Country music is an important part of American culture, and Kentuckians have made a significant contribution in this arena. Kentuckians played prominent roles in the early 20th century county music radio programs and in the emergence of the Grand Ole Opry. Only the state of Texas has produced more country music stars than Kentucky.
In our area, the Country Music Highway, which runs from South Shore past Jenkins, celebrates Billy Ray Cyrus, the Judds, Tom T. Hall, Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, Hylo Brown, Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gale, Dwight Yoakam, Patty Loveless and Gary Stewart. And more young stars emerge each decade. While northeastern Kentucky’s country music stars are well known and nationally famous, there are several that deserve more recognition — including Cowboy Copas whose life is chronicled in “Cowboy Copas and the Golden Age of Country Music,” a 2008 JSF publication by John R. Simon, a retired Shawnee State University professor who worked on this project for more than a decade.
As a soldier, steel worker, college professor, sorghum maker, farmer, musician, and all-around good guy, John Simon represents many of the best qualities of our culture His love of music and devotion to regional culture prompted his interest in Cowboy Copas, like Simon, a native of Adams County, Ohio.
Simon’s book gathers some of the best stories and the funniest experiences of the stars of the Golden Age of Country Music. Performers popular in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, like Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Lazy Jim Day, Bill Monroe, Grandpa Jones, and Patsy Cline, make an appearance here, along with their many colorful sidemen and friends. These talented men and women, as Howard White put it, just had so darn much fun, despite the fact that breaking into the Grand Ole Opry was hard work and the rewards were limited. Fiddler Bill Stewart once asked a fellow musician why he did it. He answered, “I jist cain’t help it.”
The people who succeeded in the industry — typically rural, poor, formally uneducated singers — showed an incredible perseverance and dedication to their art, as well as the striking ability to bring together audiences who related to their struggles. They could sing and write with great sensitivity. The great music scholar, Bill C. Malone, described this by observing that when you hear a really good county song, it feels like someone has been reading your mail.
But the real heart of the book is the life and career of Grand Ole Opry star Cowboy Copas, whose story had never been told until Simon’s 2008 book. Lloyd Copas was born in 1913, near Portsmouth. The middle child in a musical family, Copas lived a life of music. He was mentored by Blue Creek entertainer Freddie Evans and then partnered with Lester Storer. Their manager, Larry Sunbrock, formed their nationally-famous cowboy and Indian act, Cowboy Copas and Natchee the Indian, which convinced Pee Wee King to invite Copas to the Opry.
Despite setbacks, he formed his own band, became an Opry member, and flourished personally and professionally. An energetic performer, a gifted singer and an exceptional guitar player, Copas carried great bands, was well-liked, and never “affected.” Although his career experienced a brief lull in the 1950s, he made a great comeback in 1960, when he recorded “Alabam” with Don Pierce and Starday.
Copas remained true to his traditional identity, and the song, written by his father, was carried by his voice and thumb guitar lick. He died tragically on March 5, 1963, in a plane crash with Randy Hughes, Patsy Cline and Hawkshaw Hawkins. They were returning from a Kansas City, Kansas benefit concert. Mildred Keith and Billy Walker recall events of that benefit. Dyersburg, Tennessee, airport managers William and Evelyn Braese give a thorough account of the four stars’ harrowing attempts to reach home.
Cowboy Copas’ life mirrors the best feats of the Golden Age of Country Music. Humorous, passionate and dedicated, Copas was a talented star who weathered major changes in American music. You’ll enjoy reading about him.
This biography is available in the Jesse Stuart Foundation Bookstore & Appalachian Gift Shop at 4440 13th Street in Ashland. For more information, call (606) 326-1667, email email@example.com or visit jsfbookscom.
DR. JAMES GIFFORD, Ph.D., is the CEO and Senior Editor at the Jesse Stuart Foundation.