Country music is a descendant of folk music. English and Celtic pioneers in the United States transformed their traditional songs in the new environment. Standards once dominated the repertoire, but New Zealand country musicians quickly adapted the genre to describe the South Pacific rather than the Wild West.
New Zealanders heard country music as early as 1926, when discs by US artists such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were available locally. Early visiting acts included Fred Mayfield’s Cowboy Band in 1928 and Carson Robison with his Buckaroos in 1932.
Happi Hill and Cotton-Eye Joe
Two famous radio programmes helped popularise country music in New Zealand during the 1940s and 1950s. Happi Hill, from Lost Lake, Alberta, Canada, hosted 3ZB’s Saturday country-and-western programme Haywire hookup. On one occasion Hill brought a horse into the studio to produce genuine sound effects. Another country-music evangelist was ‘Cotton-Eye Joe’, whose Cowboy jamboree show played on 2YD. Cotton-Eye Joe was the alter ego of Arthur Pearce, who as ‘Turntable’ hosted 2YA’s legendary jazz show Rhythm on record.
Among those responding to these signals from a distant prairie was Robert Lane, who became famous as Tex Morton. Growing up in Nelson during the 1920s he heard merchant sailors singing, received guitar lessons and began busking for a living. In 1932 Lane made demonstration discs in Wellington, some of the earliest country recordings outside of the US. Renaming himself Tex Morton, he moved to Australia in 1933. His recording and touring career lasted almost 50 years. Morton influenced country music on both sides of the Tasman. He was an accomplished songwriter, yodeller, hypnotist and sharpshooter. Morton’s original songs using Australian settings were especially innovative.
The Tumbleweeds were one of New Zealand’s most popular country bands, with a distinctive mix of Hawaiian, cowboy and hillbilly styles. The Tumbleweeds toured the country in the summer of 1951–52. The eight-member party included the band, two comedians and a magician, travelling together in a truck and a caravan that doubled as their accommodation. During the trip a double wedding took place among the band members, with Myra Hewitt marrying Cole Wilson while her sister Nola married Colin McCrorie.
Kiwi cowboys sing
Young New Zealanders were enchanted by cinema’s singing cowboys, particularly Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. In Dunedin in 1939 Les Wilson, ‘the Otago rambler’, was first billed as a ‘14-year-old yodelling cowboy’. Wilson later had a hit with his ‘Wahine song’, performed as a duet with Jean Calder. Wilson’s older brother Cole led the influential group the Tumbleweeds. Formed in Dunedin in 1949, its core members were Cole Wilson and Colin McCrorie, and two sisters, Nola and Myra Hewitt. The Tumbleweeds’ version of ‘Maple on the hill’ became a standard for amateur country acts to master.