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Charline Arthur (right) with Helen Hall at
Big D Jamboree. Arthur, a headliner
on Big D Jamboree, was a groundbreaking
and sometimes controversial performer whose high-energy
shows in the early and mid-1950s paved the way for
rockabilly. Elvis Presley described her as “one of
the finest entertainers on stage I’ve ever seen.”
Courtesy of Dragon Street Records, Inc.
ARTHUR, CHARLINE (1929–1987). Charline Arthur, honky-tonk musician, was born Charline Highsmith in a railroad boxcar in Henrietta, Texas, on September 2, 1929. She was the second of twelve children of Jefferson Benjamin and Edna Mae (Wortham) Highsmith. Her father was a harmonica-playing Pentecostal preacher, and her mother sang and played piano and guitar.
The family moved to Paris, Texas, when she was four years old, and Charline was already showing musical talent at a young age. She made her first guitar out of a wooden cigar box when she was five. She sold soda bottles collected from the roadside to buy her first real guitar for six dollars two years later. She and her sister Dottie wowed audiences with their big voices when they performed at church, barn dances, and rodeos. Charline wrote her first song, "I've Got the Boogie Blues," at age twelve. She was inspired to start a musical career when she met Ernest Tubb, and she landed her first gig singing for radio station KPLT in Paris by the age of fifteen. When a traveling medicine show came to town, she left with it. Her act included slapstick comedy as well as country music. She married Jack Arthur on April 17, 1948, and he became her manager and bass player. Charline was not only a talented country vocalist, she also played lead guitar, rhythm guitar, fiddle, steel guitar, mandolin, piano, five-string banjo, and harmonica.
She was performing in Texas clubs and honky-tonks in 1949 when she recorded two songs for Bullet Records, one of which was "I've Got the Boogie Blues." She moved to Kermit, Texas, where she worked as a disc jockey and singer for KERB and made a record for Imperial Records. There she was "discovered" by the legendary Col. Tom Parker who later managed Elvis Presley. He signed her with RCA Victor in January 1953. She recorded twenty-eight songs with RCA.
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Charline's dynamic stage performances during this time were groundbreaking and controversial. She moved to Dallas to headline the Big D Jamboree, an unusual honor for a woman at the time. She was the first female country singer to perform onstage wearing pants, and was the only one photographed with a cigarette. While other female country performers stood demurely to sing, Charline pranced across stage, climbed on top of amplifiers, or sang lying down. Her shows were rowdy and sometimes racy. "I was shakin' that thing on stage," she said, "long before Elvis even thought about it." Her reputation as a hard-drinking, cigarette-smoking performer with a hot temper contrasted with that of gingham-dress-clad Kitty Wells. She also performed for the Louisiana Hayride, Red Foley's Ozark Jubilee, and the Grand Ole Opry (which censored her music). She toured with artists such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis. In 1955 she was named runner-up (to Wells) as the year's best female singer in Country and Western Jamboree magazine's DJ's Choice poll. Presley paid her tribute as "one of the finest entertainers on stage I've ever seen."
In spite of her entertaining stage presence, however, Charline's records were only moderately successful, and her relationship with RCA was tempestuous. She and RCA producer Chet Atkins had very vocal disagreements about what songs Charline should record as well as about artistic style. She preferred bluesy, assertive, and sometimes sexually suggestive songs. Atkins attempted to mold her to the "Nashville Sound" of a subdued "prim and proper lady." Although Atkins won out, when her RCA contract expired in 1956, it was not renewed.
Her music career never recovered. She recorded several songs in her trailer home in Dallas for the Coin label in 1957. She separated from her husband about that time, and continued to play in honky-tonks and clubs throughout the western United States and was later joined by her sisters Dottie, Bettie Sue, and Mary. In 1960 she found herself broke in Salt Lake City. Nightclub owner Ray Pellum helped her get a job at a club in Chubbuck, Idaho. For the next five years Charline performed there and recorded for Pellum's Eldorado Records. From 1965 to 1968 she performed at Myrtle's Club in Pocatello, Idaho. She continued playing in various clubs across the West, including California, and recording for small labels through the 1960s, 1970s, and occasionally in the early 1980s. Disillusioned with the music industry, she battled problems with alcohol and drugs and suffered from severe arthritis. During her last years she lived on a $335 monthly disability pension in a trailer home in rural Idaho. She died of atherosclerosis on November 27, 1987, and was buried in Fort Worth.
Charline's bluesy, rocking country sound and her wild stage antics are considered to have influenced Patsy Cline and Elvis Presley. She is now considered a pioneer of rockabilly music. She was the first female country musician to attempt to express a unique, "unladylike" style that was not accepted in Nashville. Although she died in relative obscurity, recent CD releases have brought renewed interest in her music. Among them are Welcome to the Club (Bear Family Records, 1986), a compilation of her work, and The Gals of the Big 'D' Jamboree (Dragon Street Records, 2001), which features her music. She was also one of the subjects of the 2001 documentary Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly, directed by Beth Harrington. Charline Arthur is an inductee of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Bob Allen and Colin Escott, Liner notes, Welcome to the Club (Bear Family CD, 1986). Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann, Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music (New York: Crown, 1993). Kevin Coffey, Liner notes, The Gals of the Big 'D' Jamboree (Dragon Street Records, 2001). Journal for the Society of the Preservation of Old Time Country Music, June 1991. Paul Kingsbury, ed., The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music (Oxford University Press, 1998). Emily Neely, "Up Beat Down South: Charline Arthur: The Unmaking of a Honky-Tonk Star," Southern Cultures, Fall 2002.
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Tresi Weeks, "Arthur, Charline," accessed April 24, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/far44.
Uploaded on June 9, 2010. Modified on October 11, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.