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"In the Country of Country"
by Nicholas Dawidoff
1997
Pantheon Books, A division of Random House, Inc., New York



NOT MANY MILES NORTH of grizzled former California gold-mining outposts like Black Butte, Weed, Guy's Gulch and Yreka is the fresh-faced town of Ashland, a southern Oregon enclave of vegetarian pizza parlors, native western art-and-craft galleries, espresso bars, bagel, bead and tofu shops, and skilled New-and-Old-Age craftsmen who turn out everything from solar heated homes to fully functionial suits of medieval armor. People also come to Ashland for the (lithia) waters, the pears and grapes and the acclaimed Shakespeare festival in the retired Chautauqua tabernacle. Ashland does not however, have many dimly lit roadhouses thick with blue smoke, cheap whiskey and loud, loud music, which makes it a surprising place to turn upcountry music's "Queen of the California Honkey-Tonks," Sister Rose Maddox. But, in fact, you can't miss her.

On her barn, anyway. It's a bright red one just off I-5, and has "Maddox Revolution Angus" painted on the side in large, bold white letters. "A Revolution Angus is a prize bull my brother Don had, so that's what he put on the barn," Maddox was saying in a voice that, at seventy-one, still seemed capable of filling spaces many times the size of the living room we were sitting in. She is a tall woman with feisty hazel eyes and a steep arbor of gray hair. Her blue jeans, faded blue-denim shirt and white sneakers gave her the look of a wrangler in repose, but she soon cleared up that illusion.

"How much cattle do you all own?" I asked her.

"It's not all you," she said. "They belong to my brother Don. I just live here. I have no idea how many he has."

I said that it seemed surprising to find her in a place like Ashland.

"I don't live in town," Maddox snapped, as if the very idea threatened her a little. "I live out in the country."

"How did you get here?" I asked.

"Drove," she replied. Outside a skinny dog barked.

"I've been here since 1958," she said with a now-that-we-understand-each-other look. "Then I got stuck with it when my brother Cal died in 1968 and left his share of it to me. When my marriage broke up in 1969, I came back up here to look after my mother. I like the quietness and the solitude. Usually I live alone and don't have this mess around." She gestured toward a scatter of toys on the living-room floor. Her grandson Donnie, his wife, and their seventeen-month-old baby were staying with her for a while. "They ain't for no place else to go," she said. "Donnie plays bass with me sometimes. He just turned twenty-four. I love Donnie better than anyone in the world, but I could kill him sometimes. He irritates me and me and him fusses." She sighed and explained, "It don't take much to irritate me. I'm just very independent. I don't like to have to depend on somebody else for something. I don't like people depending on me. But they do."

"So you don't enjoy being a grandmother?" I asked.

"I don't." They response was prompt and decisive. "I always said that I'd never be called Grandma." Then she said, "That's all they call me."

Maddox isn't much for Shakespeare, either, by the way. "I hate reading," she said. "It's boring. You're not doing anything but settin' there. I'd rather be out there singing."

ROSE MADDOX has been out there singing for sixty years. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, she and her five older brothers, Cliff, Fred, Don, Cal and Henry, called themselves "The Most Colorful Hillbilly Band in America," and they weren't simply referring to their gaudy array of rhinestone-spangled sateen costumes made for them by the Hollywood haberdasher Nathan Turk. The Maddox Brothers and Rose's repertoire included hymns, weepers, moaners and novelty and cowboy songs, but what they did best were raw, driving numbers like "Move It On Over," "Hangover Blues," "Honky-Tonkin'" and "Water Baby Boogie." "Have you ever seen anything like that?" they would yell during the instrumental break, and the point was well taken - nobody had. It was a brand of foot-stomping music that snycipated rockabilly and packed roadhouses and dance halls all over the West Coast.

Rose usually sang lead in her blazing bawl of voice that sounded like it came straight out of a coke furnace. It was full, clear, muscular, devoid of nuance and thrilling with energy. Her brothers backed her with guitars, mandolins, fiddles, bass, harmonica and a salty brand of vocal harmony that featured yips, yells, giggles, caterwauls, hoots and naughty asides; in case anyone missed them, they were prone to repeating bawdy lyrics at the top of their lungs. No Maddox caused more of an uproar than Fred. He wasn't much of a bass player, but he found ways to compensate. "He was playing upright bass and acting like he was screwing it," Harlan Howard told me. "He hunched over it like a dog over a bone." Once someone from the audience approached Fred and said, "Fred, I notice you don't play any notes on that bass." "Maybe not," Fred replied. "But I've got the job!" He was, the singer Tommy Collins told me, "A showman, and a good one."

