Editor’s note: Legendary Cajun country music star Jimmy C. Newman, who had a ranch on Rutherford County’s Big Spring Road, died of cancer on June 22 at age 86. He had fallen three weeks earlier at the Grand Ole Opry. A subsequent medical examination revealed the entertainer had cancer.
The following is a chapter in a future country music book by author Dan Whittle and friend Jennifer Stuart, sister to singer Marty Stuart.
Even the most learned country music historians and devout fans won’t recognize the name Slick Norris of Highland, Texas.
But without Norris it’s possible millions of fans today would not be listening to songs performed by recording artist Jimmy C. Newman, who at age 84, released a new album entitled “Swamp County” in December, 2011.
Jimmy C. was quick to praise those who helped launch his early career, dating back to the 1940s-50s.
“I had this hit song – ‘Cry, Cry Darling’ – in 1953, on a small label that Slick Norris heard on the radio,” recalled Louisiana-born self-proclaimed “Cajun-to-the-bone” Jimmy C. Newman. “He fell in love with my singing.”
How much did fan Norris like Newman’s record?
“It was getting strong air play on radio stations in Louisiana and Texas, before ‘Cry, Cry Darling’ became a national hit when I re-recorded it with Dot Records in Nashville in 1954,” Jimmy C. noted. “Slick Norris followed my local shows then down in Texas and Louisiana.”
But, Super Fan Slick went the extra mile for Jimmy C’s career.
“In addition, Slick spent money, purchased and addressed penny postcards to every country music disc jockey in America, every week or so, asking them to play new artist Jimmy C. Newman’s ‘Cry Cry Darling,’ hit song,” Jimmy C. traced back to those early people who helped propel him to international stardom.
Three years later in 1956, Jimmy C. Newman was invited to become a member of Nashville’s prestigious Grand Ole Opry broadcast over historic Nashville’s WSM Radio Station.
Newman still performed regularly on the Opry, 59 years later in 2014.
“Without Slick Norris and my wife Mae, the classic ‘woman behind the man,’ none of it would have happened,” Jimmy C. credited. “Slick’s penny postcard campaign to the DJs across the land definitely helped launch my career.”
Although DOT Records was an independent label, the company was a force in 1954 when Jimmy C. re-recorded “Cry, Cry Darling”.
“Dot Records was a major player in the 1950s-era within the Nashville country music scene with the likes of Pat Boone in the company stable,” Jimmy C. accounted.
Another fan helped Jimmy C. appear outside the swamp towns and honkytonks of Louisiana.
“It was a fan named Tillman Franks who got me on the Louisiana Hayride in 1954. He was another key person instrumental in launching my early career in country music,” Jimmy C. noted with his rich Cajun accent.
Other notable careers the Louisiana Hayride helped launch in the late 1940s and early 1950s include legends such as Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves and Hank Williams Sr.
At the time of his death, wife Mae and Jimmy C. resided on their 625-acre farm in rural Rutherford County.
“We run a few head of cattle,” accounted Jimmy C. “I still tend to my own cattle and need to get home early today because Mae is preparing some Cajun gravy and rice to help deal with today’s snow and cold weather.”
He credits another member of the country music family with helping Mae, who survives, and him find their “Singing Hills Ranch”.
“Due to (the late) Mary Reeves (wife of legendary Jim Reeves), Mae and I have lived the past 40 years at Singing Hills Ranch,” Jimmy C. credited. “Mary Reeves (who died in 1999) recommended we get with Murfreesboro Realtor (the late) Tom Lane, and go see this property. So thanks to Mary Reeves and Tom Lane, it’s been our beautiful home place now for more than four decades.”
Jimmy C. described some Cajun influences in one of his latest Cajun recordings: Bayou + okra + crawfish + roux + squeeze box = “The Gumbo Song,” a tune he recorded in 1998.
Jimmy C. and former Milton-area resident “Little Abe” Manuel Jr., the son of lifelong Cajun neighbor/friend/musician (the late) Abraham Manuel Sr. teamed up in 1998 in record “The Gumbo Song.”
“Performers can’t make it without good songs from good song writers,” credited Jimmy C. “It’s not easy for an artist of my mileage to get attention with a recording.”
Abe Sr. and Jimmy C. shared swamp-life boyhood in the swamps at High Point, Louisiana.
But “The Gumbo Song” did just that for Jimmy C., a song co-penned by Cedric Hebert and Abe Manuel Jr.
“Abe Sr. and I were born and grew up within 10 miles of one another, the way the crow flies over the swamps down around Big Mamou, La.,” Jimmy C. acknowledged. “Abe Jr. comes from accomplished Cajun musician lineage.”
How does a new record happen?
Some are born on the back of napkins at late-night restaurants. Others are penned on long bus rides on the back roads of America.
Jimmy C. charts “The Gumbo Song’s” route.
“Abe Jr. came up to the Opry one night while I was there and came into the dressing room for me to hear it,” Jimmy C. added. “He wanted me to do the song and he had a heck of a demo he did himself in the Merle Haggard Studio. So, we did a version of it at Bradley’s Barn Studio here in Music City.
“I worked long and hard to get my own arrangement, but it’s a song with a driving force to it and I was flattered Abe Jr. wanted me to have the song,” Jimmy C. noted. “I was very grateful to him for bringing it to me.
Song co-author Hebert described the song’s origin and acceptance in Louisiana Cajun culture: “People dance good to the hard-driving flow of the song. We tried to keep the song fun as we did the instrumentals.
“And then Abe Jr. came along and helped put the lyrics together,” Hebert traced the song’s roots to deepest bayou country.
Newman went over some of the words and Cajun cadence.
“I went on down to the Creole Town to learn to stir the roux/I turned straight right at the caution red light and backed into Pecheu/I said ‘Hey, Miss Ma’am, would you take the time and show me how to stir the roux/she said ‘Oh yeah, oh yeah, ‘cause I like the gumbo too.”
Rutherford County resident Hebert explained some of the uniqueness of “Cajun talk.”
“In the song, like the French often do, we talk backwards sometimes such as the phrase ‘turn straight left’ and ‘dance real quick on slow songs,’” Hebert structured. “The old Cajuns spoke like that too.”
Jimmy C. was born Jimmy Yves Newman Aug. 27, 1927. The “C” in his stage name stands for “Cajun.”
When he joined Chuck Guillory’s Rhythm Boys in the 1940s, he had a number of Cajun songs in his repertoire. After several non-hits with J.D. Miller’s “Future” label, Miller persuaded record producer Fred Rose of Nashville to give the young Jimmy C. Newman an opportunity.
In 1953, he was signed by Dot Records and the following year, recorded “Cry, Cry Darling,” which reached No. 4 on the country chart.
His recording success led the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, La., to hire him as a regular performer. His next four records all reached top 10 status, and in 1956, he was invited to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
Jimmy C., the country music artist, never forgot the ones who helped him achieve country music stardom.
(Author’s note: Jimmy C., despite being in his 80s, braved the snow and cold to keep this interview appointment at a Cracker Barrel Restaurant in Murfreesboro. He always granted courteous interviews, giving news people enough time to get their information.)