From the White Mountains to Willcox, Duane Eddy to Dierks Bentley, we take a journey through the Western music of the Grand Canyon State.
If you took a tour bus and filled it with all the musicians who helped make the history of Arizona country music remarkable, you’d see several familiar faces: Rex Allen. Marty Robbins. Tanya Tucker. Waylon Jennings. But you’d also discover a few forgotten folks, like Billie Maxwell, a cowgirl who cut the first commercial record by an Arizonan in 1929. And if you drove to just a few of the places around the state wrapped in Western lore and connected to country music, you’d be making a long C-shaped drive spanning almost 268 miles, from the Petrified National Forest to near the Mexico border.
Phoenix is far from Nashville – 1,636 miles, to be exact – but like that legendary music capital, the city had its own sound, a slew of venues and a crop of country artists capable of making hit records. With a few historic exceptions, most – like Buck Owens and Wayne Newton – hit the road before hitting the big-time, but it wasn’t just top-selling Arizona artists who changed the sonic landscape in America. Phoenix is filled with veteran full-time musicians whose names you probably don’t know, but who’ve worked with everybody from Glen Campbell to Willie Nelson. The “second-string superstars,” if you will (see sidebar on page 118).
Modern commercial country music has no small amount of the Grand Canyon State in its DNA, but the long, strange, spectacular journey of Arizona country music actually began more than 85 years ago, in the northeastern high-range boonies, far away from any flashing stage lights.
The unincorporated town of Nutrioso probably hasn’t changed much since Spanish colonists first made note of camping on the site in 1776. A teardrop-shaped wedge of land near Springerville in the White Mountains of northeastern Arizona, Nutrioso squats on less than one-third of a square mile of dense pine and fir forest and had a population of 26 at the 2010 census. It’s the kind of place where nothing much really happens, and “going to town” is still a big deal. But it’s here, in the middle-of-nowhere mountain backroads, that Arizona’s journey through the annals of country music started.
Billie Maxwell was born in the Arizona Territory in 1906, and grew up in Nutrioso in a family of farmers, ranchers and musical folk dating back several generations. Everybody in the family played multiple instruments, from guitars to banjos to pianos, but the family was far from wealthy, and didn’t perform professionally. Nor did they write down any songs, instead passing their music down through oral tradition. In 1929, the Maxwells saw a classified in the local paper advertising an upcoming recording session for Victor Records, and auditioned for a traveling scout from the label, who subsequently invited them to El Paso, Texas, to record. And so Billie Maxwell set out with her father, uncle and brother – known alternately as the White Mountain Orchestra and the Maxwell Family Orchestra – in an old jalopy on rocky dirt roads to make a record.
“It was not an easy trip. It was a very difficult trip. And I think her niece Pat Simpson said they were probably pretty broke by the end of that trip... they [probably] had breakdowns and flat tires,” says Sarah Ventre, senior producer at Phoenix public radio station KJZZ. “It’s hard to imagine now, even for someone who regularly drives through the desert on asphalt, on an interstate, being able to do that at that time, it would have been harrowing... that was a big deal for her and her family, to go out to El Paso.”
The resulting eight recordings contain the soft hiss of history, with Maxwell’s voice hauntingly gliding with a slight twang over plucked strings. Four songs capture the family orchestra’s fiddle-thick high-country folk sound, while the other four feature Maxwell solo, singing about folklore of the White Mountains and working class life. “‘Cowboy’s Wife’ is always the song I think about when I think about her,” says Ventre, who wrote about Maxwell in a 2011 Phoenix New Times feature. “That line about her swallowing her disappointment because that is the key to her husband’s heart – it just breaks my heart every time I hear it.”
Digital versions of the songs the Maxwells recorded for Victor can be found online, but the ultra-rare records themselves – thick shellac discs playable only on hand-cranked Victrola gramophones – are almost impossible to nab now. Valley-based career record collector, deejay, and music historian and author John P. Dixon estimates roughly 20 of the original 1,000 to 2,000 copies pressed of each record exist today. He once paid $400 for one of the 78 rpm records, only to have it arrive cracked in the mail.
Maxwell died of cancer at 48, but she continues to intrigue Arizona music enthusiasts. She and her family helped set the stage for cowboy bands like the Phoenix-based Arizona Wranglers, who began performing professionally in 1929, and later acts like Johnny Western, Stan Jones and Rex Allen, who single-handedly turned the town of Willcox into a worthy tourist destination.
