Rose Maddox: Tribute to a Pioneer of Women in Bluegrass

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Rose Maddox: A Tribute to a Pioneer of Women in Bluegrass

by Shelby Berry

“I found that when [Rose Maddox] started working my show that she was probably one of the most fascinating, exciting performers that I’d ever seen in my life. She was a total performer. She captivated the audience. She held them in the palm of her hand and made ‘em do what she wanted to. The songs she sang were classics, and I loved the way she sang and kind of danced at the same time. I thought there was, and still think that, there will never be a woman who could outperform Rose Maddox. She’s an American classic.”  — Johnny Cash

Rose Maddox is a bluegrass and country music pioneer who paved the way for the women, and other artists, who came after her. From Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton to Janis Joplin, Rose Maddox influenced artists of all genres and generations with her impeccable talent and spunky style.

Her rags-to-riches story started with her sharecropper family in a small southern town. Bill Monroe encouraged her, and she took his advice to release a bluegrass album. She made history as the first woman to do so with the release of Rose Maddox Sings Bluegrass.

But the influence on musical history neither began nor stopped there.

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The Maddox Family, though born in the state that produced Delmore Brothers, Hank Williams Sr, Emmylou Harris, and the band Alabama, their musical story began in California after they relocated there in the early 1930s. Rose’s mother, Lula, had long dreamed of living in California. They sold everything for $35 to make that dream come true.

A native of Boaz, Alabama, Rose was seven years old when the family set out for California. Alongside her parents and four siblings, they hitchhiked to Meridian, Mississippi, where they hopped on a train and rode it all the way west. A few years later, after hearing the Sons of the Pioneers perform live at a local theater, Rose was convinced she had found her calling to become a singer. She began singing at age 11 with her brothers in Californian honky-tonks during the Great Depression. The Maddox Brothers & Rose blended everything from bluegrass and old-time country music to hillbilly, rockabilly, folk, jazz, gospel, and boogie-woogie.

Their music was often referred to as “Okie Boogie” and later influenced what we know as country music and laid the foundation for rock ’n’ roll music to come.

While the Maddox family did have some musical background as their grandfather was a fiddler, this was their first real experience in the music industry. By the late 1930s, they had become local radio stars. Soon after, the family signed a recording deal with Indie label 4 Star Records, an indie label that re-named them as the Most Colorful Hillbilly Band in America because Rose and her brothers were known for flashy, embroidered costumes that became the band’s trademark. This spectacular fashion eventually defined country music attire for generations to come.

Beyond releasing legendary hits like “Philadelphia Lawyer” and “Honky Tonkin’,” the band made their Grand Ole Opry debut in 1949 and met Bill Monroe. Rose signed as a solo artist in 1953, and the family band disbanded three years later with some bitterness towards Rose’s flourishing musical career.

Rose released 15 country hits from her California base between 1947 and 1964, becoming a West Coast mainstay long before the Bakersfield country sound of the 1960s. But it was 1962 that proved to be the most pivotal year of her career yet.

Only one year later, Rose surpassed country music icons Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells to be named Cashbox’s Female Country Artist, and she went on to tour with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.

In one of her later EPs, Rose joined forces with a few artists she inspired, Merle Haggard and Emmylou Harris. Harris believes that Rose never received the recognition she deserved.

“Part of this is due to a reluctance in American society to celebrate the value of white country and roots music,” Harris said in a 2002 interview for the Honky Tonks, Hymns, & the Blues segment of National Public Radio.

 

Too often an overlooked performer of her time, Rose Maddox finally received her first well-deserved Grammy nomination for her 1994 album release for $35 and a Dream for Best Bluegrass Album.

She told the story of her exceptional career in her 1997 biography Ramblin’ Rose: The Life and Career of Rose Maddox before passing away the following year at the age of 71. Shockingly, neither the Country Music Hall of Fame nor the Bluegrass Hall of Fame has inducted Rose, but her impeccable musical catalog speaks for itself and transcends generations.

 

Over two decades after her death, Rose Maddox still deserves recognition as one of the greatest musical success stories in any genre. She shaped the course of music from the Great Depression to the start of rock ’n’ roll and became an icon with her musical career for all generations to come.