Fred might tell of an adventure checking out of a motel room: "'How much do I owe you?' I asked the manager. He told me, 'Fifty dollars.' I said, 'Fifty dollars for that little ole room?' The manager said, 'That included your meal.' I told him I didn't eat no meal. He said, 'Well, it was there for you, and if you didn't git it, I don't care.' So I gave him ten dollars and said. 'I'm chargin you forty dollars for makin' love to my wife.' He says, 'I didn't make love to your wife!' I told him, 'Well, it was there for you. If you didn't git it, I don't care'".

"Yes we were having a good time," Rose Maddox said. "We had a show going on every time. Just hollering, cutting up, having a good time making the people have a good time. My brothers kept me too busy to get tired. They were energetic people who love what they were doing. After the war we got some amplifiers so we could be heard over the people. A lot of country band did that. We were just louder. We wanted to get the public's mind off their problems and worries. When my brothers yelled, the people yelled back. They were all working people laughing, hollering and cutting up with us." Large portions of their audience were displaced Southern farming families like themselves who were trying to make a new start in California. As her biographer, Jonny Whiteside, writes, "They offered the music of home for people who no longer had a home."

The Maddoxes might sing about wild nights of sex and booze, but with the exception of Fred, singing was as close as they came to the high life. Their mother didn't allow carousing - or much of anything else - and well into their thirties, The Maddox Brothers and Rose remained under her firm command. (Fred had some offstage fun because he was so good at climbing out of motel windows.) The provocative qualities of their performances were fueled by the tensions of their repressed existence. Rose was the only daughter, the youngest child at that, and the biggest star among them, so she received more of her mothers scrutiny than anyone. "I went to the honky-tonks to entertain, not to have a good time," Maddox said. "Nobody was wild off the stage. We saved it all for the stage. We never drank. I still don't. Mama would have killed us. Well, Fred was a little wild. He frolicked and had a good time when Mama didn't catch him. Mama always caught me." Singing became so crucial to Rose Maddox because it was, in a sense, the only time she was free to assert herself. "Singing is my way of expressing everything," she told me. "My sorrow and everything else."

Buck Owens, who got to know Rose when the band came through Bakersfield, California, says that she was hard for anyone to miss: "In Rose Maddox's day all the girls ran from her. She was a great singer, she had unending energy and she was good looking."

Maddox was also eleven years old when she began performing with her brothers in places where the patrons all had to be at least eighteen. It wasn't just her youth that made her unusual. "There was no women when I started in country music," she said. "But I was treated fine and the reason was I had four big brothers to look after me. And Mama."

Lula Maddox stood less than five feet tall, but she was a stocky matriarch of such mettle that for twenty years she steered her brood in and out of the toughest across the San Joaquin Valley, facing down the honky-tonk dross of wastrels, crooks, thugs and lechers when they came anywhere near them. She was something of a legend, both for the shoulder bag stuffed with cash that she carried with her everywhere - she once walked into a Cadillac showroom and pulled out enough to pay for seven cars - and for her combative nature. Men who'd ball their fists over an idle glance were ductile before Mama Maddox's resolute gaze. When the crowds pressed to close to the stage, she'd bellow. "I paid $50,000 for those uniforms. Now move back so people can see them."

I remember seeing the Maddoxes at a dance hall in Tracy, in Northern California up by Modesto," Buck Owens told me. "They all got up on stage tuning up. Then Rose walks across the dance floor to get a Coca-Cola and Mama Maddox walked right with her. If Rose went to the bathroom, Mama went with her. Can you imagine her with all those kids?"

We were her kids, Maddox said. "Back then you didn't do what your mother told you not to do. My mother never let men near me and I never tried to get near them. She was a very dominant woman. Slightly heavy-set, not as tall as I am, dark hair, brown eyes. She grabbed your elbow, you felt it. She said 'Don't,' you didn't. She wasn't afraid of anybody. She didn't do cussin', but the sound of her voice was enough to scare the living daylights out of people. She was a demanding person. You did what she said - everybody did. She was the boss of the whole thing. She kept us together twenty years. That's tough to do. Any family fusses and fights. Don't yours? If it hadn't been for her we'd a had no career. She kept us in line. We knew better than to say 'No.'"

Hank Williams was one of the many people who wondered at the sight of Lula Maddox marching into dance halls with all her children trailing behind. Speaking to the independent record executive Don Pierce, Williams said, "Don, I tell you the act that's really got something is the Rose Maddox. I've got a song for that broad. I wrote this ["How Can You Refuse Him Now?"] with Rose in mind and I'll tell you why: when she sings songs like 'Tramp on the Street' and 'Gathering Flowers,' she sounds as pure sa the drifted snow, then she'll turn around and sing my 'Honky-Tonkin'' and sound just like a gal that's straight out of a cathouse! What's she like, anyways?"

