UNDER-APPRECIATED ROCK ARTIST OF THE MONTH FOR MAY 2011: THE LONESOME DRIFTER
On an impulse, I ordered another Norton Records LP at the same time as the Hasil Adkins album White Light/White Meat, which is a 2010 compilation of a man from northern Louisiana who calls himself THE LONESOME DRIFTER called Eager Boy (subtitled: “Rockabilly and Hillbilly Bop from the Vaults of Ram Records 1958-59!”). The man born Thomas Johnson in Bastrop, LA was inspired by the founders of country and western like Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Bill Monroe; and his dream was to appear on the Louisiana Hayride.
Ram Records was the hub of rockabilly music in northern Louisiana and also seemed to be about half women, half men – much rarer in those days. Guitarist Mira Smith, with help from her cousin Alton Warwick started the Ram Recording Co. in Shreveport; and this was where Thomas Johnson and his band headed. Mira gave him a poem called “Tear Drop Valley” that was written by two of her friends, and Johnson set it to music and recorded it at a studio in a small radio station nearby. Mira later decided to start her own record company called K Records (named for her sister Kathleen Smith).
Meanwhile, Johnson got a poem from an insurance salesman in his hometown called “N----r Boy”, about someone who had big plans for his life. Johnson changed the title to “Eager Boy”, though in the original, the lyrics have a real poignancy: After listing his dreams in the verses, including wanting to become Senator and maybe even President – just like the current President Barack Obama – the chorus line is: “But everybody treats me like a toy / Because I’m just a n----r boy”.
Thomas Johnson told Mira Smith that he didn’t want his own name on the record. She asked him what he did want, and he gave her the name the Lonesome Drifter, adapted from the name of Hank Williams’ band The Drifting Cowboys and also another name used by Williams, Luke the Drifter. So “Eager Boy” was released on the brand new label K Records, though it was actually the flip side “Tear Drop Valley” that finally won the Drifter his spot on the Louisiana Hayride. (The Norton Records label on some of their albums is adapted from the one used by K Records, with “Norton” or a big “N” instead of a “K”, and with the same orange color).
The second and last single, “Honey, Do You Think of Me” b/w “I’ll be Lonesome When You’re Gone” came out on Ram Records itself. The B side had been written and recorded by Linda Brannon on Ram two years earlier. Carol Williams (who had recorded Ram Records’ first single) provided the second vocal on the Lonesome Drifter’s remake. Linda and Carol would, respectively, shortly marry Jerry Kennedy and Billy Sanford (who played guitar on the Lonesome Drifter recording of “I’ll be Lonesome When You’re Gone”). These two men later left Shreveport to join Roy Orbison’s band; they can be heard doing the masterful guitar work on his mega-hit “Oh, Pretty Woman”.
The liner notes on the Lonesome Drifter LP – written by Kicks and Norton Records co-founder Billy Miller – says of his best known song: “‘Eager Boy’ epitomizes full throttled rockabilly – a cocksure lead vocal and trigger-happy guitar riding atop a solid slap bass rhythm”. He continues: “‘Eager Boy’ arguably stands as rockabilly’s high water mark, rightfully commanding a king’s ransom among today’s collectors”. As an example, in the week ending May 20, 2010, the original “Eager Boy” 45 was the third highest selling vinyl record on eBay, bringing an astounding $5,100.69.
No matter how great they are, the problem with reissuing music from obscure artists like the Lonesome Drifter who have only one or two singles to their name is that there usually aren’t a lot of songs in the vault to pick from. The Eager Boy album does include three different versions of both sides of his first single, “Eager Boy” and “Tear Drop Valley”; I might add though that I didn’t mind hearing a one of them. However, the other 11 songs on the album are equally astonishing and could have easily formed the basis of a colorful career.
