“Heartbreak Trail” is a song first recorded by Hank Snow on July 8, 1965 at RCA Records’ Nashville Studios, and chosen to be the title track of his next album, released that November, subtitled “A Tribute To The Sons Of The Pioneers.” Although by then Hank could still count on having at least two or three charting singles each year, he hadn’t had a major hit since 1963’s “Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street),” written by Hal Blair and Don Robertson.
Instead, his focus had shifted to exploring the LP market through innovative “theme” records, beginning with his third long-playing release for RCA-Victor, 1953’s Salutes Jimmie Rodgers. Several more followed, showcasing Hank’s fondness for train songs and tragic ballads, as well as gospel music and his prowess as an acoustic guitar player. It therefore was only natural for Hank to tip his hat to the Sons of the Pioneers, perhaps his biggest influence after Rodgers.
They shared Canadian roots, with Hank having been born in Brooklyn, Nova Scotia on May 9, 1914, and Sons of the Pioneers founding member and principal songwriter Bob Nolan hailing from Winnipeg, Manitoba where he was born April 13, 1908. While Hank recorded seven of Nolan’s songs during the two-day session for Heartbreak Trail – including Nolan’s best-known earliest compositions, “Cool Water” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” – the title track itself was co-written by Denver Darling and Vaughn Horton, and surprisingly, copyrighted only that year.
Although there is no evidence of when the song was actually written (it does not appear to have been recorded by anyone prior to Hank), the lyrics do reflect a more contemporary pathos in their portrayal of a cowboy returning home from the range too late to prevent his beloved from marrying another. The giveaway is in the line, “Love’s old sweet song was never meant to turn out wrong – even in a cowboy’s song,” revealing how consciously the authors wanted to adhere to the traditional form, in spite of how far removed they were from it. Although each was steeped in country music’s origins, the opportunities of the marketplace made them part of the important shift that brought the Tin Pan Alley songwriting aesthetic to Nashville.
Denver Darling was born in Whopock, Illinois on April 6, 1909 and grew up in nearby Jewett, Illinois. He learned to play guitar as a teenager and started making radio appearances soon after, eventually landing a spot on Chicago station WLS’s National Barn Dance as part of a trio. In 1937 he moved to New York City where he began performing at a Greenwich Village club called the Village Barn, and by 1941, Darling’s popularity got him onto New York station WNEW, where he hosted the “Swing Billies” show, an early attempt to “urbanize” country music. This led to a recording contract with Decca Records, and his first hit was a Fred Rose song, “Cowards Over Pearl Harbor,” cut in the immediate aftermath of the attack, which led to several follow-up sides, including “We’re Gonna Have To Slap the Dirty Little Jap,” and “The Devil & Mr. Hitler.” Darling’s fame later spread through appearances in “soundies” – an early form of music video – where an ad hoc group backed him, billed as either Denver Darling’s Hillbillies or Denver Darling & His Texas Cowhands.
However, Darling’s proximity to a vibrant jazz scene was never absent in his work, and by 1945 he was writing songs like “Juke Joint Mama” – said to have later inspired Lieber and Stoller’s oft-covered “Kansas City” – and the song that would secure Darling’s reputation, “Choo Choo Ch-Boogie,” done most famously by r&b pioneer Louis Jordan. Darling’s profile peaked that year when he became the first country singer to perform at Carnegie Hall (as part of a Clef Awards ceremony), and for the next two years he continued to record for the Deluxe label (under the name Tex Grande) and also MGM Records.
Darling’s voice could not handle the pressures of constant performing though, and this, combined with a longing to return to small-town Illinois, prompted him to leave New York in 1947. Although this essentially marked the end of Darling’s time in the spotlight, the eventual appearance of “Heartbreak Trail” shows that he did not completely sever his ties to the New York song publishing industry.
Vaughn Horton shared the writing credit with Darling on “Choo Choo Ch-Boogie,” and their similar backgrounds suggest why they had such a fruitful partnership. George Vaughn Horton was born June 5, 1911 in Broad Top, Pennsylvania, one of eleven children in a coal mining family. He seemed destined for that life as well, if his passion for music had not had not offered him an alternative. In fact, Horton was working in a mine at the same time as he was finishing high school, when he composed his first memorable song, “Mockin’ Bird Hill.”
Horton, along with his younger brother Roy, formed a group called the Pinetoppers, which was making appearances on Philadelphia radio by the early 1930s. Vaughn moved to New York in 1935 and kept the Pinetoppers together, even as he landed a job playing steel guitar in the WNEW house band, where his collaboration with Darling was first sparked. One of their first joint successes came in 1939 when “Address Unknown,” a song they had originally written for Gene Autry, became a smash hit for Decca artists The Ink Spots. When Darling and Horton later offered “Choo-Choo” to the label, producer Milt Gabler earmarked it for Louis Jordan, one of the label’s most popular artists. That recording became one of the test runs for what would become rock and roll, a notion was proven out when Gabler got Bill Haley & The Comets to record it for Decca in 1956.
Vaughn continued to compose material for the emerging r&b market, just as Roy found employment at Peer Publishing, where he helped push the catalogues of artists such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Having his sibling in that position proved vital for Vaughn’s songs to break into Nashville, as after “Mockin’ Bird Hill” became a hit for Les Paul & Mary Ford in 1951, further covers by the Sons of the Pioneers and George Jones brought healthy returns. Vaughn’s subsequent country hits included “Teardrops In My Heart,” “Dixie Cannonball” (recorded by Hank Williams), and “New Muleskinner Blues” for Bill Monroe, an update of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Muleskinner Blues.”
It could be said then that the song “Heartbreak Trail” was Darling and Horton’s tribute to the Sons of the Pioneers just as much as it was Hank’s. For me, the combination of all of these elements represents what I’d like this blog to be, a celebration of all artists working within the North American song tradition, who respect the past while at the same time taking the music in new directions.
Plus, I just think “heartbreak trail” has a nice ring to it.