They would do anything to escape the relentless sun and bone- wearying work of the Alabama cotton fields. Offered a chance to sing on radio, the Maddox Brothers and their 12-year old sister, Rose, jumped into that new medium. For four decades their talent, humor and brilliant synthesis of popular and traditional music captured the imagination of hard-working people across America. Interviews with Don Maddox and Emmylou Harris; music of the Maddox Brothers and Rose.
Segment production: Paul Brown with Leda Hartman
Sound clips

Audio – Talking with producer Paul Brown at Merlefest in North Carolina, Emmylou Harris sums up the unique achievement of the Maddox Brothers and Rose. She believes the group's combination of repertoire, stage presence and rural heritage helped make many more people aware of country music.

Audio – Emmylou Harris believes Rose Maddox never received the recognition she should have. She says part of this is due to what she calls a reluctance in American society to celebrate the value of white country and roots music.

Listen to program 7
Hundreds of thousands of destitute families traveled the country during the 1930s looking for work, food, shelter, and a decent future. Many rode the rails west to California from the Southeast and the Dust Bowl states. In their poverty, the Alabama family of Charlie and Lula Maddox typified Depression Era migrants. But once they got to California, the Maddox children’s combination of work ethic, energy, humor, and musical talent helped them achieve success that others could only dream about. With their mother, Lula, firmly guiding them, the Maddox Brothers and Rose created a music and comedy powerhouse on stage, radio, and TV. Billing themselves as “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band,” they contributed to the birth of the rockabilly sound, and helped advance the status of women entertainers.

Humanities Themes:

An exploration of how the Maddox Family’s Depression Era migration west mirrored the typical migrants of the time.

The Maddoxes’ stringent work ethic drove them out of poverty and into success.

A look at how Rose Maddox changed the way women performers were perceived by record companies and audiences. Rose was the first of her kind, paving the way for countless women in country, rockabilly, blues, and swing.

The Maddoxes’ unbridled energy combined with their good humor helped to boost the spirits of those who listened to them. Although they touched on deep, dark, and depressing subjects, their performance gave hope to their listeners. They used music as a life-embracing morale booster.

The Maddox Brothers and Rose made innovations in numerous musical fields, from rockabilly and swing to country.


1. The Migration Story
Uncertain, chaotic times, plus Lula Maddox’s relentless drive and dreams helped start the family on a search for a better life than their sharecropper existence in Alabama. Theirs mirrored the archetypal Dust Bowl migration story, the classic Okie experience … even if the Maddoxes were from Alabama and not Oklahoma.

2. The Story of Success and Happiness
One day in 1937, Fred Maddox was picking cotton near Fresno, California, when he decided he’d had enough. He recalled thinking, “let’s go into the music business.” He went to a furniture store in Modesto and, never at a loss for words, talked to the owner for more than half an hour, trying to persuade him to sponsor the family on the radio. Soon they became famous across Fresno, California, and America.

When the Maddox Brothers and Rose took to the stage at dance halls and honky-tonks up and down the West Coast, it was time for a party. And the party feeling extended to their commercial recordings. Lou Curtiss, folk festival coordinator, describes Maddox recordings – and shows -- as more chaotic than those of other country bands; with laughter, wisecracks, and unbridled energy. Work allowed the Maddoxes to survive, and they were the hardest workers around, never asking anything of anyone else. But their musical talent lifted their spirits, as well as the spirits of other workers.

3. Rose Maddox’s Story
11-year-old Rose Maddox became the “girl singer” in the family group that soon was appearing daily on 15-minute radio shows. Soon, Rose Maddox came into her own as a powerful lead singer. And the subjects of the songs started to change, once again showing the new direction of country music. Instead of wholesome family fare that might have been served up by the Carter Family, these stories reflected the seamier or more unpleasant sides of life, in songs such as “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True.”
But The Maddox Brothers and Rose broke up in the late 1950s. The slick new sounds of Nashville country music and the rock sounds that the Maddoxes had helped launch were making it tougher for this rough-hewn, self-styled “hillbilly swing” band to record and get work. Rose established herself as a solo act, becoming one of bluegrass and country music’s most prominent singers in the early 1960s…and enjoying a third career at folk festivals and clubs for more than two decades after that.

Being the focal point of a stage act wasn’t easy for Rose Maddox, says Chris Strachwitz, the owner of Arhoolie Records. Strachwitz and Charlie Seeman of the Western Folklife Center both believe today’s female country singers owe a debt to Rose Maddox; they say she showed producers, audiences and other women musicians that it was possible for a woman to go it alone and succeed in the business.

