merseybeat”. But very few people outside of Liverpool know about the country music scene, which was the biggest in Europe. Why in Liverpool? How does it relate to The Beatles and the Mersey music scene?
Skiffle and its Country Roots
The roots of the beat music scene of the 1960s began with Lonnie Donegan’s “Rock Island Line”, which was issued in 1956, beginning the skiffle craze. However, examining the skiffle music scene shows that he roots of skiffle were in country; the roots of John Lennon’s Quarrymen were in country and western, which was reflected in the songs of The Beatles. Liverpool groups were playing a mixture of country, rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, rockabilly and whatever else it discovered. Groups had to decide which route to take.
Liverpool was therefore known as the “Nashville of The North”.