The Lonesome Drifter has some lovely reminiscences within the liner notes on the Eager Boy LP; they conclude: “The last show I did was in 1960. Margaret Lewis and all of them were on the bill. Like I said, I was a loner. I’d do my thing and cut and run. We used this fiddle player that night, and on the second song, he sounded like he was skinning a cat! I put my guitar across my shoulder and I quit right there. Pawned my guitar. I’ve regretted it ever since. But that played into the mindset of the Lonesome Drifter, no good, a down and outer. I guess it added some to the mystery about me.”
Great story, no doubt. But really, the Lonesome Drifter was late leaving the party if anything.
Rockabilly survives as echoes and grace notes in a dozen or more rock and country subgenres but, in its purest form, might be too kinetic and sinewy for the general public to bear for very long. Thankfully, in this modern era, nostalgia has morphed into what might more properly be called musical appreciation; and forgotten and unknown gems from all types of popular music are available to connoisseurs like never before. Reissue albums from Norton Records and many other labels abound with rockabilly nuggets; as just one example. Norton Records – now celebrating its 25th anniversary – has released at least 8 albums of Hasil Adkins’ music and continues to do so (the album I have came out in 2010 and wasn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article on Adkins until I added it); and several other record companies have also put out Hasil Adkins albums. And now the Lonesome Drifter has taken his rightful place in the Norton archives.
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Items: The Lonesome Drifter
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Flashback: The Under-Appreciated Rock Artist of the Month for May 2011 – THE LONESOME DRIFTER
The artist behind the stompin’ song “Eager Boy” that has become one of the most valuable 45 collectables, The Lonesome Drifter also has a wealth of other country and rockabilly tracks that were collected on the Norton Records album shown above. YouTube has a number of Lonesome Drifter songs on its website. The LP includes several alternate versions of the song, but I think this is the actual single version of “Eager Boy”: www.youtube.com/watch?v=vg3oi1-6oO4 . The flip side, “Tear Drop Valley”, is more in the country vein – at www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=-EzLcBWbqaY&feature=endscreen – and gave the man his goal as a recording artist: a spot on the Louisiana Hayride (a direct predecessor to the Holy Grail of country music, The Grand Ole Opry). Here is a third song with some fine guitar work that I really love (the “A” side of his second single), “Honey, Do You Think of Me”: www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdyMEx0V0EU . Finally, a fourth song that is listed as Unissued (though it is still on the Norton LP), “I Wish it Wasn’t So”: www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZupPW_1H60 . There are several other songs on YouTube as well.
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Picture Gallery: The Under-Appreciated Rock Band of the Month for May 2011 – THE LONESOME DRIFTER
This is the album of music by the Lonesome Drifter on Norton Records:
Here is a (colorized) portrait of The Lonesome Drifter:
This is his famous single, “Eager Boy”:
And the flip side, “Tear Drop Valley”:
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Here is a rundown of the 2010-2011 Under-Appreciated Rock Bands/Artists of the Month for the past year:
December 2010 – THE POPPEES, 1970’s Beatlesque power pop band (compilation album)
January 2011 – HACIENDA, active 2010’s Chicano rock band (two albums)
February 2011 – THE WANDERERS, 1980’s apocalyptic punk rock band (one album)
March 2011 – INDEX, legendary 1960’s psychedelic rock band (two albums)
April 2011 – BOHEMIAN VENDETTA, 1960’s garage rock band (one album plus compilation album)
May 2011 – THE LONESOME DRIFTER, 1960’s rockabilly singer (compilation album)
June 2011 – THE UNKNOWNS, 1970’s first-wave punk rock band (two albums plus compilation album)
July 2011 – THE RIP CHORDS, 1960’s surf rock band (two albums)
August 2011 – ANDY COLQUHOUN, active 1980’s-2010’s psychedelic rock guitarist (two albums)
September 2011 – ULTRA, 1970’s old-fashioned hard rock band (compilation albums)
October 2011 – JIM SULLIVAN, 1960’s country-rock singer-songwriter (two albums)
November 2011 – THE UGLY, 1970’s first-wave Canadian punk rock band (compilation album)
(Year 2 Review)