4. The effects of the Maddoxes on Music
The band experimented with all sorts of sounds – boogie woogie, swing, jazz, blues, electric instruments -- reflecting the “bubbling cauldron” of musical styles created by people from all over the country who’d come to the San Joaquin valley. The Maddoxes helped set the stage for rock ‘n’ roll and modern country music: Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys had established a beachhead in California, but the Maddoxes copped some of Wills’ Texas swing sound, added their stage antics and raucous interpretation, and drove Wills out of California and back to the Lone Star State.

Fred Maddox’s trademark backbeat, a slapping bass style, helped drive a broad change in popular music, sporting a faster, immediately discernable rhythm that came to be known as rockabilly. To this new rhythm and speed The Maddox Brothers & Rose added magic tricks, gags, and flamboyantly embroidered Western-style costumes – all with their mother’s approval, of course. They promoted themselves as “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band” and appeared at dance halls up and down the West Coast.

The family toured Texas, Alabama, and much of the South and East; showing up for jobs in an impressive fleet of four Cadillacs. This band that frequently did risqué numbers had its first national hit with a gospel song, “Gathering Flowers for the Master’s Bouquet.” The group performed it at their sole Grand Ole Opry appearance in Nashville in 1949. By the early 1950s, the Maddox Brothers and Rose were the most popular country band around on the West Coast, and one of the most popular nationwide. However, neither Rose Maddox nor the family band has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame: a situation that is more an oversight partly attributable to the group’s Western, rather than Nashville, home base and partly to politics in the music industry. But that doesn’t diminish the magnitude of their contributions to the evolution of country and pop music in the postwar years, or the unceasing labor that helped The Maddox Brothers and Rose realize their American dream.

Background And Source Quotes:

“I had picked up a couple of the records, the thing that always fascinated me was the records even when they were recorded in a studio sounded live.” (Source: Curtiss interview, 612-621)

“And, you know if you look at the Grapes of Wrath, it’s that story personified again, very tough folks and / / the matriarch of the family, Lula Maddox, ruled with an iron hand and it was her vision of coming to the promised land that brought the family out.” (Source: Seeman interview, 831-854)

“I bummed our way from Alabama. I’d go to restaurants, stores, anything to get our food. We sold everything we had, we sold our two mules, wagon, milk cow and all our furniture and got 30 dollars for ‘em, and this was in 1933.” (Source: F. Maddox on Arhoolie, 4036-4054)

“We’d play and everybody’d get up and dance and have a good time with us you know, that was the entertainment you had in the migrant camps, it was us!” (Source: R. Maddox from Arhoolie, 4859).

“They came with a lot of musical talent and a lot of musical background. They had people in the family that played; they came from that same part of Alabama that the Delmore Brothers and the Louvin Brothers came from. (Source: Seeman interview, 954-1007)

“Finally he said, Fred, I’ll put you on the radio if you’ll do the announcing, but he said Fred, you’ve got to have a girl singer and I said we’ve got one! Course I didn’t know we had one, but I didn’t want to go back to that cotton field and I wasn’t goin’ back!” (Source: F. Maddox on Arhoolie, 216-235)

“And I think what they did was they reached into a lot of different areas, they didn’t allow walls to be built between categories of things they would do they, they did a lot of cowboy stuff, they did swing stuff, they did rockabilly stuff. And ah, in a lot of ways they became almost prototypical swing and rockabilly kinds of bands.” (Source: Seeman Int, 1422-1437)

“In any tradition where you have the woman really not supposed to be up there in front of a whole lot of men you know, it’s really rough on them. It causes a lot of problems and she certainly had her share of it but she figured that’s the only thing she could do and she had to do it by herself. She didn’t want to go back and work in the fields, that’s for sure.” (Source: Strachwitz Interview, 5625-5657)

Maddox Family Overview:

The Maddox Brothers (Cliff, Cal, Fred, Don, and "friendly Henry, the working girl's friend") and their sister Rose called themselves "America's Most Colorful Hillbilly Band." They weren't kidding. On the air in Modesto, California by 1937, the group made their first records, for the 4-Star label, in 1946. From 1951 till 1956, they recorded for Columbia. At that point, the family act broke up, though Rose maintained a successful solo career for many years after. But throughout the 1940s and 50s, the Maddox Brothers and Sister Rose tore down the honky-tonks from the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf Coast with slap-bass boogie and a party-down attitude.

