Ferlin Husky: Country singer who pioneered the 'Nashville Sound'

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The Independent Online

One of the most versatile vocalists in country music, Ferlin Husky was also one of its most popular all- round entertainers, as assured handling a comedy routine as he was performing classics like "Gone" and "Wings Of A Dove".

He was born on the family farm some 75 miles from St Louis, his first guitar coming courtesy of a neighbour who swapped it for a hen that then refused to lay. His mother hoped he would become a preacher, but he found himself drawn increasingly to music and honed his talent, entertaining fellow troops, during a five-year stint in the merchant marine. Following his discharge he returned to Missouri, working as a DJ and sometime musician at KXLW, St Louis before heading west for California, where he gained bit parts in Hollywood westerns.

He became friendly with the cowboy actor Smiley Burnette, who suggested he use the name "Terry Preston" rather than his own, which was thought uncommercial. It was under that name that he made his recording debut, cutting a handful of instrumentals for Four Star Records, alongside the bandleader "Big" Jim DeNoone, in 1949.

Having built up a local fan base, Husky joined the cast of the popular Hometown Jamboree, replacing Tennessee Ernie Ford. Ford's manager, Cliffie Stone, also worked as an A&R man for Capitol Records and signed him to the label. His first single, in 1951, a reworking of Roy Acuff's old hit "Tennessee Central (No 9)" flopped, as did a version of Smoky Rogers' "Gone" (1952). In 1953, "Hank's Song", a tribute to Hank Williams modelled on the Eddy Arnold hit "Eddy's Song" made chart inroads and marked another change in name, this time to Ferlin Huskey. A duet with the great Jean Shepard, "Dear John", gave him his first chart-topper months later and, typically of the period, was followed by a less effective "answer song", "Forgive Me John" (1953).

In 1955 came "I Feel Better All Over", "Little Tom" and "Cuzz You're So Sweet", the last of these the first hit for Husky's hick comedic alter ego Simon Crum. On 7 November 1956 he entered a Nashville studio and, with producer Ken Nelson at the helm, recut "Gone". Featuring the Jordanaires, the soprano Millie Kirkham and a vibraphone, it had immediate appeal beyond the obvious country music marketplace and is seen as a pioneering example of the famed Nashville Sound that would bring the genre to international prominence. A country No 1 for 10 weeks, it also broke through into the pop charts.

Further hits followed including, in 1958, "Country Music Is Here To Stay". A return to the Simon Crum persona, with its accurate impersonations of country stars Ernest Tubb and Kitty Wells, took it into the top five although like much of Husky's work as Crum it has not worn well. In 1959 he scored with the popular "My Reason For Living" and "Black Sheep" and then, in 1960 enjoyed another big crossover hit with Bob Ferguson's classic and oft-covered gospel song "Wings Of A Dove".

He maintained a presence in the charts into the early 1970s but only "Once" (1967) and "Just For You" (1968) came close to the top spot, and by the time he finally jumped label to ABC in 1973 the returns were diminishing. He continued to tour, appeared in a couple of substandard films – the earlier Country Music Holiday (1958) had co-starred, of all people, Zsa Zsa Gabor – and became a fixture of TV variety shows. Although plagued by ill-health over the past couple of decades, a live album on Audiograph (1982) received critical acclaim, as did an eponymous disc for Dot (1984).

If Husky's reputation is not now on a par with that of contemporaries like Ray Price and Carl Smith, the affection in which he is still held was clearly demonstrated on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in early 1994, when he joined new member Hal Ketchum to perform a rousing version of one of the latter's favourite songs, "Wings Of A Dove". In 2010 he was belatedly inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Ferlin Husky, singer and songwriter: born Flat River, Missouri 3 December 1925; six times married (two sons, six daughters and one son deceased); died Westmoreland, Tennessee 17 March 2011.