"Well," said Pierce. "Straight out of a boxcar."

"I WAS A SHARECROPPER'S DAUGHTER," Maddox said. "I grew up in Boaz, Alabama. That's twenty miles out of Gadsden on Sand Mountain. When they were married my daddy played a five string banjo. My mother played mandolin. They just played barn dances was all. They grew cotton and everything else until everything went under in 1933. Cotton prices failed in Alabama. So we left for California, the Land of Milk and Honey." She laughed. It sounded like a snort. It was from reading paperback western novels that Mama Maddox got the idea that even the trees were hung with silver in California. "We only had $35 when we left there and a dream of going to California," Maddox said. "That was my mother's dream. Hitchhikin'. All of us. Five kids. We got as far as Meridan, Mississippi. They told us there how to get on the freights. We rode the rails the rest of the way. I was seven." They had walked for three days to get to Birmingham, and then hitched rides with truckers, sometimes sharing space with farm animals, until they reached Meridan. Then it was hopping the freights, sleeping in hobo jungles and begging for food all the way to California. Rose says that they didn't spend more than a few dollars of their $35 cache the whole way out.

I said that her life sounded like a a Merle Haggard song. "It does," she agreed. "I wouldn't trade it. Merle's my hero, you know. I sang at his last wedding. It was great. I sang at his third wedding and his fifth, to Theresa. She seems like a pretty good woman and I don't say that about many women. But if it don't last, I'm next in line." She laughed and then she coughed (she had been suffering from bronchitis). "I think it will," she said. "He seems very happy."

Then she said, "None of us played or sang when we was back there in Alabama except my oldest brother, Cliff. He stayed behind - he was grown and married. My sister Alta, she stayed too. They came out later. I remember the brakemen were always good to us. We were the only family traveling. The rest was migrant workers, all men, heading for California. The brakemen helped us get on the right trains and they got us food from the caboose. Sometimes the brakemen locked us in the boxcars and told us to be quiet. Especially in Texas, where the railroad bulls were so bad. They were real bad. You could hear their gun going off, shootin' at all the other hobos, and they would be running from the bulls. The bulls couldn't go out of town, so as soon as the train was out of town the hobos'd swing onto the laughing at what they'd run into like barbed-wire fences - their clothing all tore up. When things were clear then brakemen would let us out. Inside the cars it was quiet. Normal people trying to get to California where there was some work during the Depression.

We got to Los Angeles, California, in 1933. The Salvation Army heard there was a family coming. They didn't have enough room there, so Dad and Cal slept in jail. At least it was a place to stay. We went from L.A. up to Oakland on the freights. We lived in Pipe City. There were these huge culvert pipes and all the migrants were living inside culverts. The mayor of Pipe City gave us his pipe to stay in. My mother got tired of asking for food every day. That's when we hit the front page of the Oakland Tribune as a family come west on the freights looking for work."

"Family Roams U.S. for Work," headlined the April 11, 1993, edition of the newspaper. In the accompanying photograph, the five Maddox children surround their parents, with Rose sitting between her father and mother wearing overalls and bangs. Charles Maddox is unshaven and, like his sons, he is slumped with an ashen expression on his face. Not Mama. Clearly in command, her eyes are steady, her posture erect, and she looks fresh. There was no article in the Tribune, but the photograph looks likes it was meant to rest alongside one of John Steinbeck's 1936 San Francisco News dispatches about migrant workers, the journalism that inspired the novelist to write The Grapes of Wrath. On October 5, 1936, he wrote, "They arrive bewildered and beaten and usually in a state of semi-starvation, with only one necessity immediately, and that is to find work at any wage in order that the family may eat."

Rose Maddox said that Steinbeck probably had it about right. "Sorrowful-looking bunch, ain't it?" she said, looking at the photograph. "Mama brought us out there. Papa, he wanted to stay behind in Alabama."

"Well, we didn't find any work in Oakland," she went on. "That's a city. My dad was a farmer and we rode another freight to the end of the line in Tuolumne, California, My dad and my brother Cal left on a Monday morning, caught the freights to work in the fruit fields in the San Joaquin Valley. They picked peaches and everything else. You got twentyfive cents an hour for peaches or apricots. They worked in the canneries in Modesto. They'd come back on Friday night and then they'd do it over again the next week."

They tried quicker ways to make money around Tuolumne, but these didn't go well. "Mama knew there was gold up there," says Maddox. "They panned for gold and didn't get much more than dust. The mother lode had played out. So in Tuolumne my mama gave me away."