On a southerly drive down Arizona’s Interstate 10, the city of Willcox appears almost as a mirage, a ready-made Western movie set. Two hundred monochrome miles from Phoenix, on a black asphalt ribbon bisecting a cactus-dappled dirt flatland with a heat-wavy horizon, it suddenly springs up roadside on the sagebrush plain. Once the “cattle capital of Arizona,” and later a railroad boom-and-bust-town, modern-day Willcox chugs along like the freight trains that still regularly blast through town on a cacophony of bells and blaring horns. Home to fewer than 3,800 people, the town draws twice as many tourists as its population every year. They come for the town’s history, burgeoning boutique wine scene, and deep country and Western roots.
Like the tumbleweeds and dust devils that blow across its highways, the Western movie and country music stars of Willcox are an indelible part of its cultural landscape. This wasn’t just a popular midway stop between Phoenix and El Paso. It’s also the birthplace of Rex Allen, last of the silver screen singing cowboys; the childhood home and discovery place of Tanya Tucker; and home to the Friends of Marty Robbins Museum and alleged inspiration for his song “Big Iron,” depending on which legend you believe (see sidebar on page 116).
Rex Allen was born in 1920, on a ranch in Mud Springs Canyon, 40 miles outside Willcox. Along with his fiddler father, Allen played guitar and sang around town at local events. He joined a touring rodeo after graduating high school, then landed in Chicago, as host of the radio program National Barn Dance on station WLS-AM. Mercury Records signed Allen to their label in 1948, and he left WLS the following year to focus on making records (his biggest hits were his 1953 version of “Crying in the Chapel” and the 1962 song “Don’t Go Near the Indians”). He also appeared in Hollywood Western movies in the style of singing cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Beginning in 1950 with The Arizona Cowboy, Allen made 19 films, every one but the first featuring his beloved Morgan-Quarter horse, KoKo. He narrated numerous Disney films throughout the 1970s, as well as Hanna-Barbera’s 1973 animated classic, Charlotte’s Web. Though Allen spent the zenith of his career in Los Angeles and was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1983, he remained a son of Willcox, returning to perform every year at the annual Rex Allen Days, featuring a parade, rodeo and live music. The festival started in 1951 and continues every October, with Allen’s son Rex Allen Jr. coming to perform from Nashville – where he launched his own successful music career – in his late father’s stead.
Around 1986, Allen retired to a ranch in Sonoita, about 75 miles south of Willcox. “I guess after his movie career faded, he might have gone into a little bit of a funk, and he was giving stuff away,” says local historian Gail Martin, a longtime volunteer at the Rex Allen Museum and Cowboy Hall of Fame, which opened in Willcox in 1989. “He’d say, ‘What do I need it for?’ Luckily, Rex Jr. stepped in and said, ‘Dad, you can’t do that.’ And he took it from him and put it in storage.”
“When the town approached him about having the museum – because they needed a tourist attraction – he said ‘Why?’” Martin recalls with a chuckle. “Mr. Humble from square one. And that’s how he was. I only knew him for the last three years of his life, but he was something else.”
Allen died of a heart attack in 1999. His ashes are across the street from the Rex Allen Museum in Railroad Park, where a giant bronze statue of “The Arizona Cowboy” holds court with a smile, perpetually picking a guitar. The singing cowboy’s eternal sidekick, KoKo, is buried at the base of the statue. Martin shows photos of sculptor Buck McCain creating the Rex Allen statue (which Allen himself was on hand to observe) and points to a snapshot of a cast-bronze rendering of a human heart. “Rex asked him to put a heart in the statue,” Martin says, “because he said his heart would always be in Willcox.”
One enthusiastic participant in the parades for Rex Allen Days was a young Tanya Tucker, whose family moved to Willcox from Texas in 1960. “As soon as I was old enough to ride horses, I was one of the first in line to ride the parade,” Tucker writes in her autobiography, Nickel Dreams (Hyperion, 1997). Tucker describes her parents driving her and her three siblings to a club in Safford to see stars like Johnny Cash, the Carter Family and Johnny Western. She and her sister LaCosta began singing at the local VFW, and at a watering hole called Rix’s Tavern – which remains open today. “I sang ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ so many times that within a couple of years people at the VFW were actually calling me ‘Little Miss Cheatin’ Heart,’” Tucker recalls. “It was at Rix’s Tavern that I earned my first dollar, and I still have it. I wish I’d been as careful about every dollar I earned.”
