She was only ten years old when her big brothers pulled her into their band, needing a female singer on the spot to land a regular performing gig on the radio in Modesta, California. She quickly learned as many songs as she could, and joined her brothers to form The Maddox Brothers & Rose, one of the most influential hillbilly bands of all-time.
Her family had moved to California during the Dust Bowl, and her brothers loathed the idea of manual labor for a pittance of pay. They found a dedicated audience willing to pay their bills for a few songs in return, and they toured the west coast, hopping from rodeo to rodeo and club to club, playing for nominal fees plus tips. Another act playing the same circuit was Woody Guthrie, and Rose caught his show when she was only twelve. She heard him perform “Philadelphia Lawyer,” and she helped make the song a country classic through her performances of it.
The Maddox Brothers & Rose won a California State Centennial contest in 1939 that landed them their own syndicated radio show. The act’s popularity spread beyond their California home base, and their career seemed unstoppable until national events intervened.
Rose married on the eve of World War II, which would effect her life in two major ways. Her husband was sent off to war while she was pregnant with his child, and her brothers went overseas as well. She was suddenly a single mom and solo act, and she was exposed to the sexism that was prevalent in the music business as she tried to book dates on her own.
When the war was over, her brothers returned home and the band started up again. Her husband returned safely toom but didn’t go home to his wife. Now that their appearances had to help her support a child, she was determined to kick things into a higher gear. In the 1940′s, The Maddox Brothers & Rose transformed into the ultimate in Western swing bands, wearing elaborate costumes by Hollywood designer N. Turk that later inspired the legendary Nudie suits. Their performances became increasingly spirited and flamboyant, putting inspired country spins on contemporary hits and singing risky material like “Sally Let Your Bangs Hang Down.”
Rose in particular was a fiesty female singer the likes of which had never been seen before. Her songs were a far cry from the demure cowgirl songs favored by Patsy Montana and Dale Evans. She growled to the judge to make her ex-husband “(Pay Me) Alimony” and resurrected the classic “I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again,” infusing it with grit.
When her brothers started losing interest in the act, wanting to spend more time with their families, Rose went solo in 1956 and never looked back. By this time, her sound had already inspired followers like Wanda Jackson, and she would later be cited by Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris as a major influence on their respective sounds. Her rough sound was a counterpoint to the sweet sounds coming out of Nashville. She would later reflect that her music “was more fun and raunchy, not quite so professional and after perfection as Nashville. A little more kickin’ ass, let’s put it that way.”
Maddox had some of her biggest hits in the early sixties, recording for Capitol. She was something of a mentor to Buck Owens; the sound of Maddox Brothers & Rose were a clear influence on him. They teamed up for hit duets like “Mental Cruelty” and “Loose Talk,” while Maddox scored her biggest solo hit with “Sing a Little Song of Heartache.”
There’s been a trend of successful country women exploring bluegrass, with Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Lynn Anderson and Jeannie Kendall being among those to do so. Again, Maddox was a pioneer, recording her first bluegrass album in 1962 and continuing to explore the genre in subsequent years, including her final release, The Moon is Rising, in 1996.
Maddox performed and recorded for more than sixty years, both as a member of her family band and as a solo artist. The importance of her contributions to country music cannot be overstated, and it is something of a travesty that Maddox Brothers & Rose are not in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Perhaps if West Coast country music had remained vital and significant independently of Nashville, their contributions would be more widely noted. As for Rose Maddox, she may not be the household name that some of her female contemporaries are, but in terms of influence, she’s above them all.
Essential Singles & Songs
- “Philadelphia Lawyer,” c. 1937
- “Sally Let Your Bangs Hang Down,” c. 1946
- “(Pay Me) Alimony,” c. 1947
- “Mental Cruelty/Loose Talk” (with Buck Owens), 1961
- “Sing a Little Song of Heartache,” 1962
- Glorybound Train, 1960
- Rose Maddox Sings Bluegrass, 1962
- A Beautiful Bouquet, 1983
- The Moon is Rising (with John Jorgenson), 1996