SURE, THERE WAS Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams and a host of other pioneering artists. But if you are seeking the starting point of modern country music, as in Nashville country, as in rhinestones and excess and all the expectations of superstardom and super-ego that often come with making it big in Music City, then you need to focus on Webb Pierce.
The raw facts: a record 13 number one singles during the 1950s. Of 48 total releases in the decade, all but a handful reached the top 10 and more than half were top-four hits. Pierce's songs spent a combined total of more than two years in the number one spot. He was the widely-acknowledged King of the Honkytonk, arguably more famous than legendary contemporaries including Lefty Frizzell, Hank Snow, Eddy Arnold and Ernest Tubb.
Success was quickly translated into what would come to be considered country-royalty lifestyle: not one but two guitar-shaped swimming pools, a range of often outrageous Nudie suits and a pair of barge-proportion Pontiac Bonnevilles decorated with silver-plated rifles, six-shooters and equine statuary, fronted by a pair of epic longhorn antlers, and upholstered in Western-worked leather studded with silver dollars. One of those is now in the Country Music Hall of Fame museum in Nashville, if you happen to be passing and have a spare $25.95 to spend. Probably worth it.
His early bio is about as country as it gets: the third child of Webb Mite Pierce and his wife Florine, he was raised on a farm near West Monroe in northeast Louisiana and – according to Country Music Foundation biographer Ronnie Pugh – exposed to a mishmash of hillbilly, regional roots and western music at an early age. He started singing for local radio stations in his teens, joined the army during World War II, signed an overly-binding early recording contract and eventually landed a spot on the 50,000-watt KWKH Louisiana Hayride – although just to be on the safe side he retained a day job with the Sears Roebuck department store, presumably for the reliable income that came along with punching that timeclock.
The salaried insurance policy would in short order become unnecessary. It probably went something like this or, more accurately, I hope it went something like this: 'Dear Sears, I'm going to Music City to be a country star, so I quit. Please forward my final paycheck to General Delivery, Nashville, Tennessee.'
Recording sessions with Decca in 1951 produced Pierce's first number one single, he was invited to became a Grand Ole Opry regular in 1952 and early the following year he stepped into the void at the top of country music created by the death of Hank Williams. Pierce dominated the charts for the next six years and made a respectable dent in the listings for a further six years before largely dropping out of the top-20 after 1965.
Highlights from the glory years included Wondering, Pierce's re-recording of a popular 1930s record from Cajun outfit Joe Werner and the Riverside Ramblers, and I'm Walking the Dog, which was written by fellow Louisiana Hayride regular and fiddle player Tex Grimsley. The song was originally recorded by the Texas Showboys with Cliff Grimsley providing vocals on the 78rpm disc; the latter gets a co-writing credit in some quarters.
Other standouts include Slowly, which as mentioned in a previous chapter is credited with introducing the pedal steel to country music, as well as Tupelo County Jail, In The Jailhouse Now (hands up, Where Art Thou fans), More and More, Back Street Affair and It's Been So Long. The laconic pacing, honkytonk vocals, drawn fiddles and finger-sharp piano lines combine across the body of work in a slow-cooked stew of perfection that is still considered by many the epitome of Nashville country in the 1950s.
BUT THE ENDURING legacy of Webb Pierce, the moment of shining brilliance that transcends the faded fame of his old-school superstardom and the confines of his chosen subset of the overall popular music genre, is There Stands The Glass. The track is – and I am prepared to take up this argument with anyone misguided enough to put forward an alternative – among the single-best, if not THE best, pure Nashville, mainstream AM radio country records. Ever. And always.
The song was written by Russ Hull and Mary Jean Shurtz, with additional credit – depending on where you look – for Pierce himself and/or his second wife Autry (or Audrey) Greisham. For Hull it would be the highlight of a limited songwriting career; his only other noteworthy contribution was the fairly awful Sweet Little Cherokee, although he did run his own music publishing business, so probably deserves some applause for that.
Co-writer Shurtz also merits a quick detour, largely courtesy of Hillbilly Music Dawt Com: born in Ohio in 1906, she was an early pioneer of music journalism and a published poet. In addition to Pierce, she also wrote songs for leading country artists including Hank Snow, George Morgan and Cowboy Copas, while her verse made it into musical form on at least one occasion. Apropos of nothing in particular, Shurtz served as secretary of the Southeastern Ohio Federation of Coon Dog Field Trials and was an award-winning trainer.
There Stands The Glass was initially recorded in 1952 by pre-WWII hillbilly radio regular Blaine Smith; it was a ho-hum middle of the road sort of production that would have sounded old fashioned even as it was pressed (Dome Records catalog issue 1019 on 78rpm, for completeness, or for the collectors in the audience. B Side: The What-Cha-Ma-Call-It-Song in a duet with Nighta Wheeler).
Pierce was sent the song in the mail, according to Ronnie Pugh, but was advised by his 'people' against recording lyrics seen as controversial or even base: it seems odd to say now but outright tracks about drinking were not, at the time, the Nashville staple they would ultimately come to be. Based on the assumption that the majority of his audience would not only relate but embrace the subject matter, Pierce ignored his producers. The September 1953 single, his fifth on Decca, spent 27 weeks in the charts with 12 of those at the top spot.
The song obviously struck a chord. Bill C Malone, in Country Music USA, described There Stands The Glass as 'virtually the national anthem of beer drinkers' because of its realistic and controversial endorsement of consumption as 'an antidote to the pangs of unsuccessful love'.