After singing at local gigs including the Arizona State Fair, Tucker made her professional debut with Mel Tillis, and saw success on the country music charts starting in 1972 at age 13 with songs like “Delta Dawn” and “Blood Red and Goin’ Down.” After a two-year relationship with pop-country star Glen Campbell ended in 1982, Tucker – like many Arizona-rooted country artists – moved to Nashville. But Willcox was never far from her rearview mirror. She’s returned to the town frequently for Rex Allen Days; an autographed, glossy black and white photo of her hangs in the Rex Allen Museum, signed “I love the Arizona Cowboy!”
“The history of this area is rich and filled with amazing tales that are told and retold by locals,” Tucker wrote in Nickel Dreams. “I think my love of the storytelling tradition in song and of all things western is rooted right there in Sulphur Springs Valley.”
Willcox also lays some claim to the man many consider the most important Arizona country artist of all time, Marty Robbins. The modest Friends of Marty Robbins Museum opened two doors down from the Rex Allen Museum in 2007, relocated from a house where Robbins is believed to have lived in his birth city of Glendale, Ariz. Robbins was said to be a good friend of Rex Allen and a frequent visitor to Willcox. “He loved this tree out here,” says Juanita Blakely, founder of the Friends of Marty Robbins Museum, pointing to a giant cottonwood tree in Railroad Park, which Rex Allen planted with his father in the 1930s. “He played underneath it.”
Descended from Arizona cowboys and Utah Mormons, Marty Robbins drew inspiration from the desert for his music. “It was a love that Martin had all his life,” his twin sister Mamie wrote in her memoir, Some Memories: Growing Up with Marty Robbins (Andrew Means, 2007). “He told me many times that when he was close, or getting close, to the desert and Arizona, he would get the urge to write.”
In 1947, Robbins started performing at local venues and making a name for himself. He got a record deal with Columbia and released his first album, Rock’n Roll’n Robbins, in 1956, and accrued a slew of hit songs, including “A White Sport Coat,” “El Paso” and “Big Iron.” He also starred in a handful of films, competed in NASCAR races, won a Grammy, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1982, the year he died of a heart attack at age 57. “Marty Robbins is the man,” John P. Dixon says. “He got his roots here, educated here, started to learn how to entertain here on the radio, but left for the bigger time, the success. But Marty being born here, he’s truly an Arizona export of the most import. I’d say if you picked one guy, Marty Robbins was the most influential country act.”
Another influential country act in Arizona was Robbins’ contemporary, Buck Owens. Owens’ family moved to Mesa from Texas in 1937, during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. In 1945, he co-hosted a radio show called Buck and Britt on Mesa radio station KTYL, got an electric steel guitar and began playing gigs around town. “We started at close to the same time,” Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Duane Eddy says of Owens. “He was a guitar player for a couple acts, so I knew him as that... but I loved him. He did what all country people in those days, and what I did, which was to get your own style, be original, put everything you got into it, and do it with authority. Buck was authoritative, if anybody was.”
Owens relocated to Bakersfield, Calif., in 1951, where he blended his honky tonk sound with a glittery, Western-fringed aesthetic to birth “the Bakersfield sound,” seeing success with songs such as “Act Naturally” and “Buckaroo,” as well as a long-running role as co-host of the TV show Hee-Haw with Roy Clark. In 1968, Owens purchased Phoenix FM radio station KNIX and its AM sister station, KTUF, which both adopted country music formats.
In 1952, two more local talents who would become world famous played their first gigs in the Valley: Wayne Newton and Duane Eddy. Originally from Virginia, Newton moved to Phoenix with his family in 1952 to help ease his asthma. While attending North High School, Wayne and his older brother Jerry Newton performed (solo, and together as the Rascals in Rhythm) on programs including the local Lew King Rangers Show on KPHO television and national showcase Ozark Jubilee on ABC. A promoter in Las Vegas saw the Newtons on Lew King’s show in 1958, and booked the brothers for five years, setting in motion Wayne Newton’s journey to the title “Mr. Las Vegas.”
Born in Corning, New York, Duane Eddy had migrated to Phoenix via Coolidge, where he met producer Lee Hazlewood. From 1957 to 1960, the partnership spawned a signature sound – Eddy’s twangy, low guitar notes, hailing him as the father of rockabilly – and a string of hit instrumental singles. At his peak, Eddy was more popular than Elvis in some parts of the world – readers of U.K. magazine NME voted him the “World’s Number One Music Personality,” over The King, in 1960. “People have no idea how big Duane Eddy was in Europe,” Dixon says. “He was as big as The Beatles.”
