Real Country Music
The name Johnny Moore may not be the most recognizable to country fans, but when learning of his story, one will have to agree he has served the music's history more than many. His own career was notable before certain events persuaded him to walk away from the industry. But even while on the sidelines, he was still able to assist in the making of history.
His story begins in Anson. TX, a small town resting firmly in north Central Texas where the land begins to give way to Panhandle views. Anson, according to reports, served as the model for the town depicted in the original Footloose movie. Ironic, that a community that once frowned upon dancing, sits in an area that fueled the careers of artists as varied as Frankie Miller and Jim Reeves. There have been many attempts to discuss the nature/nurture role in shaping the art of a community, but regardless, Anson, to this day, still holds an annual Johnny Moore Day celebration.
Johnny says he started playing “professionally at eleven, twelve years old....Ernest Tubb was the one that got me started. He was living in San Angelo at the time and really inspired me to be a singer, he and the old Jimmie Rodgers.”
As his reputation and stature as a performer grew, Johnny began to find himself playing at places like the Big D Jamboree in Dallas. He recalls, “I was living in Anson, next to Abilene, and I would drive down every Saturday night to play the Big D.” He adds, “of course I would play the (Louisiana) Hayride some, but I wasn't a regular, I would play it occasionally cause I was a regular on the Big D.”
While being this busy, Johnny was also recording. He tells that he “was recording on 78s before they ever came out with 45's. And I recorded on wire before that...but I don't think you could ever find all of them...I guess I had over a hundred songs all total that I recorded back in the 40's, 50's, and early 60's before I quit..”
I asked if any of the master recordings have survived. He replied, “Oh, I probably have some of them, but I cut some with Owen Bradly at Bradley's Barn. I did a bunch there” including “some Hank Williams songs” but when “his barn burned down four days after I did some of that he didn't have time to transfer some of them to some other place...in case he had a fire or something... and I lost, I don't know, about thirty songs there...I got two of them and put them on one of my albums back then.” These two “saved” tracks featured the steel guitar playing of Don Helms, who played with Hank Williams. “But the others got burned up and I never did get them.”
Many of these recordings have been released. “I guess I had about 50 songs and things, maybe 60”...but one label released “28 of them.” Of these, a few were hits, and noticed industry-wide, including “Fifteen Acres of Peanut Land”, and “Come In Like A Lion and Out Like A Lamb.” Their success put Johnny solidly in the company of others working the Big D and the Hayride, such as Lefty Frizell, Johnny Horton, Ray Price, Frankie Miller, and George Jones.
“I played with, ole what's his name,... Lefty Frizzell. I was singing a little before Lefty came on. Of course, he was a little bit older than me.”
Johnny was playing the Big D and the Louisiana Hayride, recording, making TV appearances, and sharing the stage with many artists known today as legends. His career was going well, but in 1960 something happened that made Johnny “almost quit the business.”
“I almost quit in 1960 when Johnny Horton got killed. Me and him were on The Red Foley Show and three weeks later he got killed. But I got to thinkin'....Well, me and Frankie Miller, a friend of mine, we both started to quit.”
“We were coming to Nashville and we were going to meet Johnny Horton. And we got about eighty or a hundred miles this side of Dallas. The interstates weren’t finished then...And they started playing Johnny Horton records one after another for about thirty minutes. And I told Frankie, 'There's something must have happened to him.' Ten or fifteen minutes later they said 'we got some sad news.' We pulled over to the side of the road and they announced that he just got killed...Well, I guess we cried for an hour.”
And he told Frankie, “We should just,....well I think I'm gonna quit.”
And Frankie replied, “I am too..”
But the two “got to talking.” And Johnny recalls that he said, “you know, Frankie if he was still living, and he could say anything he would say, 'Y’all please keep on singing, and remember me.' And we did.”
At the time of his death, Johnny Horton was, arguably, the leading figure in Country Music. And he had invited Frankie Miller and Johnny Moore to meet him in Nashville at the Disc Jockey Convention. “We were supposed to meet him at the Convention. Back then that was about the only way you could get to going. You would have to work for four or five years on the road meeting the disc jockeys, going to the radio stations, and playing your record...and they would listen to you and see if they thought you were good enough. That's the way you used to have to do....but it ain't that way no more.”
About those years and his relationship with Johnny Horton, he continued, “Of course I was singing a little before he began singing....but anyway we was helping one another. We always helped one another. We did shows together. And we had a lot of fun.”
I mentioned that I've always heard that Johnny Horton was, I guess you could say “a one of a kind”. And Johnny Moore replied, “Well, you know, there's so many of them...you probably know some...that, you know, are good guys, but they act like big shots, or something or another, and they're not that friendly with everybody. But I've always, the way I grew up, regardless of whether I made it big or whatever, I've always loved everybody and I'd talk to everybody. And that's the way it should be, I think.”
After deciding not to quit, Johnny continued performing and recording with some success. His single “Sold To The Highest Bidder” is noted as having sold 250,000 copies. His career was well under way but it was all brought to a halt in 1964. It was with the passing of Jim Reeves that year that Johnny decided to let his career go.