I would go further: the vocal twang rich with resignation and anticipation, the classic shuffling beat behind the underplayed melody, captures the prolonged instant of approach, address and acknowledgement between the customer and the alcohol, between the heartbroken and the imagined escape, between the disillusioned and the hope of renewal.
Those initial lines as delivered by Pierce describe better than any others the indeterminate pause before the full glass – beer, whiskey, whatever – meets hand, meets lips; that interval when the drink still represents the solution rather than the start of the problem, when the promise still outweighs the reality. Down the hatch; maybe tomorrow will be better.
And then comes the payoff line, with Pierce's killer pause, 'it's my first one... today', the admission that the moment captured in There Stands The Glass is not a one-off but the norm, the routine, repeated many, many times, perhaps even infinitely: life as defined by our endless attempts to overcome failures in love but also by extension family, work and dreams. The glass will, Pierce explains, 'hide all my tears' and 'drown all my fears'. One sip and 'brother I'm on my way'.
The two minute, 28 second masterpiece established the template for what would become a central plank of the country genre: the sad drinking song. And it should have been the cornerstone of a lifelong career, rather than the burst of 1950s fame that Pierce managed to nurse for some 20 years before his star dropped almost completely beneath the horizon of popular culture. He was eventually inducted into the CMHoF in 2001, 10 years after his death from pancreatic cancer, but remains under-appreciated among even the self-professed Nashville faithful.
CMF biographer Pugh suggests Pierce suffered in part because of enemies made in high places. The bad blood has been variously linked to sharp business practices, a reputation for hard drinking, an abrasive personality, and an ostentatious lifestyle that put some industry noses out of joint – hardly high crimes by Nashville standards, and that's assuming any of those complaints are accurate.
The legacy of There Stands The Glass perhaps also suffered as a result. There have been covers but none as commercially or – to these ears – as artistically successful, despite the big hitters involved: Jerry Lee Lewis, Patty Loveless, Hoyt Axton, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Bush, Carl Smith, Wanda Jackson, Red Sovine, Conway Twitty and, in a 1982 duet with Pierce himself, Willie Nelson. Others taking a stab at making the song their own included doo-wop band The Shadows, Van Morrison, Half Man Half Biscuit and Scott Mackenzie (of San Francisco fame, as in 'are you going to . . . with flowers in your hair').
There are other traces of the song's lasting impact:
Mainstream country star Sam Hunt – and this opinion will probably trigger the 'typical old fart attitude' klaxon – did something pretty unspeakable to There Stands The Glass when sampling it for his 2020 hit Hard To Forget. If you are looking for a silver lining, at least he put the song before a wider audience which, potentially, might explore further and discover the joys of the original.
Singer, songwriter and comedian Johnny Russell, best known for penning Act Naturally which was a hit in the 1960s for both Buck Owens and The Beatles, also embraced the record, putting it (lyrically) on the jukebox in the first verse of his Grammy-nominated, top-10 hit from 1973, Rednecks, White Socks And Blue Ribbon Beer.
And Nashville musician Joshua Hedley, a man so steeped in country history that he is widely known as Mr Jukebox, also stuck There Stands The Glass on the Wurlitzer on the title track of a 2018 debut album called, perhaps not surprisingly, Mr Jukebox. That Hedley wears a Nudie-style suit on the front cover of the (excellent, by the way) release is, the purist in me would like to think, an intentional reference and perhaps even homage to the best of country as laid down in the 1950s, if not Webb Pierce himself.
Which, if nothing else, at least proves that I am not the only one keeping a flame burning for There Stands The Glass.
WHILE WE ARE here, another contender for inclusion in 'the best country songs of all time' – again, humble and inexpert opinion – is In The Corner, At The Table, By The Jukebox . . . although with the greatest respect to the late James Hand the title probably doesn't really need the commas.
The 1999 track kicked off the Texan's second album, Evil Things (Cold Spring Records), and also features on the 2006 Rounder Records release The Truth Will Set You Free, which is a lot easier to find. You can even stream it, if that is your thing.
The song has an authenticity of melancholy, resignation and heartbreak not dissimilar to There Stands The Glass; Hand however provides a sense of immediate, innate honkytonkness (if that is a word) when compared with Pierce's perhaps more deliberate delivery.
Maybe that genuine feel comes from modern production values, more likely it is just a Lone Star thing. Hand, known as Slim, was born in Waco and lived in Central Texas until his death in 2020 at the age of 67. He spent time working the rodeo, trained horses, drove trucks and even did time in prison before recording his first album at the age of 45.
Willie Nelson called him 'the real deal', Hank Williams III described him as 'a honky tonk'n legend' and Dale Watson predicted his records would be played 'loud and proud for a long, long time'. In The Corner, At The Table, By The Jukebox should lead that turntable charge.
And no one should be all that surprised when somebody finally gets around to doing a mainstream country cover. Or samples the chorus.
If either of those latter options raises the profile of James 'Slim' Hand, and the often underappreciated records he crafted, perhaps that won't be such a bad thing.
AS A FINAL note: also in this mix is Dolly Parton and her 1970 cover of Mule Skinner Blues, the Jimmie Rodgers song from 1930 otherwise known as Blue Yodel No. 8. The track is an outpouring of pure joy: exuberance, continuity and virtuosity in equal measure.
All text © 2021 by Todd Westbrook. May not be reproduced without express written permission of the author.