Eddy credits Hazlewood for helping him capture the sound that propelled him to fame. The producer had his first hit from Phoenix in 1956, with Sanford Clark singing “The Fool,” followed by his chart-making collaborations with Eddy, like “Rebel-Rouser” and “Peter Gunn.”
“He’d been a disc jockey there in Phoenix at KRUX and KTYM in Mesa, and he spent his morning or afternoons – whatever schedule he was on – listening to all these records in the wonderful environment of a radio studio, with big speakers and great sound,” Eddy, now 76 and living in Nashville, says. “So he memorized all these sounds that he liked – the bass, the drums, the piano and everything – and when he started producing records... he knew what sounds he wanted, and I give him total credit for coming up with a great sound on those records.”
One of Hazlewood and Eddy’s earliest recordings, “Movin’ n’ Groovin,’” utilized a 2,000-gallon water storage tank as a makeshift echo chamber while recording Eddy’s guitar, which helped produce the twangy sound that became the sonic stamp of rockabilly. But Eddy was initially a country artist. Asked if he had any idea how influential recordings like “Rebel-Rouser” would be while they were making them, Eddy chuckles. “No. We were just trying to get a hit record, and we were enjoying it. I love country music, actually. Like Lee said, this was just country music with drums... it was uptempo country, with a little mix of blues and southern gospel and drums.”
Eddy had already sold nearly 12 million records when he met Phoenix-born singer Jessi Colter (then using her real name, Miriam Johnson) in 1961. Colter had begun singing and playing piano at her mother’s Mesa church as a young girl. Her mother was a Pentecostal preacher and didn’t approve of drinking and hanging out in nightclubs. “I did sneak off with the girls once when I was 16 to go to Riverside [Ballroom],” she says with a chuckle, “but that wasn’t part of our upbringing.” But she had a love for performing, and was allowed to audition for Eddy, with her older brother serving as an escort. Eddy produced her first record, and she performed and toured with him for several years. The two wed in 1962, moved to Los Angeles and had a daughter before divorcing in 1968. In the mid-‘60s, Eddy started pushing a performer back in Phoenix named Waylon Jennings. “Duane came over and just started flipping over him and talking about his ability... Duane and I were married, he had a production company, [and] he was just talking to Chet Atkins about Waylon,” Colter recalls. “He was one of his champions, really. He said, ‘I think there’s somebody here you need to see.’ And Waylon was making good money, he was married at the time and had children from the first marriage and the second, and we met in the studio.”
Colter didn’t know it at the time, but the man her first husband introduced her to would not only become her second husband, but one of the most legendary stars in the history of country music, borne on a huge buzz around his regular gigs at a club called JD’s.
Though he later became known for his long hair and beard, in the JD’s days, Waylon Jennings looked more Johnny Cash than mountain man, sporting a slick pompadour and clean-shaven face. He’d begun his residency at JD’s in the summer of 1964 and built a huge following in a matter of months, consistently packing the two-story Tempe nightclub on Scottsdale Road. “I grew up in Tempe and I spent a lot of time at JD’s. I saw Waylon there quite a few times,” John P. Dixon says. “He was pretty much fearless, as far as the style and the songs that he would sing. He would go from ‘Money’ by Barrett Strong, an R&B song, into ‘Four Strong Winds,’ a good folk song, and then ‘Sloop John B,’ which was probably a folk song, but the Beach Boys did it. So he just seemed to have a great mix of songs and I thought that was pretty neat – not just the straight, traditional country that we think of.”
Two albums tying Jennings to JD’s were released: a live compilation album titled The Restless Kid: Live at JD’s (2000), featuring previously unreleased recordings from various shows and a batch of colorful between-song banter, along with liner notes by Dixon; and Waylon at JD’s, Jennings’ studio-recorded 1964 debut album. “Waylon had been a huge hit at JD’s after he had actually accrued the largest following in the Valley, I think before or since,” Jessi Colter says. “There’s never been the same thing.”
