Flat-Out Git It!
Protorockabilly luminaries Maddox Brothers and Rose get their due in a Pacific Alliance Stage Company production
By Sara Bir
"America's Most Colorful Hillbilly Band" may have worn dazzling, embroidered satin-and-fringe duds, but their colorfulness was not limited to attire. The Maddox Brothers and Rose brought their raucous live shows, rambunctious onstage personas, and hybrid musical style to audiences all over the country from the '30s to the '50s. Bakersfield country music pioneer Buck Owens said of them, "Oh, folks! Were they hot! And not only were they hot, they were fun."
The Modesto-based band, credited with originating the slap-bass style that came to define the sound of rockabilly, influenced generations of musicians and played a large role in the formation of the "Bakersfield sound" associated with the music of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. And yet their legacy is largely unknown to a public that continues to embrace the output of modern Nashville and is steadily enthralled with the American roots music that was the backbone of O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Pacific Alliance Stage Company's Mad. Bros. & Rose: A Rock-a-Billy Revue aims to transport the audience to the time and place that vivacious frontwoman Rose Maddox and her brothers personified. All up and down California's Central Valley, people grew up dancing to the Maddox Brothers and Rose in boisterous, energetic performances at truck stops, county fairs, honky-tonks, dinner clubs, and just about anywhere they could.
The show is written and directed by Michael Grice, who has twice directed shows by Celtic harpist Patrick Ball at Spreckels Performing Arts Center; Grammy-nominee and bluegrass authority Peter Rowan handles the musical direction.
Grice became aware of the Maddox family about four years ago upon reading of the death of Rose Maddox in the newspaper. "My interest was piqued more then ever about her career and her brothers', particularly the earlier music that they did," Grice says. "I thought it would be great to see something like this onstage, because it's not the kind of country music that you hear any longer."
The Maddoxes were Oakies who came from Boas, Ala., and rode the rails to California during the Great Depression, picking fruit to get by and eventually settling in the San Joaquin Valley. A young Fred Maddox talked a local furniture store into sponsoring a radio show featuring the Maddox Brothers band, but the company insisted upon the band having a girl singer. Rose Maddox, then 11 years old, was recruited for the job. The group outlasted the Depression and World War II, finally breaking up in 1954.
The revue, set two years before their breakup, focuses more on the Maddox Brothers and Rose's music than on biographical details. "It's a musical revue, though there is a dramatic story hidden in it," says Rowan. "The genius of theater is that you can start from one aspect of it and build on it. You can start with the music and tell that story."
Grice went through 155 of the Maddoxes' recordings, narrowing it down to around 30 songs. "There are a lot of songs, and they move pretty fast," Rowan says. "There's only a little bit of dialogue. In their banter, there's a story being told of who they are."
The first act is a radio broadcast, says Grice. "Maddox Brothers and Rose did hundreds of radio shows all of the time. They'd travel all over the state and do three shows a day." The intention with the second act, set three hours later at a honky-tonk in Bakersfield called the Blackboard, is to create a feel of listening to a live radio broadcast in the afternoon and then seeing the Maddox Brothers and Rose in the evening, when they really got to let it all hang out.
The irrepressible humor and energy of the Maddoxes manifests not only in the liveliness of their music but in the catcalls and impromptu vocal lampooning audible on their recordings. "In the middle of a gospel song," Grice says, "they'd do birdcalls in the background while Rose sang about beautiful Louisiana."
However, when legendary Nashville producer Don Law (known for the smooth "Nashville sound" that propelled the likes of Chet Atkins and Patsy Cline to fame) worked with the Maddox Brothers and Rose in the '50s, it didn't click. "He smoothed everything out and made everything right and formed it all together," Grice says, "and it didn't have that garage sound that they liked. They just had that raw West Coast feel where they said, 'Well, we're just going to do things the way we want to do them and have a good time doing it.'"
Rose eventually left the band to pursue a solo career. "At this time," Grice explains, "Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells were getting big. Kitty Wells had the first female solo No. 1 single on the country music charts, and it was originally Rose who had recorded it."
Another groundbreaking attribute of the Maddox Brothers and Rose was their elaborate, gaudy costumes, Grice says. "They were the first to wear the singing-cowboy/vaquero kind of look, all embroidered in silk thread. They had this look that when they came out onstage, everyone went crazy, because it didn't look like poor, Depression-era clothing."
Cowboy hats and the Western look were not yet established wear at this time, and though their garish costumes garnered the Maddoxes ridicule from the Nashville establishment, it soon became the look that defined country music.
Keeping the family connections strong, Peter Rowan's brothers Lauren and Christopher appear in the revue, playing Fred and Cal Maddox. Grice had to take some liberties with the division of the roles, he says, because "I couldn't find a great standup-comedian bass player who could slap, sing, and emcee a show," he says, "so I've spread certain things around." In the revue, Fred plays the mandolin and Cliff plays bass, though in real life it was the other way around.
Bringing the Maddoxes back to the stage is a challenging prospect because there's no videotape of Rose performing to use as a reference. "She shimmied and she kicked, they say, a lot," says Grice. "I've talked to Don [Maddox, the only living Maddox brother] and some other people, and they've given me some of what she did onstage. But more of what they talked about was her attitude. She'd cop an attitude up there. If it was a sad song, she was sad. If it was a sassy song, like '(Pay Me) Alimony,' she was sassy. It's a very difficult role that [actress Cari Lee Merrit] is playing here. Rose would go from a melody to a harmony and back to a melody. Rose is the hardest part."
Grice approached Rowan about doing the musical direction for the show, even though he didn't know if Rowan would be into this kind of rockabilly music. "I should have known better," Grice reflects, "because he's into any kind of good music. He was immediately receptive, and after finally getting his calendars cleared, here we are."
"When the audience hears this music," says Rowan, "they're going to be transported to a time when even the phrasing was different--especially this kind of music, which is almost a hybrid. It's sort of like Western swing and a little bit like bluegrass and a lot like down-South music that wasn't even on the radio, but it was in the churches and square dances and things like that.
"These kind of songs were what people would sit around and play. They're not quite like folk songs. When people hear this stuff sung live, their minds will be struck by a cadence of another era."
The cadence continues to speak to audiences--which is why Mad. Bros. & Rose was written with the hope of it becoming a touring show to bring that era alive to a variety of new audiences. "There's always been a bedrock of people who've supported Maddox Brothers music over the years, and we have people out in Lodi and Modesto buying tickets," says Grice. "There's a lot of people alive who danced to them, and they're in their 60s now."
Hopefully, Mad. Bros. & Rose will catch enough imaginations that a new group of music fans, young and old, will tap their feet to the Maddox family's enduring hillbilly hybrid.
'Mad. Bros. & Rose: A Rock-a-Billy Revue' runs Feb. 13-23. Thursdays, 7:30pm; Fridays and Saturdays, 8pm; Sundays, 2:30pm. Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. $22 general; $18 kids and seniors. 707.588.3434.
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From the February 13-19, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.