She said this somewhat casually and I thought I'd misheard. "They gave you away?" I said.

She nodded. "They couldn't afford to feed me," she said. "They gave me to the postmaster to be a companion to his little girl. She was my friend until then. I hated it. All I wanted to do was to get back to my family. I was seven. I was a bitch. I was a mean little kid. My daddy finally got a steady job in Modesto and we lived in a tent in the fruit-ranch fields. Talbot's Ranch. We were all back together. I started school in Modesto. We finally got a cabin when I was about eight or nine. A two-bedroom cabin. Not a house, a cabin. We was all together. I went to the fields but I didn't work. I was too little and skinny. I let Mama get her cotton sack half full and then I got on it and let her pull me down the row. I always went to the fields to be with Mama. I never worked the fields."

"Then my brother Cal got a mail-order guitar for $8, I believe, from Sears and Roebuck. He learned to play it. My older brother Cliff had come to California and he taught him to play it. Nobody else played anything. We pitched tents down in the cotton fields in the migrant camps and sang around the campfires at night, but nobody talked about a band. One day we was in the cotton fields and my brother Fred had seen a group get $100 to play a rodeo in Modesto. He just decided we should become a band. We was in a cotton field down around Chowchilla. He got way behind. Mama hollered at him and he said" - Maddox exaggerated the Alabama in Fred's voice - "'I'm a thinkin' we should go back to Modesto and git a job on the radio, git a sponsor, git us a job in the music business'."

"The sponsor Fred got was the owner of a furniture store. Fred talked to him for thirty minutes. Fred only played a Jew's harp. He had no musical experience at all, but he had a long line of bull. The owner didn't say a word. He just let him talk. Then he said, 'I'll sponsor you if you emcee it and if you get a girl singer.' Fred said, 'We've got a girl singer.'" Rose Maddox chortled. "I was trying to sing then," she said. "Fred said to me he didn't know if I could sing or not but he could hear me a mile away belting out them songs while I'd do the dishes. They had no intention on me being in the band. I was just a kid. Eleven."

It was 1937, when Rice's Furniture Store began backing the family on KTRB, Modesto. At first it was just Cal on the guitar and harmonica, and Fred on his bass fiddle, accompanying Rose's singing. Eventually Cliff was there too - on the days he was getting along with his mother. During the war, Don learned to fiddle, and Henry chipped in with his mandolin. A steel-guitar player named Bud Duncan was hired and the band also took on a lead guitar player. At one time this was Roy Nichols, who would later become a stalwart member of Merle Haggard's band, The Strangers.

"It was a family affair," says Maddox. "We started on the radio in Modesto and got to be the most popular thing in the whole country. We started as the Alabama Outlaws and from that we became The Maddox Family. Then we finally settled on The Maddox Brothers and Rose. We entered a hillbilly contest in Sacramento in 1939, and we won the contest over fifteen other bands, and the prize was a radio show in Sacramento. So we worked out of there. I never started school again. I couldn't sing all night long and go to school, too. I got halfway through the eighth grade."

She was always known as Sister Rose, following the unwritten country music decree that said if you wanted to have a woman in your band, you'd better make clear that she was family so that you wouldn't offend anyones imagination. "When we first started, we followed the rodeos," she said. "In each town we got to, we picked out a bar and asked the manager if we could play for tips. They always said, 'Sure.' Right across the street from us would always be Woody Guthrie, who was doing the same thing. I met him, but that was the extent of it. I don't remember much about him. I was a kid. He looked tall and skinny. The Maddox Brothers and Rose was one of the first people that ever recorded a song of Woody Guthrie's. 'Philadelphia Lawyer.' I like Merle Haggard and Woody best. I like the way they write songs. You go through Woody and Merle's songs, you'll get me."

Her brothers went into military service during the war, and Maddox says she had a terrible time finding work because, until Kitty Wells came along, women didn't headline country acts. "They didn't use girl singers," Maddox said. "Then Carolina Cotton quit Bob Will's band and I figured he could use me. He was up and down the Valley, and every night I'd ask him for an audition and he'd say, 'I don't have time tonight.' I followed him for a month and never did get an audition. Finally he said, 'I'll be in Hollywood. Meet me there.' I went all the way down there and he had no time and that made me mad. I told him, 'You wait. When my brothers get back from the service I'm gonna put you out of business.' Later on he played the Bostonia Ballroom outside San Diego. We'd been there the night before, now he was there the next. He was talking to the owner and the owner was telling him what a big crowd we drew. He was drawing well, but we drew more. He looked around and he said, "She said she'd put me out of business, you, she damn near did.'"

