Ferlin Husky - Biography
Ferlin Husky is a country singer who was one of the main architects of both the Bakersfield sound and the Nashville sound. Between 1953 and 1975, and under various aliases, Husky charted 49 times and sold over twenty million records. Primarily a singles artist, he released countless records of country standards peppered with quality originals such as the well-known “Timber I’m Fallin’” and “Country Music is Here to Stay.” He’s also the first country performer to be awarded a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
Husky was born on December 3, 1925 in rural St. Francois County, Missouri in the Ozark foothills. As a young boy, he moved often around the Lead Belt, shuttled between various relatives. His family briefly settled in Flat River before Husky was sent to nearby Bonne Terre to stay with a paternal uncle, Everett Wilkinson. He later moved upstate to Hickory Grove, a tiny community in the Rhineland, where he attended elementary school. He also stayed with his paternal grandmother and several aunts in Gumbo. Husky’s relationship with the many family members he stayed with left a considerable mark. After Husky began writing songs, he ultimately published them under seventeen different aliases, often crediting relatives such as a cousin named Bobby Cole and an uncle named Clyde Wilson. It was Wilson who taught the nine-year-old Ferlin to play guitar, and his mother’s parlor hosted many amateur musical performances from locals. By high school, Husky was back in mining country, first attending Irondale High School and then moving to Stony Point to attend Frankclay High School before he dropped out. As a teenager, he performed at various functions around whatever area he was currently living in.
He next joined the Merchant Marines and entertained his fellow mariners with songs and stories, including tall tales about a former neighbor named Simon Crump. For his service in the invasion of Cherbourg, he was given a Volunteer Gunner citation. From his shipmates he was given the nickname “Country.” He ultimately served in three branches of Army Transport and was discharged in 1946 from the Coast Guard. That year, Husky returned to Bonne Terre where he married a school teacher named Irma Jean Hollinger. In pursuit of work, they moved to St. Louis where he became a DJ at KXLW using the pseudonym Tex Terry. After a spell, he returned once again to the Lead Belt, finding steady employment at the W&W Welding Shop in Farmington. With the help of an uncle, he played his guitar on a KREI morning show for several weeks. Joined by the station’s manager Johnny Rion and another musician, Husky gained valuable live experience as they played up and down the Creole Corridor. In 1947, Husky decided to head for the West Coast.
Husky found work in the lettuce fields of Salinas, a town known to some as “the Salad Bowl of America.” In his off hours, Husky occasionally performed at honkytonks and it was in that milieu that he met Smiley Burnette, frequent sidekick to Gene Autry in numerous B-Westerns. Burnette also played in a band at the Big Barn, and Husky joined them full-time. After embarking on a tour, Burnette and Husky continued as a duo for a couple of years. Whilst in Buffalo, New York for a performance, Burnette suggested Husky drop the Tex Terry moniker as Tex Ritter and Tex Williams were by then already well-known. Feeling that his real name sounded too contrived, he coined Terry Preston in homage to actor Preston Foster and inspired by their opening act, Foster Brooks. Burnette nourished Husky/Preston’s career, even setting up an early performance for him on one of Spade Cooley’s early television shows, The Hoffman Hayride.
During the same period, Husky stayed with Autry and began performing as an extra in numerous films including the Durango Kid series. Preston also began performing in Bakersfield, which was then beginning to emerge as the dominant locale for country music in the state. In 1948, he was signed to Four Star after Bill McCall caught a performance. While with Four Star, Husky performed with McCall, as well as with Big Jim DeNoone and fiddler Fred McMurray. He also released a dozen singles that were years later collected and released with the misleading title Ferlin Husky Sings Ole Opry Favorites (1962 Hilltop) in the 1960s. Most of the material is straight honky tonk, but novelty songs like "Cross Eyed Gal from the Ozarks" and "Electrified Donkey" presage Husky’s future comedy persona, Simon Crum.
