The Family Business: Country Music Style

Miley's latest album is Bangerz.

Miley Cyrus apparently subscribes to the adage “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” The former star of Disney TV’s Hannah Montana set the media abuzz with her surprisingly raw dance routine on the recent Video Music Awards telecast. Of course, had Katy Perry or Lady Gaga performed that same routine, there would probably be far less scrutiny, but this was a bit of a shocker from the previously untarnished twenty-year-old. Riding high with the current number one single “Wrecking Ball" on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, Cyrus seems dete rmined to shed her squeaky clean teen image in favor of a rather salacious adult persona. 

I suppose that you can’t blame Miley Cyrus from wanting to make the break. After all, she’s actually trying to distance herself from two things: her teen image and her country singer/actor father, Billy Ray Cyrus. I assume that it’s difficult to sell yourself as a pop diva when many still think of a line dance craze at the mention of the name Cyrus. Billy Ray, of course, is probably still best remembered for creating that craze with his monster hit “Achy Breaky Heart,” way back in 1992. Although he has twelve studio albums to his credit, none has repeated the incredible success of his debut disc, Some Gave All. For over a decade now, he has focused much of his attention on acting. Among other roles, he starred as a Montana physician who took a job in New York City in the PAX  TV (now ION Television) show Doc, which ran from 2001-04, and as the on-screen father of his real-life daughter’s Miley Stewart/Hannah Montana dual character from 2006-11. 

Miley is far from the first progeny of a country singer to make a name in her/his own right in the music field. Surprisingly, however, she is the only one that I could discover who had not followed a country music icon into that same genre. Whereas Billy Ray is undeniably a country singer (who also cut some religious discs, but in a country style), Miley is clearly a pop singer. Apparently, this is a rare occurrence, as my check of similar parent/child music performers across all genres showed that the apple rarely falls far from the tree. One such example of disparate genres is John Raitt, the late star of several major Broadway musicals, and his daughter Bonnie Raitt, who became a blues-rock musician. Another is Ravi Shankar, the recently-deceased sitar virtuoso, and his daughter Norah Jones, who opted for a career as a jazz vocalist/keyboardist. A third might be singer-pianist Nat King Cole and his daughter singer Natalie Cole, but Nat, who started in jazz and ventured into pop, shared much musical territory with Natalie, who started in R&B and soul, before moving into pop and jazz. 

Despite Miley’s spurning country for pop, several country music icons have had offspring who have followed in their footsteps and become stars in their own right. Depending on your age, you probably rate either Hank Williams or Johnny Cash as the most iconic figure in the history of country music. Either way, those superstars would be a difficult act to follow, and yet, both had a child who managed to get out of the shadow of their famous father and into a spotlight of their own. 

Hiram King “Hank” Williams was the first superstar of the genre, as he took what had previously been referred to as “hillbilly” music onto the national stage in the 1950s, writing several dozen classic honky tonk tunes before Hank Williamsdrinking himself to death at age twenty-nine! His son, Hank Williams, Jr. (born Randall Hank Williams), started out as a sort of Hank Williams tribute performer, but after some mild success doing that – and having first to overcome his own fondness for drink and drugs – went on to become one of the most popular country artists of his generation. He found his own voice in the outlaw country style, with his long career peaking in the 1980s. Junior’s son, Hank Williams, III (born Shelton Hank Williams), has followed in the rebel footsteps of his forbearers, acquiring a considerable reputation for enjoying a certain naturally growing “weed.” Hank the Third started his music career in punk and hardcore bands, but more recently has drifted in and out of the traditional honky tonk style, often creating a hybrid of honky tonk and rock that generally gets him labeled as an alt-country artist. 

Johnny Cash (born J.R. Cash, as his parents couldn’t decide on a name!) enjoyed a half-century career yet his reputation seems to continue growing even a decade after his death. Like the Williams clan, Cash also went down the dark path of alcohol and drugs, with alternating periods of living under the influence and being sober. Nevertheless, he remained productive through it all, releasing dozens of albums and writing over 1,000 songs. Perhaps country’s first “outlaw,” Cash was a genre-bending artist who embraced the poor and downtrodden. With his first wife, The Man in Black fathered Rosanne Cash, but had little contact with her until she graduated high school. Rosanne then spent the next three years serving in various non-musical and increasingly important musical capacities on her father’s cross-country tours, learning her lessons well. Starting in the late 1970s she began releasing critically lauded, but infrequent albums in the neo-traditionalist vein, spawning several number one hits and earning recognition for her own remarkable songwriting skill. 

Johnny Cash’s second wife was June Carter, a member of The Carter Family, often acknowledged as "The First Family of Country Music." June’s mother, Maybelle, was one of the founding members of The Carter Family, originally a folk/gospel trio that was one of the most important artists in the creation of country music during the 1920s and 1930s. Starting in the 1940s, June spent over half a century working in the family business. With first husband, Carl “Mister Country” Smith, one of the most popular stars of the 1950s, June had daughter Carlene Carter. Like her mother, Carlene began her career as a member of The Carter Family, but had her greatest success as a solo artist during the 1990s as a neo-traditionalist.

Country crooner George Morgan was the singer of the 1949 number one hit “Candy Kisses,” the first of his twenty-three singles that would reach the country top forty. A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and a long-time member of the Grand Old Opry, Morgan was the final artist to sing on stage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and the first to sing on stage at the Grand Ole Opry House, when the venerable program moved to its new digs in 1974. George’s daughter, Lorrie Morgan, was a major star of the late-eighties and throughout the nineties, achieving three number ones among her fourteen top ten singles.

Mel Tillis is primarily known for two things, possessing one of the most beautiful voices in country music, and having one of the most severe stutters of any public figure. As a songwriter, he is one of the most covered artists in country music history, penning dozens of hits from the late-fifties forward. In the 1970s, Tillis became one of Nashville’s biggest stars. By the time his career was winding down in the 1990s, he’d had six number ones and another thirty top ten country hits.  By then, his daughter, Pam Tillis, had become a star and was making her own mark on the country charts.  By the start of the new millennium, Pam had had a number one hit of her own, as well as another dozen top ten country hits. 

Like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings was one of the main figures in the outlaw country Waylon Jenningsmovement of the 1970s. In fact, there was a previous connection between the two, as they once shared a Nashville apartment and, by their own admissions, large quantities of amphetamines. Although he was already a successful musician, Jennings didn’t become a superstar until he gained complete creative control over his recordings in the mid-seventies.  In 1969, Jennings met and married Jessi Colter, who went on to her own successful music career as one of the few women to be part of the outlaw movement. Their only child, Shooter Jennings (born Waylon Albright Jennings) is currently an alt-country star. 

Whether you’re looking for classic or current country music stars, we have them in the collection of the Des Moines Public Library. Browse our shelves, or browse our catalog, for hundreds of country titles. With our new, higher-limit CD policy, you can check out up to fifty discs at a time. So come to the library and get your country on!

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