The peacetime U.S. Army in 1957 had a steady stream of new recruits due to the draft and ongoing promotional efforts to encourage enlistments. Among those projects – 52 filmed segments of “Country Style U.S.A.,” were made available to local TV stations from ’57 to ’61. A bit over 14 minutes, each program featured two country stars performing live (no lip-synching), produced at Owen Bradley’s iconic Nashville “Quonset Hut” studio (designed for music and film), the first studio located on what’s now Music Row. Germany’s Bear Family Records has reassembled the complete 52-show run chronologically on four DVDs, each with a detailed booklet. The entire series has immeasurable value. For guitarists, the first two volumes and part of the third showcase the era’s greatest guitarists and steel players in their absolute prime.
Show 1 opens with Jim Reeves with his band including then-pedal steel player Jimmy Day; a later Reeves-hosted show features Day’s successor: future Hank Thompson steeler Bobby Garrett. Little Jimmy Dickens hosts Show 2 backed by his Country Boys band. Along with hot twin guitar work from Spider Wilson and Howard Rhoton, there’s the ebullient Buddy Emmons, playing his Bigsby triple neck pedal steel and Joel Price with his Fender bass. Price was among the first Nashville acoustic bass players to go electric. On Show 3 Faron Young appears. His steel player is Lloyd Green, in his first professional Nashville gig (See article September ’08). Young totes a gaudy acoustic built by Canadian luthier Frank Gay (on some later shows, he used a custom-inlaid J-200).
Billy Byrd appears with Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours on Show 4, playing (of course) a sunburst Byrdland. Among Jean Shepard’s accompanists on Show 6 are former Hank Williams steel guitarist Don Helms (playing the Gibson Console Grande he used with Hank) and Jackie Phelps, thumbpicking a black Les Paul. Show 9, starring George Morgan, features an interlude with Nashville studio rhythm guitar great Ray Edenton harmonizing with Morgan. With Carl Smith’s Tunesmiths on Show 10 are steel player Johnny Sibert (with Fender Stringmaster) and lead guitarist Sammy Pruett, another former Hank Williams sideman. In a later show, Smith strums a flashy Gibson Super 400, a huge custom pickguard covering most of the upper bout.
Toting a Martin dreadnought, Hank Snow, a formidable flatpicker, unleashes a spirited instrumental “San Antonio Rose” on Show 16. Johnny Cash (with Luther Perkins boom-chucking away on his Fender Esquire), stars on Show 18. On Show 23, featuring Bobby Lord, Grady Martin peels off clean lines on a Gretsch Country Club. Don Helms gets a solo turn playing Billy Bowman’s steel showcase “B. Bowman Hop” on Show 24, starring Ernest’s son Justin Tubb. The programs starring Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys reflect the talent flowing through the band. The steel players are Jack Evins or Jimmy Day. Van Howard, Price’s harmony singer (toting a J-200) appears in Show 7. On Show 29, from 1958, Price sings his latest hit “Invitation to the Blues” with a then-unknown Roger Miller, the song’s composer, at the time Price’s harmony singer.
Changes surface on Disc 3. While the music remains excellent, singers are out front, sidemen rarely on camera. One high point is Show 32, featuring Don Gibson and filmed in 1958 when his RCA hits “Oh Lonesome Me” and “Blue Blue Day” were among the year’s biggest. Chet Atkins, Gibson’s producer (who plays “Black Mountain Rag” on Show 27), played on Gibson’s hits. Accompanying Gibson here is Hank Garland, using his original Byrdland on “Blue Blue Day” and “Look Who’s Blue.” Garland resurfaces on Show 36 playing superbly as seminal Texas singer Floyd Tillman, known for his distinctive pop-like vocal phrasing, reprises his 1949 hit “Slipping Around.” By Disc 4 Faron Young has become the show’s permanent host. While the music is still fine, the first-rate house band of A-Team players is invisible. Nonetheless, Garland gets a solo turn on show 51, playing an echo-drenched “Sugarfoot Rag” on a Gibson ES-345. Unfortunately, the vocalists perform in odd settings. Seeing Patsy Cline sing “Walkin’ After Midnight” amid what looks like a general store is… weird.
Bear Family has released other sets, like their “Town Hall Party” collections, from the legendary California country and rock TV program, with Joe Maphis, Eddie Cochran, Merle Travis, Gene Vincent and Larry Collins all over them. “Country Style U.S.A.” is a similar time capsule, showcasing Nashville’s late-’50s stars and their stellar sidemen.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’09 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.