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Nashville Scene Due Recognition

Rose Maddox blazed trails.

By Randy Fox

MAY 4, 1998:  In her more than 60-year career, Rose Maddox blazed trail after trail in the field of country music, yet circumstances always seemed to relegate her to historical obscurity. In the '40s and '50s, while Nashville was becoming the center of the country-music universe, Rose was based on the West Coast. And for every musical innovation she helped pioneer, some other artist gained more exposure by following in her footsteps. But more than anything, Rose Maddox just didn't fit the mold that country music created for so many of its women singers: She wasn't a heartbreak queen.

Even so, the story of Rose Maddox, who died Apr. 15, is the story of country music. In 1933, when she was 7 years old, the entire Maddox family sold their possessions and hitchhiked or hopped freight trains from Alabama to California in search of the promised land. By 1937, brother Fred Maddox, desperate to do anything for a living other than picking fruit, walked into a furniture store in Modesto, Calif., and talked the owner into sponsoring a radio show featuring himself and his three brothers. The sponsorship came with one condition: that the band have a female lead singer. Fred had no trouble finding one--he simply enlisted his little sister Rose.

For the thousands of transplanted Oakies and Arkies who flooded into California before and after World War II, the Maddox Brothers & Rose provided unabashedly hillbilly entertainment. Their repertory included wild boogies, moving weepers, fervent gospel, and cornpone comedy. Rose Maddox was at the center of this hillbilly maelstrom, high-kicking wildly onstage one moment, then bringing her audience to tears the next. In Jonny Whiteside's bio, Ramblin' Rose: The Life and Career of Rose Maddox, a quote from Hank Williams put it best: "When she sings those sacred songs like 'Tramp on the Street' and 'Gathering Flowers,' she sounds just like an angel that's pure as drifted snow. Then she'll turn around and do...'Honky Tonkin,' and she'll sound like a gal that's straight out of a cat house!"

In the summer of 1946, Rose Maddox and her mother marched into the Hollywood offices of Capitol Records looking for a recording contract. By this time, the Maddox Brothers & Rose were one of the hottest hillbilly acts on the West Coast. Their daily radio broadcasts blanketed the western half of North America, and their elaborate, Nathan Turk-designed stage wear lent credence to their claim as "The Most Colorful Hillbilly Band in America."

Alas, the family's record deal was complicated by a matter of bad timing--another one of those circumstances that kept Rose Maddox from getting the kind of fame and recognition she deserved. Cliffie Stone, producer and A&R man for Capitol, wanted to sign the group; but Lee Gillette, the A&R chief, had to approve the contract and was out of the office. Lula Maddox, the siblings' mother and manager, was not known for her patience. Before the day was over, the Maddox Brothers & Rose had signed instead with Bill McCall's 4 Star Records--a label notorious for its poor promotion and larcenous business practices.

Even if the band's recordings didn't prove very lucrative, they did capture the energy of the Maddoxes' live shows, which were punctuated with wild, manic solos, shouted comments, laughs, hoots, and hollers. More than 20 years before Loretta Lynn forged her own brand of country feminism, Rose Maddox was tearing down sexual stereotypes with songs like "(Pay Me) Alimony," "I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again," and "Sally Let Your Bangs Hang Down." Along the way, she also helped pioneer honky-tonk and helped to lay the foundation for rockabilly.

In 1956 the Maddox Brothers & Rose disbanded, with Rose continuing as a solo artist. She eventually signed with Capitol Records and enjoyed several modest hits in the early '60s; she also cut the classic Rose Maddox Sings Bluegrass, the first important bluegrass album by a female artist. She continued to perform and record over the years; her 1994 album, $35 and a Dream, received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Bluegrass Album.

Rose Maddox's influence on country music is immeasurable. Every honky-tonk angel, rockabilly filly, or bluegrass diva that takes the stage owes a debt to this rather plain, slightly buck-toothed gal from Alabama who devoted her entire life to her music. It comes as little surprise that the 72-year-old singer passed away the day before one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike Nashville--not to mention a week after the passing of Tammy Wynette. It was just another case of circumstances ensuring that Music City would ignore Rose Maddox yet again. But despite the lack of recognition, her music and her legacy will be with us all for a long time to come.

--Randy Fox

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