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Up Beat Down South
The Unmaking of a Honky-Tonk Star
Like most honky-tonk musicians, Charline Arthur came from modest origins. She was born Charline Highsmith in 1929, the daughter of a Pentecostal, relatively poor couple in Henrietta, Texas. Her parents were both amateur musicians, and from an early age music and performance were central in her life. In 1945, at the age of fifteen, she left home to travel with a medicine show. Three years later she married Jack Arthur, who managed her early career and also played bass on several of her recordings. Colonel Tom Parker, the man best known for "discovering" Elvis Presley, noticed Charline during her stint as a controversial deejay and singer at kerb in Kermit, Texas. Her foray into Nashville came in 1952, when Parker introduced her to Hill and Range Publishing Company, which in turn led to a recording contract with rca-Victor Records.
By 1955 Charline appeared to have made it to the top. At rca she recorded under the production direction of Nashville music moguls Steve Sholes and Chet Atkins. Country deejays voted her second best female country performer, behind Kitty Wells, in a 1955 national poll. On tour she performed with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Marty Robbins, Lefty Frizell, and other country legends, but after recording for just three years, Charline's progression toward country stardom reversed itself. Her contract with rca-Victor expired, and she did not receive another offer. Thereafter she spent her days performing in small local clubs and recording for some minor record labels. When she died in 1987, she was surviving on a monthly disability check. 1
In 1986 German label Bear Family Records released Welcome to the Club, a compilation of singles that Charline had recorded between 1949 and 1957 (reissued on CD in 1998). It passed largely unnoticed. During the early 1990s, however, a rising interest in women's participation in country music sparked her rediscovery. For example, in their massive work, Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music (1993), historians Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann have a section on Charline, concluding that she "fought for the right to become country's first truly aggressive, independent female of the postwar era. Ultimately she lost." 2
Why did this charismatic and talented performer who mingled with the stars of honky-tonk slide into obscurity? Like the other women aspiring to honky-tonk stardom, she had to maneuver within a notoriously chauvinistic music industry. 3 Perhaps as a consequence of this attitude, by the time she and Chet Atkins parted [End Page 86] ways in 1956, Charline had acquired a reputation for being quite difficult to work with. Yet although she clashed frequently with Chet Atkins, he was initially receptive to working with her. Charline's rankings as runner-up to Kitty Wells in 1955 and then third place the following year in the "Best Female Singer" category of a national deejay poll indicate that Charline had "arrived," according to many of her fellow deejays, apparently surmounting obstacles that typically excluded women from the business. Charline's low album sales, however, never permitted her a Billboard hit. Perhaps the real and overlooked cause for Charline's short-lived career was her inability, in part due to a media that rigidly defined celebrities based upon traditional gender stereotypes, to secure a substantial fan base among women listeners.
Honky-tonk developed from a southern, working-class bar culture beginning in the 1930s and then metamorphosed into a national, commercial enterprise during the postwar years. The genre defined country music in the early 1950s, and its focus on domestic issues afforded working-class women a unique outlet for expression. Kitty Wells, the "Queen of Country Music," would come to represent the ideological focus around which women who listened to honky-tonk oriented their "side" in what was to become a veritable battle of the sexes. Beginning with her 1952 number-one hit "It Wasn't God Who Made...