JUST RAMBLIN' ON - JIMMIE SKINNER ON PAUL VIDAL's BIG V JAMBOREE
well-known music historian, Colin Escott, once wrote that 'there are simply
very few originals in American Music'. I can't understand why someone like Mr.
Escott feels the need to resort to such sledgehammer sentences but I sure don't
agree: not only are there dozens of originals, but there are also hundreds of
stylists. The late Jimmie
Skinner sure was one of them.
born April 27, 1909 on a farm near Berea, Kentucky.
Famous for its college, Berea's other claim to fame is for being the birthplace
of another pair of excellent singers : the well-known Red Foley and the more
obscure Ernie Lee, once star of the WLW radio & TV stations in Cincinnati
and whose RCA Victor and subsequent Mercury sides were consistently fine (check
out 'Headin' Home To Old Kentucky' RCA 48-0182 and the bluesy, western-swing
styled & mandolin-backed 'I'm A Lonesome Man' RCA 48-0341 for aural proof).
Jimmie learned music from his father and had the good fortune to be exposed
to both country music and blues early on. He moved to southwestern Ohio (the
city of Hamilton to be precise) as a youth and worked as a part-time performer
until after World War II. Sides cut for Gennett in the early 1930's were never
released and some ten years later, a contract with RCA Victor yielded no recordings.
Meanwhile, Jimmie got increasingly busy performing on radio - both in Ohio and
at WHTN in Huntington, West Virginia.
had to wait until about 1946 to see his first released sides on an independent
label - Red Barn Record Co. out of Kansas City, Missouri. How many artists did
record for that small company, I don't know but a certain Elmo Linn had four
releases there while Bobby Dick, Byron Parker and Kentucky Jess & Neal Burris
all had one. Jimmie was already writing (or co-writing) most of his material.
One of his songs,
'Will You Be Satisfied That Way', became a hit in Knoxville and led to his doing
live radio work there for a while ; another Red Barn recording, 'Let's Say Goodbye
Like We Said Hello', was picked up by Ernest Tubb who had a huge hit with it
in 1949 (Decca 46144 - the other side being 'Have You Ever Been Lonely', later
cut by Buddy Holly and released posthumously on the 'Giant' LP). In his liner notes
to Bear Family's 1988 compilation of some of Skinner'sMercury
stuff ('Another Saturday Night', BFX 15266), writer Otto Kittsinger recounts
how Jimmie himself used to distribute his Red Barn '78s through the post - an
awful lot of them breaking in the process (what a pity for us, poor collecting
hounds !). Some time later, Jimmie and another person took over Cincinnati's
Radio Artist label ('Your Radio Friends On Records') - home of Dolly Good, Barefoot
Brownie Reynolds and The Turner Brothers among others. Such classic songs as
'Don't Give Your Heart To A Rambler', 'On The Wrong Side Of The Tracks' and
'You Don't Know My Mind' date back to that period ; however, many Radio Artist
recordings were remakes of previous Red Barn masters - like the marvelous, banjo-laden
'Doin' My Time'. Another important side of Jimmie's career was his association
with Lou Epstein around that time and the opening of the renowned Jimmie Skinner
Music Center in downtown Cincinnati ; the store specialized in the shipment
of Country'n'Western records by mail order throughout the world. Soon afterwards,
Jimmie had a daily radio show on WNOP out of Newport, Kentucky ; the show was
conducted every morning from the store, which was packed with visitors coming
in from every state in the Union and from many of the Canadian provinces as
well. Singer/musician/producer Rusty York - who had discovered Jimmie Skinner's
music through his Radio Artist version of Jimmy Work's standard, 'Tennessee
Border', which he first heard on the 'Jamboree' radio show on WCKY in Cincinnati
- later got a job doing the engineering for Skinner's radio show from the window
of the Center on Fifth Street across the Greyhound bus station.
Radio Artist releases definitely put Jimmie on the map for, in 1950,
he was offered contracts by most of the major labels in rapid succession. He
chose to sign with Capitol Records, who were building quite a strong hillbilly
roster then. Fifteen singles were put out over a three-year period and despite
the lack of any significant hit, Jimmie Skinner's reputation was growing up
fast. It seems incredible that Capitol never bothered to issue one or two LPs'
worth of Jimmie's songs for the label for they are absolutely brilliant ; the
original Capitol singles are exceedingly rare today and the only way to have
half of them on album is to find the ancient German compilation, 'Hillbilly
Memories', on the Barnyard label. These sides are uncompromising ; Neil Davies,
in issue # 6 of UK's 'Hillbilly Researcher', wrote that the material even displays
'a certain hypnotic quality' - which is true. Jimmie's low-pitched, downhome
baritone vocals combined with Ray Lunsford's effective electric mandolin playing
over a sparse backing of guitars (including Skinner's acoustic rhythm), fiddle
and bull fiddle, paint the scenery for real Country Music. Outstanding
songs from that period include 'Falling Rain Blues' (a March 1951 release),
'Women Beware', 'Kentucky & You', 'It's Bargain Day' (released in May 1951),
'There's Nothin' About You Special', 'By Degrees' (his last Capitol in 1953)
and the tribute to Hank Williams, 'Singing Teacher In Heaven'. A high percentage
of his recordings for Glenn Wallichs's label were personal compositions of course,
with occasional collaborations from Ray Lunsford ('Tell Them') or several female
writers : Charlotte Bogart, Betty Buchanan and Kathy Wood. A couple of songs
were borrowed from Hank Williams (for example, 'When The Book Of LIfe Is Read').