As bass player for Buddy Holly’s band on the ill-fated “Winter Dance Party” tour of 1959, Texas-born Jennings brought some star power when he came to Phoenix in 1961 by way of Coolidge, where he had a radio show on KCKY. But when Colter first met him, his star had just begun to rise. “I liked him. He was obviously a committed man. I was committed even though I was young. It was a friendly meeting. I just thought he was really intelligent. Then two years later, Chet [Atkins] came and found him,” Colter says. “He went to Nashville during that time. I didn’t know what he was doing; I wasn’t in touch with him. So when he came through, he called me, and I went out with him and he was very much the gentleman. And I thought I was Jane Eyre and he was the guy... we started seeing each other, and within a year, we were married.”
The couple married in 1969, around the time Colter adopted her stage name. She had a pop-country crossover hit in 1975 with a song called “I’m Not Lisa.” The following year, she collaborated with Jennings, Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser on the album Wanted! The Outlaws, which became the first country album to sell a million copies. It also cemented Colter’s place in history as the first, and one of the few, women associated with the “Outlaw Country” sound and style. “At that point, I’d had a gold record, so I looked like the token girl, but I was the only one with a gold record,” Colter says. “Willie didn’t have one. Waylon didn’t have one. Waylon would laugh that I’m telling you this, but I did – I looked like the token girl.”
She and Jennings released a duet album, Leather & Lace, in 1981, and remained married until his death from complications from diabetes in 2002. Jennings was buried in Colter’s family plot at Mesa Cemetery. With 25 number one singles, two Grammy Awards and a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame, Jennings is one of the most successful musicians to ever drive the roads of Arizona. The JD’s building now houses a furniture store, but somewhere on the showroom floor there once was a stage, which is forever linked with Jennings, and the strings of sweat-filled shows that built his early audience and reputation. “[JD’s] made up their mind that Waylon was gonna be the main guy, and so he actually was involved with designing the big room, because it was a double-decker club, which was the first one. It wasn’t the norm,” Dixon says. “Then a couple years later, they built Mr. Lucky’s across town.”
Mr. Lucky’s opened in central Phoenix along the rusty industrial stretch of railroad-tracked Grand Avenue in 1966. The owner was Bob Sikora, a good friend of Waylon Jennings (Jennings served as best man at Sikora’s wedding) and future owner of restaurants Bobby McGee’s and Bobby-Q. Like JD’s, Mr. Lucky’s was a two-story club, and it had as a beacon a large neon sign with a giant court jester leering down over the marquee. The sign, designed by Glen Guyett (a rock star of sign design; he also crafted the iconic signs for Buckhorn Baths in Mesa and Bill Johnson’s Big Apple restaurants), still looms over the long-closed and gated-off Mr. Lucky’s lot. But up through the mid-‘80s, when the club changed hands and started to struggle, Mr. Lucky’s was the place to play – onstage and off.
The year before Mr. Lucky’s opened, Jennings had graduated from the club scene and signed a record deal with RCA Victor, appearing on the Billboard chart of Hot Country Songs for the first time, with the tune “That’s the Chance I’ll Have to Take.” So the roof-raising at Mr. Lucky’s fell to a band called The Rogues, led by a fellow named J. David Sloan, an Oklahoma native and consummate country performer who had been touring with Willie Nelson and left Nashville to take a construction job in Phoenix in the early ‘70s. It seemed an odd decision for a man with such visible talent and love for playing music, or at least Waylon Jennings thought so. “Waylon knew I’d quit down there, and I’d moved out here, and he kept calling Bob [Sikora] and saying, ‘That guy’s swinging a hammer, but you need to have him in your club.’ They kept bugging me, and about a year later, I went out and sat with the band,” Sloan says. “I hadn’t played in over a year. I was trying to quit. Like it was a drinking problem. It was kind of like that. I never listened to the radio, I didn’t open my guitar case – I was miserable. That’s probably what broke up my first marriage, because I was real unhappy. And they invited me onstage, and it was like, ‘I’m back home again.’”
Sloan accepted an offer to lead the house band at Lucky’s, which he did for the next 32 years. He ultimately bought the venue from Sikora and kept it alive until 2004, when he closed the club and sold the property. But anybody who saw Sloan perform at Mr. Lucky’s remembers it, even if they were kids.
The nostalgia for Mr. Lucky’s helps bring a packed house to Scottsdale venue Handlebar-J every Wednesday, when the Herndon Brothers and J. David Sloan perform with a three-piece horn section, and the restaurant serves Sikora’s secret fish fry recipe, for “Back to Lucky’s” night. The night started about two years ago, and is so popular it’s hard to find an available table after 8 p.m. The dance floor’s flooded with two-steppers and couples in cowboy boots, all enjoying themselves with smiles and tips of their Stetsons.
