The story of country music is intertwined with tragedy. Throughout the history of the genre, its stars have been taken away in sudden and shocking ways. From Jimmie Rodger’s death at the age of 35, to the tragic accidents that killed Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves, the country music community has often found itself mourning those who were gone too soon. Due to these catastrophes, it has fallen on country music’s individuals and institutions to carry the legacy of these fallen giants forward, ensuring that both their music and their memory live on, and no institution bears more of this weight than the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The job of the Country Music Hall of Fame is more than just naming the genre’s biggest hit-makers, its primary purpose is to tell the story of country music. In order to present this narrative, the Hall of Fame has inducted the early Grand Ole Opry Stars, music executives, and promoters. It has also enshrined comedians and television personalities such as Grandpa Jones, Rod Brasfield, and most recently, Ray Stevens. In fact, Homer and Jethro were inducted in 2001, despite not being members of the Opry, and having only two top ten country hits. Even artists who may not primarily be identified as country music singers such as Elvis Presley, Brenda Lee, and the Everly Brothers have been inducted. But all of these artists belong, not because of their style, or success, but because the tale of country music cannot be told without them.
While many of country music’s lost stars have been enshrined and memorialized, there is another country star who has yet to get his due. Only seven years after Hank Williams was found dead on New Year’s day, Johnny Horton died when a drunk driver hit his car head on. While Hank Williams would become a country music martyr after his death, being a part of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s inaugural class (Reeves and Cline would also be shortly elected), Johnny Horton has never been given the honor, and this is an error that the Hall of Fame must rectify.
Johnny Horton initially entered the public consciousness through the Louisiana Hayride. Country music’s second most popular show, the Hayride had previously helped make stars out of Hank Snow, Faron Young and Webb Pierce, among others. While Horton became a favorite star on the Hayride, he was unable to break into the country music mainstream. Although he was signed to Mercury Records in 1952, Horton struggled to accumulate sales. His music on these records was classic country crooning, a far cry from the eventual sound that would make him famous.
In the early 1950s, a new sound began to emit from the Louisiana Hayride- Rockabilly. Spearheaded by Elvis Presley (who would perform numerous times on the show), Rockabilly began to emerge as country music’s newest trend. After seeing Elvis perform, Horton was taken by the new sound, and he turned to Hayride stalwart Tillman Franks to help him turn his career around.
With Franks as his manager, Horton would sign a one year deal with Columbia Records, with whom he released 1956’s Honky Tonk Man. The album included the Horton penned country standards “Honky Tonk Man” and “I’m a One Woman Man”, which both entered Billboard Country top ten. A third single “I’m Coming Home” reached number eleven.
While Horton’s honky tonk style would produce two more top ten hits in 1957’s “The Woman I Need” and 1958’s “All Grown Up”, Horton continued to struggle to find consistent success. Things changed for the singer in late 1958 when he released the saga songs “When It’s Spingtime in Alaska (It’s Forty Below)” and the smash hit “The Battle of New Orleans”.
While Springtime in Alaska would become Horton’s first number one hit, it was The Battle of New Orleans that would become his signature song. A saga song about the action’s of Andrew Jackson’s troops at the Battle of New Orleans, the song would cross over and reach #1 on the Billboard Top 100 and win Horton a Grammy Award for Best Country Performance. Horton would follow up his success with another saga song Johnny Reb. Just as it seemed that he was on the road to stardom, after finally finding his own niche in country music, tragedy struck.
On November 5, 1960, Johnny Horton was killed when his automobile was struck head on by a drunk truck driver. Prior to the accident, Horton had premonitions about his demise, telling friends and family that he would soon die at the hands of a drunk. Horton even cancelled his scheduled attendance at the premiere of North To Alaska and tried to back out of his club date at the Skyline in Austin, Texas on November 4th.
Johnny Horton was buried on November 8th. A devastated Johnny Cash chartered a plane and read from the Book of John at his friends funeral. Following Horton’s death, North to Alaska became a #1 hit, and a second single Sleepy-Eyed John reached #9.
The legacy of Johnny Horton continued long after his untimely demise in 1960. The storytelling of his saga songs would influence artists such as Johnny Cash, Tom T Hall, and Roger Miller, among others. Even his early Rockabilly sound, which was largely overshadowed by his later hits, would influence young artists like Dwight Yoakam, who would take Horton’s Honky Tonk Man to #3 in 1986. Finally, Horton’s Battle of New Orleans would become a country music standard. In fact, when Billboard released its top 100 songs of its first 50 years, The Battle of New Orleans came in at #26, country music’s highest representative.
The question remains however, why has Johnny Horton been inducted into the Hall of Fame? The simple answer seems to be that Horton has been excluded because he was a Nashville outsider. Unlike many of his enshrined peers, Horton was never a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Instead, he had risen to fame on the Louisiana Hayride. Likewise, his Rockabilly music was rooted in Sun Records and Memphis, not RCA and Music Row. Had Horton been a Chet Atkins produced Grand Ole Opry member, he would have been inducted by 1965.
The Country Music Hall of Fame should not be a final resting place for Opry stars and Nashville stalwarts, it needs to be bigger than that. The Hall of Fame instead should celebrate country music in all its variations and locales. It should tell the genre’s tale to the masses and celebrate it’s heroes. The story of country music cannot be told without Johnny Horton. In the late 1950s, Horton helped drive the genre forward, infusing classic country sounds with the emerging energy and swagger of rock and roll. At the time he died, he had created a new niche in country music with his saga songs. Although a tragic accident robbed the world of Horton’s prime, his contributions to country music deserve to be remembered. Although the honor may be sixty years too late, it’s time that the Country Music Hall of Fame gives Horton his due and enshrines him among the pantheon of country music legends.