At a 1951 session, Jimmie also cut Ernest Tubb's 'Journey 's End' and a very
good version of Johnny & Jack's 'I Can't Tell My Heart That' at waltz tempo.
In the end, I think that Jimmie's Capitol output best displays his feeling for
the blues : bit like a Hillbilly Lightnin' Hopkins !
When the contract with Capitol expired, Jimmie signed with Decca ; he stayed
there from 1953 to 1955. Six singles saw release but, like the Capitol records,
sales were probably more regional than national, thus preventing Skinner to
score 'big hits'. Likewise, his material was as distinctive as ever and songs
such as 'I'm Allergic To Your Kisses' (another Skinner/Lunsford collaboration),
its flip, 'Baby I Could Change My Ways' (co-written with Cotton Carrier, the
longtime Country DJ who would pen 'Gotta Lotta Love' for Texas Bill Strength
on Capitol in 1956), 'What A Pleasure' or the rompin' Gospel Bluegrass of 'Jesus
Loves All' (complete with a neat Joe Maphis-styled guitar solo) are pure Skinner
classics. It took Decca only six years to eventually compile Jimmie's twelve
sides onto an album, 'Country Singer' (DL 4132). Other than the four aforementioned
tracks, fans who had missed the singles first time around had the pleasure to
listen to Jimmie's treatment of Duke Ellington's 'Don't Get Around Much Anymore'
and, most of all, of Eddie Noack's signature number, 'Too Hot To Handle' ; coming
from a February 1, 1954 session and again propelled by Lunsford's mandolin,
the latter is totally exquisite, so much so that I think only Sonny Burns's
atmospheric version (issued on Starday 118 in December 1953) can rival Jimmie's
interpretation. Three songs (including the bopper, 'My Broken Heart Is Startin'
To Show') were co-authored by Skinner and a guy by the name of Bob Mooney :
wonder if he was one of his musicians at the time. Also on board was a recut
of 'Don't Give Your Heart To A Rambler' and what is without a doubt one of Jimmie's
finest compositions, a haunting piece of poetry wisely titled 'Beautiful'.
Lunsford's contribution to the early Jimmie Skinner sound should be acknowledged
on a higher level ; he was to Skinner what Luther Perkins was to Johnny Cash
- another way to measure the influence of the former on the latter. Ray never
strayed far from the melody line and rarely launched into furious soli, but
his playing was pleasant and complemented Skinner's vocals to perfection. Around
the mid-fifties, Lunsford had three instrumental singles on the Excellent label
- one of which, coupling 'Carroll County Blues' and 'Mt. Vernon Rag', was eventually
picked up by Starday and issued as # 296 in mid-1957. A lesser-known item by
Ray Lunsford is an extended-play record on Sage Records (EP 285) ; Ray is dubbed
as 'King Of The Electric Mandolin' and plays four tunes - 'I Don't Love Nobody',
'Rustic Dance', a very good 'Red Wing' and 'Pickin' Around', penned by Lunsford
with Estel Lee Scarbrough.
In late 1955, Skinner moved
to Mercury Records ; by
that time, Johnny Cash had appeared on the scene, already making great strides
with 'Cry, Cry, Cry' (Sun 221) and 'Folsom Prison Blues' (Sun 232) : the immortal
'I Walk The Line' was only a few months away from being recorded and released.
Jimmie's first single for the new label coupled 'Steppin' Out On You' with 'Want
You For My Baby', a superior bopper with mandolin and fiddle breaks. Another
double-sided gem was the coupling of the slappin' 'Just Ramblin' On' (with train
whistle intro) with the lovely, well-constructed 'Another Saturday Night'. But
1956 was definitely a year of huge changes ! It wasn't long before Jimmie mentioned
Elvis Presley in one of his songs ('Hafta Do Somethin' 'Bout That', released
on July 15, 1957) and emulated Cash in a couple of others, notably 'Where My
Sweet Baby Goes' where a raunchy, twangy guitar backing replaced Lunsford's
mandolin to good effect. In between, Jimmie eventually got back into the national
charts with 'I Found My Girl In The USA', a sort of answer to a trio of songs,
namely 'Fraulein', 'Geisha Girl' and 'Filipino Baby' ; this big hit was cut
in Cincinnati with Ray Lunsford and Joe Elliott on lead guitar although by that
time, Jimmie had probably already recorded in Nashville studios. Issued on September
10, 1957, 'I Found My Girl In The USA' was backed with Lunsford's own 'Carroll
County Blues', probably the same cut as the one we spoke of a few lines
above. It should be noted that, in 1957, Jimmie's singles appeared on the Mercury*Starday
label since the two companies had inked a promotion deal - one that didn't last
too long into 1958 !