Never before had they seen anything like her. In a world of prim and proper ladies, Charline Arthur was unabashedly hot-tempered, unruly, and to top it all off, she wore pants. She met no one’s expectations of what a female country music singer should be. But she did it anyway. This country music rebel was no one’s puppet—not of her parents, her husband, or even her record label.
Perhaps much of Arthur’s rebellious spirit came straight from her roots—rebelling against those roots anyway. Charline Highsmith, as she was born September 2, 1929, was the second of twelve children in a conservative Texas family led by her Presbyterian preacher father. She was introduced to music at an early age with her father playing the harmonica and her mother singing and playing piano for their church. Ready to make her own way at seven, Arthur walked alongside the road collecting bottles to cash in. Six dollars later she had her first real guitar.
Church was Arthur’s first venue, and singing alongside her sister, Dottie, she made her way to rodeos and local gigs. When she was twelve, she wrote her first song, “I’ve Got the Boogie Woogie Blues,” which she would go on to record as a single in the late 1940’s. Three short years later, at fifteen, she was able to secure a spot on a local radio show in Paris, Texas.
The forties were still a time when traveling shows drew crowds, before there was a television set in every home. Arthur won a spot, still just a teen girl, on a traveling medicine show—a place where they could cure your boredom with music and your ailments with the newest elixir. Without her parents’ blessing but with a guitar in her hand, Arthur jumped on the bandwagon, headed north, south, east, west, or wherever the road would take her. And along the way, months shy of nineteen, she picked up a husband, manager, and bass player—Jack Arthur.
Arthur and her new husband played honky-tonks throughout Texas, and she did a stint as a disc jockey in Kirby, Texas, before coming under the influence of Colonel Tom Parker (later known for managing Elvis Presley). Through Parker, Arthur went on to sign a contract with RCA Records in 1953. It seemed she had finally made it far from the days of her six-dollar six-string. She performed with the Big D Jamboree, the Ozark Jubilee, and on to the Grand Ole Opry. No, they had yet to see anyone quite like Charline Arthur.
But things aren’t always what they seem. Despite her popularity, her record sales were much lower than RCA had hoped of their new-found star. And then there was the matter of Arthur herself and the bold and brazen gal she was. While she stood on stages with several top acts, her performances were often censored if not all-out rejected for their suggestive, racy lyrics. Maybe she was before her time, but country music just wasn’t ready for a female that smoked, drank, and danced around the stage in less than lady-like fashion. After many disagreements with her producer, Chet Atkins, RCA chose not to renew her contract in 1956.
Not because she didn’t try, but Arthur’s career just couldn’t recover after her fall from country music royalty. She and Jack parted ways shortly after her contract ended, and she moved on from honky-tonk to honky-tonk, playing the only music that felt right to her. She sang for a short while with three of her sisters but eventually headed west to play in clubs just to make it by. She battled demons at the bottom of an empty bottle and eventually survived off of disability in Idaho for her worsening arthritis. On November 27, 1987, the tumultuous life of Charline Arthur came to an end. They sent her back home to Texas one last time, burying her in Fort Worth.
Despite her up-and-down career that seemed to end before it really took off, her racy style is now seen as an early influence of the rockabilly genre, along with performers that include Elvis Presley (rumor has it, his momma was a fan). Arthur was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and her work is now being recognized for what it truly was—ahead of its time, edgy, raw, and filled with the blues. Kind of like the woman who sang it—unabashedly hot-tempered, unruly, and living life her own way.
HEAR CHARLINE ARTHUR SING “BURN THAT CANDLE” (AND SEE MORE PHOTOS)
CHARLINE ARTHUR PHOTOS