Other than Buck Owens, no artist had a bigger effect on Dwight Yoakam than "The Singing Fisherman," Johnny Horton. This East Texas rockabilly cool cat grabbed Rocks Off's attention every time his name was mentioned or a song of his came on the radio. We suspect it was the same for Yoakam, who channels Horton as well as anyone ever has.
Although born in Los Angeles, Horton was raised in Rusk and Gallatin in deep East Texas before he eventually settled in the Shreveport area, where he was a member of the Louisiana Hayride before stardom found him. Ironically, Horton had begun his music career in Los Angeles, playing Cliffie Stone's "Hometown Jamboree" on KLAC-TV.
There's always something compelling about an artist's breakout material that is hardly ever matched again. For us, Horton's greatest work will always be his earliest tracks, rough-and-ready singles cut in Nashville in 1956 with session guitar ace Grady Martin. Horton burst on the national scene that same year with the hit single "Honky Tonk Man."
The B-side was another monster twang-rocker, "One-Woman Man." By the time radio was done with these tunes - "Honky Tonk Man" made it to No. 9 in the charts, "One-Woman Man" No. 7 - Horton was a bona fide rising star. George Jones would later cut one of the finest covers of "One-Woman Man."
In 1957, Horton's label, Abbott Records, rushed out the other two songs from the first Nashville sessions. "I'm Comin' Home," with Martin's rambling twang solo, is pretty much Rocks Off's gold standard for dangerous Texas roadhouse twang. It was backed by "The Woman I Need," and followed in 1958 with Horton's first No. 1, "When It's Springtime In Alaska."
Within three years, Horton's music had been polished and glossed up to sound less roadhouse ready. He crossed over to the pop charts with the wildly popular "Battle of New Orleans" and became known for his saga songs: "Sink The Bismarck," "Johnny Reb" and "North to Alaska," which was featured in the John Wayne movie of the same title. The ridiculous video below shows just how far from "Honky Tonk Man" Horton had come in so short a time.
Horton had frequent premonitions of death, and Nov. 5, 1960, the 35-year-old star met it in a head-on crash at the railroad overpass on Highway 79 in Milano. He was returning to Shreveport from a gig earlier that evening at the Skyline Club in Austin.
Lots of Horton's work has been repackaged over the years. Rocks Off has a greatest-hits compilation that contains maybe the best version of "Rock Island Line" ever committed to wax. We'd pay good money to hear Johnny and Dwight do it.
Dwight Yoakam plays with Elizabeth Cook, 8 p.m. Saturday, November 21, at the Arena Theater, 7326 Southwest Fwy., 713-772-5900 or www.arenahouston.com.