The mark of a great musical artist isn’t necessarily how famous he or she is, because celebrity vanishes in the blink of an eye while true talent lasts forever. An artist’s lasting influence on successive generations of music lovers and musicians, and how he or she delivers a human product that can never be duplicated by any computer, are what make a legend. When it comes to country music, there are a handful of names that only need to be spoken – Hank, Lefty, Merle – for someone to know who you’re talking about. And there’s one more: Ferlin.
Ferlin Husky was a true icon and an innovator, a man who sang a country song like nobody else could, set the bar for how recitations should be performed, performed on the silver screen and controlled an audience as few ever have. Before his death in March of 2011, Husky had enjoyed a decades-long career as an act that was hard for others to follow. Larry Graham was Husky’s longtime friend and manager, and was with Husky until the end of his life.
“I worked with Ferlin for going on 45 years,” Graham said from his home in the Nashville suburb of Madison. Graham was originally Husky’s drummer, then graduated to the role of road manager, and eventually manager.
“I started out as a musician,” Graham said, “and I was working with Don Gibson and some other artists when I went to work with Ferlin. Ferlin’s manager (Patsy Cline manager Randy Hughes) was killed in the plane crash, so for a few years Ferlin was managed by Hubert Long until I took over as his manager. I didn’t want to stay on the road and eventually I just went with management.”
Husky’s career had auspicious beginnings in southern California, where he worked as a deejay and recorded under the name of Terry Preston for a number of years before using the name that was given to him when he was born in rural Missouri. After having a hit in a duet with future Opry star Jean Shepard (“A Dear John Letter”), Husky kept on pushing, both as himself and in the persona of comedic country character Simon Crum.
Husky finally hit it big, really big, in 1957 with the blockbuster hit “Gone,” one of the first true country-pop crossover hits that helped usher in the “Nashville Sound” when it stayed at number one on the country charts for 10 weeks. Husky later made it to the top again with “Wings of a Dove,” a song which became one of the all time classic hits. Keith Bilbrey, who served as a disc jockey with legendary Nashville country station WSM-AM for more than three decades, met Husky not long after Bilbrey began his career on the air.
“Ever since I was a kid I was a huge fan,” Bilbrey said. “Ferlin was just cool, he wasn’t like other country artists. I loved his voice, not just his singing voice but his speaking voice. He was a deejay in the early years, and I’d love to hear some of his old radio shows.”
“The first time I met him I had to pinch myself because I had idolized him so much as a kid,” Bilbrey continued. “With some celebrities you meet them and you can feel let down, or maybe they aren’t what they seem onstage or what you imagined them to be as people. But with Ferlin it was just the opposite; he was everything I thought he’d be and more. He had so many experiences outside of country music, in Hollywood and everywhere…I loved to hear him tell road stories and talk about his life.”
It’s fitting that both a book and a biographical film about Husky’s life are in the works, though when it comes to content or who’s putting the projects together nobody’s talking much right now. “We can’t really say a lot about it at the moment,” Graham said, “but both things are in process with some people in California involved in it. Both things will be worth waiting for when they’re finished.”
Husky’s influence on the country music industry was profound, though some thought he wasn’t “country enough” when, like Chet Atkins, he wound up on the pop charts or replaced fiddles with background voices. “Some people don’t realize how big he really was in so many ways,” Graham said. “He was big in England, Germany, Japan, Canada, just everywhere. It was like the Beatles were there. Some people in country music in Nashville, especially in the late ’50s and early ’60s, didn’t want him. But they had no choice but to accept Ferlin Husky.”