It all started in 1933, when the Maddox family -- Charlie and Lula, and five of their seven children -- hitchhiked and rode the rails from Boaz, Alabama to California, where they worked in the migrant labor camps of the San Joaquin Valley. Fred Maddox quickly tired of picking fruit and wrangled a radio spot on KTRB Modesto for his intensely musical family (which featured 11-year old Rose on decidedly raw lead vocals). In addition to playing on KTRB, the group performed at local barns and festivals, and in 1939, they were named the best band at the California State Fair. Early the following year, they began playing at KFBK in Sacramento, and their show was syndicated throughout the West Coast. Over the next decade, their fanbase steadily grew, as their blend of music and comedy played well not only in concert, but on the radio as well. At the end of their stint with Columbia, Rose began to pursue a solo career, leading toward the band's breakup in the summer of 1956. Despite the breakup, the Maddox Brothers and Rose recorded a final session for Columbia in the summer of 1957. Following the disbandment of the Maddox Brothers, Rose had a successful solo career on Capitol Records, while the band comprising of the remaining members quickly fell apart.

Interview Subjects:

Lou Curtiss, a record store owner and folk festival organizer from San Diego.

Charlie Seeman, the Executive Director of the Western Folklife Center in Elco, Nevada.

Fred and Rose Maddox from a 1987 radio interview (Arhoolie).

Chris Strachwitz, the owner of Arhoolie Records. Strachwitz has reissued a number of Maddox recordings.

Don Maddox, the only living survivor of the Maddox Brother band.

Significant Historical Recordings:

“George’s Playhouse Boogie” by the Maddox Brothers

“Blue Railroad Train” by the Delmore Brothers (County CCS-CD-116, Track 2)

“Intro & Theme” from The Maddox Brothers and Rose on the Air. (Arhoolie 447, Track 1)

“New Step It Up and Go” from The Maddox Brothers and Rose, Vol. I (Arhoolie CD 391, Track 22)

“I Couldn’t Believe It Was True” from The Maddox Brothers and Rose on the Air (Arhoolie 447, Track 19)

“Texas Guitar Stomp” from The Maddox Brothers and Rose, Vol. II (Arhoolie CD 437, Track 8)

“Gathering Flowers from the Master’s Bouquet” from The Maddox Brothers and Rose on the Air (Arhoolie 447, Track 18) “$35 And A Dream” by Rose Maddox (Arhoolie CD 428)

Resources, Bibliography, Discography, Archival:


Boyd, Jean A. 1998. The Jazz Of the Southwest-An Oral History of Western Swing. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Delmore, Alton (ed. by Charles Wolfe). 1995. The Delmore Brothers: Truth is Stranger Than Publicity. Nashville: Country Music Foundation Press.

Ellison, Curtis W. 1995. Country Music Culture: From Hard Times to Heaven. Jackson: University of Mississippi.

Haslam, Gerald W. 1999. Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lily, J. 1992. “Legends – No. 6: The Delmore Brothers.” Old-Time Herald (Vol. 3), pp. 9-11.

Malone, Bill C. 1985. Country Music USA (Rev. ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Oermann, Robert K. 1996. America’s Music: the Roots of Country. Atlanta: Turner Publishing

Tosches, Nick. 1985. Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll. New York: Da Capo Press.

Townsend, Charles R. 1976. San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Whiteside, Johnny. ND. Ramblin’ Rose: The Life and Career of Rose Maddox. Vanderbilt/CMF Press.

Wilmeth, Thomas L. 1999. Heaven’s Own Harmony: The Music of the Louvin Brothers. Edwin Mellen Press.


Nite Spot Blues: Hot Western Swing from the Southwest, 1929-1941. 1998. Krazy Kat: KK CD 20.

Roots of Country: The Story of Country Music (4 Volumes). 1996. Friedman/Fairfax.

Roots of Rock 'n Roll (4 Volumes). 1999. Fremeaux & Associates: FA 35I-54.

Smile and Jive: Kings of Western Swing (2 Volumes). 1997. Charity: CDGR 182.2.

Stompin' at the Honky Tonk (Roots of Rock 'n' Roll, Vol. 7). 1996. President: PLCD 563.

Stompin' Western Swing (Roots of Rock 'n' Roll, Vol. 2). 1996. President: PLCD 552.

Delmore Brothers: Brown's Ferry Blues. 1995. Country Records: CCS.CD-116.

The Delmore Brothers: Sand Mountain Blues. ND. Country Records: CCS-110.

Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys: The King of Lone Star Swing (Roots of Rock 'n Roll, Vol 3). 1996. President: PLCD 553

© Copyright 2002-6 Terms of Use | Email