Monday, January 2, 2012

Charlie Ryan: Of Okies, Arkies, and Hot Rod Rockets

Our story begins with what is, by now, familiar history: From out of the dust bowl of the 1930’s poured a great, westward moving horde. An entire generation of Okies, Arkies, Linkhorns, and Panhandlers crowded into jalopies, hopped freights, stuck out their thumbs, and wore out shoe-leather—those, that is, who didn’t simply roam the barren barefoot—all bound for the mythical sugar bowl of California. They settled in towns like Fresno, Stockton, Bakersfield, Compton, and San Pedro. These  places became the new hillbilly enclaves of the west, booming through World War II and tuning into Town Hall Party.
        Charlie Ryan was not among them—at least, not until later, when his records would land in their jukeboxes and his boots would scuff their stages.
        Ryan was born in Graceville, Minnesota, December 19, 1915, several years and several hundred miles safely beyond the reach of the “Black Blizzards” of prairie dust. Another son of 20th Century American mobility, Ryan likewise moved west, first to Polson, Montana, where the young singer/guitar-picker formed his first group, The Montana Range Riders. He eventually settled in Spokane, Washington, in 1943, according to once source. Another claims that the Range Riders took their first regular engagement at a Spokane joint called the Bell Tavern as early as 1935. One thing we do know is that Ryan was calling his band the Timberlines by the late 40’s. In 1950 he wrote his signature song.
        “Hot Rod Lincoln” was essentially another talking blues in the old Chris
Bouchillon/Woody Guthrie tradition—Guthrie, the original “Do-Re-Mi” man, knew a
little something about Okies and Arkies. More specifically, Ryan’s song borrowed heavily from the work of yet another Arkie, in this case Arkie Shibley, whose “Hot Rod Race” was released in 1950 on the Gilt-Edge label and peaked at #5 on the country charts. What’s more, Shibley had also relocated to Spokane, and as fate would have it, his and Ryan’s tire tracks would cross.
        Shibley’s “Hot Rod Race” was quickly followed by “Hot Rod Race No. 2,” and “Hot Rod Race No. 3." Arkies, Okies, talking blues, speed…Had the world gained some new thing under the sun? The Arkie Hot Rod genre was born. 
The Grapevine Hill
        In typical gear-head fashion, Ryan simply modified the stock version to get his “Hot Rod Lincoln.” The song was inspired, so the story goes, by Ryan’s own experiences, particularly his frequent road-trips to play the Paradise Club in Lewiston, Idaho. Some tell of Ryan’s own ’41 Lincoln one night chasing a Cadillac up the Lewiston Grade—and the telephone poles there looked like picket fences. And yet, presumably in tribute to Shibley’s record, to which he owed a great debt, Ryan likewise set his tale on the Grapevine Hill, in San Pedro, CA, set it, that is, right in the heart of Town Hall Party’s broadcast range.
        And so, it might be said that with a lifted verse and a boogie guitar, Charlie
Ryan joined that westward rushing horde.
        Ryan and his band—now called the Timberline Riders—first recorded “Hot Rod Lincoln” in 1955, releasing it on the Souvenir label. This version pretty much sank without notice, except that it did eventually catch the ear of 4-Star Records, who re-released it near the end of 1959. It became on of the biggest country hits of 1960.
        Billboard Magazine described it: “Hot Rod Lincoln—Charlie Ryan tells the story of the souped-up Lincoln and what happens when it tries to pass a Cadillac. Interesting wax that has a sound and a chance. Watch it.”
        About the record’s sound, Nick Tosches, in Country: The Biggest Music in America (Stein & Day, 1977), wrote “steel guitarist Neal Livingston wrought sounds of speed, sirens, and whiplash behind Ryan’s tough boogie beat and amphetamine vocal. Ryan had been playing, in his phrase, ‘country music with a beat’ since about 1947.”
        What Tosches described was for Charlie Ryan and the Timberline Riders a formula for a string of follow-up singles. “Hot Rod Lincoln” gave birth to “Hot Rod Hades,” “Hot Rod Guitar,” “Side Car Cycle,” et. al. But Ryan and the boys never again achieved the chart success of that first hit. Nevertheless, with that string of singles, the saga of that fabled ’41 Lincoln went serial.
        In October 1960, 4-Star released “Side Car Cycle” b/w “Steel Rock”. Instrumentally speaking, the A-side nearly replicated its predecessor, but this time Ryan’s “amphetamine vocal” told of another joyride, one fueled by Union 76, sure, but also by the singer’s desire to put “the miles between me’n jail.” But, lo, along came some dame “stacked like a sack of barley” riding that side-car Harley. She poked fun, and another race ensued. The Hot Rod Lincoln put her in a hell of a pickle and she quit ridin’ that side-car sickle. The B-side instrumental featured swinging back-and-forth action, with the steel and that “tough boogie guitar” swapping licks. The record made the Billboard Top 100, but ultimately fizzled.
        Around this time Billboard reported that “Charlie Ryan is back in Spokane, Wash., after a two-week tour with Jim Reeves, Ferlin Husky, and Johnny Horton…Most of the trek was spent in Canada…Ryan had his 12-cylinder hot-rod Lincoln with him on tour to promote the song.”
        Formulaic follow-up singles and side-show gimmicks: American Show-biz at work. 
        Still borrowing heavily from Shibley, but adding more inventive titles and premises, Ryan took another crack with the serial’s next installment. “Hot Rod Hades,” from 1961, offered a warning about the grim afterlife awaiting the unrepentant speed demon. The flip, “Hot Rod Guitar,” proved again that those B-side instros could hold their own.
        Then, in June of 1963, Ryan released a straight cover of “Hot Rod Race,” a tribute to Shibley, his primogenitor in hot rod boogie. It was coupled with… a re-release of “Hot Rod Lincoln.” Ryan’s hot rod was running out of gas. And this when Rock ‘n’ Roll stood on the verge of being invaded not by Okies, nor even Arkies, but by funny-talkin’ Europeans in need of haircuts. But that’s just more familiar history.
        Charlie Ryan was more concerned with another foreign threat.
        Who could be better suited to whup the Ruskies than a speed-talkin’, boogie-beatin’ hot-rodder, he who embodied American Know-How, that noble virtue that could help rescue a man from a dust bowl, hop up a ’41 Lincoln, milk a show-biz gimmick, and woo a girl “stacked like a sack of barley”? That’s who you want on your side in a tale of Cold War conflict like “Hot Rod Rocket.” Clearly, Charlie Ryan didn’t shy away from topical material. And yet, the tale, like that war itself, remained unresolved by the end of the side.

Countries are bettin' and the stakes are high
on just who is gonna rule the sky.
Now this is not the end of this here race,
cause that hot rod cat's still out in space.


The Hound said...

There was a follow up by Ryan called Hot Rod Hades about the driver ending up in hell issued on 4-Star and in Canada on Regency.

Bob Pomeroy said...

It's in here, but ya gotta go to the jump.