The Herndon family’s connection to Handlebar-J stretches back to 1967, when Brick Herndon’s band, The Country Score, began playing the venue – called Wild Bill’s at the time – near Scottsdale Road and Shea Boulevard. “There was nothing around here,” Brick Herndon’s youngest son, Ray Herndon, recalls. “Herb Drinkwater had a liquor store, and that was the only thing – and then there was a Tastee Freez and a Circle K. And a shop-and-go market, right around the corner. That’s it. That’s all that was here, except tumbleweeds and people riding their horses around. Very Western.”
In 1975, Brick Herndon and his wife Gwen, who’d been waitressing at Wild Bill’s for years, bought the venue and changed the name to Handlebar-J. Brick died of cancer in 1981, and Gwen and their three sons – Rick, Ron and Ray – have continued to run the popular spot since. Except for a five-year stretch in the early ‘80s when he played in the Mr. Lucky’s house band, The Rogues, Ray Herndon’s always been on stage at the Handlebar, usually with his pianist brother Ron as the Herndon Brothers.
In 1983, The Rogues were playing in Luxembourg when the band met a young Lyle Lovett and started playing some of his music with him. Lovett and The Rogues recorded 20 songs at Chaton Studios in Phoenix, 10 of which became Lovett’s self-titled 1986 debut album. Ray Herndon has toured with Lovett as his guitar player since 1983. He also saw some success with Terry McBride as a member of the country group McBride & The Ride, and released a solo album, Livin’ the Dream (with musical guests including Lyle Lovett and Clint Black), in 2004.
Handlebar-J grew a national reputation. Ray Herndon recalls Glen Campbell frequenting the Handlebar with Tanya Tucker in the late ‘70s. Over the years, numerous notable country artists have played there – and just for fun, often just “stopping by” and “sitting in” with the Herndon Brothers for a few songs. Surprise guests have included Lyle Lovett, Jessi Colter, Waylon Jennings, Vince Gill, Toby Keith, Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley and Kenny Chesney. “[Handlebar-J is] what people who come here looking for ‘the West’ are looking for,” Colter says. “So many great performers play there and have come through there. It’s just a great local watering hole.”
The Herndon Brothers and J. David Sloan always put on a spirited show for a packed house on “Back to Lucky’s” night. The band also includes drummer Gary Bruzzese, who backed Glen Campbell for 18 years, and in the horn section – which adds a funky, bluesy swagger to the band’s sound – veteran Valley jazz saxophonist Jerry Donato. Sloan, in particular, can’t hide his pleasure in performing, whether he’s gently strumming a guitar or furiously playing his fiddle – he dances, he whoops, he smiles and claps. “Sometimes, when I’m onstage playing with these guys,” Sloan says, “I feel like my insides are going to explode.”
Along with clubs like JD’s, Mr. Lucky’s and Handlebar-J, radio played an important role in the development and popularity of Valley country music. Up until the 1950s, Valley airwaves were bereft of twang, instead saturated with a format called “beautiful music” (aka “easy listening”).
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, rock and country came to prominence on the dials of AM, then the preferred radio broadcast process. Phoenix's first full-time country radio station, KHEP, was launched by Texas transplant Ray Odom, a former deejay at Valley station KRUX. “They were a daytime station, and there was no country music in town, and people were just screaming for it,” Odom says. “I was at KRUX, and it sold to a group called the Bartell Group, and they changed the format, which was a lot of sport [stuff], and they changed it to rock and roll. They offered me a job as a rock and roll jock, and I said, ‘I don’t think so!’”
KHEP signed on-air Thursday, October 23, 1956. “‘You ain’t hep if you don’t listen to KHEP!’” Odom says, reproducing the tagline with the smooth baritone gusto of a guy who spent half a century in radio and concert promotion.“We had an open house on Sunday, and there were at least a thousand people that came to visit the station, and all we were offering them was a free Coke. Some of the people standing out in the heat – there was a line winding way out to the road, and people holding their babies in their arms. That’s just how badly they wanted to have country music back in Phoenix, and it was just sensational.”
Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, other country stations sprang up. But the Valley’s biggest country station was – and still is – KNIX. Jim West began deejaying at the station in 1979. “We were number one in our format. We owned the ratings here, locally,” West says.