Cliffie Stone, then working as an A&R man and Tennessee Ernie Ford’s manager, lured Husky to join Capitol in 1951 after having caught him at a performance. His big break came when he cut a single with Jean Shepard, “A Dear John Letter,” in 1953. Originally, Husky was merely contracted to play on the record but he ended up providing the recitation and getting co-billing. The single sold over a million copies. “Forgive Me John,” paired the two once again and was followed by a tour with the duo joining Ernest Tubb and Red Foley. At the time, Foley was part of a faction within the country scene who were trying to supplant Nashville, Tennessee’s dominance and relocate the center of country music to Springfield, Missouri. Foley convinced Husky to appear on ABC’s Ozark Jubilee, which was filmed in Springfield and was the chief rival to NBC’s Grand Ole Opry.
Despite his appearances on Ozark Jubilee, Husky moved to Nashville. For his Hank Williams tribute, “Hank’s Song,” Terry Preston reverted to Ferlin Husky, worried that audiences would view a Preston tribute as a tacky attempt by the Bakersfield honky-tonker to capitalize on Williams’s recent death. Husky, however, was an unknown name. In 1954, after the release of “Each Time You Leave” (backed with “Deceived”), the Preston name was permanently retired. That July, Husky joined the Opry.
Husky and Shepard released Ferlin Husky & Jean Shepard (Capitol) in 1955. "I Feel Better All over (More Than Anywhere's Else)" provided him with his first solo hit the same year. He used his success to help advance the career of other struggling musicians such as Tommy Collins, Billy Mize, Dallas Frazier, Buck Owens (whom he helped get signed), and Roy Drusky. Frazier and Collins even crashed at Husky’s home and Husky came up with Collins’s stage name (his real name was Leonard Snipes). Also in '55, Husky lent support to the then rising star Elvis Presley, who opened for the country star.
In the meantime, Husky created another alter ego, Simon Crum, based on his old neighbor Simon Crump. Crum’s first hit was “Cuzz You’re So Sweet” in 1955. As Crum, Husky mimicked other country singers and then invariably flubbed their songs and engaged in cornball antics. Crum also cut a couple of fairly straightforward rockabilly buts, “Bop Cat Bop” and “Stand Up, Sit Down, Shut Your Mouth.” The complete Crum output, recorded between 1955 and 1963, was collected and released on CD as Country Music is Here to Stay (Delta) in 1993.
In 1956 and as Husky, he released Songs of Home and Heart (Captiol). In 1957, Husky released his recording of “Gone” (originally released by Terry Preston). “Gone” is identified by many as the earliest example of the Nashville sound. Husky later said of its conception, “Being the hillbilly I was, I thought we could get Les Baxter and his big deal sound. But I arranged it myself and got it the way it should be.” Instead of employing Baxter he brought in Millie Kirkham and fellow Missourians, The Jordainaires. Producer Ken Nelson didn’t like what he heard and threatened Husky that if the song wasn’t a hit, it would be his last single with Capitol. However, it spent ten weeks at number one on the Country chart and even reached number four on the Pop charts in 1957. That year Husky released Boulevard of Broken Dreams (1957 Capitol) and appeared in the Alan Freed quasi-documentary about the history of Rock and Roll, Mister Rock and Roll. He also resumed his acting career, both on Broadway and NBC’s Kraft Television Theater. He was handpicked by Arthur Godfrey to fill in as his replacement for two weeks, which resulted in him severing ties with the Opry for a spell.
Though Husky’s acting roles were at first fairly respectable, most of those that followed were strictly examples of hicksploitation — regional films shown primarily around the South at drive-ins. In 1958, he co-starred in Country Music Holiday (alongside Zsa Zsa Gabor as herself) as a hillbilly who becomes a big country music star. Albums Born to Lose (Capitol), Sittin’ on a Rainbow (Capitol), Favorites of Ferlin Husky (Starday), and Country Tunes Sung From The Heart (King) all followed in rapid succession in 1959. During that busy year, as Simon Crum, he had a number two hit with “Country Music is Here to Stay.”
