Webb Pierce – There Stands the Glass (1953, Decca)
Why It’s Perfect: How would you describe Webb Pierce’s voice? Even in a genre known for yodelers, warblers and other pitch eccentrics, Pierce had a unique instrument. He didn’t so much sing as play his sinuses like a pedal steel. Compared to other genres, country music has always had a high tolerance for strange looks, strange behaviours and strange voices so long as they were convincingly Southern looks, Southern behaviours and Southern voices singing good, Southern songs. Thus, Webb Pierce and his enormous ears, mesmerizingly tacky Nudie suits and Theremin-like throat, became arguably the biggest country star of the 1950s. 1953’s There Stands the Glass was released in the first year of Pierce’s star run at the Grand Ole Opry when everything Pierce touched turned to gold but, like most great country songs, seems to be about a man whose life has totally gone to shit.
Like his Opry predecessor Hank Williams, Webb Pierce was a massive alcoholic (though, unlike Williams, it didn’t kill him), and it’s easy to imagine the man feeling some sense of solidarity with the song’s sodden protagonist. Whether that’s true or not, the way he squawks theeeerrre staaaaaands the glaaaaass is piercing and pathetic in equal measure. If you grew up in a town small enough to have a town drunk, you might recognize him here, the swollen-faced man paying for his first drink of the afternoon in small change. Later on, when the drink has settled his brain and made his troubles go dim he’ll become clownish or punchy, but for now, he just stares at the glass on the bar that somehow seems to loom over him, and waits for it to have booze in it.
As renowned musicologist Xander Harris once noted, country is “the music of pain,” but it might be more accurate to call it music “about” pain. Country music has roots in folk and blues, true, but it’s equally indebted to the rural musical theatre of the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s from these ancestors, in vaudeville and minstrelsy, that country derives its trademark sentimentality and narrativity. The Grand Ole Opry itself is the most obvious holdover from the old tradition, but There Stands the Glass is emblematic in its own way. Webb Pierce isn’t singing about being sad so much as he is presenting a character who is sad and asking you to feel sympathy toward that character, such that Pierce can sing the song with a smile on his face. (Country songs can be about joy and hope and abandon as well, but There Stands the Glass isn’t about any of those things.)
Of course, I find a weird appeal to this theatricality. Country songs are melodramas, little stories that nakedly try to engage the audience’s emotions. The singer is the actor, and the musicians are the stage. There Stands the Glass opens with a bent little pedal steel guitar trill (played by Sonny Burnett) that presages Pierce’s wobbly tenor, and it haloes him throughout the song like a floodlight. The lap steel style (as well as slide) originated with Hawaiian guitar players, and you can hear the island’s undulating phrasing throughout. The rest of the instrumental action is so perfectly mannered (Nashville session players were and are among the best in American popular music) as to give the music a slightly detached beauty. It’s despair set to extremely relaxing music.
Defining Moment: The absolutely beaten final chorus, Pierce cooing-mumbling It’s my first one to-day… for about the fourth time, like a true drunk.
Other Great Songs by Webb Pierce: If you download a 117-track Webb Pierce box set in .flac, be warned that people might consider you to be criminally insane. I’m planning on working my way through the whole thing though, so don’t be surprised when I threaten to blow up Gotham.
Anyway, let the record state that Webb Pierce was by far the most commercially successful country artist of the 1950s, and set a record for total weeks spent at #1 on the Country Singles Chart
which stood unbroken until 2007 (by George Strait) [Correction: Pierce actually stands second all-time here. But he can be consoled by the fact that he is still ahead of Strait]. And all those weeks at number one came in a five year window. Unfortunately, Webb Pierce was almost as good at pissing people in Nashville off as he was at selling records. He was the fella who built that guitar-shaped swimming pool you often see on the tourist ads; his neighbouring country stars sued him because too many people came around to the pool for the Webbster’s autograph. He walked away from the Grand Ole Opry at the height of his fame because they were bleeding money off of him and he figured he didn’t need them; he may have been right, but they still spitefully kept him out of the Country Music Hall of Fame until well after he’d died. On the plus side, he was a smart business man, and he didn’t die penniless like many of his contemporaries. He also left behind a catalogue of timeless, if idiosyncratically sung, country classics, including the pioneering pedal steel ballad Slowly, a definitive take on Jimmie Rodgers’ In the Jailhouse Now, More and More, Wondering and the rockabilly-inflected I Ain’t Never.
* Thanks to Pedal Steel Music and My Kind of Country for supplying the biographical info for this last paragraph. I’m just learning about Webb, but he’s interesting enough that I wanted to pass on some funny bits of trivia that I’d found in my research.