The band lasted twenty years, making a lively reputation for themselves across the West with their eight-to-the-bar boogies. After a time, the family made a pretty fancy impression as they drove into town for a show. Each Maddox brother had his own black Cadillac and a trunk filled of bright western suits festooned with hearts, flowers, wagon wheel, cactus, grape vines and anything else Nathan Turk dreamed up to embroider on them. Noisy crowds of sailors, cowboys and fruit tramps come to hear "Do-Re-Mi (Dust Bowl Blues)," the "New Step It Up and Go," and the "New Muleskinner Blues." Woody Guthrie watched these raucous scenes many times and reported, "They Boys in the crowds got even louder in their cheers at the sight and the sound of Sister Rose." Women who came to see the Maddoxes liked Rose's "(Pay Me) Alimony," "I Wish I Was Single Again," and her best known number - which she wrote herself with Fred - "Sally Let Your Bangs Hang Down." The song is of a "love 'em and leave 'em Sally." That wasn't Rose. During the war, at her mother's urging, she had married a man named E.B. Hale, who got her pregnant and then suddenly began insisting the baby wasn't his. He sent her home to her mother. They never lived together again. "I was all of sixteen," she says. "Mama thought I should get married. It was the war and Mama thought somebody should take care of me. He's dead and I'd just as soon not talk about him."

The end of the band in the late 1950s was less of a surprise. Rock 'n' Roll was bad for the large dance halls on the western honky-tonk circuit that the Maddox family played, and Lula's kids were increasingly resisant to the kind of strict control she imposed on them. "I had seen the breakup coming for quite some time," says Rose. "Fred, Don, and Henry were all married and their wives didn't like staying behind. Mama wouldn't let them go with us. Times were changing. Nightclubs were using house bands instead of guest stars. We weren't working as much. I found out I could make as much money as the whole family by myself. I had a son to support. I got married to a man in Oceanside, California. That one lasted six years. Jimmy Brogdon. He still lives in Oceanside. When I married him he was a nightclub owner. Now he owns half of Oceanside."

As for Rose Maddox, she's practically broke, with a hacking cough and a bad heart, living in a worn brown house. There were some good years in the late 1950's and early 1960s. She recorded a series of duets with Buck Owens, and a fine bluegrass album that Bill Monroe, who delighted in her yodeling, had long urged her to make. She shared the property in Oregon with Cal, Lula and her son Donnie for years, but she said her mother made her life unbearable by monitoring her telephone calls, her visitors, her mail - everything she did. I asked her why she didn't resist, and she said, "I was raised that way and I never questioned it. It had to be that way if I was gonna be around her." When Rose did leave to marry Jimmy Brogdon, Lula told her she never wanted to see her again. But she would, especially after Cal, who had been taking care of Lula, died in 1968. With her marriage finished, Rose moved from California back up to Oregon and nursed her mother until she died in 1969. Lula Maddox's last words to her daughter were cast at Rose as she walked out of the house on her way to a job. Mama Maddox was begging her not to go off and sing.

After that Rose continued to earn a respectable living as a solo performer for a while. Then her son Donnie died of a stroke in 1982, which hurt her badly. "I do miss him," she said. "Not as much as I used to. Time changes everything. But it takes time. It didn't hurt me when my mother and father passed away. That didn't hurt me like my son passing away. I'll probably never get over it, but it gets easier as time goes by."

A few years later their heart began to give out. Maddox has endured numerous heart attacks. Half her stomach was removed in the 1960s. She spent three months in a coma in 1988, and as received seven separate bypass operations. The hospital bills cost her almost everything she had, leaving her now, at seventy one, where she began - singing for her supper. Her voice has some fraction of the volume that she once could summon, which is a lot of volume. There is still plenty of personality left in her voice, too. A man who owns a small room doesn't lose anything when he hires Rose Maddox, and the people go home feeling better than she does.

"After I had my open-heart surgery I had to learn singing all over again," she said. "I had to learn my breathing and phrasing all over again. I just belted it out. I don't kick as high as I used to since that operation. I was unconscious for three months. When I got out I had to learn to walk and learn everything else all over again. I've never been the same since, physically."

It was quiet in her Oregon living room. The skinny dog wasn't growling anymore and neither was Maddox. For just a moment she seemed a little wistful. "I miss the good times," she said. "The traveling. The music. The crowds. It's just good memories." Then the cloud blew over and she brightened. "This past weekend I worked at a lodge out in the mountains," she said. "Big K Ranch with Johnny Cash's piano player. I don't go all night anymore, but I could."