Welcome to Mellow's Log Cabin. This blog's purpose is to supply information on a diversity of American southern music - ranging from country, blues, old-time and folk to R&B, rock'n'roll and rockabilly. I regularly present my research results about artists, labels, shows and also give guest writers a chance to publish their texts here on occasion.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Ben Showalter

A lot of unknown and obscure country music singers recorded from 1965 to 1974 for Wayne Raney's Rimrock label, probably the most prolific record label in Arkansas. One of those artists was Ben Showalter, who recorded just one single record during his entire career. Showalter made a living with music because health problems left him unable to do hard work. Tragedy struck once more in 1975, when Showalter died at the age of 37.

Publicity photo of Ben Showalter,
mid to late 1960s
Ben Showalter was born in 1938 in the small community of Trumann, Arkansas, which is mostly remembered by rock'n'roll record collectors for Arlen Vaden's Vaden Records. Raised in poverty as the son of sharecroppers in North-East Arkansas, he also had four brothers and two sisters. Showalter encountered several health problems during his lifetime. The first of those was his inborn cleft pallet, which caused significant speach impediment. This was corrected with a surgery during his teens.

Showalter learned to play guitar as a child on one of his brothers' instruments. It should be noted here that Showalter was left-handed and the guitar was constructed for right-handed musicians. While learning to play the guitar, he developed the amazing talent to play all chords upside down and backwards. Showalter was influenced by big country stars of the 1940s and 1950s, such as Hank Williams, Eddie Arnold, Marty Robbins, among others. His main idols, though, were Jim Reeves and Johnny Cash, who both rose to fame in the mid-1950s.

The Showalter family moved to California around 1950, hoping to find better work on the west coast. It was also in California, when Showalter had his first public performance. His son Jeff remembers:
One of the first performances was when he asked to borrow his brothers guitar because he had lined up a gig at a local bar in Riverside, California. His brother accompanied him to watch and when the show was over and Ben tried to return the guitar it was refused. His brother said the crowd was so entertained that the guitar belonged in his hands. That was the beginning.
Tragedy struck in 1958, when Showalter was injured in a construction accident, which left him unable to do physical work. Several back surgeries followed but the only way to earn a living for Showalter was perfoming music. He kept on playing locally in bars and at community events. At that time, he performed solely solo on stage, just him and his guitar. His act included jokes, songs, and impersonations.

"Festus" - Showalter's comedy act
In 1965, Showalter moved back to Arkansas and settled in Batesville. For a short time, he joined forces with bass player and singer Virgil Hill and travelled with him to Nashville, Tennessee, a couple of times. In Nashville, Showalter was also able to land a guest spot on the famed Grand Ole Opry.

While living in Batesville, he learned of Wayne Raney's Rimrock label in Concord, which is not far away from where Showalter lived. Raney operated the Rimrock label, studio, and pressing plant and recorded mostly country, bluegrass, and religious material. Showalter got the chance to record his one and only record during his entire career. "Hell in Vietnam" b/w "The Way I Am" (Rimrock #216) were both his own compositions, released in 1966. In contrast to his live performances, Showalter was backed by an unknown band on these two recordings.

In the early 1970s, Showalter moved to Harrison, near the Arkansas-Missouri state border. There, he made connection with an entrepreneur called Sam Jackson. Together with Jackson, Showalter put on a live stage show called "Ozark Country Music Theater" in a small Harrison theater. This was the first time that Showalter performed with a full band regularly. According to Showalter's son Jeff, the show was possibly carried over KHOZ one or two times, but not regularly. However, success eluded the show and it closed down in 1975. Showalter was also friends with Upton Horn (1924-1984), a DJ at KHOZ and local singer. Horn recorded at least two records for Hob Nob Records and Table Rock Records, both from the Harrison area.

After another back surgery was needed that same year, Showalter moved back to Batesville, where he died on July 25, 1975, at the age of 37. 

Special thanks goes to Jeff Showalter for sharing his memories with me.

4 comments:

theoldgrinch said...

Thanks for the info, I have this record as part of my Viet Nam collection & knew little about the singer, both sides are on you tube if anyone wants to hear it, Kinda reminds me of Carlos Toadvine, better known as Little Enis, another left handed guitar player who played a right handed guitar upside down & backwards, good info on him on the Find A Grave site

Jeff Showalter said...

How did you come to have a copy of the recording, if you don't mind my asking. There was such a limited number and they were only sol after his performances.

theoldgrinch said...

Jeff, It came to me maybe 10 years ago in a box of 45s I bought at a flea market in Savannah Ga. how it got there I have no idea, but it's a pretty darn good one isnt it. I made an mp3 from it a few years ago, I think the record is now with a few hundred other 45s in my daughter's storage building, I didn't know till just now it is rare. Did he ever do a show in Savannah ?

Jeff Showalter said...

No I don't think so. It is possible. Most of the shows he did the records were available for purchase afterwards and he took the time to autograph them. By chance was yours signed? Someone downloaded the recording to YouTube and the photo shows his autograph. I also found a copy on Ebay which sold for $250. This whole thing has been surreal. Glad you enjoyed it!