Country Music's "Molly O'Day"

By James Clell Neace - 2000

Recently a Kentucky Explorer reader living in the Williamsburg, Kentucky, area wrote and asked me to author an article on country music singer Molly O'Day; whom he had listened to regularly on a Nashville, Tennessee, radio station during World War II. In my reply, I stated that I, myself, was a fan of Molly and would give his request a try.

One of the first statements about Molly that I found was that she was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, female singers in country music. Thus, I was assured at the onset that I was on the right track, and Molly O'Day was an "influential" in the great musical era, now called the "Golden Age" of country music.

Laverne Williamson (1923-1987), a native of Pike County, Kentucky, was considered by some as a country music legend. Her adopted stage name was probably suggested to her by her Nashville recording agent, Fred Rose. Listeners hearing Molly's records, who are not familiar with old-time Kentucky talk, may be surprised by her quaint way of saying the word "tramp" and a few other words scattered throughout her songs.

When recording, Molly typically accompanied herself on a guitar. However, when performing the old traditional mountain ballads and gospel songs, she reached for her five-string banjo, which she played proficiently.

The referenced Smithsonian Manual states, "Molly O'Day had a fruitful musical relationship with Hank Williams in the mid-1940s, at a time before Hank had experienced his fabulous rise to success." Thus, Hank's first employment in Nashville was as a songwriter for Molly.

Hank, not yet a well-known singer, was in Nashville seeking a job. He had a number of songs with him that he claimed to have written (Note: We now know that Hank composed an amazing total of 125 songs during his brief lifetime of 29 years).

There, Hank, a tall, lanky young man, who bent way over his guitar as he played, met Fred Rose, partner of Roy Acuff in the Acuff-Rose record publishing house. Rose was looking for material for use by Molly O'Day, with whom he was already associated in record production.

To assure himself that Hank's songwriting ability was real, Rose took Hank aside and told him a fanciful tale about an imaginary triangular love affair gone wrong. He then sent Hank into a sideroom to write a song about the unfortunate lover who lost out. Thirty minutes later, Hank emerged from the "isolation booth" with the song "Mansion on the Hill." Hank got the job.

The team of Hank and Molly was loaded with talent. Together they produced a number of outstanding new songs, including "Singing Waterfalls" and "When God Gathers His Jewels."
Old songs, such as "Tramp on the Street," were revived, and in some cases, rearranged by the two gifted musicians. The original version of "Tramp," written by Grady and Hazel Cole, is entirely different from the version recorded by Molly. It is now in the Smithsonian Collection of Classical Country Music.

"Tramp on the Street" (Columbia 37559) was recorded in Chicago, Illinois, on December 16, 1946, by Molly O'Day with the Cumberland Mountain Folks. The cast included: Molly O'Day (vocal and guitar); Lynn Davis (vocal and guitar); Cecil "Skeets" Williamson (fiddle); George "Speedy" Krise (dobro); and Mac Wiseman (bass). Commenting on Molly's performance, the Smithsonian Manual states, "Molly's version is the essence of great, heartfelt country singing."

Who can forget Molly's matchless renditions of such songs as the story about a family coming to a train depot to greet their son, who had gone off to war and was now returning home. As the train pulled into the station, the stationmaster called the family aside and told them their loved one was coming home, but not as a passenger. He was lying dead in a box in the express car.

Another of Molly's records (Columbia 20584) dealing with the then recent devastating war was selected for the Smithsonian collection. "Teardrops Falling in the Snow" was billed in the Smithsonian Manual as "a recording which unites one of the greatest pure country singers with one of the most compelling songs about the tragedy of war."

The recording was made in Nashville, April 4, 1949, by Molly O'Day and the Cumberland Mountain Folks. The cast included: Molly O'Day (vocal and guitar); Lynn Davis (vocal and guitar); Cecil "Skeets" Williamson (fiddle); James "Slim" Martin (fiddle); H. E. Burns (bass); and one other unknown musician (steel guitar).

