Jimmy Work isn't a name that most country music fans are familiar with, even though as a songwriter he was responsible for "Tennessee Border," "Making Believe," and "That's What Makes the Jukebox Play." Like a handful of performers, he worked happily at music for many years but felt privileged simply to have had the opportunity to record and perform, and gladly kept his day job as a millwright.
Jimmy Work was born in Akron, Ohio in 1924. Two years later, his parents moved to a farm in Dukedom, Tennessee. He began playing when he was seven years old after he picked up a guitar his father had originally bought for his mother. His two biggest influences at that point in his life, and for many years after, were Gene Autry and Roy Acuff, and one can safely include Jimmie Rodgers on the list as well. He was in a band in high school, and was a good-enough fiddle player to win contests on that instrument. He began writing songs before he was in his teens, and was encouraged by the reactions to his music.
By 1945, he was playing country music in Pontiac, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, and while things started slowly for Work, playing country music in a northern industrial area, they got better almost immediately during the war years as Southerners, white as well as Black, moved there to take defense plant jobs and stayed on afterward as part of the automobile and related industries. Players like Jimmy Work were a welcome reminder of home for many of these newly transplanted country listeners. By the mid-'40s, Work had a big enough audience from his local radio appearances to justify the publication of a songbook, and he later cut his first two singles for a tiny label called Trophy. Those singles, featuring Work on acoustic guitar and a single electric guitar backup, were highly derivative of Jimmie Rodgers, and even featured Work yodeling in the manner of the Singing Brakeman.
His third single, "Tennessee Border," was his first version of the song, cut for the tiny Alben label. His record didn't sell, but a year later, "Tennessee Border" was picked up by five different artists -- Red Foley, Bob Atcher, Jimmie Skinner, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Hank Williams -- and became a hit for four of them, all at once. Foley's led the pack, peaking at number three on the country charts, with Ford's following at number eight, Atcher's at number 12, and Skinner's bringing up the rear at number 15. Ironically, it was Hank Williams' version that failed to chart.
The success of those records got Jimmy Work his first major-label contract with Decca Records in 1949, and "Tennessee Border" also got him invited to appear on the Grand Ole Opry; Work also played at the Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree. By the time of his second session for Decca in August of 1949, Work was being backed by Red Foley's Pleasant Valley Boys, which included Jerry Bird and Delmore Brothers' veteran Zeke Turner on guitars, Ernie Newton on bass, and the legendary Tommy Jackson on fiddle. Unfortunately, despite the quality of the players and the momentum imparted by the success of "Tennessee Border," Work never had any hits from his Decca work, and by 1950 he was released from the label. After a short stay with the tiny Bullet label in 1950, Work jumped to the London label in 1951, which yielded "Pickup Truck," his witty slice-of-Southern-life song, and "Do Your Honky Tonkin' at Home."
During this period, Work's music, mostly by virtue of the bands he was using for backup, was heavily influenced by the honky tonk style of Lefty Frizzell. It may have been the derivative nature of his sound, coupled with the indifferent nature of the material, that left Work out in the cold where sales of his own records were concerned during this period.
Still without a hit of his own to his credit, he signed with Capitol Records in 1952, and although his first four songs yielded no hits, the label stuck with him. It was only after a second round of sessions that he was dropped from the label's roster in 1953. He then moved to the Dot label, and it was there that he cut two of his most popular songs, "Making Believe" and "That's What Makes the Jukebox Play." "Making Believe," issued in 1955, rose to number 11 for Work, but it was Kitty Wells, releasing a rival version, who saw the lion's share of record sales with a number two single.
"That's What Makes the Jukebox Play" became a number six single for Work in the summer of 1955. His success boosted his concert activity during the mid-'50s, and he happened to share a number of concerts in 1955 with Elvis Presley, who was still a regional phenomenon. His future with Dot Records was secure for the time being, with two major hits behind him, and Work continued playing dates, recording, and writing songs; occasionally experimenting with new sounds, as with his rockabilly-style cover of "Rock Island Line," issued in the wake of English skiffle king Lonnie Donegan's hit version (which charted in America).
Work wasn't a rockabilly player or a rock & roller, however, and the rise of the new music took away just enough of the impetus from country music in general that he was eventually forced to give up the music business. He sold real estate and cut some singles (including yet another version of "Tennessee Border") for the All label, based in Whittier, California. By 1959, it was all over, and Work knew it; the music had passed him by, and the honky tonk style wasn't even in favor among the country audience that did remain. He returned to the job he was trained for and knew best, a millwright on a farm in Dukedom, Tennessee, near the border with Kentucky.
Jimmy Work kept his hand in songwriting, signed with the Acuff-Rose organization, and some of his past glories were revisited in later years. Emmylou Harris brought "Making Believe" back into the Top Ten with a new version in 1977, and Moe Bandy, that diehard honky tonk enthusiast, brought "That's What Makes the Jukebox Play" to number 11 on the country charts a year later.
A prodigious talent with an ear for songwriting that would be the envy of most country players, and a smooth-yet-jaunty honky tonk style, Jimmy Work was unjustly forgotten and overlooked for many years by too many people. Even on those occasions when the songs were less than first-rate, or the backing band wasn't what it might have been, his delivery saved the record. He was never too bothered by the obscurity into which he fell in the 1960s, satisfied that he'd had the chance to make music and then settled into a comfortable living. In 1986, Bear Family Records issued the first LP of Jimmy Work's songs, which was followed by a second vinyl disc, and later by a double-CD set from the same label, tying up all the loose ends of Work's career.