In 1960, Husky released the country gospel tune "Wings of a Dove," which spent ten weeks at the top spot on the Country chart and also crossed over to reach number 12 on the Pop chart. Easy Livin’ (1960 King), Ferlin’s Favorites (1960 Capitol), and Walkin' and a Hummin' (1961 Capitol) followed but didn’t produce hits of the same magnitude. Husky’s music sales fell, but he remained a popular live act and was usually backed by The Hushpuppies. 1963’s Gone (Capitol), Memories of Home (Capitol), Some of My Favorites (Capitol), The Heart and Soul of Ferlin Husky (Capitol), and 1964’s By Request (Capitol) were released before he was again cut from the Opry’s roster in December of 1964 for not having performed often enough.
True True Lovin’ (Capitol) followed in 1965, but it wasn’t until 1966 that Husky had another Top Ten hit with “Once.” It reflected his new countrypolitan direction, a stylistic choice that seemed to revitalize his career. That year he starred in another hicksploitation film, Las Vegas Hillbillys, alongside Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren. The film produced the hit "Money Greases the Wheels," which appeared on Ferlin Husky Sings the Songs of Music City, U.S.A. (1966 Capitol). That same year, he also released I Could Sing All Night Long (1966 Capitol). In 1967, he starred in the sequel Hillbillys in a Haunted House and released “Just for You,” his last single to reach the Top Ten. Christmas All Year Long (1967 Capitol), What Am I Gonna Do Now? (1967 Capitol), Just for You (1968 Capitol), Where No One Stands Alone (1968 Capitol), and an appearance in 1968’s film Forty Acre Feud followed. 1969’s That’s Why I Love You So Much (Capitol) was noteworthy among his many releases of the period for its occasional adoption of a western swing sound. White Fences and Evergreen Trees (1969 Capitol) closed out the decade.
In 1970, his oldest son Danny, then 17, died in a car crash leaving Husky with eight children (and by then a total of four wives). Green Green Grass of Home (1970 Hilltop), Your Love is Heavenly Sunshine (1970 Capitol), Your Sweet Love Lifted Me (1970 Capitol), One More Time (1971 Capitol), and Wings of a Dove (1971 Hilltop) were nearly devoid of new compositions, relying instead almost entirely on country standards. In 1971, he starred in his last film role as an Okefenokee swamp ranger in Swamp Girl. In 1972, after releasing Just Plain Lonely (1972 Capitol), he moved from Capitol to ABC. Sweet Honky Tonk (ABC), Freckles and Polliwog Days (ABC), Champagne Ladies and Blue Ribbon Babies (ABC), and The Foster and Rice Songbook (ABC) were released between 1973 and 1975, before his contract with ABC ended.
In August 1977, Husky underwent heart surgery in Minneapolis and retired from performing for a time. He returned in 1981 with single, “Divorce Lawyers, Funeral Directors, and Jailers,” before releasing What Are We Doin’ Lonesome on CBS in 1982. Afterward, he once again began regularly performing both at the Grand Ole Opry and at Christy Lane's Theater in Branson, Missouri. It was in 1988 that Husky, somewhat known for an easygoing lifestyle, gave up drinking and embraced the Christian life. In 1996, he began performing country gospel at the Boxcar Willie Theater, also in Branson. Joined by Leona Williams, he most recently released The Gospel Way (King) in 2002 and The Way It Was (Heart of Texas) in 2006.
In 2007, Husky underwent leg surgery and purchased a ranch in Vienna, Missouri. In 2009, an expansive compilation of live material, Ferlin Husky (and Simon Crum) Live at the Louisiana Hayride, was released on Heart of Texas Records. He’s recently been hospitalized several times and is currently taking it easy at home, although he still performs somewhat regularly and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010 by the Country Music Association.