“Yeah, I quit when Jim Reeves got killed in 1964. He was my dearest friend, and we did a lot of shows. He was an announcer at KWKE in Shreveport (home of the Louisiana Hayride). And his song was almost number one before they would let him go out on the road and sing. He came to do a show Fort Worth where I was a regular, me and Bill Mack and a whole bunch of us, and I knew right then that he was going to be a superstar. But “Mexican Joe” got to be number two on the national charts before they would let him go.” Johnny added with a laugh, “They were afraid to lose him as an announcer.”
As Johnny spoke of Jim, it was clear the deep feeling Johnny holds for Jim. He almost speaks of Jim with a sense of reverence. But there is no regret noticeable in Johnny's voice as he talks about the decision he made as a reaction to Jim's death. He readily admits he missed the music, but still says he made the right decision.
“When Jim got killed, I quit. I wouldn't let them book me no more. I had about two months of shows booked, and I said 'I don't want no more.' I said, 'I'll finish my dates, but I'm through'....And it's a good thing that I did...My wife has put up with me for going on 64 years, and if I stayed in it, you don't know what could have happened to our lifestyle....I don't think it would have but....I'm glad, really, I quit. But I did miss it all those years, but that's one thing I guess you can't help...”
Even though Johnny stopped recording and performing, he still found ways to stay involved in the music business. “I brought Jeannie C. Riley to Nashville to get her started in '67. I wasn't going to move here, but I figured it would take about 3 or 4 years, at least, to get her something going. So I told my wife, 'You know, we just need to move up there.' And we rented a trailer house and stayed in that. We had all the little kids and babies, you know, and I said 'It may take me three or four years to get her going and then we'll come back home.' "
“We weren't here about seven months, and she had the biggest record being recorded.” Johnny had used his connections and relationships to make a way for Jeannie C. Riley, his niece. And it was through his previous success that the deal was made for her to record “Harper Valley P.T.A” for Shelby Singleton's Plantation Records.
Johnny's early success also led to another wise choice. “When I started getting some pretty good records, I made a little money. And I started to rent service stations. I had three in my hometown. There's four there, and I wanted it, but they wouldn't let me have it. They let somebody else have it. I would work on cars when I wasn't on the road. I ended up with about eight in Nashville when I brought Jeannie up to get her started. I didn't own them, I just rented the places so we could have money coming in to help her get to going.”
But others were helped through his generosity, as well. “Everybody knew me,” he recalls, “and I helped a lot of artists. I helped Billy Walker, and Charlie Walker, and all of those singers that were working the road out in Texas.” At times, his help would amount to free service at one of many service stations. “I wouldn't charge them a dime”, he recalls, “I would just say get your guitar and play me a tune.”
Later when some of those these artists would mention his kindness, Johnny had a stock reply. He would say, “Well, y'all were having a hard time making a living, like I was, playing for five or six dollars a day on the road. And I had to have the filling stations to have gas to do my shows!” Laughingly, he added, “That was the only way I could do my shows.”
Through the years, Johnny maintained his contacts, ran his service stations, and raised a family. (Johnny will turn eighty three on November 11, 2012.) Besides Jeannie, no other members of his family have chosen to become performers. Which is a bit surprising when you hear Johnny speak of one of his sons. “My youngest son can really sing. I know, Johnny Cash, and his brother Tommy, begged him for years to start. He can sing, well, he's more like James Taylor and them type of people singing...” In total, Johnny has four kids, seven grand kids, and five great grand kids. In mentioning the size of his family, he laughs heartily while exclaiming, “I'm older than dirt.”
With his family raised, Johnny returned to performing in the year 2000, after a thirty-six year break. He began his return by recording some new tracks. He also began making live appearances again. He plays in Anson, TX every year as part of Johnny Moore Day, and plays in and around Crossville, TN. Most recently he appeared in June of 2012 at the ROPE Breakfast With The Stars.
2001 saw the release of From One Texan To Another, a tribute record to Jim Reeves where Johnny covers ten Jim Reeves classics. About the record, Johnny says, “when I recorded that in 2000, I hadn't sung in thirty-six years, and Tommy Hill, Carl Smith's brother in law, well, he used to produce me way back in the old days, and he produced me on that.”
Recalling more, he adds, “I said I think I need to do it again, because I think my voice,...it just took me a little time to get my voice back, but he said, 'No you done an excellent job.' And it made me feel good that he said that.”
Johnny plans to continue playing and he has plans to record again. He mentions how there is interest from an unnamed label for him to record a gospel album and another country album. And he says there is an offer to do some shows with “Kenny Rogers and Roy Clark.” About which he remarks, “That'll be good...I can make some money then."
I was lucky enough to meet Johnny in 2011 on a trip through Nashville. It wasn't something that I had planned. We just happened to be at the same place and began talking. We spent an hour or so in conversation. Since that morning, we have been able to visit a few times, both by phone, and in person. On each of these occasions, Johnny has shown himself to be one of the nicest people I have ever met. I've read where Tracy Pitcox, of KNEL Radio and Heart of Texas Records, described Johnny by saying that Johnny “makes the country music community better just by being a part of it. He is one of the most sincere, honest, and respectable individuals that I have ever known.” Based on my encounters with Johnny, I agree with Tracy.