Musicians pay tribute to the King of the Hillbilly Piano Players.
Louisiana Swamp Blues queen, Marcia Ball, said of Moon Mullican “Moon Mullican was the link between the down-home Louisiana music I grew up with and the Western Swing I came to love in Texas. Moon erased that borderline and made it one big Gulf Coast party sound.”
Whilst not a Cajun musician as such, Moon Mullican hailed from East Texas, which cosies right up against Louisiana’s Cajun country, and his band, The Showboys, drawn from both sides of the Texas/Louisiana border, played an exciting mix of country, western swing and cajun, all driven by Mullican’s wild piano playing and song delivery. He referred to it as “East Texas Sock” and Mullican’s own view of his music was, “We gotta play music that’ll make them goddamn beer bottles bounce on the table”.
Moon Mullican is a hugely important figure in the development of what we now call Americana, and especially the Americana that takes in the influence of East Texas and West Louisiana, but his legacy is rarely talked about and his influence rarely acknowledged. That could be about to change, with those fine people at Joel Savoy’s Valcour Records planning a tribute album to the great man, scheduled for release early in 2023.
The only recently departed Jerry Lee Lewis always cited Mullican as a major influence and one little-known fact is that he was co-writer of Hank Williams’ ‘Jambalaya (on the Bayou)’, one of Williams’ best known songs and widely recorded by other artists, though Mullican’s name never appeared on the writing credits, due to legalities and his contract with King Records. He did record his own version of the song, released the same month as Williams’ version, in 1952. While Hank Williams had the big hit, Mullican’s version did little outside his home state. Rumour has it that Williams made regular cash payments to Mullican in recognition of his contributions to the iconic song. In fact, Mullican was an active songwriter, penning hits for himself and others, and he was responsible for a number of well-known country songs, including ‘I’ll Sail My Ship Alone’, ‘Cherokee Boogie’ and ‘Pipeliner Blues’. It’s said that Mullican could’ve been far more financially successful than he was if he’d been as enthusiastic about promoting himself as he was about fishing; and this was a man who achieved nine Top 10 country singles in the course of his career (one of which being his 1947 take on the Cajun classic, ‘Jole Blon’).
There are many who consider him one of the early influencers for Rock ‘n’ Roll and you can clearly hear Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano style in ‘Cherokee Boogie’ and you can hear what he called his “push beat” in many of Chuck Berry’s early compositions. Mullican became known as “The King of the Hillbilly Piano Players” and it’s sad to think that his importance isn’t more widely acknowledged today.
That looks set to change with this new tribute recording, “Moon and the Stars”. Curated by Asleep at the Wheel’s Johnny Nicholas, who also co-produced the recording sessions. In addition to Johnny Nicholson himself, some of the Gulf Coast region’s finest roots musicians turned out to record their takes on Mullican’s best-known songs; people like Peter Rowan, Floyd Domino, Steve Riley, Marcia Ball, and a host of others. Nicholas has said of his involvement with the project, “The scope of Moon’s artistry is impressive and the breadth of his repertoire is remarkable. If you dig what we put down on these albums please help us spread the word about this American music icon.”
Moon Mullican was posthumously inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1976, nine years after his death, at the age of 59, while playing a New Year’s Eve gig in Texas – his timing impeccable to the end. A re-evaluation of Mullican’s importance to American roots music is long overdue and this is an album release to look forward to.
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