It's sad to say, but real country singing isn't often heard on radio anymore. Singers like Hank and Molly aren't considered to be relevant anymore. Their recordings are relegated to the trash bins by today's so-called "modern country" fans, who disdain traditional country songs.

The great decline and fall of real, unadulterated country music began in the early 1950s with two men: Elvis Presley and Chet Atkins. In the early days of his career, Elvis traveled with and shared billings with the Louvin Brothers, Ira and Charley. One day Elvis told Ira that he dearly liked to sing traditional country songs, but he had to satisfy his audiences, who demanded the new "rockabilly" style of music with its attendant-improvised graphic gyrations.

Soon the new audiences that flocked to see Elvis were exerting their extensive influence on the financial and other aspects of the recording industry. The music of George D. Hay's Grand Ole Opry, that once kept Kentuckians of all ages glued to their battery-powered radio sets till midnight every Saturday night, soon began to fade. It was replaced, first by rockabilly, then by rock and roll, or by new variants with such monikers as "cool rock."

Chet Atkins, as manager of RCA's Nashville operations, exerted a determining influence on the format of recordings flowing out of Nashville. Former country stars were now largely ignored. Asked why he was participating in the premeditated obliteration of the traditional music of his own people, a cultural heritage he had previously pretended to cherish, Chet replied, "I'm in the business of selling records."

Chaos reigned for awhile, but most of the recording industry crossed over and, eventually, went along with the new trends. To their everlasting credit, there were two holdout companies (bless them!), Starday and REM, who dealt mostly with adult buyers, selling their records through the mail.

Starday, a well-established production-minded country music label, produced many new LPs using vault material rented from other record companies.

REM, a tiny new shoestring operation in Lexington, Kentucky, was started in 1960 by Robert Mooney, a former employee of King Records, who had resigned in the wake of King's crossover. In opening the Lexington studio in his own hometown, Mooney declared, "I'm going to cut real country music records, whether they sell or not." For years, he sold REM-produced records out of the back of his car.

Mooney considered the singing of Molly O'Day to be authentic, real country music; the "real thing." Quoting the Smithsonian Manual,"Molly sang all her songs with a characteristic heart-rendering sincerity."

In the early 1960s, Mooney decided he just had to reach Molly and persuade her to record for his REM studio. He knew when Molly left the singing business for church work, she attended the First Church of God at Huntington, West Virginia. He asked around and found that Molly and her husband were running a record shop at Williamson, West Virginia, in the coal fields near the Kentucky border. To record her, Mooney traveled 25 miles up a hollow to the tiny church house. There, he was very impressed by the ardor of the congregation, which sang and shouted the Savior's praises, repeatedly.

If you listen closely to the singing of Kitty Wells or Loretta Lynn, you will discern some remnants of the voice of Molly O'Day. Clearly, Molly's influence has been felt across a wide spectrum of country music. Incidentally, any fan of Hank Williams may also recognize Hank's songwriting in some of Molly's songs.

Like so many other Americans, Hank and Molly seemed to have been adversely affected by the goings-on in the tumultuous 1950s. Far-reaching changes occurred, not only in the music of the day, but in most other aspects of daily life. Many of the old standards and rock-solid absolutes, which sustained the American people in balmier days, had been dropped in favor of relativism, where anything goes.

As a result, Hank became a hell cat; shooting up his hotel rooms and eventually dying from a drug overdose enroute to a concert. Molly finally got out of the country music business altogether.

Back in the 1940s, Eastern Kentucky was dotted with coal camps, where electricity (not farmhouse batteries) was available for radio operation. Every Saturday night you could start walking at one end of town and never miss a beat of the Grand Ole Opry.

Now the coal is gone, the houses are gone, the people are gone, and the music is gone.

James Clell Neace, 377 Freedom Road, Blackville, SC 29817-4533, is a regular contributor to the Kentucky Explorer. He kindly shares this story and photograph with our readers.