While local country can still be found in a few clubs, shifts in radio occurred in the ‘90s that led to a leaner rotation of local artists in lieu of chart-toppers. After FM became the dominant broadcast band in the early ‘70s, most of the Valley’s AM country stations died off. Buck Owens sold KNIX to Clear Channel in 1998; it remains the Valley’s top country station, but the programming is mostly mainstream and Top 40 country artists. West left KNIX in 1987, and helped launch country station KMLE in 1988. “It was a slow, slow climb in the ratings for KMLE to start competing with KNIX,” West says. KMLE hit the top 10 in ratings after a couple years, and was ultimately sold to CBS. Being big-time stations, both frequencies play big-time names – which doesn’t necessarily exclude homegrown artists.
Take Dierks Bentley. Beginning in 2003, the Phoenix-born troubadour racked up a pair of platinum albums and 11 number one singles. Like many of Arizona’s breakthrough country artists, Bentley moved to Nashville, but stays rooted in the state. He owns a Scottsdale restaurant, Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row, and still takes photos of the sunsets when he gets home, according to fellow Phoenix turned Nashville resident Duane Eddy. “He does love Arizona. He grew up in north Phoenix, up by Scottsdale,” Eddy says. “He sounds like he’s right from the cotton fields outside Coolidge, but he ain’t. He’s very authentic. It’s in your heart and mind and that’s what comes out.”
For artists like Bentley and Eddy, the journey of Arizona country ultimately ends up in Nashville. For others, the road leads to California, or maybe Nevada. But wherever the roads lead, the roots trace back to Arizona. And that’s a long, rich trip.
Local Lore in the Lyrics
“Ghost Riders in the Sky,” written by Douglas-born Stan Jones in 1948, was based on a Western folk tale. The story goes that when Jones was 12, he was listening to tales from an old hermit named Capp Watts. The two were sitting outside in the desert of Cochise County, watching storm clouds rolling toward them in the distance, when Watts relayed the legend of the “devil’s herd” – cowboys cursed to corral demon-cattle across the sky for eternity. More than 50 artists have recorded “Ghost Riders,” including Johnny Cash, Gene Autry, Bing Crosby, Burl Ives and Marty Robbins.
“Big Iron” was a country ballad released by Marty Robbins in 1959. It tells the story of an Arizona Ranger’s gun fight with an outlaw named Texas Red in “the town of Agua Fria.” There is no Arizona town named Agua Fria, leading some to speculate that Robbins was writing about Agua Fria, New Mexico – a theory flatly rejected by some Arizonans. “That [shootout] happened about two blocks from here. They say it was ‘Agua Fria,’ but that’s a bunch of stuff,” says official Willcox tour guide E. Pierre Brehm. “‘Willcox’ doesn’t fit in flowingly [in the lyrics] as good as ‘Agua Fria.’”
“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” was a hit for Glen Campbell in 1967, but the “Rhinestone Cowboy” singer – who moved to Paradise Valley in 1982 – didn’t write the song. A guy in Los Angeles named Jimmy Webb did. Lamenting his breakup with Susan Ronstadt, sister of Tucson-born singer Linda Ronstadt, Webb imagined driving from L.A. to his old home in Oklahoma, and all the possible reflection points between, including Phoenix.
We couldn’t possibly name every great player who impacted Arizona country music in some way. But here are a few.
Frankie Starr: Starr was a headliner in his own right, writing and performing country songs at clubs around town, when he started helping Marty Robbins get shows. Starr later wrote and produced several songs for Robbins.
Chuck Mayfield: Known as the “Eloy Flash,” Mayfield’s family moved to Eloy from Arkansas around 1947. He started doing shows on KCKY in Coolidge in 1956, and then a weekly television show with Roy Odom and the Sunset Riders, along with a Saturday night Arizona Hayride radio program on KRUX.
Donnie Owens: A member of Duane Eddy’s original band, Owens recorded with a range of artists including Eddy, Nancy Sinatra and Waylon Jennings. He died from a gunshot would accidently inflicted by his girlfriend in 1994.
Billy Williams: Williams played with the Mr. Lucky’s house band, The Rogues, for 20 years, and has produced several of Lyle Lovett’s albums.
Buddy Long: Long backed Duane Eddy on his first recording, and played with Bob Fite and the Western Playboys for three years at the Riverside Ballroom in the ‘60s. He later moved to Nashville and played bass in Waylon Jennings’ band.