Nashville Skyline: The Unfinished Legacy Of Johnny Horton

Short but vibrant musical career showcased in new Legacy reissue.

[Nashville Skyline is an opinion column by Country Editor Chet Flippo.]

The historian in me is gladdened by the current package of reissued classic albums by Columbia Legacy. Country music these days is in such a rush to find the next superstar Shania Twain or Garth Brooks or Faith Hill or *NBred that sometimes the music's legacy is forgotten and overlooked. Country comedian Tim Wilson's recent remark in these pages that Led Zeppelin is treated better than Gene Watson is right on the mark.

Columbia Legacy's meticulous reissues of landmark works by Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, the Carter Family, George Jones and Johnny Horton are valuable additions to the canon of country music. Nelson's Red Headed Stranger is headed for the designation of best country music album ever recorded, Cash's At San Quentin is finally presented in its entirety, a Carter Family primer is issued, and George Jones' I Am What I Am contains his best vocal work.

And The Spectacular Johnny Horton provides a closer look at a lesser-known but brilliant and unfinished musical career.

The exuberant Horton was only 31 when a drunken driver killed him in 1960 following a concert in Austin, Texas. Horton had had a premonition of his death and considered canceling that concert date, but went ahead with it. His wife was widowed for the second time by a country star: Billie Jean Jones Williams Horton's previous husband Hank Williams died in 1953 at the age of 29. She married Horton later that year.

Lasting Contributions

Horton's recording career spanned only five years but remains a rich and varied musical legacy that has influenced singers ranging from George Jones to Dwight Yoakam to BR5-49 — who recorded his "Cherokee Boogie" (

HREF=",_Johnny/Cherokee_Boogie.ram">RealAudio excerpt).

Oddly, Horton had no one identifiable musical style, although he is most often identified with the saga songs that came late in his career and proved his biggest successes. "North to Alaska," from the John Wayne movie of the same name, was a #1 country hit the week after he died, and he enjoyed success with such others as "Sink the Bismarck," "When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)," and "Johnny Reb."

His most famous, "The Battle of New Orleans," (

HREF=",_Johnny/The_Battle_Of_New_Orleans.ram">RealAudio excerpt) was a #1 country and pop hit in 1959.

Interestingly, Horton recorded a second version of "Battle of New Orleans," in which the song was rewritten so that the British won the battle. This oddity was intended for British audiences, after the BBC banned the original song. It's one of the bonus tracks on this album. Another bonus is the inclusion of never-before-published snapshots of Horton on a fishing trip with Johnny Cash.

The album's new liner notes (written by reviews editor Billy Altman), tell that Horton was working as a fisherman in Alaska when he won a country music talent contest. He moved to Southern California and was billed as "The Singing Fisherman." Later moving to the Louisiana Hayride barn dance show in Shreveport, La., he was tutored by Hank Williams, who had gone back to the Hayride after being fired from the Grand Ole Opry.

Changing Styles

Early in his career, Horton's musical style leaned toward traditional country ballads that were uniformly commercial flops. It wasn't until he left Mercury Records for Columbia that hits came, first with "Honky Tonk Man" in 1956. His rockabilly and honky-tonk styles gave way to the saga songs in 1959, with "When It's Springtime in Alaska." Along the way, he recorded such stylistic departures as the mournful Hank Williams hit "Lost Highway" (

HREF=",_Johnny/Lost_Highway.ram">RealAudio excerpt) and the emotional ballad "All for the Love of a Girl" (

HREF=",_Johnny/All_For_The_Love_Of_A_Girl.ram">RealAudio excerpt).

Now, you have to ask: How many country music careers have not enjoyed this kind of careful stewardship? The answer: Most of them. Where's a good Johnny Rodriguez retrospective? Or one devoted to Dolly Parton? Or Minnie Pearl? Leon Payne? Waylon Jennings? Roger Miller? Hank Penny? The Coon Creek Girls?

If it weren't for reissues like these from such labels as Columbia Legacy, Razor & Tie, Buddha, Bear Family and others, there would be many more holes in country music's history. Incidentally, Bear Family, the German record label specializing in reissues, observes its 25th birthday this month.